Though the cloying pong of molten chocolate hung heavy in the air, there was a distinct lack of swooning females. Maybe it's something to do with English reserve. A seedy-looking geezer at the Rude Food Company's stand was having trouble shifting his solid chocolate willies ("nut allergy sufferers should avoid this product"), available in small, large and monster sizes. As it turned out, the major showpiece of the festival was distinctly masculine in appeal. Pascal Guerreau, a Parisian chocolatier, had spent 400 man-hours constructing a full-sized replica of Alain Prost's Formula 1 Peugeot from 600 kilos of chocolate. Unfortunately, the pounds 40,000 chocmobile was irreparably smashed during transit. "Perhaps the cold or a nasty bump did it," shrugged the creator. I suggested to M Guerreau that his creation looked even more realistic in this mangled condition, but he did not seem appeased.
With the exception of a goose-pimpled couple splashing embarressedly in a bath of chocolate goo, there was more enrobing than disrobing taking place at the show. Enrobing and tempering are two important technicalities of choccy manufacture, explained a machinery salesman who was making a pitch for the amateur market. "Fat content is the critical factor when you're trying to temper chocolate," he droned. "Otherwise your chocolates will get a fat bloom as the crystals mature."
Chewing on these words, I explored the range of chocolate-related items on display. Young's brewery was giving away samples of Double Chocolate Stout. The Belgian Travel Service was touting chocolate-themed breaks. Joanne Harris was signing copies of her Whitbread-shortlisted yarn Chocolat (Doubleday, pounds 12.99), described by her publisher as "a novel in which chocolate enjoys its true importance.
However, the sole sign of Britain's largest chocolate manufacturer was at the stand of the BCCCA (the Biscuit, Cake, Chocolate & Confectionery Alliance). Visitors were invited to tell the difference between UK-style milk chocolate with a minimum of 20 per cent cocoa solids and 20 per cent milk solids and Continental milk chocolate with a minimum of 24 per cent cocoa solids and 14 per cent milk solids. Both samples were made by the otherwise absent Cadbury's. I couldn't tell any difference between the sugary mouthfuls. After a hard-fought battle with the EC, our less-chocolatey chocolate can still be called milk chocolate in the UK - a triumph for British taste - but the BCCCA is miffed that the product must be referred to as "household milk chocolate" in Germany: "Clearly derogatory... it would put chocolate with household goods such as mops and cleaning agents."
It came as no surprise that Sara Jayne-Stanes, author of a chunky volume called Chocolate: The Definitive Guide (Grub Street, pounds 20), is no ally of the great British choccy. "We've been tasteless in this country," she fumed. "Really, it's not chocolate but chocolate-flavoured confectionery." I asked what were her favourite recipes in the book? "I've got a rather special brownie recipe and some warm chocolate cakes that are absolutely pure heaven. Molten chocolate oozes out - pure lust!" I was more interested in a recipe from the brief savoury section of her book. Lamproie a la Bordelaise involves a sauce made from the blood of a live lamprey with 2oz bitter chocolate. "Well, I used eel, so I didn't have to bleed the lamprey," said Ms Jayne-Stanes. "It tasted lovely." Now, there's a product opportunity for Cadbury's.
At this very moment, art directors of publishing houses throughout the metropolis are anxiously twiddling their earrings, tweaking their goatees and sucking their trendy specs. These visionaries are all atwitter because the fatal moment has arrived - the annual award of the Weasel Conceptual Cup for daft-looking cookbooks. You may recall that last year's winner was Harvey Nichols: The Fifth Floor Cookbook by Henry Harris, with pages occupied by a screwed-up paper towel, a smashed bottle of brandy and the soles of a well-worn pair of shoes. Creative or what? Runners- up included Nigel Slater's Real Food, with its grotesquely enlarged close- ups (red peppers like deflating Li-Los) and How to Eat by Nigella Lawson, which boasted spreads of a chilly austerity: a Tupperware box, an elderly soup ladle, a plastic lemon squeezer...
Let's kick off our survey of this year's contenders with Cooking from Lake House Organic Farm by Trudie Styler and Joseph Sponzo (Ebury, pounds 25). This merits inclusion, not for the unexceptional food shots, but for the smug portraits of Ms Styler, otherwise Mrs Sting. She beams happily while embracing her snarling husband - he may be a zillionaire but he's still a wild rocker at heart. Over the page, she gives a great big actressy smile while carrying a lamb. (The object of her affection is possibly destined to be the main ingredient in curried lamb shanks on page 113). Not that egomania is in short supply among culinary pros. Soho Cooking by Alastair Little (Ebury, pounds 25) contains no fewer than 12 mostly full- page pictures of the author at work. This surfeit scarcely enhances the work, since Mr Little looks harassed and miserable, though he manages to conjure up a smile in yet another portrait on the dust-jacket.
Portrayal of the actual food presents an intractable problem for some art directors. "I suppose the grub has got to be in there," you can almost hear them groaning, "but what the hell can we do with it?" A widespread solution this season is for the photos to be mainly out of focus. Curled like a scrap of lino, a pan-fried bream fillet in Gordon Ramsay's Passion for Seafood (Conran Octopus, pounds 25) starts blurred, comes into focus in the middle and ends up blurred again on the far side. A pair of chicory tartlets are so indistinct that you feel like dashing to the opticians. Conversely, the full-page photos in Soup by Nick Sandler and Johnny Acton (Kyle Cathie, pounds 16.99) are so graphic, so in-your-face, that it is hard not to feel a bit queasy. The mix of tentacles, prawn tails and bits of tomato in Spanish seafood stew looks - how can I put it? - er, pre-digested. The brave little squiggles of roasted pepper in butternut squash soup resemble an early stage in the human reproductive process.
Despite such keen competition, there was one clear winner for the 1999 Weasel Conceptual Cup. For sheer unadulterated 100 per cent gormlessness, nothing comes close to Le Caprice by AA Gill (Hodder, pounds 25). From the nightmarish close-up of a bearded diner consuming a spoonful of trifle (page 160) to the pearl necklace coiled over a plastic bag of honeycomb tripe (page 109), the book is a classic of the genre. A spread on pages 102-3 is devoted to two rabbit heads. Pages 16, 17 and 61 are occupied by shots of high heels. A screaming woman ejects the contents of her cocktail glass on page 193. Another cradles a shotgun on page 184, while a third pretends to swallow a flank of raw cod on page 124. Dentists will be interested in the fillings in the yawning maw of the lady ripping a chicken to bits on page 185. Page 181 is a close-up of a tear-filled female eye. "Such a disturbing thing in a restaurant," muses AA Gill. Just the thing for a cookbook, though.
A little quiz called "Connections" in The Times Magazine last Saturday showed six celeb mugshots and asked readers: "What do they have in common?" Over the page, we were informed that Paul Newman and the five other famous faces are all vegetarians. I wonder if this could possibly be the same Paul Newman who includes the Newmanburger (he insists on chuck steak rather than rump or sirloin) among 30-odd meat dishes in Newman's Own Cookbook (Ebury, pounds 17.99) and says his housekeeper's recipe for ham hocks and beans is one of his favourite dishes? If so, it is a style of vegetarianism that could win over even the Weasel.
The second most famous thing about Stephen Norris, the Tory mayoral hopeful, is his 1995 statement about the advantages of private over public transport: "You have your own company, your own temperature control, your own music and you don't have to put up with dreadful human beings sitting alongside you." The same generosity of spirit applies to a new poster campaign for Sony personal stereos. Aimed at the youth market, the ad features a photo of a carriage full of commuters with an appropriate epithet attached to each: "Dork, Bore, Drongo, Fool, Fidget, Greasy, Dodgy"
The individuals to whom these distressing terms are attached are, of course, none other than you and I. Still, it's just as well to know what Sony thinks of us, something worth bearing in mind the next time we feel the urge to buy a TV or video recorder. And here was me thinking that the Japanese set great store by politeness. Sony's unexpected eruption (drongo, indeed) is reminiscent of the exchange which occurs in Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies between Mr Outrage, the British Prime Minister and Baroness Yoshiwara, wife of the Japanese ambassador, who has a bit of a crush on him.
"It has been nice being in London... you were kind."
"Not a bit. I don't know what London could be without our guests from abroad."
"Oh, 20 damns to your great pig-face."