The much-loved Bluffer’s Guides have provided amusement as well as (whisper it) genuinely useful information to subjects from sport to politics for decades. It is a series which taps very successfully into the inherently British irreverent attitude towards experts, with the publishers keeping a shrewd eye on trends to add to their expansive list. For chocolate-lovers, therefore, the publication of the first ever Bluffer’s Guide to Chocolate by Neil Davey is a sure sign that chocolate’s time has come.
Just as it should, the book offers a clearly written guide to chocolate, while having lots of fun en route. The long journey from chocolate the drink to chocolate the solid chocolate bar, the intricate process of how the fruit of the cacao tree is transformed into chocolate, cacao beans know-how, a brief who’s who in the world of chocolate are among the topics covered.
On the way, Davey carries out some skilful debunking. ‘There’s the temptation to use the word ‘chocolatier’ when it comes to people in the industry. It’s a great word: it’s clearly French, it sounds terribly knowledgeable. However, it doesn’t apply to everyone in the chocolate-making world,’ he writes, drawing a distinction between the chocolate maker and the chocolatier. One senses that he particularly enjoyed writing the Chocolate Myths chapter, effectively demolishing the idea that ‘Belgian chocolate is the best in the world’ as a great marketing ploy. ‘Most other countries don’t do it – have you ever heard of ‘British chocolate?‘, he writes, ‘but hey, fair play to the Belgians for getting away with it for so long. It’s bluffing on an international scale and they deserve full credit for it.’ Among the quips, Davey smuggles in a lot of common sense. On chocolate and health, for example, ‘Another good reason to eat a well-made chocolate with a high percentage of cocoa solids is that it gives so much flavour in small quantities.’
“The Bluffer’s approach tends to be here’s a fact, here’s a fact, here’s a flippant comment, here’s a fact, here’s a silly joke – that’s pretty much what I do, whether talking or writing!” says Davey cheerfully. Davey , himself, it turns out was already a chocolate-lover before he wrote the book, talking with a bluffer’s conviction of his own personal ‘epiphany’ with an Artisan du Chocolat salted caramel as “one of the things that actually lived up to the hype.” When it came to research, however, “there wasn’t as much chocolate eating as you might have thought!” In terms of authoritative information sources, he pays tribute to both Sara Jayne Stanes’ Chocolate: the definitive guide and Chocolate Unwrapped by Sarah Jane Evans, quipping “I needed to change my name to Sara Jane in order to write a book about chocolate.”
Researching the book brought home to Davey the work which has gone into developing and making chocolate. “I can understand that the Olmecs and the Incas went, you know what we have a lot these beans about, we should really do something with them. But to go from what was undoubtedly a really grisly, foul-tasting drink to ‘let’s stick with this’, maybe if we let them rot and then make the drink that will taste better, then let’s try roasting them and make the drink, let’s try grinding them, the whole process – it’s insane!”
On-line research was another fruitful area; “nice to find so much conflicting information on line” he observes. When it came to the Chocol-art chapter, Davey was in his element. “The fact that I could be paid for watching Like Water For Hot Chocolate and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was among my best moments as a journalist. Buying a DVD and realising that it was tax-deductible.”
When it comes to tasting chocolate, while he has much fun with tasting notes, Davey both in the book and in person has a serious point to make, namely “my palate, my rules”. Rather than kow-towing to ‘experts’ it is clear that Davey wants people to be confident enough to say what flavours they’re detecting when they eat chocolate, or indeed relaxed enough to say they’re not detecting something that ‘should’ be there.
Interestingly, despite the book being an useful crib for anyone needing to quickly learn some chocolate know-how, Davey veers away from the one-upmanship angle; “Maybe less one-upmanship more just keeping up with the people who are attempting the one-upmanship. “ When it comes to the British chocolate scene, he likes “the artisans, the craft”, citing Duffy as “exceptionally good”. While we get a lot of European and North American chocolate, “there’s so much more – a vast world of chocolate out there.” His vision for the book is simple and clear: “Hopefully, it will people to go and buy some chocolate and make their own discoveries.” There speaks a true chocolate-lover.