ONE evening, after a particularly infuriating day at work, I dialled an old friend as I left the office.
I begged her to meet me for a quick drink. “Nope,” she said, “out of the question.”
Instead, she counselled, I should make my way down French Church St in Cork City to O’Conaill’s Chocolate. Once there, I should sit up at the counter and order a praline hot chocolate. This, she said, would provide all the equilibrium restoration that I was craving.
Four years later, the memory of my first O’Conaill’s makes me smile and feel a wave of sensual guilt that cider makers could only dream of.
I absolutely adore chocolate: The smell, the touch, the taste, the texture. I am not alone. Chocolate is one of the world’s most widely and frequently craved foods. And when times are tough, sales of chocolate sky rocket.
Many attribute its appeal to the presence of phenyle-phyamine, a hormone the brain triggers when you fall in love. Others point to a caffeine-like stimulant called theobromine and a compound called anandamide that can produce the same feeling of well-being, albeit on a much weaker scale, as cannabis. Professor Peter Rogers of the University of Bristol doesn’t think chocolate craving is just about chemicals. He says certain substances are all found in higher concentrations in other foods we don’t lust after.
He says: “A more compelling explanation lies in our ambivalent attitudes towards chocolate — it is highly desired but should be eaten with restraint. Our unfulfilled desire to eat chocolate, resulting from restraint, is thus experienced as craving, which in turn is attributed to ‘addiction’. ”
He argues the most popular chocolate is milk chocolate and this contains less cocoa solids than dark chocolate and so even less of these “potentially psychoactive compounds”.
Much more, he believes, our love affair with chocolate comes down to its main ingredients — this isn’t pretty — sugar and fat.
Jennifer Earle, who runs London’s Chocolate Ecstasy tours, agrees. A food scientist by day, she admits to being a “total chocaholic”. Her three-hour tours bring choccy lovers around to the likes of Char-bonnel et Walker and William Curley’s chocolate boutiques.
“The love affair is chemical but it’s the sugar which we are designed to crave. There’s also a bit of caffeine in it and we know that’s a big part of it. It’s also about the romanticising and the marketing... You know it’s such a completely unique food in the food world. It’s impossible to create artificial chocolate. There might be over 200 flavours but you can’t make fake chocolate.”
Chocolate and what constitutes real chocolate is something Karola O’Conaill could discuss endlessly. Since 1979, she and husband Maitiu have been making chocolate at Carrigaline. They have a much-loved shop in Cork city centre and just before Christmas, opened a bakery/coffee dock on Princes St, where customers can watch their bakers at work making O’Conaill’s new chocolate brownies.
“We didn’t advertise the bakery but people started to wander in because of the smell. You could smell the chocolate up and down the street, which is fantastic,” says Karola’s daughter-in-law Fernanda Seclen.
The morning I visited O’Conaill’s factory in Carrigaline, all the newspapers were carrying details of latest research which showed how chocolate can speed up your metabolism. Karola was ebullient.
“Did you read it?” she asked. “That’s great news isn’t it?”.
“But don’t you get sick of chocolate?” I asked, half-seriously.
“Of chocolate? Oh no. Who could?”
Savour the flavour — Valrhona’s chocolate tasting guide
“First of all, just look. Concentrate carefully on the polish, the shine, and especially the colour of the chocolate, an essential detail that uncovers the varieties of cocoa beans used.
Breathe deeply, smell the chocolate.
Listen... break a square into fragments between your fingers, and listen to the crackling sound it makes.
Start by biting into a quarter of a chocolate square, to taste the initial flavours, aromas and consistency.
Let the chocolate melt slowly and delicately on your tongue to unveil its flavours and its aromas. Take a moment to concentrate on your tongue, to feel, to savour the different flavours: acid (sensations on the sides of the tongue, stimulating salivation), then if you wait a little longer you may experience the bitterness (persisting sensation felt at the back of the tongue, becoming gradually more intense).
Taste again, but this time concentrate on your nose, and discover the aromas which unleash themselves one after the other. Similar to wine, you will first smell the most volatile aromas (primary or head aromas). These are instantaneous, fleeting flower or fruit aromas, which volatilise quickly and fade away in the middle of the tasting process.
Next, we move on to the aromas that are unveiled in the middle of the tasting experience, known as body aromas: These are essentially hot aromas, such as roasted almonds, hot bread crust, spicy mix, etc. Finally, if you let yourself be seduced a little longer, you will be able to savour the less volatile aromas of certain chocolates, known as final aromas: These are often woody, roasted nibs (grué), malty, etc.