Up until quite recently, scientists, doctors and nutritionists, it appeared, would only ever recommend the likes of sunflower seeds, bran and lentils to ensure we maintain a healthy diet. While there's no reason to harbour grudges against any of the above, they hardly set the palate alight. But these days we've been hearing more and more about the health benefits of certain foodstuffs that frankly only the lobotomised would turn their nose up at. Thankfully, one of them is dark chocolate.
Naturally high in flavonoids - organic compounds that stimulate antioxidant activity - dark chocolate can protect the heart, increase blood flow in the arteries, lower blood pressure and even help to combat cancer. It's far more beneficial than milk chocolate, which contains fewer flavonoids due to proteins in milk that prohibit the antioxidants from flourishing. And while traditional methods of producing dark chocolate can destroy up to half the flavonoids, manufacturers such as Mars are working on ways to keep around 95 per cent of the flavonoids intact.
But before you rush out and buy a wheelbarrow to cart your daily supply of dark chocolate around with you, beware. Dark chocolate is still essentially high in fat and loaded with calories, which means it should only be eaten in small quantities, and as part of a balanced diet alongside regular exercise. Don't cry - it's better than getting none at all. Instead of something to guzzle and feel guilty about, dark chocolate should be regarded as a delicacy to savour. Fine dark chocolate containing over 70 per cent cocoa solids can possess surprisingly complex flavours. When you break a piece it should snap resoundingly, leave a clean edge and release a waft of aromas ranging from coffee and tobacco to leather and fruit. Let the flavours unfold as it melts on the tongue, and enjoy its richness right up until the finish.
Of course, dark chocolate is great on its own, but it's also a useful ingredient in all kinds of sweet and savoury recipes - and sometimes a surprising addition to other ingredients. The Mexicans have long understood the pleasantly intriguing relationship between dark chocolate and chilli peppers. When melted and added to hot milk, cinnamon and chilli powder, dark chocolate takes on a whole new personality - a sultry and comforting drink combining sweet smoothness and fiery spice. Dark chocolate can also be added in small quantities to chilli con carne, to take away the sharp edge and imbue the dish with a velvety texture.
But while, for most humans, dark chocolate is a sweet, luxurious and potentially healthy component of our diets, spare a thought for our canine friends. All chocolate contains the bitter alkaloid theobromine, which in surprisingly small doses can cause dogs to experience seizures and, in extreme cases, death. Sorry Rex, but I'm afraid you'll have to stick with the Bonio.