Reviewed by Hayley Anderton
There are all sorts of reasons I pick up cookbooks to look at: I like the cover, I like the author, the subject grabs me, someone has recommended it, and so on. The only reason I’ll buy it though is if it passes the flick test – if I don’t want to cook any of the first 3 recipes I find in it, it goes back on the shelf.
It’s not an infallible test in that I’ve bought a few books after falling for the charms of something deeply impractical often involving foraged ingredients not available within a hundred miles or more (Sea buckthorn is my current bête noir, its ubiquity in current cookbooks in no way reflecting its general availability). Those books end up a dusty reproach to impulse shopping.
I really didn’t think I needed another book about chocolate, but Diana Henry kept recommending ‘Cocoa’ and she’s great, and it passed the flick test with flying colours, so here I am. It’s spectacularly good, and definitely not going to end up gathering dust. It is in fact already slightly grubby with use and full of recipes.
It’s also more much more than recipes. There’s a lot of information about how chocolate is made, how to taste it, and how to buy and store it. Tasting chocolate turns out to be much the same process as tasting wine, and tasting is different to eating or drinking something. Tasting is a more or less intellectual exercise which involves several senses to analyse something, starting with how it looks, going through how it smells, and only then actually putting it in your mouth. There’s more about the science behind chocolate, it’s history, it’s place in literature and our culture, and how it’s been marketed. It’s fascinating.
In the end though it’s the recipes which sold me this book, and the recipes that are making it indispensable in my kitchen. There are plenty of the sort of things that I guess we’d all expect – things like chocolate praline pecan sauce, or a malted chocolate fudge sauce, some great cookie recipes, a chocolate and tahini spread, and some great looking cakes. Plenty more are the things that I hadn’t particularly expected.
Some good chocolate sauce recipes are worth having, as along with a good vanilla ice cream you have a magnificent end to any meal with very little trouble for the cook. The chocolate, olive oil and rosemary cookies with almonds are tremendously good grown-up biscuits (and a match made in heaven with a peaty malt whisky), the cakes all have their own particular twists on classics and all look delicious, but these things are the least part of the cocoa story.
The main star of this book is probably the cacao nib. Nibs are crushed and cracked roasted cacao beans – they smell as intoxicating as wine, and are not at all sweet. Quinn uses them for all sorts of things – my favourite so far is in a sweet dukkah, but I’m only at the beginning of this journey. They’re easy enough to find these days, and perfect to add the depth and complexity of cocoa flavour to something without the sweetness or heavy richness chocolate can bring. There’s the added benefit of their crunchy texture too. It makes them perfect for savoury dishes – everything from salads to stews, as well as sweet things where you want the chocolate note to be subtle.
Overall this is the perfect way to re-assess how you use chocolate in the kitchen and all the things it can do (another stand out recipe is a hot chocolate made with milk chocolate and jasmine tea, it’s simple enough but quite unlike anything I’d tried before and has made me completely rethink hot chocolate as a drink). It’s also a chance to think about chocolate more generally and how you want it in your diet.
Quinn spends a bit of time discussing the ethics of chocolate production, which was a wake up call for me to check that what I buy is fair trade at the very least. If spending a bit more per bar means buying a little bit less it won’t do me any harm, and I’ll enjoy what I have all the more. Basically if you see this book have a proper look at it, and then probably buy it, because it’s brilliant!
Hayley blogs at http://desperatereader.blogspot.com, and as a mark of how good this book is, she’s cooking her way through it despite not having a properly working kitchen at the moment.
Sue Quinn, Cocoa: An Exploration of Chocolate, With Recipes (Quadrille, 2019). 978-1787132603, 255pp., hardback.