Sunday, June 17, 2012

Taking to the bed, and with Chocolate

Laid up with flu, I read Chocolat by Joanne Harris.  Years ago I saw the film and enjoyed it, so I was reluctant to pick up the book – and as expected the book and film are quite different entities.

The book opens with Vianne Rocher and her young daughter arriving in a small French village called Lansquenet-sous-Tannes on Shrove Tuesday, just as the carnival packs up and Lent begins.  Vianne decides to move into an old bakery facing the church and convert it into the chocolate shop, La Celeste Praline, much to the disapproval of the curé Francis Reynaud.  Harris has said that she wanted to write a book about the conflict between indulgence and guilt (during Easter), with chocolate as the central metaphor. Narrated in two voices (Vianne and Reynaud) we get the sense of the opposing forces (and they are conveniently located opposite each other in town), of good and evil, light and dark, Christian and Pagan, and sometimes these two can flow into one another, just as we can momentarily forget who is narrating.  Reynaud addresses himself to his mentor-priest Père (who could also be God the father - a non intervening, non interacting presence) who lies as a vegetable after a stroke; whereas Vianne often reflects on life on the road with her Pagan magician, tarot reading mother, who seemed towards her end travelling to escape the cancer ridding her body before death caught up with her, and as if chased. It would be too simple a reading to say one was good and the other bad - as both characters have their faults and their redeeming qualities. They are but different sides of our own nature.  I know the ascetic priest within me that tries to curb the wicked excesses and hedonism of the Pagan witch. He will make sure I feel guilty for even thinking of having that piece of chocolate, or leaving home gaudily dressed from head to toe in orange, when I could have chosen sombre chic black.
The book is filled with references to people drinking chocolate laced with liqueurs or chocolate ‘espressos’ accompanied by chocolate goodies, such as Florentines, or pain au chocolat.

My mouth watered, as much as the mouth of Reynaud, who is fasting for Lent and who increasingly feels himself faint and euphoric, simply on the pungent scent of chocolate emanating from the chocolate shop. Reynaud preaches to members of his flock to abstain from chocolate and views Vianne, as close to the devil – certainly his adversary.  He is the Black Man – a symbol of the grim reaper to Vianne, who teases him with her carefree mores and hedonistic attitude towards life. Certainly chocolate can be a sinful pleasure – aphrodisiac, it can lead us towards social and sexual abandon and wantonness.  Vianne has sex with Roux a gypsy, even though she knows he has feelings for another, and that it is a one night stand. From this one night stand, she’ll beget a child; her first child was also begot in a similar way.  But she’ll know the second child’s seed came from a good man – whereas the first, she couldn’t say who the father was. The climax is the Easter Sunday chocolate festival for which Vianne has prepared a sumptuously decorative ‘window’ which Reynaud decides to sabotage, with startling and wickedly funny consequences.  

The linking of chocolate with sin or with self-abandonment and excess is intriguing.  Do we let ourselves go – indulging in chocolate, or anything else to delight the senses?  We have as a society made it OK to indulge in chocolate by associating it with good health (a little dark chocolate because of its high level of antioxidants, just as a glass of wine is good for our health and helps with lowering blood pressure and cholesterol – note a little).  The villagers of Lasquenet indulge in more than a little. With a gourmet artisan chocolate shop in their vicinity they become gourmands.  Armande, who is losing her sight because of a complication with diabetes – decides rather than languish in the nursing home, she will go out in style with a party and an excess of good food, wine and chocolate.  'After a five-course banquet you'd want coffee and liquers, wouldn't you? You wouldn't suddenly decide to round it all off with a bowl of pap, would you? Just so you could have an extra course? (p.241)'. Reynaud who has put his body and soul through austerities for Lent, begins by tasting one chocolate and finds he can’t stop without tasting all. He ends up to his shame, stuffing himself with chocolate.  It is perhaps a lesson to those of us who do try and deny our bodily desires, when a little indulgence would have made the pangs of lust go away.

Does chocolate bring us happiness? Science/ medicine/ Harris' novel would tell us – indeed it does.  As well as tasting good in our mouths, chocolate stimulates endorphin production which gives us a feeling of pleasure; it contains serotonin, which acts as an anti-depressant; and, as well, it contains theobromine, caffeine and other substances, which are stimulants.  Chocolate can certainly make us feel more alive.  
Despite the dulling of my taste buds with flu, I drank several cups of hot chocolate; made a self-saucing chocolate pudding to appease my growing lust for chocolate, and I can also say that it made me more wanton – in taking to the bed.  Taking to the bed used to be a remedy for all sorts of ailments for the Irish, and according to Brian Doyle it is even a ‘refuge’ from the Black Dog and heartache. I used to take to the bed to write, to draw, make collage, and of course to read, without any sort of ailment prompting me, except of course, laziness.   Having been laid up for the odd day here or there recently, it’s certainly reminded me of the benefits to be had from taking to the bed – to read about chocolate, to eat it and to allow myself to be wanton. I may take to the bed more often regardless of being ill or no. And just to make sure that I do – I bought myself a new pair of pyjamas – while in lying in bed with my laptop. Oh such wantonness...

For those feeling the mouth watering reading about chocolate, here is my favourite and less rich (for those treading carefully rather than wantonly) recipe for Chocolate Self Saucing Pudding adapted from Cookery the Australian Way (2nd ed., 1974, MacMillan, South Melbourne). It is easy and you can whip it up in no time at all.

1/2 cup of caster sugar
60g of unsalted butter
1 cup of self raising flour, 1 tablespoon of dark cocoa powder, sifted together
1 egg
1/2 cup of milk
For the sauce - 1 cup loosely packed brown sugar, 2 tablespoons of dark cocoa powder and 2 & 1/2 cups of boiling water
Cream butter and sugar, add egg and beat well.  Add the flour and milk alternately with a metal spoon until well blended. Pour into a large well greased casserole dish (use a large dish to allow for the cake to rise, otherwise the sauce will overflow and make a mess in the oven).  Mix sugar and cocoa powder - sprinkle over cake batter.  Carefully pour boiling water over the top.  Bake in a moderately hot (around 190 degrees Celsius) for approximately 45 minutes, or until skewer comes out clean.  Serve with custard sauce or ice-cream or both. Bon appetit

Joanne Harris,  2000, Chocolat, (Black Swan, London).
Joanne Harris talks about her book in the following article
Brian Doyle on 'Taking to the Bed',
For the benefits of dark chocolate,