Sunday, February 08, 2009


Outside, the sun is shining. How long this will last is not clear. The forecast doesn't inspire confidence. Blizzards, they said on the radio as if this were Alaska, are supposed to hit home tonight. The sun is still sitting in the sky demonstrating strength in the face of the expected onslaught, but its forces are visibly waning. It was a tiny bit brighter when I started this paragraph than it is now.

Yesterday, I discovered parts of north-east London that weren't familiar to me and really enjoyed it. Today, in contrast, is not the best day for going out and strolling about. I'll stay in and give my sofa company, listening to some tunes and reading. The column of finished books on the right is still empty while I keep acquiring tomes. I also have to prepare the journal club I was scheduled to give last Monday.

If it snows as much tonight as it did a week ago, the presentation might be wiped out again, but I can't be sure until disaster strikes. Maybe if I wait, if I delay working some more, I can get a clearer idea of what's to come meteorologically, and maybe I can get away with not preparing at all. Over coffee and sweets, my mind starts to wander, and Madagascar is where it settles.

I've recently experienced nothing short of a revelation, and increased my awareness of the finer things of life. This post concerns chocolate. I used to eat – note the verb I use – the brown stuff because I liked it. The sweetness spoke to me, the endless varieties of flavor kept me satisfied, orange or cherry for example, or the more frequent additions of nuts, raisins or coffee cream. I hardly ever bought dark chocolate. It wasn't what I expected because it wasn't what I was used to.

Every once in a while though, I would give dark chocolate another try, fully aware that this is the serious alternative to silly milk chocolate, which is kids' stuff in the eyes of connoisseurs. I was never satisfied, but I kept looking. I'm not rigid in my opinions and preferences and like to have my convictions challenged. One day, Lindt Madagascar was on sale, at one pound a bar, at the local grocery store. Never one to say no to a bargain, I took the offer and another dive into the deep sea of dark chocolate.

At home, I unwrapped the chocolate, took a bite – and had a slowly unfolding epiphany. The piece tokk its time melting in my mouth and over several blissful minutes released a wealth of flavors that I hadn't found in chocolate before, a complexity that caught me unawares. It was breathtaking and remains impossible to describe. The rough intensity of the cocoa was softened by notes of vanilla and a curious sweetness, utterly unexpected and as distant from the usual sugariness of milk chocolate as possible.

I was stunned motionless, waiting excitedly for whatever aroma would next creep from the brown lump under my palate. When the initial piece had dissolved, I took another little bite – the first square of the bar had not been swallowed in its entirety – and the pleasure ride continued. A little while later, I put the bar away, the first square finished but plenty remaining for many more extended moments of bliss.

This is how my conversion to dark chocolate began. It was accomplished just recently when I bought my dad a Christmas gift, a bar of Valrhona Ampamakia. 'Harvest 2007' declared the ochre wrapper, much like it would for a fine red wine. What's more, the chocolate was marketed as a Grand Cru, and the cocoa came from a single plantation. At nearly four pounds for 70 grams, this was no bargain, but I could easily justify the gift for my dad and, thanks to a two-for-one promotion, would keep one for myself.

My mind's journey ends as I finish, over another short story, the last piece of that little treasure, an incredible delight. I'm completely in awe and speechless at how such a symphony of flavors can be extracted from cocoa beans. The other day, I checked Whole Food's, but their promotion last year had obviously been intended to clear shelves for other brands. Ampamakia was nowhere to be found. Now, while I should be working on my presentation, I find myself scouring flights to Madagascar and reading about that blessed island. Outside, snow has started falling.

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