Review: Exotic Pleasure

Joanne Harris and David Greenwood- Haigh

By Gill O’Donnell

THERE can be few things more enjoyable than being able to listen in on two outstanding communicators talking about their shared passion, and when that passion is one as enjoyable as chocolate then you really do know that you are taking pleasure to a whole new level.

Yorkshire Festival of Story’ guest director Joanne Harris MBE is not only famous as the author of “Chocolat”, which was later turned into an Oscar winning film, but is also the author of a number of cookery books as well as other popular works of fiction.

She was joined by the award-winning chocolatier David Greenwood-Haigh and together they travelled to the “chocolate islands” of São Tomé and Príncipe to discover more about the story of chocolate.

During the course of this fascinating conversation about all things chocolate they explored together some of their memories from this trip and examined what causes both the appeal of chocolate and how it gained it’s reputation for danger and decadence.

Both individuals were clearly very much at ease with their subject and also with each other’s company, skilfully drawing each other onto new topics and creating opportunities for each other to demonstrate their knowledge and areas of expertise - together they created a seamless blend of history and commentary, interlaced with golden nuggets of facts and interlaced with the stories which first drew them into the world of chocolate.

While aware of some of the historical facts it was fascinating to learn more of the unusual aspects of the way in which chocolate was revered for it’s life enhancing powers and was regarded as literally a gift from the gods and that even now the cocoa tree has not given up all of its secrets. Equally interesting was that over two, possibly even three, thousand years ago cocoa beans were so valuable as a currency in their own right that the price of a slave was rated at 1000 beans, the price of a goat was 20 beans and the price of a wife was five beans.

Which does provide an insight into the importance of goats to the Aztec culture. The relative value of cocoa beans was however overlooked by the conquistadors although Cortez did eventually recognise it’s potential beyond a novelty value, however there are tales of pirates in later centuries actually throwing cargoes of beans overboard as they assumed them simply to be rabbit droppings presumably used for ballast.

The risqué reputation of chocolate as a drink which was imbued with the power to improve the “life force and vitality”, along with the constant of drinking of it during services, finally led to it being banned by Pope Pius V who regarded it as sinful!

Its later association with the huge amounts lost through gambling activities in Chocolate Houses merely added to the controversy surrounding something so pleasurable it must surely be sinful!

A reputation still fostered in some areas and exploited in advertising. Less well known is the fact that it was prescribed as a medicine for the lovelorn and that scientific study has shown it does have many health benefits.

However, my favourite snippet was the discovery that indirectly through the actions of Quaker chocolate manufacturers the tradition of giving workers a day of rest during the week arose, thus meaning that we can now all enjoy a weekend break.

What better way to spend it than by listening to two witty and creative talents talking about one of the most versatile of products, while indulging in a bar of my favourite treat.

Gill O’Donnell

Yorkshire Festival of Story is running online until the end of August.