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Interview with Joanne Harris, author of ‘Chocolat’

When one thinks of fictional depictions of chocolate, Joanne Harris’s romantic and sensuous novel Chocolat leaps to mind.  Published in 1999,  Harris’s novel is set in France and tells the story of a mysterious, passionate woman Vianne Rocher who, together with her young daughter Anouk, arrives one Shrove Tuesday at a small French village of Lansquenet, decides to stay and opens up a chocolate boutique, a move bitterly opposed by the village priest who disapproves of Vianne and what she and her chocolate represent.  Chocolate in the book – from the cups of hot chocolate savoured in the boutique to the chocolates Vianne gives away to the villagers -  offers a way of empathising with people, connecting with them and celebrating life.

The book Chocolat  struck a huge chord with readers, becoming an international bestseller, published in many languages. The success of the novel was then compounded by a popular film adaptation of the book starring Juliette Binoche and Johnney Depp.  Harris’s appealing depiction of chocolate-making as a life-enhancing force has been hugely influential in real life;  “I have to say that pretty much every week I get a letter from somebody who started a chocolate shop more or less because they read Chocolat,” she tells me. “I never imagined that people would get off on chocolate in the way that they have done or indeed that it would be popularised in that way..”

Joanne is half-French on her mother’s side and the inspiration for the book came from Harris’s own childhood. “We visited my French family a lot and very often we went at Easter where the chocolate shops were very different to what was available in Yorkshire at the time. The book is mostly drawn from memories of that. It’s a very French story. When I went to France I was always struck by the quality and the quantity and the variety of chocolate, even when I was young. The interest in really high quality chocolate has come quite late in England.” Research for the chocolate-making element in the book was “quite easy as I knew a number of places, including a place in a village in France which is more or less where I set the book, which had a little open factory next to the shop so you could see how things were being done.”

In the novel, Harris depicts chocolate as something far more than simply a piece of confectionary; it is a food with mysterious, magical powers. Here is Vianne describing how she makes her chocolates: ‘ Some confectioners buy their supplies already tempered, but I like to do it myself. There is an endless fascination in grating them by hand – I never use electrical mixers – into the large ceramic pans, then melting, stirring, testing each painstaking step with the sugar thermometer until just the right amount of heat has been applied to make the change. There is a kind of alchemy in the transformation of base chocolate into this wise fool’s gold, a layman’s magic which even my mother might have relished.’

“Chocolate is an interesting substance because it has a long history and one of the things it’s associated with is religious rites and magic,” points out Harris. “It’s been imbued with huge amounts of magic significance one way or another. There were frequently pronouncements made by the church against it in one way and another. I think that even now people look at chocolate in a very different way from the way they look at other food. If you talk to the general public you find that it’s the women who speak most passionately about chocolate and their love of it. I think people are very divided about chocolate. It has been very demonised and it has also been seen as a superfood. We still have conflicts about whether it’s good for you or bad for you and how much of it you should eat. It contains a lot of chemicals which can’t be identified which have an effect on the brain that can’t be identified either. Clearly in its pure form it’s a kind of mind-altering substance. In its commercial, factory form it’s little more than brown lard!”

While the film Chocolat offered an enticing picture of Vianne’s chocolate shop and the appeal of chocolate, the reality on the set was far less appealing. “Much of the chocolate in the film, except what people are actually eating, was not real,” explains Harris. “Because of the hot studio lights they couldn’t have real chocolate, so it was made of plaster painted brown. The hot chocolate was real, but it wasn’t particularly nice. It was designed to be photographed rather than to taste good; they wanted it to be very dark and gloopy. They had an old woman in the corner of the set with a cauldron of this stuff – like a witch – and her job was to keep it on tap. Nobody actually wanted to drink it. I think everyone was jaded by the smell of chocolate, which was everywhere.” Alfred [Molina, who plays a local mayor in the film] got very ill after that final scene where he eats so much of it as he’s not very good with chocolate. He said that he’d probably be ill and he was!”

Ironically, Harris, herself, while enjoying chocolate doesn’t actually eat it very often, though she does “quite often” make herself proper hot chocolate made with real chocolate. Because of Chocolat is she always offered chocolate wherever she goes? I ask. “You can’t imagine!” comes the heartfelt response. “Everywhere I go, even now, people give me chocolate. I haven’t done a speaking engagement or a literary lunch without someone sidling up to me and saying ‘Guess what we’re having for pudding?’ And it’s always chocolate! I do find it slightly uncomfortable to be defined by chocolate as I’m not really one of those people who eats a huge amount of it”

Harris vividly remembers one occasion during her tour of Italy promoting her book. “I’d been touring for nearly a year and everywhere I went I’d been given chocolate;  I was up to here with chocolate and thought I’m not going to be able to eat any more. They launched my book in a place called Cova, which is the most beautiful chocolate shop-cum-tea shop in Milan, in the way only Milan could do it.  It’s high Italian drama –glass and Old Masters and beautiful gleaming porcelain and they sell the most beautiful handmade chocolates. The maître de was waiting for me with a gleam in his eye  and he said’ I have something very special for you, signora’ and I thought ‘it’s going to be chocolates again’ and he came back with this enormous plate of anchovy toasts and said ‘we thought you might like something different.’  I’m much more drawn to anchovy toasts than chocolate to be honest – that guy totally read my mind!”

Chocolat is available as a paperback, hardback, e-book, audio book and DVD at Amazon here here°.

Read Jenny Linford's review of the modern classic, Chocolat.

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