To quote John Tullius "Nine out of ten people like chocolate. And the tenth person lies". While that may not be a proven fact, it's an interesting comment on society's obsession with chocolate, this smooth delicious substance which we've been hooked on since its arrival in England in the 17th century. Our love of chocolate has only grown - take a look at any recurring national holiday; Christmas, Easter, Hanukkah, Valentine's Day, and you'll find that chocolate is top of the gift list. But why do we love it so much?
One thing which has made chocolate ubiquitous is its versatility. Dark, milk or white, it's available at every possible price point; from the one penny sweet to the obscenely expensive. It can be a plain bar or something more complex - incorporating other flavours such as mint, caramel, chilli and sea salt. Chocolate is a food which appeals to both a child and to a serious connoisseur. Like wine, it now has terroir associated with it, with many producers naming the country where the cacao beans were grown.
I was invited to visit the Thornton's Factory in Derbyshire. They are now the biggest UK-owned chocolate manufacturer and after a bumpy few years are now back on track, sales are up, and their products are proving more popular than ever. >Thornton's is a great example of a British heritage brand and a Northern industrial success story - it began more than a century ago as a small sweet shop in Sheffield. Since then it has grown to an enormous size but without losing its core values. More premium than Cadbury's but less pricey than other Swiss or Belgian brands, one of its long-standing USPs is the customisation service - nothing says Happy Easter like an egg with your name written on it in white swirly icing.
Walking through the factory, looking at the different production lines and machinery, what's striking is the balance between maintaining the old traditions (they've only changed the toffee recipe twice in 100 years) and the dedication to investing in modern technology. The robotics are a marvellous thing to see - machine arms work in abrupt, hypnotic movements: up, down, and side to side, to decorate eggs and put centres into chocolates. Every year they visit trade exhibitions to find the newest, most innovative technology to improve the production line. However, there are still teams of staff (most of whom have been there for years) checking each individual chocolate and weighing samples from each batch for quality control. Every day the chocolatiers print off recipes - the same they've been using every day for decades, just to make sure that every batch is the same.
What's also noticeable is the palpable excitement. Not amongst the staff, but for you the visitor. A trip around a chocolate factory awakens emotions which have been building up since you were a child and first felt the unique delight of sweet, delicious chocolate melting on the tongue. Stories such as Charlie & The Chocolate factory have taken the myth even further - thanks to Roald Dahl, all chocolate factories are believed to be a world of pure imagination, a fantastical place where the rules of chemistry and physics don't apply. Of course, we don't actually believe Thornton's and Cadbury's are staffed by Oompa Loompas... but they are nevertheless a place where all those fabulous, guilty treats we discovered as an infant (and still dream about eating now) can be found whizzing around miles of conveyor belt in quantities so enormous that you feel giddy with excitement.
Our relationship with chocolate has always been tied to memories of childhood. But another intriguing, almost paradoxical, side to chocolate are its associations with the exotic and the erotic as an aphrodisiac. This is something which goes all the way back to the Aztecs and also a brilliant PR campaign on its arrival in London. Dr Matt Green is a historian specialising in 17th century Coffee and Chocolate Houses and in his London Chocolate Tours, he explains how chocolate arrived as a fatty, perfumed drink which was promoted as a wonder drug. It could supposedly turn any incompetent lover into a virile Casanova and any hatchet-faced harriden into a glowing young girl. The super-rich gentlemen of St James' became obsessed with chocolate; it was a non-alcoholic drink which gave them the energy to continue their whoring and gambling activities. Chocolate Houses sprung up and became places of scandal and intrigue. One such den of iniquity was White's, which is now (like most former Chocolate Houses) a private members club. Chocolate was a guilty pleasure long before we started to pay heed to warnings about diet and nutrition. It's exotic origins have afforded it mythical qualities which can't help but excite our imagination and arouse our emotions both in the 17th century and today.
Described as one of the most chemically perfect of foods, chocolate contains an interesting mix of ingredients which make you predisposed to like it. Caffeine, antioxidants and proteins are all present in addition to chemicals such as Serotonin which purportedly recreate the feelings of being in love. It's also the only food which melts just below body temperature; that's why it starts to melt a few seconds after putting it on your tongue. So put these together and not only does chocolate appeal to your senses of taste and touch, it also taps into positive memories and emotions, whilst releasing chemicals which can make you happy.
Sounds like some kind of futuristic super food, doesn't it? But we've been enjoying the effects of the delicious cacao bean for nearly 3000 years and our appetite is only increasing. Here's to 3000 more happy years!
You can also hear more about the joys of chocolate in our #InGoodTaste podcast. Contributors include Thornton's, Dr Matt Green and Neil Davey, author of the Bluffer's Guide To Chocolate, enjoy!