Book review / Sweet narcotics
The True History of Chocolate by S & M Coe, Thames & Hudson, pounds 16. 95 / Opium by M Booth, Simon & Schuster, pounds 17.99;
Saturday 08 June 1996
The True History of Chocolate comes from two anthropologists devoted to Mexico. Sophie Coe prepared massive notes on the history of chocolate from Mayan sacrament to Fruit and Nut. After her sad death from cancer, Michael Coe assembled them.
The information is splendid. Chocolate only acquired the smooth texture we know when, in 1879, Rodolphe Lindt of Lindt and Sprungli introduced a "conching machine" to extract the grit. The Marquis de Sade was at least as keen on drinking chocolate as whacking bottoms, having cratesful brought into the Bastille. Streets in Hershey, Penn. (the company town) include Cocoa Avenue and East Chocolate Avenue.
More immediately useful, what marks off elite chocolate is the volume of cacao butter. "Under 50 per cent" says a purist "is junk chocolate" provoking a campaign for real chocolate, very necessary here and in the US where the Hershey bar rates 43 per cent. One thing the diligent Coes missed: we had another of our rows with the Europeans when the fiends sought to deny the British with their low cacao butter count, the trading name "chocolate". It should, said Brussels, be called "vegolate", (because inferior chocolate makers top up the mix with vegetable oils).We got out of that one without bombing the Berlaymont, but, as with our dodgy beef, Brussels had a point.
The Mayans used the harsh-casting pre-Dairy Milk liquid for the rite of baptism. But the Spaniards, after much talk about the medicinal nature of chocolate and tediously reconciling its properties with Galen's system of temperaments, built up their own ritual, to the point of inventing the saucer. They also flung in additives, not just sugar, vanilla and cinnamon, but ground chickpeas and broad beans - vegolate indeed. Then the Italians took the fashion up. Cosimo III dei Medici had a thing about it, an aspect of his decadence says Michael Coe stuffily - though adding ambergris, lemon peel, jasmine flowers and musk, and having the court poet write verses about it, does sound pretty decadent.
The drink would go down-market and democratic through Conraad Van Houten of Amsterdam who in 1828 got the cacao butter count down to 27 per cent to invent cocoa - the Watneys of the chocolate trade. The delicacy had much earlier provoked a vast ecclesiastical dispute beating anything British adulterators and EU officials could manage: was chocolate a food or a drink? Upon this depended its suitability as a night drink during Lent.
The food doctrine triumphed with the great confectioners: Fry of Bristol who in 1847 made the first eating chocolate, Richard Cadbury who in 1868 sold the first chocolate box (girl with kitten on the lid). Henri Nestle, Jean Tobler, Philippe Suchard and Milton Snavely Hershey, he of E. Chocolate Avenue.
Much love has gone into a magnificent compendium of fact, but Professor Coe is addicted to a History 101 style and much prim censure of European failings: decadent Medici, fat moustachioed French kings and talk of "civil rights" in 18th-century England.
Equally irritating is Martin Booth, whose Opium, a History is yet eminently useful as a horrific chronicle, from the first scrapings of sap from poppies in 7th-century BC Assyria to the $750bn turnover of today's criminal trade.
Mr Booth writes like an evangelical Christian and does lots of condemning: "Thus was born one of the most evil exchanges in history. Opium from the Middle East met the native American pipe of peace" and (of a rehab worker), "Armed with her love of young people and children and the love of Christ, she established a youth club."
Two facts make better morality. Jardine and Matheson started corporate life as opium traders in 1828 (just as Joseph Fry started selling chocolate bars) and continued so until 1872. After the accidental Opium War, which did great things for free trade, a large indemnity was paid for opium stocks destroyed by the Chinese authorities. As for mitigation, all the opiates have in their time been seen as medicines, as Freud fatuously perceived cocaine. But addiction deepened as cures were sought. Morphine was touted as a specific against opium addiction, as heroin was thought to cure the morphine habit. Its heroic name was an early plug for such powers.
Ambiguity about the purpose of opiates had provided a cover for respectable merchants who were trading opium cultivated near Patna with the blessing of the authorities. A report of 1832 states that as "the monopoly of opium in Bengal supplies the Government with a revenue amounting to pounds 981,293... it does not appear advisable to abandon so important a source of revenue." But ambiguity has never gone away. Two things shine from today's market: fatality through additives and criminal control of the trade. (The Escobars keep up what Jardine Matheson began).
Mr Booth admits that taking pure opium is compatible with holding down a job and normal lifespan; some would argue as much for stronger drugs. But de-criminalisation or controlled prescription are not countenanced here. Yet clean drugs, by-passing criminal suppliers, save lives. Governments, conscious of a source of revenue, started all this. Logically, they may yet find themselves running a campaign for real heroin.
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