x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

I'm a chocolate purist by default

There's no easier or better dessert than thin slices of warm baguette with a swipe of bitter chocolate, a few flakes of sea salt and a drizzle of great olive oil or hazelnut butter.

It's a sad day when diplomacy requires similarity, and I'm determined not to give in to such a limitation. While some pairings dazzle – Kanye and Jay-Z; turquoise and vermilion; strawberries and balsamic vinegar – others I find harder to reconcile, like Eminem and Elton John; emeralds and rubies; strawberries and chocolate.

Using popular consensus for quality control is a bad plan, unless you enjoy your strawberries dipped in mediocrity, too. Despite having survived the warps and warts of tastes and trends, fruit dunked into a sugary wax composite registers no pleasure for me. It neither synergises the senses nor enrobes the sins. And my openness to chocolate fondue is about as tenuous as the chance that your next chocolate bar will reveal a golden ticket. Even the Candy Man, who "mixes it with love and makes the world taste good" prefers love as a binding agent, not chocolate.

I consider the chocolate-covered strawberry an emblematic example of how we've calibrated our pleasure sensors. If you think millions of romantics can't be wrong, keep in mind that at the height of its power, the Nazi party had 8.5 million members. So which came first: the chocolate-covered strawberry or the baffling fixation people have with them? Well, play matchmaker with your own mouth, but stay away from mine. The snap of couverture chocolate followed by the leaky eruption of sweet pink water isn't my idea of good eating.

Anyone who's ever opened a magazine has probably seen photos of a woman with an anguished brow looking tormentedly at a slice of cake. Chances are high that the cake in this photo will be chocolate, which has come to represent that irresistible sweet spot where morality ends and corruption begins. Why certain foods have developed a reputation for being "bad" or "good" speaks more to the weakness of our characters than to the characteristics of the food. It's the persistent self-flagellation over it that's pathological.

In general, people do like to feel like they're getting away with something - whether it's murder or a bargain - and a strawberry is a small enough thing. I like cocoa just fine, but I'm a curmudgeon about it, preferring to get my kicks and my calories elsewhere. Aside from being drawn to vices I find more seductive, there's an aesthetic component to it: the chocolate fountain is the human equivalent of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, pleasing but stultifyingly unimaginative.

Meanwhile, there are so many outlets where chocolate justly shines. Often, chocolate in bar form is just a matrix in which the other ingredients are suspended: peppermint, gingerbread, toffee, orange peel, everything but the kitchen sink. Most chocolate is better off without the accessories, I think, but I'm a purist by default, having been disappointed too many times by enticing packaging and literature. We've come to associate chocolate so strongly with indulgence that people pair it with things it has no business being paired with.

I don't go epileptic for chocolate like many do, and I have never considered using it as a proxy for love, antidepressants, or a sandwich of any kind. It's undeniably complex and its use in savoury preparations is endless. I'm a huge fan of chocolate's mutability - both playful and austere - while applying both ancient and modern techniques. And I still maintain that a grilled cheese and chocolate sandwich is one of life's great joys. It needn't be good cheese or good chocolate, either.

I promise that there's no easier - or better - dessert on Earth than thin slices of warm, toasted baguette topped with a swipe of bitter chocolate, a few flakes of sea salt and a drizzle of great olive oil, dulce de leche or hazelnut butter.

If I ever see another flourless chocolate cake, it would be too soon. After a big meal, the hurried arrival of dessert can feel like homework. And my least favourite homework subject is chocolate. Drudgery is a tar pit of molten chocolate lava that leaves your insides feeling like a motorway being paved with hot asphalt.

Before artisanal chocolate became a standard availability, Lindt, Godiva and Ghirardelli were considered by many of us to be the top-tier luxury brands, if only because we recognised the labels and they cost more than a Kit Kat. The jury is still out on whether or not any living being has ever actually ingested a Patchi chocolate, confections I've always suspected were primed for installation, not inhalation, and sculpted into the instantly recognisable arrangements that festoon hospital rooms, offices and majlises.

I've snoozed while listening to chocolate fiends drop tasting notes about subtleties that I find imperceptible. References to percentages are particularly grating, like watching Discovery Channel in a foreign language. And by the way, eating unsweetened chocolate that's 99 per cent cocoa makes you neither tolerant nor tough, but it does mean you might also like licking pencil shavings: a less expensive alternative to achieve the same result.

Next week, I'll get into the use of chocolate in savoury preparations, like mole poblano, with greater depth.


Nouf Al-Qasimi is an Emirati food analyst who cooks and writes in New Mexico