Illustration by Loveday Pride
Ah, chocolate! Forever longed for, forever dreamt of, forever eaten with reverence and relish. But my chers eagle-eyed readers, I know that you are fixating on the word ‘chocolat’ and thinking: there Sophie goes again flexing her knowledge of basic French vocabulary. Normally, you’d be correct, but today I’ve just finished reading Joanne Harris’s novel Chocolat while consuming all the chocolate in the house.
Chocolat follows the lives of Vianne and her daughter, Anouk, as they arrive in the small French village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes on the day of the Mardi Gras festival. Whenever the wind changes, so too do they change their location, but this time Vianne is determined to stay. She opens a chocolate shop, practically sacrilegious given the fast approach of Lent, and must contend with the disapproval and schemes of the village priest, who seems so archetypal in his antagonistic Catholic role that he verges on literary cliché. It is a book of secrets, of revelation, and most importantly, of chocolate.
Joanne Harris sets out the Catholic faith and chocolate as an opposing binary. From the perspective of Father Reynaud (the priest), chocolate is the devil incarnate. During Lent it signifies temptation, indulgence in a time of abstinence, and even the mocking face of paganism. Sophie, what on earth are you talking about? Why, chers readers, allow me to elaborate.
Despite Easter being a key festival in Christianity, this key celebration actually predates the inception of Christianity itself. Etymologically speaking, the English word ‘Easter’ bears more than a passing resemblance to the Germanic goddess of dawn ‘Eostre’, who was celebrated during the Spring Equinox. Eostre, much like the pagan gods from Greek and Roman mythology, has an animal as her symbol. While we associate peacocks with Hera/Juno and owls with Athena/Minerva, Eostre’s symbolic animal is a rabbit or a hare, hence the association between rabbits and a festival with pagan origins.
Accordingly, Father Reynaud associates Vianne’s fabrication of chocolate bunnies as proof of her pagan-rooted malevolence. Then again, bearing his name in mind (Reynaud comes from the French ‘renard’ or the Middle English ‘reynard’ meaning ‘fox’ – is it obvious I study languages?), it’s no wonder he has a hostile aversion to Vianne’s sinfully divine chocolates. Rabbits and foxes never did mix well, after all.
But enough about the book and more about the chocolate. Harris writes many breath-taking scenes devoted entirely to the description of Vianne’s chocolate confectionary: ‘pralines, truffles, amandines and nougats, éclairs, Florentines, liqueur cherries, [and] frosted almonds’. In particular, she stresses the Aztec origins of chocolate and cocoa beans, and the magic they hold. Indeed, Vianne possesses the power to see into people’s minds and thereby deduce which chocolate her customer would like best. The Independent had an article where they explain that ‘the Aztec belief that cocoa was a divine elixir was probably due to the notion that it was a gift from Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec god of wind and wisdom’. And thus, the intricacy of Harris’s imagination becomes that much more intelligible and impressive: the inextricable link between magic, chocolate, and the wind.
You may therefore be wondering when I came up with the idea for this piece, did I want to write about chocolate, the book Chocolat or brag about my mild prowess in French? Probably all three. But Harris’s writing is as enchanting and enticing as Vianne’s magic-infused chocolate. While the creative sentences grounded in metaphor can sometimes leave you feeling a bit lost, the beauty of this story, of the village community rousing together to support one another in moments of difficulty and hardship is enough to make a grown columnist cry.
Don’t let the archetypal Catholic priest figure get you down! Instead, follow the will of the wind wherever it may take you. Aspire to be a chocolate maker in a French village like Vianne. ‘Read voraciously’ like Anouk (Harris’s words not mine; I’m so glad she’s a fan of my humble column). In fact, at this very moment, as I write to you within the confines of my balcony, I can feel the wind changing and wreaking havoc with my mum’s geraniums. I can hear it whispering: ‘go buy more chocolate’. Listen to the wind. Where will it take you next?