Normal People paired with fairly traded craft chocolate: A study of power and dependency in human and trade relations

Louth Literary Coven met for our craft chocolate and book pairing this summer. We convened in a beautiful garden on the edge of Lincoln’s Ermine estate, requiring a trip across the Wolds for the Louth contingent. This blog details our book club chocolate pairings for Sally Rooney’s Normal People, which was our chosen summer read.

Normal People cropped

The Book (no spoilers)

We all agreed Normal People had been a good choice. We began by speculating on the meaning of the sardine tin on the front cover. Was it an intimacy constricted and confined by social mores perhaps? Or two people locked into a relationship, unable to release themselves maybe? Our main discussion focused on our feelings about the two main characters and the intensity and frustrations of their will-they-won’t-they relationship. For us, it was primarily a love story. Two people who appear perfect for each other go to great lengths to try and meet each other’s needs. Their happiness, however, is thwarted by their insecurities and inability to communicate.

The novel is set in twenty first century Dublin. We thought it could just as easily have been set in our own era though – the 80s and, for most of us, rural Lincolnshire. The only marked differences in the text were the presence of social media presence as well as the absence of speech marks. When did authors stop using speech marks?

The characters posed more questions than answers but that was what made them real.

We felt closer to Connell as the novel progressed. We understood more about his behaviour and motivations. Did that make him the normal one? Marianne, on the other hand, became more enigmatic.

Connell, we all agreed, was the more stable of the two. We could criticise his behaviour as a teenager, but we could also understand it. He wanted to protect Marianne. Even though his father was absent, he had a good role model in his mother. He learned to make self-sacrifices.

Initially, Marianne seemed intelligent and mature, but was she really just weak and powerless? Did she observe rather than act? Why did she seem to make increasingly bad choices? Considering the behaviour of her brother and references to the dominance of her father, why was Marianne so hurt and upset when her father’s belongings are damaged in the villa? As she became socially more superior, she seemed to have less control.

I won’t touch on our feelings about the ending for fear of spoilers, but we would definitely recommend it as a good book club read.

It was so well written: effortless, intense and a pleasure to read – apart from the lack of speech marks of course!

Sally Rooney’s Normal People was paired with some of the most fairly traded craft chocolate on the market.

Normal People was written by an Irish writer and is set mainly in Dublin. It contains complex characters and layers of meaning. An easy pairing then – an opportunity to taste bars from Irish craft makers chosen for their complexity of character, just like Marianne and Connell. However, with research done and bars from Dublin bean to bar makers selected, I realised I had not allowed for either the costs or time for shipping. Disaster. Only one week to go and no chocolate to take to book club. Time for a rethink. So, I took a look at some reviews:

Sally Rooney describes herself as a Marxist and Annalisa Quinn’s quite brilliant review describes Normal People as, “a Marxism of the heart”, where Marianne and Connell have “different things at different times: money, social capital, looks”. The novel suggests how they can “share and redistribute” according to their individual needs. It is a love story but Rooney is also showing how “political relationships can work on an intimate scale”.

However, we hadn’t really seen the politics in the book.

The narrative references Marianne and Connell’s involvement in political events, and the issues of gender and class equality are always present but not explicit. Our discussions of the characters had focused on their actions and trying to understand and relate to them, but this revelation led us to look at bit deeper into the issues of power, control and social pressure.

On the basis that Rooney is encouraging us to look beyond the pleasures of our own reading experience and consider how the characters are working towards a more equal relationship, where money and social capital are shared, I explained how I had decided to do the same with the chocolate choice.

The Chocolate

First, though, we needed to go right back to the discussions of our own school days about politics, economics and youthful idealism. Luckily, we had Lara there to explain the fundamentals of Marxism, the power of capital and how we can move on from capitalism and industrialism. Basically: “When people don’t own what they make, we need to change the system and make it fairer.” Jess remembered what her economics teacher had drummed into her: “From each according to his ability to each according to their needs.”

I presented four bars that I felt illustrated different forms of trade, and how craft makers are not just focusing on finding the best beans but also fairer forms of trade.

The bars were sourced this time from Cocoa Runners (UK)  and Duffy’s Chocolate (UK).

Tobago Estate Chocolate W.I. Laura Dark Milk 45% (by Francis Pralus)

LauraThe first of our book club craft chocolate pairings was the award winning ‘Laura’ from the island of Tobago.

The simple packaging revealed a substantial, thick bar. Not unsophisticated but solid and genuine. Caramel notes dominated the aroma. We commented on the smooth buttery melt; buttery but not oily. The caramel notes hit us immediately. Such a comforting bar. We all went for seconds, slightly conscious of handing a foil wrapper around the table and extracting small pieces out in the open air for everyone to see. Well, we were on the Ermine Estate so we didn’t think anyone would notice! This time some of us were picking up lighter, sweeter notes. “Honey!” Anna said. I had to agree. The thick, oozy, caramel notes ran into higher, thinner, sweet honey notes leaving us with a – dare I say it – satisfyingly sweet Cadbury Eclair finish.

An indulgent taste experience but would the modes of trade behind the craft chocolate leave us feeling quite so gratified?

Theresa thought she could still detect some bitterness through the sweet caramel flavours as we talked about Tobago’s colonial history and the slave trade involved in the growing of its cacao. Fortunately, today, the picture looks very different. Duane Dove of Tobago Estate Chocolate is making chocolate with the best raw materials, free from chemicals and exploited labour. He owns the land and he grows the cacao – with help from a local workforce, of course. The chocolate is made by French artisan makers Pralus, on behalf of Duane. The profits go back to the Tobago based company. Everyone along the line seems to be making the best of their abilities. From the information we have, we cannot judge how far this is being done according to their needs, but surely this is heading in the right direction. Isn’t it?

Belvie Ben Tre Vietnam 70%

BelvieNext in our book club chocolate pairings was Belvie Ben Tre Vietnam. Originating from Duane Dove’s Caribbean hillside plantation, through to the cacao farmers working among the rice fields and water buffalo of Vietnam.

A strong and pleasant aroma immediately hinted at earthiness and red fruit. The texture was refined with an even melt, with the flavours swinging gently between sweet and sour. We were tasting dried fruits rather than the red berries and kiwi flavours suggested on the Cocoa Runners description, but blueberries were also mentioned along with liquorice. It was good – really good! The finish brought a punch of astringency with lingering fruit. Delightful.

Vietnam is a relative newcomer to the cultivation of cacao.

An understudy of Louis Pasteur is believed to have introduced cacao in 1878.  For better or for worse, it is now seen as an alternative source of bulk-produced cacao, grown on thousands of small-scale, multi-crop farms. Being based in Vietnam, Belvie are able to buy directly from planters in different regions. The fair price they can pay through direct trade supports farmers in the preservation of their cacao trees and their livelihoods. The making process is also based in Vietnam; a model also adapted by Vietnamese makers Marou. Vietnam’s future as a supplier of industrial cacao remains uncertain. However, the shorter supply chains of these craft chocolate makers, and their determination to give a sustainable future to fine cacao and its growers, are creating an alternative form of trade. This is Interesting but not every maker can be based in the country of origin and buy direct from the farmer.

Omnom Tanzania 70%

OmnomContinuing the book club chocolate pairings, we moved on to the work of the Kokoa Kamili Cooperative farmers in the Kilombero Valley, on the edge of Tanzania’s Udzungwa Mountain National Park.

The Omnom bar greeted us with an irresistibly rich aroma packed with fruit and nut. A beautifully smooth melt delivered peaks of fruitiness: lemon sherbet, yellow fruits, plums and sweet figs, balanced with a luscious, chocolate brownie baseline. The whole experience was accompanied by our murmurs of “heavenly” and “divine”. Another classic bar from the Icelandic makers Omnom.

Behind this delectable bar are the previously mentioned Kokoa Kamili and their community of 2000 farmers. According to their website, Kokoa Kamili believed in the power of cocoa to bring real economic development to rural Tanzanian farmers. By controlling the fermentation themselves, Kokoa Kamili have allowed the farmers to express the fine flavour of their cacao, giving them access to the craft chocolate market rather than just selling their crop as a commodity. That’s really good to know.

Duffy’s Venezuela Ocumare 72%

The final of our book club chocolate pairings was Duffy’s Venezuela Ocumare. This took us right back to the beginning of the story of Europe’s love affair with chocolate, and the growing of cacao being a contentious, political and often violent issue.

First the taste experience. The pleasures of this bar were described more in terms of the overall tasting journey rather than specific flavour notes. Jess just lost herself in it. Lara enjoyed the sheer complexity but couldn’t quite pinpoint the flavours. It was sweet and smooth but with a slight piquancy in the mouthfeel, like the sensation of chilli without the taste. George was tasting cinnamon with a jammy sweetness coming through in the aftertaste. The craft chocolate was full of character, sweet, sumptuous and enigmatic.

But does the high calibre of Venezuela’s cacao mirror the quality of the life of its producers?

The ongoing economic and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela would suggest not. As early as 1620 cacao was Venezuela’s primary export. It continued until the takeover of oil in the 20th century. Doing business with Venezuela is complicated. I chose to include a Duffy’s bar because of his involvement in the ‘Direct Cacao’ initiative. An association based on ‘respect, value and mutual benefit between cacao growers, chocolate makers and consumers, aiming to protect and preserve fine cacao’.

Before our book club meeting I asked Duffy about his experience of sourcing cacao from Venezuela. His answer was, “If you are looking at direct trade, why did you choose the Venezuela bar?” I had chosen this bar because I wanted to talk about Venezuela.

“Where possible, we buy cacao that we can trace right back to the growers, but varying market structures and political pressures in the country of origin sometimes make this difficult, ” Duffy explained. “Just because we want to do it, doesn’t always make it possible, so we use the most direct and fairest supply chain available to us. As we cannot buy direct from Venezuela, we use a wholesaler that we trust and that has a good reputation. We hope to go Direct Trade there at some point. ”

Solid principles, we all agreed.

The Pairing 

Without reading Annalisa Quinn’s reviews of Normal People, we are not sure we would have looked much deeper than the compelling love story and captivating characters in the book. Without the research into the makers and supply chains, our enjoyment of the chocolate would have remained at the level of taste, an appreciation of the skills of the maker, and feeling a little self-righteous about our ability to choose ethically produced bars. But, by bringing the two together, we had the opportunity to see how Rooney had embedded politics ‘closely and rigorously’ (Annalisa Quinn) into her love story. We also learned that craft chocolate makers are not just about producing great tasting chocolate. Their efforts to move towards more equal trading relationships are ingrained in the ethos of craft chocolate. Creating equality in both personal and trade relationships is complex, problematic and ultimately hampered by human nature.

Our book club chocolate pairings resulted in a great summer gathering. I am sure we would have enjoyed it just as much with characterful bars from Irish makers, but we can save that for another time.

Voting for our favourite bars was perhaps a little unfair as they were all superb. When pressed, the bars we decided we would most like to take home were:

Omnom Tanzania – Anna, Jess and Kathryn.

Duffy’s Venezuela – George.

Belvie Ben Tre – Theresa.

Tobago Laura – Lara

For our next book club craft chocolate and book pairings we will be reading On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming.

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