Wednesday, February 19
This is our rest day. school is closed and, while Anouk
plays by Les Marauds, I will receive deliveries and
work on this week's batch of items.
This is an art I can enjoy. There is a kind of sorcery
in all cooking: in the choosing of ingredients, the
process of mixing, grating, melting, infusing and flavouring,
the recipes taken from ancient books, the traditional
utensils - the pestle and mortar with which my mother
made her incense turned to a more homely purpose, her
spices and aromatics giving up their subtleties to a
baser, more sensual magic. And it is partly the transience
of it that delights me; so much loving preparation,
so much art and experience put into a pleasure which
can last only a moment, and which only a few will ever
fully appreciate. My mother always viewed my interest
with indulgent contempt. To her, food was no pleasure
but a tiresome necessity to be worried over, a tax on
the price of our freedom. I stole menus from restaurants
and looked longingly into patisserie windows. I must
have been ten years old - maybe older - before I first
tasted real chocolate. But still the fascination endured.
I carried recipes in my head like maps. All kinds of
recipes; torn from abandoned magazines in busy railway
stations, wheedled from people on the road, strange
marriages of my own confection. Mother with her cards,
her divinations directed our mad course across Europe.
Cookery cards anchored us, placed landmarks on the bleak
borders. Paris smells of baking bread and croissants;
Marseille of bouillabaisse and grilled garlic. Berlin
was Eisbrei with Sauerkraut and Kartoffelsalat, Rome
was the ice-cream I ate without paying in a tiny restaurant
beside the river. Mother had no time for landmarks.
All her maps were inside, all places the same. Even
then we were different. Oh, she taught me what she could.
How to see to the core of things, of people, to see
their thoughts, their longings. The driver who stopped
to give us a lift, who drove ten kilometres out of his
way to take us to Lyon, the grocers who refused payment,
the policemen who turned a blind eye. Not every time,
of course. Sometimes it failed for no reason we could
understand. Some people are unreadable, unreachable.
Francis Reynaud is one of these. And even when it did
not, the casual intrusion disturbed me. It was all too
easy. Now making chocolate is a different matter. Oh,
some skill is required. A certain lightness of touch,
speed, a patience my mother would never have had. But
the formula remains the same every time. It is safe.
Harmless. And I do not have to look into their hearts
and take what I need; these are wishes which can be
granted simply, for the asking.
Guy, my confectioner, has known me for a long time.
We worked together after Anouk was born and he helped
me to start my first business, a tiny pâtisserie-chocolaterie
in the outskirts of Nice. Now he is based in Marseille,
importing the raw chocolate liquor direct from South
America and converting it to chocolate of various grades
in his factory.
I only use the best. The blocks of couverture are slightly
larger than house bricks, one box of each per delivery,
and I use all three types: the dark, the milk and the
white. It has to be tempered to bring it to its crystalline
state, ensuring a hard, brittle surface and a good shine.
Some confectioners buy their supplies already tempered,
but I like to do it myself. There is an endless fascination
in handling the raw dullish blocks of couverture, in
grating them by hand - I never use electrical mixers
- into the large ceramic pans, then melting, stirring,
testing each painstaking step with the sugar thermometer
until just the right amount of heat has been applied
to make the change.
There is a kind of alchemy in the transformation of
base chocolate into this wise fool's gold, a layman's
magic which even my mother might have relished. As I
work I clear my mind, breathing deeply. The windows
are open, and the through draught would be cold if it
were not for the heat of the stoves, the copper pans,
the rising vapour from the melting couverture. The mingled
scents of chocolate, vanilla, heated copper and cinnamon
are intoxicating, powerfully suggestive; the raw and
earthy tang of the Americas, the hot and resinous perfume
of the rainforest. This is how I travel now, as the
Aztecs did in their sacred rituals. Mexico, Venezuela,
Colombia. The court of Montezuma. Cortez and Columbus.
The food of the gods, bubbling and frothing in ceremonial
goblets. The bitter elixir of life.
Perhaps this is what Reynaud senses in my little shop;
a throwback to times when the world was a wider, wilder
place. Before Christ - before Adonis was born in Bethlehem
or Osiris sacrificed at Easter - the cocoa bean was
revered. Magical properties were attributed to it. Its
brew was sipped on the steps of sacrificial temples;
its ecstasies were fierce and terrible. Is this what
he fears? Corruption by pleasure, the subtle transubstantiation
of the flesh into a vessel for debauch? Not for him
the orgies of the Aztec priesthood. And yet, in the
vapours of the melting chocolate 'mething begins to
coalesce - a vision, my mother have said - a smoky finger
of perception which points ... points ...
There. For a second I almost had it. Across the glossy
surface a vaporous ripple forms. Then another, filmy
and pale, half-hiding, half-revealing. For a moment
I almost saw the answer, the secret which he hides -
even from himself - with such fearful calculation, the
key which will set all of us into motion.
Scrying with chocolate is a difficult business. The
visions are unclear, troubled by rising perfumes which
cloud the mind. And I am not my mother, who retained
until the day of her death a power of augury so great
that the two of us ran before it in wild and growing
disarray. But before the vision dissipates I am sure
I see something - a room, a bed, an old man lying on
the bed, his eyes raw holes in his white face ... And
Is this what I was meant to see?
Is this the Black Man's secret?
I need to know his secret if we are to stay here. And
I do need to stay. Whatever it takes.