On Chapel Sands meets craft chocolate: An exploration of nature versus nurture

Louth Literary Coven gathered this time at Anna’s house for our Friday evening of book and craft chocolate talk.  We were all a little work-weary but spirits were still high with our discussions subject to the usual hesitations and deviations which at one point led us to a bizarre debate over the origins of the story of Bernard Manning being in the habit of sitting in the lounge in his underpants…a serious deviation, even by our standards!

On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming had been chosen for its link to the Lincolnshire Coast where most of us grew up. We are all familiar with the village of Chapel St Leonards and the nearby town of Skegness. It was even likely that some of our relatives had known the families involved. So, we were eager to find out what everyone thought of the book. The obvious choice for craft chocolate paired with memories of the Lincolnshire coast was Duffy’s Chocolate, as he was based just a little further north in the coastal resort of Cleethorpes. Tempting as it was to do a full line-up of Duffy’s Chocolate, the book’s pursuit of the truth took us right across the globe, so I ensured the chocolate choice followed suit.

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The Book (no spoilers)

On Chapel Sands opens with the traumatic abduction of a small child on a Lincolnshire beach: an event that is surprisingly quickly forgotten as you are drawn into the pictures, recollections and mysteries of Beth’s childhood. (Beth is also known as Grace and Elizabeth but to avoid confusion will be referred to as Beth.) The upbringing of Beth by George and Veda resonated with many stories of families we knew growing up in Lincolnshire.  This was a deeply personal account of being brought up in a family environment devoid of comfort and compassion but the restrictive social mores of early twentieth century Lincolnshire could have resulted in so many similar family situations and secrets. Fathers discovering, at the age of fifty-five, that they were actually adopted, children being brought up as siblings when they are really mother and child. Stories that would now be more likely to be a plot on EastEnders were recalled by those of us who had grown up here. 

The references to local history, particularly the wartime experiences and Veda seeing Tennyson on Chapel Sands battling against the wind in his cloak and hat were enchanting. We all made resolutions to take a trip down to Chapel and Hogsthorpe to see where Beth had spent her childhood and Tennyson had strode across the sands.

We loved the allusions to art, helping decode and interpret the events in the everyday lives of a Lincolnshire village.

The story was greatly enriched by its references to artists and their work:  Degas, Turner, Seurat, Ravilious and particularly Breugel and his Fall of Icarus.  Admittedly, we weren’t familiar with all the names but a few of us had been inspired enough to Google them! Eric Ravilious in particular and his war art had been quite a revelation.  If we had any criticism, it was that the reproduction of the Fall of Icarus in the book wasn’t really good enough to actually pick out Icarus; his tragedy going almost completely unnoticed, not just by the coastal community in the painting but by us too!

Despite the stark and un-emotive nature of Beth’s early life, the writing style gave us the sense that Beth and Laura were particularly effective curators of the past.  Because Beth’s experience in Chapel had been so limited, they both held on to the tiniest detail, treasuring and giving meaning to the simplest of objects and belongings. The photographs, in particular, have such importance, simple portraits that tell us so much about the subjects and crucially in this story, the photographer. It made us feel a little ashamed of how much our children now have, both in terms of opportunity, experience and belongings and how little importance we attach to them.

The characters, of course, are real people, so we only learn as much as Laura and Beth knew or discovered about them.

Sharing information was simply avoided by most of the members of the family.  Beth didn’t want to ask questions knowing that it would cause hurt, so it was difficult to learn the truth about them. Instead, we were left guessing why they acted the way they did and trying to fill in the gaps with the little knowledge we had of when and where they lived: the position of women, social divisions, divorce or the absence of divorce as an option,  the ‘roughness’ of rural society,  the difficulties in accessing education, the constraints of transport and restricted social mobility.

Beth’s family seemed like quite a regular family. Jess told us that her family were from Woodhall Spa where Veda’s sister moved to, so there is every chance that they would have known Veda’s sister and her family. They probably wouldn’t have been at all shocked to learn about Veda’s situation.

Despite the turbulent childhood, we felt the outcome for Beth was a positive one. Without giving anything away, the knowledge that Beth’s bitterness was not visited on her own children made it a really uplifting read. As Laura explains, “she turned herself into an ideal mother, a tender grandmother. She along invented herself.”

I’ll keep our discussions of the characters for the chocolate pairing, as each of the bars was chosen to reflect their character and relationship but suffice to say, we were fascinated by them all.

On Chapel Sands turned out to be an extremely popular book club choice but we did wonder if it would have the same attraction for readers who were not familiar with the area. We certainly hoped it would.

The Chocolate (contains spoilers)

My chocolate choices were inspired by the theme of genetics and the nature versus nurture debate. The individual bars were selected to match what we know about the four main characters.

Many of the craft bars we taste are labelled as either Criollo, Forastero or Trinitario.  In very general terms they relate to the variety of cacao used to make them, giving a clue to the ancestry of the beans.  These terms bear more relevance to the colonial history of cacao rather than its genetic history; the genetic make-up of cacao is, in reality, much more complicated. For the purposes of this pairing, we will consider the meaning of these three terms, how they interrelate and the character you might expect from them.

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

Soma Chocolatemaker, Guasare, Venezuela 70%

IMG_4154The first of our book club craft chocolate pairings was a bar described as originating from samples of ‘old pure Criollo’. Criollo is the name of the original ‘native’ varieties discovered by Cortes in 16th century Mexico and subsequently cultivated in the plantations of Venezuela and Central America. So we could describe this variety as the ‘mother’ of cacao and make the pairing with Hilda. From a good Criollo we expect delicate, yet complex flavours. This bar was judged the best dark bar in the world in 2018 after winning overall Gold in the world finals of the International Chocolate Awards.

Our expectations for the Criollo bar were high but would our knowledge of Hilda reveal the same intricacies of character?

The room went silent. A sign of appreciation or disappointment? No-one was giving much away but their faces said it all.  We began to share.  The aroma was strong and enticing, the deep cocoa notes were accompanied by bold coffee tones and a fruity zing.  The texture was beautifully smooth and clean. After the initial cocoa and coffee notes, the whole experience became more gentle. Jess was tasting the tang of cranberries but then felt this softened into strawberry jam and cream. After detecting nutty notes, Joh was definitely picking up more fruit towards the end but finding it difficult to pinpoint the flavour. Could that be the ‘tamarind’ described on the packaging? As no-one was familiar with the taste of tamarind, it was impossible to say. (Something else to seek out.) The coffee then revealed itself again in the generous aftertaste.  The talk of fruit jam reminded Sally of the heartwarming jam tart making scene at the family bakery. Beth would have been there with her mother and family, she may not have any recollection of this time but “she still loves jam tarts and encourages my children to make them.”

The Guasare was definitely a winner for us: simply gorgeous, beautifully balanced and satisfyingly complex, the flavours skilfully coaxed from the beans by one of the world’s best chocolate makers – Soma. The dominant flavour notes had vitality and endurance making it a good match for Hilda. We assumed Hilda to be a complex character. She definitely wasn’t predictable but we knew so little about her and why she made the decisions she did. What was so bad about her upbringing that meant she didn’t want Beth to experience the same ‘roughness’? Why did she insist her family had no contact with her? Why did she leave ten weeks after the papers were signed? What was the attraction to George? As Laura says, we are seeing things in black and white when we really want to see things in colour.  There is every chance that Hilda was as balanced and complex as our Criollo bar but we just didn’t have enough evidence to judge.

Pralus, Bresil Forastero 75%

IMG_4155We turn next to our Forestero bar.  In contrast to the ‘native’ Criollo, Forastero refers to the ‘foreign’, hardier varieties discovered growing in South America and the Amazon in particular. Forastero is the second ‘parent’ variety. The coupling of Criollos from Venezuela and Amazonian Forasteros brought us the Trinitarios or hybrid varieties. Our Forastero bar was therefore chosen to represent Beth’s father, George.

Forastero is a more bitter cacao with a strong but flat chocolate profile, a monotone experience when compared to the nuanced flavours and complexity of the Criollo beans. For George, I chose a Forastero bar from Brazil made by French maker Francois Pralus.

Hardworking, bitter and lacklustre, could we be describing George?

We were greeted by a robust aroma of roasted nuts and molasses. A smooth, slow and balanced melt revealed deep roasted flavours of nuts and burn’t toast. Touches of acidity hinted at fruit but were then flattened by the deep treacly and dark sugar notes. The finish was a little astringent with some describing it as catching at the back of your throat. It was dark and determined.

We pondered over what we knew about George. Was he strong and bitter or just frustrated and resigned to his fate? We felt he was more resilient than strong and as Laura discovered, there could have been more to George than his daughter had ever seen in him. With his passion for photography, the image and the creative process, was his, a story of lost potential? And, if there was more to the relationship with Hilda than was initially thought, was it also a tale of lost love?

Our Forastero bar, although straightforward, still hinted at a more nuanced character. Although this flavour potential has to be present in the genetic make-up of the cacao,  it takes very careful post-harvest practices and the hand of an accomplished maker to bring out any innate subtleties.  It made us wonder if George could have been a completely different person if born in a different era: one when divorce was actually an option. But our view of George was clouded by his moods, his lack of emotion and the suppressive nature that dominates his relations with his wife and daughter.

Duffy’s Dominican Republic Taino 65%

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We turn now to the Trinitarios, the descendants of the original Forastero and Criollo varieties. The hybridisation of cacao has continued ever since, making the current genetic pool rich and complex.  So I have chosen a Trinitario for both Beth and Veda. Beth’s parentage is not, as we discover, straightforward. Veda is one of three parents, bringing a new personality into the mix. For both Veda and Beth, I have selected bars from the same maker and growing region to create the environmental link between them: their relationship being one of nurture rather than nature.

We start with Veda and Trinitario from the Dominican Republic (the eastern region of the island of Hispaniola). This bar gave a smoky aroma, with hints of sweet fruit.  The texture was commented on, having a slight graininess, not unpleasant, but making the mouthfeel more noticeable.  This felt really sweet after the previous bar, honey sweet, muscovado sweet, pineapple sweet. Too sweet for Veda but milder than George and the Forastero. There is not a hint of bitterness in either Veda or the Dominican Republic bar.

Duffy’s Dominica 70%

IMG_4157The final of our book club and craft chocolate pairings was Duffy’s new Dominica bar.  Made with beans of uncertain parentage which I presume to a Trinitario. The Dominican Republic and Dominica are often confused. Both are Caribbean countries but with quite different colonial histories. The history and production of cacao in the Dominican Republic (DR) is well documented and DR is the source of beans for many artisan makers. Dominica, by contrast, is a relatively new origin for craft makers but a country that is now making a concerted effort to re-establish itself as a source of fine cacao.  This is the first Dominica bar we have had the opportunity to taste.

Would we detect any traces of Criollo and Forastero ancestry in the Dominica bar or would it have more in common with the Trinitario from the not too far away island of Hispaniola? 

The aroma was certainly more in line with Duffy’s Dominican Republic bar, mild but distinctive with red fruit notes. The texture and melt were a touch smoother. Then came the flavours. Rachel was tasting salted caramel.  It wasn’t as sweet as the Dominican Republic bar but with sweet caramel peaks. We debated over the fruit notes. We agreed on ‘jammy’ but not on the type of fruit. Was it plums, redcurrants, blueberries? Jess felt she picked up a touch of vanilla towards the end and the malty taste mentioned on the packaging we felt came through in the aftertaste.

The moments of silent appreciation were reminiscent of the Criollo bar (Hilda). It tasted divine.  In terms of inherited characteristics, the complexity of the Criollo was present, it had some really interesting flavour notes with plenty going on but Jess felt that it didn’t challenge us in quite the same way as the Criollo bar. It had a more open character, giving its flavour more freely. Not a whisper of the bold, overbearing Forastero bar (George). This echoed Laura’s realisation that just like her mother Beth, she didn’t feel she had any relation to George. But despite Beth’s protestations, we thought she may have inherited some of the artistic abilities from her father, and perhaps a little of his stubbornness too!

We felt that the overall style and expression of flavour in the Dominica bar (Beth) had more in common with the Dominican Republic bar (Veda).  Just as Veda had helped shape Beth’s character, the maker Duffy had teased out and developed the distinct, intrinsic flavours of the Dominican Republic and Dominican beans and given them shared personality traits over and above the genetic profile of the beans.

Again voting for our favourite bars was difficult. We had enjoyed them all. The hardest decision, however, was between the Guasare and the Dominica bar. In the end, the majority of votes went for the Guasare leaving the Dominica coming in a very respectable second, especially considering we were comparing it to the Gold winner of the 2018 International Chocolate Awards!

Duffy’s Dominica – Anna

Soma’s Guasare – Kathryn, Jess, Joh, Rachel, Sally

For our next book club craft chocolate and book pairing, we will be reading A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickins.

Sources:

Cumming, Laura (2019). On chapel sands: My mother and other missing persons. London: Chatto & Windus.

The book and themes:
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/jun/26/on-chapel-sands-laura-cumming-review
On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming review – twists right to the end

https://www.standard.co.uk/lifestyle/books/review-on-chapel-sands-by-laura-cumming-a4177196.html

Duffy’s Chocolate. Available at http://www.duffyschocolate.co.uk/shop/chocolate-bars/duffys-dominican-republic-taino-65-60g (Accessed 8/11/19)

Soma Chocolate, Available at https://www.somachocolate.com/collections/microbatch-2019/products/guasare-venezuela-70?variant=13528243896372 (Accessed 8/11/19)

Presilla, M.E (2009), The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised: A Cultural & Natural History of Cacao with Recipes [A Cookbook]

Frizo, C (2018) ‘Is Criollo Really King? The Myth of Cacao’s three varieties’,  Perfect Daily Grind, 27 August. Available at https://www.perfectdailygrind.com/2018/08/is-criollo-chocolate-really-king-the-myth-of-the-3-cacao-varieties/ (Accessed 12/12/2019)

‘Chocolate Strains’, C-Spot.com. Available at https://www.c-spot.com/atlas/chocolate-strains/ (Accessed 12/12/2019)

Cocoa Runners, ‘Cocoa Varieties, Available at https://cocoarunners.com/chocopedia-by-cocoa-runners/the-science-history-of-chocolate/the-history-of-craft-chocolate/ (Accessed 11/12/19)

Division of Agriculture, Government of the Commonwealth of Dominica, ‘Cocoa and Coffee Project’ Available at https://divisionofagriculture.gov.dm/programmes/cocoa-and-coffee-project (Accessed 30/12/19)

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