This month, How to Eat is gorging on chocolate. Do you dunk your Dairy Milk? Eat Creme Eggs with a teaspoon? Savour single-estate chocolate sparingly? Have people who nibble all the exterior chocolate off a Twix got issues, or is that the only way to prolong this precious pleasure?
This month, How to Eat - the series trying to establish the best way to eat Britain's favourite foods - is tackling a huge topic: chocolate. We're focusing on proprietary confectionery, rather than melting puddings or using chocolate in a chilli con carne, but, given that we Brits are the world's third largest per capita consumers of chocolate, that is still a huge mountain of cocoa solids to consider. This is a food (nay, a whole gastro-cultural milieu) that stretches from Creme Eggs to Club biscuits, Green & Black's to those gorgeous Lindt balls, Switzerland's gift to the world. So, without further ado, let's crack on. As ever, keep the chat sweet BTL. Disagreement is fine, but don't snicker or unnecessarily push each other's buttons. Debating here is no picnic. Try to give each other a boost. And stay on topic.
How and where
Like DIY or preparing a corpse for burial, if you don't have the time to eat chocolate properly, it is better not to do it at all. You need a space in your day where you can linger over said chocolate and extract every last millisecond of pleasure from it. Sure, you can grab a bar on the run and enjoy it, at some level, but that in no way compares with eating chocolate in the ideal setting.
And what is that ideal setting? It involves sitting in your favourite armchair in winter, with the heating cranked up to tropical, a large cup of rust-coloured tea at your elbow, and [delete according to taste] the cat in your lap/5 Live burbling away in the background/Countdown on. This blissful "moment", this hard-won time out from the real world, this precious inner flight can occur at any time of day, but it does require peaceful, focused concentration. Put your phone down. You need to be at one with the chocolate. You need to savour it. Plus, look, you've got really sticky fingers.
That desire to prolong the pleasure has led us (and when I say "us", I mean all but the most prim and puritanical), to develop a number of techniques - let's call it tantric chocolate - that help extend the moment. At its most basic, this can merely mean sucking each individual square at length, so they melt incredibly slowly. The common habit of methodically nibbling off all the exterior chocolate on a Twix or Mars, before starting on the different layers, arises, if not exclusively, from that same impulse to string this out.
Dunking chocolate in tea is, likewise, highly recommended. Word of Mouth editor Susan Smillie developed a technique using a teaspoon to momentarily lower each cube of chocolate to the bottom of the mug, producing a chunk with a molten outer layer and yielding inside that - just - retains its shape. I prefer to pinch a block between finger and thumb and half submerge it in tea before 1) sucking off the melted chocolate, 2) biting off the still solid stub beneath, and 3) eating the remaining half. That is how you extract maximum pleasure from a bar of chocolate.
Likewise, you should always eat a Creme Egg by biting off the top and, with almost surgical precision, scooping out the fondant with the handle of a teaspoon, before eating the remaining chocolate. But you knew that, right?
Putting the block on added extras
Someone recently told me: "Forget the chocolate, it's just a delivery vehicle for all the good bits." That person is an idiot. Patently, the highest expression of chocolate is chocolate: pure and unadulterated, in pristine blocks; no broken cookies, no marshmallow pieces, no dismal extras. At a push, there is a place for fruit'n'nut. The combination of dark, squidgy currants and raisins and the nuts' woody, earthy resistance creates an interesting textural and flavour interplay with the chocolate itself. But the serious chocolate connoisseur might enjoy such variety once or twice a year. Ultimately, it is a novelty.
Beyond that, all these "innovative" attempts to jazz up chocolate (why does Cadbury insist on packing bits of Daim and Oreo into innocent bars of Dairy Milk?), are plainly a sop to people who fundamentally do not like chocolate. One day, they may reach maturity, but, currently, they want cheap thrills, bright lights, honeycomb chunks and popping candy. This isn't happening in isolation, incidentally. It is indicative of the way Britain is becoming increasingly infantile.
If chocolate is dumbing down, the gourmet interference is just as pernicious. Yes, you can put chilli, lavender and cranberries in chocolate. Possibly all at the same time. Yes, that is interesting, in an abstract way. And, yes, I would eat it (but, then, in desperate times, I have been known to eat a whole box of mint Matchmakers in lieu of "proper" chocolate). But is it an improvement on the original? No.*
You could say much the same about chocolate filled with flavoured fondants or caramel.** True chocolate lovers may flirt with Fry's Peppermint Cream or pass through a Cadbury's Caramel phase, but, ultimately - and let's not get started on chocolate bars filled with nauseatingly sweet orange or strawberry fondants - they will return to the real deal. I love caramel. I love chocolate. But, together, they drag each other down, detracting from each other's appeal. The only thing chocolate needs filling with is more chocolate, hence the majesty of Lindt balls and their super-deluxe truffled centres.
* A clear exception is sea salt. Everything tastes better with sea salt: mangoes, Weetabix, coffee, you name it.
** Likewise, salted caramel, the only chocolate filling that is a genuine evolutionary step forward.
A note on textural jiggery-pokery
Capitalism is all about trying to sell the consumer the same thing over and over, in ostensibly new and exciting formats. Nowhere is this more apparent than in chocolate, where difficult-to-eat chocolate (Flake); ineffectually featherlight, aerated chocolate (Aero); chocolate balls with a shiny, not-quite-shell exterior (Tasters); and cloyingly silky and/or faintly dusty chocolate (Wispa) is sold back to us as an improvement on the original. It isn't.
Dairy Milk versus Galaxy
If we are talking about block chocolate (combination bars such as Mars or Double Decker are a different beast), this is a crucial fault line. Yet a mystifying one, given that Dairy Milk is so evidently superior. Despite its "new silkier feel", Galaxy has a curiously waxy sheen and mouthfeel. If you bite it, it cracks with a comparative brittleness, while its flavour is lightweight, overly sweet, paradoxically milky.
Compare this to Dairy Milk, which has an almost fudge-like density. It yields gently between the teeth and melts with a smooth luxuriousness, its flavour somehow deeper, richer and more profoundly chocolatey.
For my 70p, I would also say that Yorkie, with its daft, oversized chunks, also trails Dairy Milk by some distance. It is rather sickly, lacks the rounded depth of Dairy Milk and cannot match it for slick meltability. If you are boycotting Nestlé, there are certain things that you will miss - KitKat Chunky primarily - but Yorkie is not one of them.
It is curious and there are exceptions (Snickers, Picnic), but despite the myriad ways the confectionery industry has found to coat various combinations of nougat, puffed rice, nuts, fruit, biscuit and wafer in chocolate, almost none of them come together to produce a new and arresting flavour experience. Instead (perhaps this is where avant-garde chefs first got the idea?), you have to deconstruct your Twix, Double Decker or Bounty, carefully prising away the chocolate top, bottom and sides, before working away at the nougat or coconut middle and, finally, where applicable, eating the biscuit base. Why are you looking at me like that? That is the way everyone eats chocolate, surely? You take your time over the individual components. You never chomp them down in one. That, sir, is the act of a savage. See also: carefully dismantling chocolate biscuits, and the peculiar satisfaction of cracking the shell of each Minstrel between your teeth.
I should cocoa solids ...
For about six months circa 2007, posh chocolate (the single-estate, 70% cocoa-solids stuff) seemed incredibly exciting and sophisticated. Until you actually tasted it. And realised, £4-a-bar later, that it tastes nothing like chocolate. True, it is intriguing. True, it is different. But, like couture fashion, backpacking in a failed state or sitting through an evening of interpretative dance, it is expensive, offers little in the way of comfort and is not an experience you will want to repeat regularly. Fundamentally, such chocolate is a tailor-made for the kind of people who, when pressed on their "guilty pleasures" in interviews, admit to having a square of Ghanaian Equatorial Black (Reserve) every third Saturday. They relish its notes of tart fruits, tobacco and coffee, as would anyone who, otherwise, exists solely on a diet of lettuce leaves and coconut water.
Unless it is so hot the tarmac outside your house is melting, chocolate should never be stored in the fridge. Cold chocolate is dead chocolate.
"You said you didn't want anything. Before I went to the garage, I said: 'Do you want any chocolate?' And you said: 'No.' Look, there's a pound, go and buy yourself some. No, you are not having any of this. Get off! Seriously ... if you nick any of it while I'm making a brew, you're dead. I've been looking forward to this all day."
Liqueur chocolates ...
... are an abomination against God. Or certainly two of his greatest creations: chocolate and alcohol. They are universally vile.
A box of chocolates
It is contradictory, but while fondant fillings and added extras can ruin a bar of chocolate, here, in a tin of Roses, they come into their own. In miniaturised, bite-sized form, such combinations are captured in perfect snapshot: it is just enough of something which, in greater volume, would make you feel queasy. Which, incidentally, is why those ridiculous supersized versions of, say, Quality Street's hazelnut noisette don't work.
It is in this spirit of reckless adventure that a tin of chocolates must be consumed, observing the following rules:
- Do not be That Guy. The one who prevaricates endlessly, reading through the choices like they are buying a house. It is a chocolate. If you don't like it, you can have another one.
- Likewise, if you are choosing from a tall box, take one from the first few layers. You cannot empty the whole box out, count each type of chocolate and only after consulting a complex mathematical formula (number and categories of chocolate against predicted consumption patterns, according to the number of people in the room), make your choice.
- Don't hog all the good ones on the first round. Don't go to the second layer while there are chocolates left on top. That is what a Tory would do. Morally upright Guardian readers should be willing to share the pain of the unwanted coffee cream and those weird nougat ones. It is socialism in action.
- Don't put the empty wrappers back in the box. It is the first step toward anarchy.
So, chocolate: how do you eat yours?
When eating chocolate, it is essential to prolong the pleasure. Photograph: Alamy