It’s Friday night and the remains of the spaghetti and meatballs have been cleared from the dining room table. In their place sit a pile of fair-trade, single-origin chocolate bars from Ghana, Trinidad, and Peru; a box of crackers; four glasses of warm water; and a copy of journalist Simran Sethi’s Bread Wine Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love, open to the Chocolate Flavor Wheel. Following Sethi’s instructions, I’m leading my husband and two friends in a professional-style chocolate tasting.
Our kids try it, too: the notes of licorice and black pepper we detect in the Trinidadian chocolate are enough to make Olivia, age 6, screw up her face and do a full-body shake. I ask Lucia, also 6, what she tastes in the 85% cacao Ghanian chocolate, in which the grownups identify olives, wine, and wood: “Chocolate,” she says with a shrug.
Indulgent? Maybe — let’s just say my friends didn’t exactly mind being roped into my research efforts. But, according to Sethi, appreciating the flavors of chocolates from different parts of the world is a crucial part of saving the future of food.
Sethi sets out on a global journey to investigate this question by tasting foods at the source: wine in California, chocolate in Ecuador, coffee in Ethiopia, beer in London, the blessed bread karah prasad in India, and octopus in Peru, among other far-flung locations. Her elegant, vivid prose gives readers a profound sense of place — or, to be more precise, terroir, the rootedness of foods in the specific places and circumstances in which they’re grown and handled. She takes us into vineyard regions where climate change is altering wine culture and Ethiopian homes where freshly roasted morning coffee is a community ritual, noting the rich variety of flavors embodied in what most of us think of as simple foods.
But this isn’t a travel book. Sethi is an Emmy-winning journalist and meticulous researcher with a deep knowledge of ecology and sustainability, and her book is packed with a wide range of information, from seed conservation to coffee harvesting to how industrial food has changed the way we taste the basic staples of life.
Why terroir? Understanding the ways flavors vary, Sethi argues, is critical to understanding biodiversity. Our industrial food system offers lots of sameness, with homogenized, mass-produced tastes; just “15 plants provide 90 percent of our global food energy intake,” she notes, “two-thirds of which comes from . . . rice, corn, and wheat.” The genetic diversity of food crops aren’t represented in our food system: for example, though there are more than a thousand varieties of banana, pretty much the only one you can buy in stores is the Cavendish. We eat the Cavendish banana now because the variety that used to dominate trade, the Gros Michel, was wiped out by a soil fungus in the 1950s. Another strain of that same fungus now threatens the Cavendish. When we don’t eat varieties, they tend to vanish — and reducing genetic diversity is bad news.
All this education could easily have led to information overload, but Sethi wisely makes it accessible by grounding it in the senses. She pays particular attention to how the other senses affect taste, citing research studies on how color, smell, touch, and even sound affect the way we take in flavors. Her writing on the sensual aspects of her travels can be downright sexy, from sampling grapes with a “super-brainy . . . super-cute” horticulturalist to tasting sticky cacao fruit fresh off the tree in a “chocolate forest” that looks like “a fantastical Dr. Seuss dream made manifest.”
To appreciate how subtle factors like changes in climate, water, and the supply chain affect flavor, course, you have to know how to taste it. To that end, a set of brief interludes after each section instructs readers in how to conduct a tasting session of each food the way the professionals do. An appendix offers full-color charts and flavor wheels to assist in the process. The result is a hands-on reading experience that fully engages the senses.
We can save the foods we love by eating them — not in their tasteless, factory-processed forms, but as heirloom crops, processed in ways that treat the food with care and provides sustainable livelihoods for everyone in the production chain, from farmers to truckers to cooks. Our cultural taste preferences can and do change: witness the explosion in the popularity of shade-grown, single-origin coffee. Extending that level of appreciation to the other foods we eat, understanding where they come from and why they taste the way they do, and making it worth growers’ while to produce them is crucial to halting the loss of the foods and flavors that define our cultures and our humanity.
As for me? I’m going to stop thinking of those $4 chocolate bars as an extravagant treat. Paying the real cost of chocolate in the store might not be something I can do every day, but it’s a lot more constructive than buying a cheap, overly sweet bar and passing the true costs on to cacao growers, their communities, and the planet. And if eating the whole rich, complex bar means I have to keep roping my friends into impromptu chocolate tastings… well, they’ll deal with it somehow.
Photo Credit: Boston Globe