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I find chocolate snobs annoying

I don’t know if you have noticed, but there has been a fair amount of global outrage over the packaging and concept behind the Cadbury’s Unity bar, created to mark our Independence Day.

The idea of celebrating unity is not a bad one — though you can object, I guess, to the commercial exploitation of our Independence to profit Mondelez International (formerly Kraft).

 

A giant multinational with no real history of helping India’s freedom struggle or advancing the country’s interests abroad.

 

   The reason I say that you might not have noticed the uproar is because the outrage has been far greater in the West than in India, where the media is less critical of large advertisers. Nobody – anywhere in the world – minds that Cadbury should want to promote ‘India’s unity in diversity’. The objection is to the method. The Unity bar is advertised as “India’s first chocolate with dark, blended, milk and white united in one bar.”

 

   In visual terms, this takes the form of a range of colours from white to nearly black. It is meant, I imagine, to indicate that whether you are black or white, you can enjoy Cadbury’s chocolate. This is a sentiment more suited to mid-period Michael Jackson than to modern India, and its crass execution is almost as creepy as Jackson was. (As global media have pointed out.) And frankly, it seems to me to be kind of irrelevant in India. Sure, we are a diverse nation. But the differences are of language, culture, religion etc. Colour is not a huge divider.

 

   So why celebrate Independence Day in this rather offensive and irrelevant way?

 

   I imagine the marketing wizards who thought this up have been blasted by the good folks at Mondelez global headquarters. And it will probably go down in advertising history as a massive lapse of sensitivity.

 

   But Indians of my generation are often willing to forgive Cadbury nearly anything. We forgave them when there were insects in a batch of chocolate. And we don’t associate the brand with a faceless global conglomerate. Instead, we think of it as our own – because we grew up on it.

 

   In my childhood, the Cadbury factory was at the bottom of Cumballa Hill and chocolate smells would waft up to my window, driving me crazy with hunger and longing. (For Fruit & Nut and for the now, sadly, extinct Snack.) In the years that followed, the factory moved out, the building became an office and now is the site of ugly new construction. (At least the shareholders of Kraft/Mondelez have gotten rich on the basis of the uglification of Mumbai.)

 

   Say what you will about its advertising or its property development, but Cadbury remains the most important factor in the Indian chocolate scene. Most mass-market chocolate is milk chocolate. And because the mass market will not pay for high cocoa quality, the characteristic taste of each janata chocolate comes from the milk.

 

"I grew up on Cadbury and though I don’t eat the chocolate very often now, I still have very happy associations with the taste."

   In the UK, Cadbury called its flagship chocolate Dairy Milk (though, of late, there has been some controversy over how much dairy milk the chocolate actually contains). In the US, kids have been brought up on Hershey’s, a chocolate with a sour milk note that only Americans can love.

 

   In India, because the chocolate that Cadbury used was never very good (and eventually they started making things like Five Star where the quality of the chocolate hardly mattered), we went for the caramelised, sugary milk taste. Flavour profilers will tell you that the milky Cadbury taste has something in common with the flavour of Indian mithai.

 

  The fondness for this kind of chocolate across India has driven most manufacturers of better quality non-mass market chocolate crazy. In the rest of the world, chocolate is not meant to taste like Cadbury. But this is what we Indians like.

 

   I grew up on Cadbury and though I don’t eat the chocolate very often now, I still have very happy associations with the taste. And there are times when I prefer the honest-to-goodness mithai-like taste of Cadbury to the overpriced imported chocolates that now flood the nouveau niche market.

 

   I have never understood why people bother to send boxes of third-rate (often stale) chocolate with wedding invitations. At lavish weddings, I sometimes feel like shaking the father of the bride and shouting “Why can’t you send mithai, like all decent people?”

 

   It is not that I object to people spending money on chocolate. I can understand why high-quality dark chocolate bars can be expensive. I just have no time for people who spend so much money on mediocre, imported, chocolate solely because of brand snobbery.

 

   But that, I suspect, is the central problem of chocolate all over the world. It first became an expensive (but still mass market) product when Godiva launched an influential campaign, trying to sell it as dessert. And since then, every single multinational that is aiming for high mark-ups has tried to associated chocolate with wealth and glamour.

 

   The quality of these so-called luxury chocolates hardly ever justifies the price. (If this is the kind of thing you are looking for, buy Fabelle: it is cheaper and fresher.) But I have to concede that they challenge old associations from the era before chocolate became a kiddie food.

 

   As you probably know, the Spaniards introduced chocolate to Europe after finding it in South America. It was not a children’s product in the New World, but a popular drink that was often savoury.

 

   The European conquerors were no sophisticates. An Italian traveller, who visited South America with the conquerors as they began their genocide of the indigenous people (who they called Indians, believing that they had found a new route to India), wrote about chocolate in 1565 that it “seemed more a drink for pigs than a drink for humanity. I was in this country for more than a year and never wanted to taste it.”

 

   Chocolate only took off in Europe because the kings and cardinals had more sophisticated palates than the men they sent to South America. In 1662, the Pope allowed Christians to drink it on fast days. Then, later became the favourite drink of the Spanish nobility. It was said to have health-giving properties, which in those days, was a code word for aphrodisiac.

 

   This misconception spread across Europe. Charles II of England, took the advice of his physician Henry Stubbs, who wrote that chocolate would “supply the balsam of sap.” (He was trying to be coy, but it sounds disgusting.) A Spanish royal physician wrote that chocolate “arouses the venereal appetite.” (They were all wrong so you can put away that Snickers bar now.)

 

   So when did chocolate become a kiddie thing? Probably after 1847, when J.S. Fry invented the chocolate bar. In 1868, Cadbury’s (who later bought Fry) introduced the chocolate box, presumably without a gradation in each chocolate from black to white. And the real breakthrough came in 1879 when Nestlé invented milk chocolate.

 

   By then, lots of sad old men and their disappointed wives and girlfriends had discovered that chocolate was not an aphrodisiac and given up on it. Kids who liked sugar and milk were the obvious new target audience. (In 1900, the Hershey's bar introduced America to its peculiar spoilt milk taste.)

 

   Over the last four decades, chocolate has gone through many phases in an effort to shed its kiddie image. There was, first of all, the snob chocolate. Any French person will tell you that the most important element of any agricultural product is terroir or the geographical origin. This is why the French claim to produce the best wine. When it came to chocolate (the cocoa bean does not grow in Europe), the French did an about-turn and argued that only the man who made the chocolate mattered, giving rise to the cult of (usually European) chocolatiers.

 

   Obviously, there was a backlash and soon people started talking about chocolate in wine terms, identifying the country of origin on the label. And eventually, you had single-origin chocolate like some château wines from Bordeaux.

 

   I don’t think chocolate should either be a grown-up thing or a kiddie thing. It can be both. I find chocolate snobs annoying. And yet, I find much of the cheap chocolate on the market quite revolting. There should be a happy medium: chocolate that tastes good and which everyone can enjoy.

 

   And it would help if the advertising was not stupid and crass.

 

 

CommentsComments

  • Rao 23 Sep 2019

    Well, I tried Jacques Torres Chocolates in Brooklyn, NY which were excellent with a French/American taste. And also tried 'Earth Loaf Chocolates' in Mysore/Blore, where the cocoa beans are grown in Karnataka. The chocolate is completely sourced in Southern India & is 'Incredible'. Request folks to try Indian Chocolates with local Terroir much like the Mysore Pak.

Posted On: 14 Sep 2019 12:00 PM
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