BY MARIO VAN DIJK
Everyone loves chocolate—well, almost everyone. Chocolate is embedded in our culture probably like no other foodstuff. Even those who do not like chocolate light up walking into a chocolate store, seeing the chocolate displays, experiencing the aromas. Depending upon who you read or listen to, chocolate either clogs your arteries or reduces risk of cancer, is the cause of acne or the Prozac of candy, producing the same chemicals in your brain as when you fall in love.
For me, growing up in the Netherlands, December was the Chocolate Month. On December 5 we celebrate St. Nicholas, our version of Christmas gift giving. We’d get a large chocolate letter in our first initial, and the usual gold foil chocolate coins. The coins were devoured within hours, the letter lasted another day.
For Christmas, dad would receive Christmas baskets from business partners, usually with a large box of chocolate. Savoring chocolate at age 10? Suffice it to say that mom generally had to do laundry after my brothers and I were done.
At some point I did graduate from gold coins to items like Ritter Sport bars. My mouth still waters thinking of those milk chocolate bars with hazelnuts, or dark chocolate marzipan. The greatest pleasure was derived from bringing chocolate from Europe back to the U.S. for family, friends, and colleagues. At the Amsterdam airport is a Leonidas chocolate store. Getting multiple pounds of chocolate and dozens of two-piece chocolate boxes is great entertainment, especially doing it at the last minute before boarding the plane, and annoying the staff to hurry up packaging.
Chocolate is one of those multiple sensory excitements: the decisions to make in picking a chocolate, the rustle of the wrap as you take it out of its packaging, the curves and appearance of the design, the velvet creaminess against the palate, and the full body satisfaction after the experience of a great piece of chocolate.
For a good portion of my life I failed to think very deeply about the nature of chocolate. It was a luxury within reach, irrespective of its quality, always available. I’d buy a few bars, put them in my secret spot, eat some, and my brothers would find the remainder and devour them. This changed just slightly after I moved to the U.S. With decent stuff hard to find, it brought quality of chocolate more to my attention, resulting in parts of my suitcase being filled with chocolate bars when traveling back. And, of course, in the past year chocolate has been much more in the forefront with my store in Fairfield, Iowa, the Chocolate Café.
I invite you to explore with me in the next few months the world of chocolate, its history, stories, flavors, makers and takers, and other musings. There is so much to learn, experience, and discuss.