There was a storm in a chocolate box last week in Europe, home of the very best of the rich, sweet, inessential but life-enhancing stuff.
The controversy started with the European Union’s announcement that it planned to revise its laws — binding on all 15 member nations — to allow up to 5 percent vegetable fat in chocolate produced within the trading bloc. In a week dominated by news of atrocities in Chechnya, disastrous floods in Mozambique and political murders in Iran and Pakistan, this would hardly seem a matter of great moment to anyone but cocoa producers. Much of the world couldn’t care less — and probably couldn’t tell the difference anyway. One man’s Cote d’Or, as they say, is another man’s Crunky.
Yet in Belgium, a country renowned for its top-of-the-line chocolate, the news struck hard. The country has always prohibited the use of substitutes for the cocoa butter that devotees say accounts for Belgian chocolate’s singular richness. What will happen, they wonder, if the local ban is overruled and quality control must depend on voluntary compliance? What is the world coming to when, instead of pure cocoa butter, a consumer may find any one of illipe, palm oil, sal, shea, kokum gurgi or mango kernel fat in his or her pricey after-dinner chocolate? One begins to see the Belgians’ point. Mango kernel is all very well, but kokum gurgi? Shea? Those don’t sound like things to give your sweetheart on Valentine’s Day.
It is easy to scoff, but in fact, as is often the way with funky news snippets, this one provides unexpected food for thought. “Life,” Forrest Gump reminded us, “is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.” In this case, we can take our pick of issues worth pondering.
The biggest one (yet again) is the specter of globalization, of which the EU is merely a regional political manifestation. Isn’t this chocolate war another instance of the new bureaucratic imperialism, pitting the center against the peripheries as more and more countries meld themselves into ever larger groupings? Well, it might be, if it were simply a case of Brussels vs. Europe’s small, independent “chocolatiers.” In fact, the Belgian chocolate scene had gone global already, as the presence of confectionery giant Kraft Jacobs Suchard (owner of Cote d’Or, Belgium’s leading chocolate brand) at the center of last week’s dispute attests. Countries, it seems, are not the only ones that are melding. The EU is actually picking on entities its own size.
The effect of this trend has been to alter the terms of the cultural debate sparked by globalization. Take “quality,” the issue at the heart of the present matter: The concept has long been associated, spuriously or not, with the idealized notions of “local,” “individual,” “handcrafted,” “traditional.” That may finally be changing. Doesn’t the very name Kraft Jacobs Suchard — ominously triple-barreled, ironically ill-assorted — undercut every one of them? It is interesting that even as its spokesperson was officially deploring the proposed new rules last week (“Chocolate is an emotion, it is not food in the same way as meat or vegetables . . .”), the company is on record as agreeing that the dreaded substitutes will be impossible to detect. It is Belgium’s traditional chocolate artisans who are leading the charge against change, not the industry titans.
But the trend is against them; even if they win this battle, they have already lost the war. New slogans are in place: Big is beautiful; size matters; everything without borders. And the upshot for consumers? Not much or a lot, depending on your point of view. Quality will probably not be affected, but the old definitions inevitably will. Belgian chocolate, for instance, may taste as good as ever, but under the new dispensation there is no guarantee that it will even be made in Belgium, let alone according to time-honored Belgian recipes. The same applies to a whole range of other brand-name products, from Rolls-Royce on down.
That is why this bit of European news is of interest in Japan: not because this country cares so much about chocolate (according to industry statistics, the Japanese still much prefer “azuki” to cocoa when it comes to beans), but because it cares very much about brand names. If the rules governing quality are going to change — whether we are talking about industry standards or an underlying philosophy — Japanese consumers are going to want to know about it. As well they should, given current prices.
Just for the record, though, a taste test of Cote d’Or (with 100 percent cocoa butter) proved that it is indeed a world-beater. Any Belgian chocolate maker, big or small, would be well advised not to mess with a good thing, no matter what the EU permits.
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