As I’ve got older my tastes have generally become less refined. During my youth I dutifully slogged through Kafka, Camus and Sartre, but my current bedtime reading is Sharpe’s Trafalgar by Bernard Cornwell. With movies, I used to feel obliged to watch subtitled masterpieces like La Règle du jeu and Le Salaire de la Peur, but now I’m perfectly happy with the latest Marvel blockbuster. However, when it comes to food and wine, I’ve become more snobbish – insufferably so. My last meal on death row would be the twice-baked cheese soufflé from Le Gavroche washed down with a bottle of Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru.
For some reason, this is particularly true of my taste in chocolate. I’ve always had a passion for sweets, which is why I can remember the day the UK introduced decimal currency in 1971. The reason it stands out is because the cost of a Mars Bar changed overnight from sixpence to two new pence, making it one of the few confectionary products to fall in price on Decimal Day. My pocket money at the time was two shillings a week, which became 10p, and the new bargain price meant I could afford five a week instead of just four. Oh joy! Today, the thought of eating just one Mars Bar fills me with disgust.
People often complain about sweet inflation (Mars Bars now average 74p), but my preferred confectioner is Fortnum & Mason where 16 truffles will set you back £20. Indeed, when I come back from one of my regular sorties to the upmarket grocer, I have to bribe my children to stay away from ‘Daddy’s choccies’, offering them a 100g bar of Cadbury Dairy Milk instead. They think this is the bargain of the century and refuse to believe me when I say I would rather eat broken glass than a square of the claggy brown fat they call ‘chocolate’. ‘It’s the Liebfraumilch of chocolate bars,’ I announce grandly, to general bewilderment.
I think it’s true of most food and wine that once you’ve become accustomed to the good stuff it’s hard to go back – like having to turn right on a commercial jetliner when you’re used to turning left – but that’s particularly true of chocolate. As a child, I used to find dark chocolate bitter and astringent, but now I think anything less than 70 per cent cocoa is too sweet. Milk chocolate altogether, even the superior kind, tastes to me like a spoonful of margarine. Whenever I have the misfortune of eating a Cadbury product, I marvel at how revolting it is and wonder whether it truly deserves the name ‘chocolate’. If the EU had promised to intervene and force the confectioner to rename its products ‘palm oil and emulsifier’ bars I might have been tempted to vote Remain.
When I feel like slumming it, the lowest I’m prepared to go is something from the Lindt Excellence range, such as Dark Caramel with a Touch of Sea Salt or Dark Cranberry, Almond and Hazelnut. Alternatively, I’ll buy some Deliciously Ella Salted Chocolate Dipped Almonds, although they’re suspiciously cheap at £1.19 a packet. But most of the time I’ll stick to truffles, which is where I’ve become a truly ferocious snob.
As a rule of thumb, any truffle that costs less than a pound isn’t worth looking at. So forget Monty Bojangles. I would also rule out anything that isn’t dark – manufacturing white chocolate truffles should be a crime. As I say, my first choice is the eye-wateringly expensive Fortnum & Mason truffle range, but failing that I’m prepared to eat anything by Booja Booja, although they can be a tad gooey if not kept in the fridge. Almost as good as my beloved Fortnum are Charbonnel et Walker’s Dark Sea Salt Caramel Chocolate Truffles, although if I fancy a disc instead of a bonbon, Prestat’s Dark Chocolate Thins hit the spot.
I know all this indulgence is terrible for my waistline, not to mention my bank balance. But I tell myself that, like wine, the expensive stuff is better for you than the cheap stuff. My children help maintain the illusion that spending £50 a week on chocolate is good for my health by pointing out that I could shovel whole shelf-loads of Aldi’s own-brand milky margarine bars into my shopping trolley for the same amount. The fact that I choose to spend a small fortune on the finest chocolate in the world instead shows how incredibly responsible I am. In my mind, it’s a binary choice between half a dozen Fortnum & Mason truffles every evening or gorging on several bars of the horrid stuff.
I sometimes wake up in the morning with a chocolate hangover and, like St Augustine, pray for the strength to abstain. But not yet, Lord. Not yet.