Chocolate twists of history
The fight over Cadbury, by coincidence, brings together contrasting chocolate cultures from around the world.
A chunk of my childhood was spent in Birmingham.Not the one in Alabama, childhood home of Condoleezza Rice, but the original city of England. Birmingham was once famous for steel and automobiles, both fading even when I was there in the late 1960s.
But it is also renown as the original home of Cadbury, the chocolate people. My academician father once held the Cadbury Fellowship at the local univ. Birmingham peeps through many of its famous brands. Thus Bournvita, the chocolate drink, is named after a suburb.
I have been reading with interest the takeover battle for Cadbury. On one side is the humungous US conglomerate Kraft. On the other, is a transatlantic choco-mix of Hershey’s and Ferrero. It probably won’t make much difference to me the customer who wins or loses. But the brands involved represent some contrasting strands of chocolate history.
As I’ve gotten older, my chocolate tastes have become darker and more bitter. (In any other facet of human behaviour that would be grounds for concern.) That means I eat less and less Cadbury. Their most famous product, the Crème Egg of which they make 200 million a year, is so sweet it makes my teeth hurt. Even the few dark chocolates they do produce are still high on sugar, just low on milk.
But that is the British way of chocolate. Dark chocolate is far more prevalent in continental Europe. This, I suspect, is less about haute culture than simple history. When chocolate was first exported to Europe, its port of call was Spain. At that point, it was eaten unsweetened and left a taste for bitter chocolate in much of Europe. By the time it reached Britain it was being merged with sugar. More importantly, it was British entrepreneurs who worked out how to mix chocolate, milk and sugar on an industrial scale. Among the first: a Quaker family called Cadbury.
Britain still has an abiding cultural fixation with milk chocolate and its fallout, bad teeth. Compare a supermarket in, say, Italy with one in Britain. My experience is that the former will have a dark chocolate selection that dwarfs the latter.
Indians understandably follow the British path when it comes to chocolate. It was a former colony and, in any case, desi confectionery is largely dairy and sugar-based. No surprise then that Cadbury is king in the subcontinent. Nestle, Hershey and Suchard chocolates are available in India – but one has to hire a detective agency to find them.
Ask chocolate snobs what is the black sheep of the cocoa family and their answer will inevitably be Hershey’s. Reason: Hershey’s is sour chocolate.
There’s history behind that as well. The Hershey family of Pennsylvania were the pioneers of industrial chocolate in the United States – the rival Mars firm was set up by one of their employees. But their process soured the milk slightly, altering the taste of the final product. At the time, chocolate was a rare exotica for most Americans so they came to assume this sweet-sour flavour was how chocolate should taste. But give a European a Hershey Kiss and they literally pucker up.
Ferrero is another example of a chocolate fortune based on a quirk of history. Ferrero is known in India for Ferrero-Roche, those funny choco-nut balls in golden wrap. But its real money-spinner is Nutella. This chocolate-hazelnut spread is to European children what peanut butter is to American kids.
Dessicated hazelnut was merged for the first time with chocolate during the Napoleonic wars. The British naval blockade of Europe cut of cocoa supplies to Turin, then the world’s chocolate hub. Some Italian smart guy hit upon diluting cocoa with the abundant hazelnuts in the forests of neighbouring Alba. The assumption was this would be abandoned when the blockade was lifted. But Europe developed a taste for the ersatz stuff and it spread. Hazelnut and chocolate can be found everywhere, but it is overwhelmingly a Continental thing.
Kraft is the only neutral fighter in the ring. All the others represent different types of chocolate bias: sour, sweet and nutty. Of course, Ferrero or Hershey’s wouldn’t mess around with the Cadbury taste. Or would they? If so, then Kraft should win to preserve global choco-diversity.