As Easter approaches you can almost hear the supermarket shelves groaning under the weight of all that chocolate. Granted, you can also hear the cheery whistle of florists as they too prepare for a bumper fortnight, but somehow chocolate has become the main theme of our Paschal Celebrations.
Thank goodness our attitude to chocolate is changing; not so very many years ago Britons would only countenance sweet milk chocolate and Cadbury's had a stranglehold on the market – a glass and a half of full cream milk in every bar, don't you know? Unfortunately, by the standards enshrined by the European Union, a high percentage of British chocolate bars did not contain sufficient cocoa solids to qualify for the description chocolate. These were dark days when any home cook wanting to make a chocolate mousse had to search the supermarkets for a dark "cooking" chocolate like Meniers – named for a French gentleman who rather surprisingly set up a factory in Borough, South London towards the end of the 19th Century. If you couldn't find any "real" chocolate you had to turn to Bourneville, a chocolate from Cadbury's that was advertised being dark and sophisticated.
Times have certainly changed and in January this year I had the pleasure of judging at the Academy of Chocolate's 2008 Awards. No low-cocoa, high-sugar, waxy ersatz bars here - but an amazing range of sophisticated blended and single cru chocolate, each with a distinct personality. Some were very fruity, some very rich, most broke with a satisfying snap (the crispness of the noise made when you snap a bar gives an indication of how well the chocolate has been made). It was also fascinating to see the effect that an afternoon tasting chocolate had on the judges – good chocolate contains a stimulant and many worthy tasters were gabbling by the end of this choccy assault course. For the record, the Toscano 63% chocolate bar won a gold for the elite Italian chocolate maker Amedei (they also got a hatful of other awards); while French chocolate maker Valrhona hit gold with both their Manajari 64% and Guanaja 70%. If the names of these exalted chocolate houses seem familiar, they should be, Amedei, Valrhona and their peers are already infiltrating the supermarkets. These are very expensive elite chocolate bars, but for a really good balance between price and performance look out for Divine's Fairtrade 70% dark chocolate – very fruity, with a good texture and a long finish plus the added joy that it is much much cheaper – a 100g bar retails for just 99p!
For a useful insight into the mysteries of chocolate and fine chocolate by mail order, contact www.seventypercent.com (0870 446 0770). Seventy Percent is a chocoholics dream with eighteen or so different Amedei bars on offer and another dozen from Valrhona plus a host of other chocolate delights. Or try Chantal Cody's company Rococo at http://www.rococochocolates.com for "artisan" flavoured bars (020 8761 8456). The Academy of Chocolate can be found at www.academyofchocolate.org.uk