2nd September 2016. We met at Vicky’s house for this meeting. Kathryn, Theresa, George, Jo, Liz, Gini, Anna and Lara made the meeting, so a good turn out this month. There was definitely more discussion about the chocolate than the book this time, with some quite conclusive results. Later in the evening, we were left with more questions than answers as we pondered over more burning issues such as the demise of coloured toilet roll, whether there is ever a need to wear matching underwear and the best way to dispose of a dead goldfish!
A Life Discarded, by Alexander Masters
This book charts the author’s discovery of a great many diaries, by an unknown individual, in a skip in Cambridge and how he works out who the diarist is.
Initial comments were that the book was frustrating, as when Masters begins his narrative, he has not read all the diaries or put them in chronological order. It felt a little random and confusing. Gini said “it wasn’t interesting” and Kathryn said it made her wish she’d been given the diaries and had been allowed to read them herself.
The book seemed to include quite a lot of Masters’ personal journey which was not as engaging as the story of the diarist. The book wasn’t about the diarist but rather Masters’ discovery. We speculated that he had pieced it together sooner than the construction of the book suggests.
With regards to the diarist, we felt that the story was not particularly sad or out of the ordinary but it was interesting that someone had written so many diaries when they really didn’t have that much to write about. Perhaps, as George suggested “they didn’t live a life because they were too busy writing”. We were amazed that the diarist had written for 1.5 to 2 hours a day but never felt the need to re-read the diaries.
We were surprised by the revelation of the gender of the diarist and talked a lot about the infatuations with older women. Again, we were intrigued and wanted to find out more but Masters couldn’t offer more on this.
Gini said it wasn’t a book she rushed to pick up and Jo said she struggled to get into it although she had managed to read the last third in two days.
Some of us felt that despite the revelatory process being somewhat frustrating, having finished the book, it seemed a worthwhile experience. But overall, it wasn’t a book we felt we would recommend.
Choosing the chocolate to match A Life Discarded was quite a challenge. Cambridge, the home of the main characters may boast some great looking chocolate shops but as yet, no makers and the diarist’s eating habits didn’t help a great deal unless you count a preference for reheated cauliflower stalks over oranges and strawberries. So I took my inspiration from the characters: the unknown diarist, the two love interests (the elusive ‘E’ and the alluring Dr Harriette Chick) and then Alexander Masters himself who transforms the raw material of the diaries into a smooth and palatable narrative.
The Georgia Ramon and Aztec Gold bars were featured in recent Cocoa Runners tasting collections and the remaining two were chosen from their library.
Georgia Ramon, Philippinen 70%
The life of Alexander’s diarist was greatly influenced by a relationship with a much older friend, initially referred to as ‘E’. E turns out to be German and is quite an authoritative figure. Coincidentally, the July Cocoa Runners collection included their first German maker, Georgia Ramon. A partnership between Ramona Gustman and Georg Bernardini, author of “Chocolate – The Reference Standard”. Given our diarist’s fascination with vegetables I was a little tempted to go for Georgia Ramon’s white chocolate bar with broccoli and almonds but E, I am sure, wouldn’t have approved.
As we had just read a book about a diarist with no identity, I thought we should taste our chocolate blind this time so I didn’t give anyone any clues from the reviews. This was our first tasting of a bar from the Philippines. It had quite a slow melt, but was really, very smooth. The first flavours coming through for Theresa were treacle and caramel and citrus notes for Lara and we all agreed that it then moved on to more earthy flavours. I noted murmurs of satisfaction. It lasted really well and left a really rich and pleasing aftertaste…quite unlike E who had left quite a bitter one. Reading the reviews afterwards, they mentioned coffee which we didn’t get but there was still plenty going on even without the ‘coffee finish’.
Sirene, Madagascar 73%
Dr Harriette Chick. We don’t get to know a great deal about her, but she is an admirable character. Born in 1875 she is an eminent microbiologist and nutritionist. A strong woman, who, although in her nineties, proves irresistible to our diarist. I thought of her as a kind of siren. Silent but alluring. The French word for siren is sirene which is also the name of a Canadian chocolate company founded by Taylor Kennedy. Sirene Chocolate has had some excellent reviews and it turns out, just like Harriette, Taylor Kennedy has a scientific background. Molecular biology rather than microbiology but further justification for my pairing with Dr Chick.
The chocolate was made purely from cocoa beans and cane sugar with no added cocoa butter. We loved the clean packaging. It was already drawing us in. The aroma was rich but Vicky detected a slight tinge of ‘balloon’ smell, which was definitely not unpleasant but we weren’t sure if it was supposed to be there. It had a beautifully slow melt releasing really fruity flavours. George was tasting jam and Anna cherries, Lara pointed out the sharper citrus notes. It had a slight acidity but we agreed that this was balanced by the really rich fruity flavours. Jo summed it up with “I think that is one of the nicest chocolates I have ever tasted.” It was quite something and equally as seductive as the packaging.
Aztec Gold Chocolate, Raw Dark 75% with Nibs
A raw chocolate seemed the best match for our diarist. Our diarist is also a slightly awkward character, so the presence of nibs in this bar seemed fitting although I knew a bar with nibs wouldn’t go down well with everyone. However Anna thought I had chosen nibs on purpose as a reference to the sheer volume of handwriting and ‘all those pens’ needed to write the diaries. So I bet that’s the connection we all remember!
On opening the bar we were a little surprised that the inner foil was quite crumpled. That unnerved us a bit. We usually get beautifully crisp foil. Gini wasn’t sure she wanted to put it in her mouth, but she did anyway! We have only tasted one raw bar before which none of us liked, so I wasn’t sure what the reaction would be. I think it was fair to say it was mixed. Theresa and Jo liked it. They both tasted aniseed flavours and liked the coconut tasting nibs. Some of us were a little unsure and found it hard to detect the flavours. Gini and Anna really didn’t like it. You only had to look at their faces to see what they were thinking. We thought the unroasted beans would give a distinctive flavour but we couldn’t really say it did. It was perhaps just harder to experience the flavours. It did grow on you I thought, a little like our diarist perhaps.
Pump Street Bakery, Madagascar Milk 58%
Alexander Masters, I found has connections with Sussex but also Suffolk where he spent time writing in a hunting lodge. I immediately thought of Pump Street Bakery in Orford, Suffolk. I saved the milk bar for Alexander as I felt that a smooth, creamy milk bar reflected his role in making the diarist’s story more accessible and easier to read. We could also compare how the Madagascar beans worked in a milk bar.
It started well. The aroma was more like a dark chocolate we thought which contrasted to the delicious creamy smoothness when it melted in your mouth. We all agreed that the dominant flavour was caramel but with slightly zesty flavours too. Not fruity though, like the Sirene Madagascar bar. It wasn’t long lasting and didn’t leave any real aftertaste. Lara, didn’t like it from the start, it was too creamy, which cheapened it she thought but the rest of us thoroughly enjoyed it. Very very good.
Which one did we want to take home? Fairly unanimous this time.
Anna, George, Gini, Jo, Kathryn, Lara, Liz, Vicky – Sirene, Madagascar 73%
Theresa – Georgia Ramon, Philippinen (For its treacly taste)
Next time we are reading a The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult.