24th February 2017 (apologies for the late write-up). We met at George’s house and Anna, George, Gini, Jo, Kathryn, Theresa, Trudy and Vicky made the meeting. We were glad to see Trudy again. That meant she hadn’t been put off by the thought of another Friday evening spent deliberating over a bizarre mixture of murder and chocolate!
The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
This first novel, written in the 1970s by Iain Banks, follows the experiences of a young boy, Frank, living an isolated life with his father on an island in Scotland. Frank describes his fascination and violent experiments with animals and insects; tells of his brothers’ traumatic experiences and strange behaviour; and details his own shocking behaviour and actions. Throughout the book there is a feeling of something unknown, something being kept from Frank by his father with the disturbing truth revealed at the very end of the novel.
This unique book is a good and engaging read: Kathryn said she was “at once interested in the boy and his brother, and the story carries you along”. We variously thought the book to be ‘extraordinary’, ‘weird’, ‘disturbing’, but also ‘very funny’ in parts. There are ‘matter of fact’ descriptions of the murders Frank committed as a young boy with the suggestion that this was “just a phase he was going through”; there is gruesome narrative including of the maggots eating the child’s brain; and then amusing commentary of the brothers’ conversations as well as Frank’s nights out with his friend.
Vicky, who had recommended the book (having read it when she was a teenager) found reading it again gave her a different perspective, particularly as a mother she was much more aware and concerned about the nature of Frank’s childhood and upbringing. Anna also reflected this feeling commenting on the “horrendous catalogue of abuse and neglect apparent from the boy’s telling of his story”.
As we discussed and analysed the book, some of us felt there were some holes in the plotline. It isn’t entirely clear why Frank’s father experimented on him and Anna questioned the medical research stating that the medication wouldn’t have had the impact implied. There is also some apparent discrepancy between Frank’s clear intelligence and his father being able to keep him in the dark about significant matters.
Nevertheless, this is a most unusual and engaging book that our group would definitely recommend.
Matching chocolate to Frank’s world was easier than I first thought: Scotland, a wild, natural landscape, ritual and child sacrifice echoing the ancient civilisations of Latin America all led me to Peruvian and whisky infused bars from Scottish makers The Chocolate Tree and Hebridean sea salt caramels from Scottish chocolatier Charlotte Flowers. We don’t usually include filled chocolates but we were reading The Wasp Factory so unconventional was good and after reading about Charlotte’s use of local ingredients foraged from the wild, I was even more convinced that we needed to include them and it was a good opportunity to bring in sea salt too.
The Chocolate Tree, Peru Marañón 60% dark milk
The choice of the Peruvian bars by the Scottish makers, The Chocolate Tree was inspired by Frank’s use of sacred sites, sacrifice and a shaman-like belief system that inadvertently imitated the legendary practices of the ancient Incas.
After taking in the stunning packaging, we started with the dark milk bar made with Peru’s Pure Nacional cacao.
It had a distinct dark woody aroma with a hint of spice. The smooth melt gave way to a slightly grainy but not unpleasant mouthfeel. Gini liked it more than she had expected from the aroma, and after a touch of astringency at the beginning said it developed into lovely caramel notes. We all found spice and woody notes with a mild citrusy finish. Anna was surprised how definite the flavours were for a milk chocolate bar. The only thing we didn’t agree on was the aftertaste. I thought it had quite an intense aftertaste but everyone else was looking a bit blank at this point. It was a good start though, everyone had enjoyed this first take on Peru’s native cacao.
The Chocolate Tree, Peru Marañón 69%
We went a step darker with the next bar, breathing in the beautifully deep chocolatey and woody aroma. The melt and the mouthfeel mirrored the previous bar but then developed into more intense flavour notes. The initial woody flavour (more spicy tobacco for Trudy and more fudgy for Theresa) evolved into brighter, more citrusy notes then sharper notes with a distinctive grapefruit flavour on the finish. Jo thought it was even smoother and more creamy than the dark milk. Trudy, being a bit of a whisky fan said she could imagine pairing it with a good single malt as the packaging suggested. For me, this bar was more full-bodied and had an even more satisfying aftertaste. This time everyone agreed with me.
The Chocolate Tree, Whisky Nibs
The next bar, I know, was a bit of a risk. Whisky soaked nibs promising waves of dark chocolate with the peat and smoke of an Islay single malt. But controversial would be a good match for The Wasp Factory and if we were to be adventurous in our book choices, we needed to be adventurous in our chocolate too. And anyway, we couldn’t have novel set in Scotland without including some whisky.
So we gave it a go. For most of us, the whisky dominated the aroma and almost overwhelmed the chocolate. It really did come in waves and was quite an intense flavour experience. Surprisingly Theresa, who normally likes to keep her alcohol and chocolate separate quite liked it but for most of us, the chocolate flavour got lost in the lashings of peaty, smoky flavours and the coarseness of the nibs was quite unsettling. For others, the peaty notes even took a turn for the medicinal. This is an award winning bar, praised for its balance and intensity which I think on this occasion we failed to recognise. Perhaps the controversy and mixed reactions made this bar a better pairing to The Wasp Factory than the whisky.
Charlotte Flower Chocolates, Hebridean Sea Salt Caramels
So onto the last choice and a taste of the sea.
The beautifully thin chocolate gave way to the fudgy sweet caramel, perfectly dosed with sea salt. Murmurs of satisfaction. Absolutely delicious. We felt that the sweetness was really well balanced with the sea salt giving an altogether more gentle experience than we were expecting. It was just a little too sweet for Vicky but she agreed it had been good to try something different.
The whisky and sea salt pairing was thought to be the most memorable but Gini describes our experience of reading The Wasp Factory as ‘unusual’ and ‘engaging’ and I think that is a fair summary of our chocolate experience too.
This time, our choices for the chocolate we would most like to take home were:
George, Kathryn, Theresa, Trudy – The Chocolate Tree, Peru Marañón 69%
Gini, Vicky – The Chocolate Tree, Peru Marañón 60%
Anna, Jo – Charlotte Flower, Hebridean Sea Salt Caramels
For our next meeting, Trudy has recommended I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou