Jo was our host for the evening with Kathryn, Vicky, Gini, Anna, Sally, George and Lee all making it along. Although the conversation was a little more serious this time there was no shortage of the usual hilarity, particularly at the bizarre apparition of Jo’s dog Sunny wandering into the kitchen in her cardigan…never mind the manifestations of the holy trinity…this certainly took some explaining.
The Shack, by Wm Paul Young
Continuing our focus on members’ favourite books, Anna suggested The Shack which she thought would be another ‘unique’ read for us; one that she found to be an interesting and gripping novel. Set in the American Northwest, the book tells of ‘Mack’ whose daughter, Missy, was abducted and evidence of her being brutally murdered was found in an abandoned shack deep in the Oregon wilderness. Four years later, and apparently invited by God, Mack returns to the Shack and finds himself engaged with manifestations of the three persons of the Trinity. His interactions with them change his world forever – addressing the question of “Where is God in a world so filled with unspeakable pain?” the book involves a relatively complex theological narrative.
Some of our initial responses to the book included that it was very emotional (Vicky and Sally), and it was “intense and challenging” (Jo). Some of us certainly felt that we would need to read it again to understand some of the theological complexities.
Vicky and I both said we wouldn’t have read the book if it hadn’t been recommended at book group. As an agnostic, I really didn’t know what to think when it became clear what the main subject of the novel was. Once finished, though I needed to reflect a lot to understand how I felt about it, my conclusion was that it left me with a very warm and positive feeling that Mack had been able to work through and deal with the “Great Sadness”. Lee commented that the book was about forgiveness and what forgiveness means; Vicky that it offers a form of counselling; and Jo that in choosing to come back Mack had achieved some “closure”. George highlighted Mack’s obsession with the ‘Great Sadness’ which was disconnecting him from his family, and the encounters at the Shack had enabled him to choose to start looking forward, not back. Kathryn also reflected that the interactions at the Shack offered him a way out of his considerable grief by connecting with people and relationships.
Sally felt that Mack enjoyed observing the natural relationship between the Papa, Jesus and Sarayu which the author effectively depicts as both casual and harmonious. We also enjoyed some of the humorous moments captured and that the personalities of the three characters were so different. George commented that the characters’ engagement with Mack sought to guide him from three different perspectives, rather than tell him how to feel or understand things. In doing so the author seeks to address some significant themes – dealing with consequences of your own actions; the difficulties of being in judgement on others; what it means for God to love all and not have favourites.
We had lots of questions towards the end of the book, for example about Mack returning to find Missy’s grave. Did God do this for the murderer as well as Mack – to offer an opportunity for the murderer to be redeemed also? Wouldn’t the police have lots of questions for Mack on how he knew where the grave was? Also, whilst there was a positive outcome for Mack’s other daughter, we did wonder that her parents hadn’t worked out themselves what was driving her unhappiness.
Overall, this is an uplifting and thought-provoking read. Kathryn noted it was written by an author with a deep spiritual life seeking to explain to others how he feels about God. Whilst it may, therefore, be more immediately relevant for those of religious and spiritual persuasions, some of us who are not have also been able to take something from it.
To relate chocolate to The Shack was never going to be easy but since the healing journey taken by Mack in the book was intrinsically linked to the experience of the author, I thought that his life was a good place to start. Wm Paul Young is Canadian and spent his formative years in both West Papua, Indonesia and Canada. I was very excited to find a bar from Original Beans that was made with the rare Kerafat beans from West Papua and the author being Canadian presented an excellent opportunity to try chocolate from Soma Chocolatemakers and more from Sirene. Then when choosing the bars from these two makers I concentrated on the idea of relationships which for me, was the central theme of the book.
All bars this time were sourced from Cocoa Runners.
Papua Kerafat 68%
This is our second bar from Original Beans but this time we were trying a dark bar chosen for the West Papua origin of the beans. West Papua, Indonesia originally Netherlands New Guinea, is where the author spent the early years of his life living with the Dani people while his parents were carrying out their missionary work. As I read the descriptions of the spectacular yet chaotic gardens of Mack’s soul in The Shack, I wondered if Young was remembering his time spent in the wild and exotic landscape of West Papua where he grew up.
We noted first the reddy brown colour and the incredibly chocolately aroma revealing hints of dried fruits. It had a smooth slow melt. It was strong but gentle at the same time. Really chocolately, like the aroma, but then balanced with subtle honeyed fruit with a slight astringency on the finish and a satisfying aftertaste. We all loved it. It wasn’t unruly and chaotic like Mack’s garden, it was more linear and straightforward we thought but quite lovely and rather enchanting, so not a bad match after all.
Soma, Milk Old School 38%
So onto the first of the bars from Canadian makers Soma. I couldn’t resist this bar, not just because its form reminded me of a log cabin but because I hoped that as it was unrefined, you would be able to experience the three different ingredients (the Venezuelan Criollo cacao nibs, the whole crystals of cane sugar and the milk) independently followed by something altogether more magical as the three merged together…or maybe that was asking a bit much from a chocolate bar.
We all commented on the appearance, it was like a chocolate brownie, all fudgy but still light and crumbly. It smelt divine with a deep chocolately aroma that reminded Anna of an Aero bar and Jo of a Flake. It had a reassuring familiarity about it. It dissolved gently in the mouth and you could feel the graininess of the nibs and sugar but then wow… what a chocolate hit! Vicky was a little put off by the nibs but apart from that, we were all mesmerised by it. Vicky described it as warm and delivering a rich chocolately flavour; Sally said it was like eating your favourite chocolate pudding; ‘just fantastic’ said Anna; and Jo thought it really was like a Flake but just so much more sophisticated with more depth and flavour. Through the rough texture and the rich chocolatey notes, you could also detect the nutty and creamy complexity of the cacao. This was a real treat and when we had demolished the whole bar, everyone agreed that this was probably the best milk chocolate we had ever tasted. Praise indeed, but it really was a heavenly experience, made even better by the lovely lingering aftertaste. So it turns out something ‘magical’ wasn’t too much to ask from a chocolate bar after all.
Sirene, Ecuador 73% & Madagascar 73%
Another two bars from Canada. These bars are presented by Sirene as the yin and the yang of cocoa. We have tasted the Sirene Madagascar 73% in a previous tasting but I included it again because I wanted to taste the two origins separately followed by the blended bar by Soma which combines beans from both origins. That way we could experience them individually and then in relationship with each other.
So after paying brief reverence to the beautifully understated packaging, we began with the Ecuador bar. This bar is made with just cocoa beans and cane sugar with no added cocoa butter. It was very dark in colour and had a delicate aroma. It was slow to melt then had a slight dryness which made it a little hard work in the mouth. Anna was tasting hazelnuts and walnuts. We all agreed on the nutty and earthy notes and currants were mentioned along with something slightly metallic. The dryness continued but it wasn’t unpleasant and gave way to a really long-lasting chocolatey aftertaste. It was incredibly interesting and again we all liked it.
We then moved on to the Madagascar bar. Even the colour was different with more red hues than the previous bar. It had a deeper aroma which was definitely more fruity. It had the same slow melt but with a more grainy mouthfeel this time. The citrus hit came right from the start. Jo thought it was the most citrusy bar she had tasted so far, more fruity than chocolately. It gave more citrus fruit flavours than the red fruit promised in the aroma. We were tasting bright orange flavours but Gini thought this was balanced perfectly with the smooth fudgy texture making it absolutely delicious. It was quite acidic on the finish but still in balance. Quite a different taste experience.
Soma, Dual Origins, Little Big Man Ecuador Madagascar 70%
So back to Soma again. After tasting the last two origins separately we were quite sceptical about how they would work together.
It started off well with quite a complex aroma but this time with distinct coconut notes. It had a slow creamy melt. It was silky smooth with a cool freshness. It started with definite citrus notes echoing the citrusy experience of the Sirene Madagascar but then we detected more earthy and spicy notes and the nuttiness of the Ecuadorian cacao and then back to what Sally thought were more like the red fruits we expected from the Madagascan beans. We agreed that is was a rich flavour journey and decided that the makers at Soma had been so clever with this bar. Instead of losing the identity of the two origins by blending them together they had retained the inherent flavour characteristics of both and created something with greater complexity and intensity.
This has been quite an exceptional tasting and we all felt we had learnt so much about the different flavour profiles of the cacao. I was really pleased that Anna in particular, who had chosen The Shack, thought that the book and our chocolate tasting had been similarly enlightening experiences.
Another uplifting book and more uplifting chocolate.
The bars we would most like to take home were very difficult to choose this time but in the end were:
Vicky – Sirene Madagascar 73%
Lee, Jo, Anna, Gini – Soma Milk Old School 38%
Kathryn – Soma Dual Origin Little Big Man
For next time, we are reading The L-Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks