Take another piece of my heart

Chocolate: A love affair
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The Independent Culture

As a child, I worshipped in two churches, one dominated by men and the other by women. As a very religious little girl, I enjoyed all the mystical, swooning raptures of the Mass, the curious experience of taking in the Host and believing in the Real Presence. I also enjoyed returning home from church and watching my mother, aunt and grandmother prepare the feasts of Sunday breakfast and Sunday lunch, working their alchemy. To me they were as powerful as any priest. Their food was an equally real presence and, of course, much more delicious than the insubstantial Host.

As a child, I worshipped in two churches, one dominated by men and the other by women. As a very religious little girl, I enjoyed all the mystical, swooning raptures of the Mass, the curious experience of taking in the Host and believing in the Real Presence. I also enjoyed returning home from church and watching my mother, aunt and grandmother prepare the feasts of Sunday breakfast and Sunday lunch, working their alchemy. To me they were as powerful as any priest. Their food was an equally real presence and, of course, much more delicious than the insubstantial Host.

Karen Blixen's famous short story Babette's Feast, which successfully translated to film, dramatises beautifully the transforming effects of food created and given with love. It overcomes the split in Catholic thinking between male priests cooking up Jesus in church and female handservants cooking for the priest back home, by presenting us with a female Holy Communion.

Babette, a French servant, spends all her money on the ingredients of her feast and labours for days, preparing mouth-watering dishes, which she then serves to her employers and their friends at a memorable dinner party.

So exquisite is the food, that the guests, who hitherto have been a miserable, quarrelsome, curmudgeonly lot, forgive one another and begin to feel happy. Babette has given them everything that she has, just as a mother literally, physically, gives herself to her children.

The simplistic Catholic split lives on, of course, in the form of oppositions between men and women, good and evil, body and spirit. Joanne Harris's novel Chocolat depicted a French village community re-enacting them. Harris reverses the oppositions, so that to the sympathetic reader, the female chocolate-maker is Good and the repressive male priest is Bad. The struggle is between the pagan forces of darkness, or dark chocolate, and heavenly light. Harris's heroine - played by Juliette Binoche in the film version, which goes on release next week - opens a sweetshop called La Céleste Praline and serves up handmade confections that she shapes and decorates herself: "There is a kind of alchemy in the transformation of base chocolate into this wise fool's gold, a layman's magic."

The witchy chocolatiÿre, gifted with telepathy, could have become a professional magician, but she prefers her "domestic magic". She uses her intuition to understand how to please her customers: "I know all their favourites. It's a knack, a professional secret, like a fortune-teller reading palms." Just like a priest, she can sound a tiny bit smug about her powers: "I like these people. I like their small and introverted concerns. I can read their eyes, their mouths, so easily."

Just like a medieval doctor analysing patients' humours, she prescribes goodies to accord with her customers' personalities: "This one with its hint of bitterness will relish my zesty orange twists; this sweet-smiling one, the soft-centred apricot hearts; this girl with the windblown hair will love the mendiants: this brisk, cheery woman the chocolate brazils."

She free-associates vaguely about chocolate's early connection with religious ritual: "The mingled scents of chocolate, vanilla, heated copper and cinnamon are intoxicating, powerfully suggestive: the raw and earthy tang of the Americas, the hot and resinous perfume of the rainforest. This is how I travel now, as the Aztecs did in their sacred rituals. Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia. The court of Montezuma. Cortez and Columbus."

The writing in Chocolat is unremarkable, often loose and unfocused, but rises to poetry when different kinds of sweeties are named and precision is called for. Then invocations tumble out like ingredients in spells: "Chocolate curls, white buttons with coloured vermicelli, pains d'épices with gilded edging, marzipan fruits in their nests of ruffled paper, peanut brittle, clusters, cracknels, assorted misshapes in half-kilo boxes." Though the village priest may thunder against the sinful seductions of chocolate, we're not unbearably surprised to discover that, secretly, he too has a sweet tooth. The novel enshrines a sweet fairytale about the goodness of appetite.

Not all members of the church have always set their faces against confectionery. From the Middle Ages on, convents, which were famously the homes of apothecaries and herbalists, also functioned as cakeshops and sweetshops. Nuns in enclosed orders made all kinds of delicacies and sweetmeats, which were sold to outsiders by the lay sisters, or sent as gifts to patrons and relatives.

Travelling in Mexico last year, I did a spot of convent-crawling around the town of Puebla and the very convent in which it is claimed that chocolate as a savoury sauce was invented. Called mole, it combines chocolate with ground almonds, raisins, spices, chillies and tomatoes and is served with turkey or chicken. The convent kitchen is as grand as a cathedral, with high, vaulted ceilings and walls decorated with exquisitely patterned tiles.

Of course, these Renaissance nuns did not invent chocolate. As Joanne Harris hints in her novel, its origins are far older. The legend goes that when Cortes first landed in Mexico in 1519, the Aztec emperor Montezuma personally offered him a dark, spicy drink called xocolatl. In Aztec belief, chocolate had a divine origin and played an essential part in religious ritual. The Spaniards adapted the drink, adding sugar, cinnamon and vanilla. Sugar, as a precious and expensive commodity, helped to give it so much prestige that in Spain it was reserved for the court alone. As in Mexico, its preparation was entrusted to the workers in convents.

By the 17th century, the art of making drinking-chocolate was widespread throughout Europe. Samuel Pepys tried it, liked it, and had it at breakfast. It was served in special pots with long handles and spouts, whipped to a froth with wooden or silver whisks that you rolled between your fingers. In France, itinerant chocolate-sellers wandered the city streets, canisters fixed to their backs, dispensing the fashionable beverage at the twist of a tap.

Chocolate was mixed up with politics and economics, of course. The popularity of this heavily sweetened drink depended entirely upon the slave trade; the sugar plantations in the Caribbean and Brazil were run by slave labour and made enormous wealth for the slave-owners.

The early Mexican relish of sharp, bitter tastes in chocolate transferred to certain European dishes. We may not traditionally eat mole with chicken, but in parts of Italy a salsa agrodolce, a sweet-sour sauce, composed of wine, pine nuts, sultanas and vinegar, is given body and colour, as well as extra flavour, by the addition of grated bitter chocolate.

Elizabeth David supposes that this sauce must have descended from the Romans. Apicius, the famous Roman chef, probably invented it, in so much as any one person can invent a dish. Nowadays it often accompanies venison, hare and boar. Elizabeth David recommends using such a sauce with duck, and it's very good. I've tried it.

These days, most Europeans consume chocolate in the form of heavily sweetened bon-bons. Like cream cakes, chocolates have become a handy repository for women's guilt about desiring too much, eating too much, being too fat. Chocolate is marketed as a lascivious treat full of connotations of irresistible sin and over-indulgence. Naughty but nice. Death by chocolate. I suppose it's all about folk memory, a yearning back to being a baby at the breast again, gorging on sweet breast milk.

Eating is the earliest way we learn, as infants, about connecting ourselves to the world. The mother, or the giver of food, becomes the world for us, as we eat her and take her inside ourselves. Mothers can seem as large as giants, with the powers of gods both to bring life and to withhold nurture. No wonder food acquires such enormous symbolic importance for us, given the crucial nature of the relationship it initiates and is founded upon.

In traditional cultures, women's role was firmly associated with their nurturing powers. Women were not domestic goddesses in our nostalgic sense but simply crucial workers: the makers and servers of food. That still holds true in the French countryside, for example, where the busiest woman farmer is simultaneously responsible for raising and slaughtering the poultry, growing the vegetables, making jams and preserves of all kinds, and cooking the meals.

Although women may be directly involved in the miracle of bringing life, from carrying babies inside them to breast-feeding once the baby is born, they are debarred from having this role recognised in the church. They may not become priests. By a curious slippage, it is Jesus Christ the man who, as the Son of God, is credited with the sole powers of creation, of making human beings, and it is his male body and blood that are magically made present in the Mass and given to the faithful as Holy Communion. The Sacrament of the Eucharist apes the true, original sacrament of pregnancy and breast-feeding.

Given that imbalance, it is not surprising that women's relationship to food can be contradictory. And since our culture frowns upon our infantile desires and encourages only our adult ones, chocolate is marketed as porn. Adverts play on the sexual aspect of hungry women's repression and greed for satiety, imaging chocolate flakes as penises to lie consumed in orgasmic orgies of orality.

One ad, a while back, imaged its rounded chocs by showing a model's backside, her swelling buttocks smooth and plump under chocolate satin. So you can get your anal kicks, too, if you're that way inclined.

In my childhood, chocolate did seem both innocent and religious. We hunted for Easter eggs in the garden, and for Easter Sunday lunch my aunt served her magnificent Easter cake, sculpted from gâteau de Savoie and coated in dark, bitter chocolate. Perhaps the way for the Catholic church to overcome its splits and repressions at a single stroke would be to start making the hosts distributed at Holy Communion out of the very best dark, bitter chocolate.

'Chocolat' will be released next Friday. 'Playing Sardines', a collection of short stories by Michÿle Roberts, will be published by Virago in May

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