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Wednesday 18 February 2015

Many of us will be overindulging in chocolate this Valentine's weekend as hopefully our beloveds will have done the decent thing by stumping up for chocolates to go with the red roses! Chocolates and roses have always been associated with love and appreciation and, if neither materialised yesterday for you, I am guessing the 'Full Irish', or anything else, won't be on the table for your other half this morning!

St. Valentine's Day apart, we are apparently neck-and-neck with Switzerland as being the biggest consumers of chocolate in the world. According to the figures, both the Swiss and ourselves pack away some 12kg (26½lbs) of the stuff a year, which is approximately 3.8 bars of chocolate each week.

Apart from being surprised about our apparent obsession with chocolate, it's also led me to wonder what else we have in common with the Swiss. They are a nation of very sensible folk of whom someone once said when comparing them to Italians - "in Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michaelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace - and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock!"

We on the other hand, as we saw during the boom, are a nation of indulgent extremes. When all was flying, we had to have the flashiest bathrooms, the deepest of tans, and now it seems that our obsession is with chocolate.

Chocolate has always made money for people, and I probably grew up hearing my mother talk about Fry Cadbury and how the Fry 'chocolate family' were friends with the Queen and her children. So, chocolate not only signified money, it signified class! On a more down-to-earth level, Cadbury Roses were part and parcel of visiting the relatives at Christmas time for many families, but now we have a lot more choice.

Advertising has a huge impact on your choice of chocolates, and we have all watched the Milk Tray man steal in and deliver chocolates to his lover. Chocolates were once only for the wealthy, and indeed associated with the serious business of marriage proposals.

The archives of Rowntree, who launched Black Magic in its distinctive black casket in 1933, show how they introduced chocolates, at a more affordable price to the masses, by encouraging gents to woo their girlfriends with a seductive box of Black Magic. Even better if it was the Black Magic casket with a red tassel, where you could store your jewellery.

It was a strategy that saved Rowntree (now owned by Nestle) who were, at that time on the verge of bankruptcy. A good celebrity endorsement never goes astray either, and they have even brought Audrey Hepburn 'back to life' in a Galaxy advertisement, featuring her on a bus in traffic on the Amalfi Coast in the 1950s. She makes eyes with a Paul Newman lookalike and, complete with her Galaxy bar, 'jumps ship' and they speed off in his open-topped car.

I find the ad a bit distasteful and creepy, but Hepburn's sons, Sean Ferrer and Luca Dotti, who sanctioned the use of her image, are quoted as saying their mother would be proud of her new role, adding that she often spoke about her love of chocolate and how it lifted her spirit.

Nowadays, the old-fashioned chocolate bar, with or without fruit and nuts, may still be very popular, but many chocoholics are very knowledgeable and pernickity, nay snobby, in their preferences. "Does it have 85pc cocoa?", you hear people ask sniffily, along the aisles in your local German supermarket, followed by "chocolate is so good for you".

It's certainly good for all the chocolate makers, big and small, who are producing the most amazing combinations to titillate our palates. Chocolate with chilli or salt - the idea of which would have floored our predecessors - is now the norm. Butlers, Lily O'Brien's and Lir, were probably the first people to advance into the modern chocolate market in Ireland, but now there is a blossoming of chocolate makers and, apart from chocolate shops such as Cocoa Atelier on our high streets, at every country and food market I attend there is somebody who has just gone into the chocolate business, and the standard is very high.

Jamie and Beatrice O'Neill started up their ChocOneill artisan chocolate business in 2006. "Beatrice is French and had lived in Luxembourg. We were always trying out things in the kitchen, so we decided to give it a go. We import the finest chocolate from around the world and, being chocolatiers, our art is in making wonderful creations from the amazing chocolate we source.

"We import single-origin, plantation or farm chocolate. It's a bit like wine; crops can vary from year to year, so we just buy the best. We mainly sell through Naas farmers' market and we also make petit fours for five-star hotels."

Sisters Karen and Natalie Keane are in their second year of business with their range of Bean and Goose chocolates, and things are going very well for them. They started their business having initially done a course with well-known chocolatier Benoit Lorge in Kenmare, which they say really kick-started their interest in chocolate.

"We are on the Food Works 2015 course, an initiative between Bord Bia, Enterprise Ireland and Teagasc, so we are delighted. We also now have a permanent stall every Saturday in Temple Bar Market and we are in 15 independent stores around the country."

There's gold in them thar chocolates!

Sunday Independent