Thursday, 30 October 2014

Sex, drugs and... words?

No, I did not come up with that title in hopes of attracting attention. No, those are not three of my favourite things... except if you think of chocolate as a drug and, well, books are made of words... so they actually are three of my favourite things!

I came across this article, which, referring to this study, suggests that learning new words activates not only the language areas in our brain but also the same reward areas as do “pleasurable activities”, such as, say, sex or eating chocolate. The conclusions seem to be rather preliminary yet, but it is an interesting idea. We might learn languages because we enjoy it! Emotions might play a significant role in language acquisition and in our motivation to learn languages, whether we're talking about people learning a foreign language or of children learning their first language.

Someone has been playing with words
The researches measured the brain activity while the participants completed two tasks: gambling and learning a new word by inferring its meaning from context. Earning money while gambling and learning a new word by inference produced the same brain activity. This makes me wonder – would learning a word from a dictionary or from a vocabulary list be equally pleasurable or is the process of inferring a word from context (the aha! moment; the epiphany) needed to produce the increase in brain activity? If it is indeed inference that causes the “pleasure” of learning a new word, it would certainly suggest that this method of vocabulary learning would be superior to most other methods (such as memorising vocabulary lists).

However, I'm afraid more proof is needed before I replace my nightly chocolate fix with language classes... ;)

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Review: Lindt Creation Chocolate Fondant

This is what I found in the grocery bag the other day... Chocolate fondant! Doesn't that sound luxurious? I was very eager to wrestle with this particular wrapping...

...which is a really nice wrapping with a picture of a delicious looking chocolate fondant. A combination of white, gold and purple makes it look rather decadent. It says “Chocolate Fondant with a Melting Heart” and if that doesn't peak your interest then I don't know what does!

The pieces are nice, big squares with logos and the text “Lindt” on them. They break apart somewhat haphazardly, sometimes separating the different layers. A milk chocolate “shell” contains a “molten” chocolate heart or a filling that is made of a darker, more runny chocolate.

The milk chocolate is the typical Lindt chocolate, or at least to me it tastes like some other products from the same company. This is not a problem, since the milk chocolate is very creamy and smooth. However, it is the filling that is of a real interest here – this is, after all, the melting heart of a chocolate fondant that has inspired the entire creation! (Of this particular chocolate, anyway.) And it is good. It is a sort of almost liquid chocolate centre that, darker than the milk chocolate that envelopes it, has a very intense chocolate flavour. The only not-so-good a thing is that the filling is kind of runny, which means that you either have to devour the piece rather quickly or, in order to properly savour it, you have to be very careful lest the filling drips out (and we would not want that to happen!). But for one with a bit of patience and dextrous fingers that is no obstacle.

Together the filling and the casing make the chocolate very sweet – and as it happens, I had a similar experience with the Crème Brûlée of the same line that I sampled earlier. Still, for a chocoholic like myself, it is definitely satisfying. This chocolate with a melting heart really did melt my heart. :) It is just the perfect thing to indulge in during these dark, dreary autumn days.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Are you feeling adventurous, or, Reading quirks, Part 2

I am not a particularly adventurous person. I do enjoy new experiences and have a certain kind of curiosity, but I am definitely not a risk taker. But one of the areas where I can be bold and adventurous is... reading!

Most of us have a favourite genre – the one that, when you come back to it after a detour to other genres, makes you feel like you're coming home. My favourite genre is historical fiction, but I enjoy exploring other genres. Sometimes I'm asked why; why would I read something contemporary, why am I reading something I don't normally read, aren't there enough books in my preferred genre if I'm forced to read something else. The reason is variety!

When it comes to historical fiction, I have my favourite periods, but sometimes I pick an era and events that I know very little or nothing about, for that very reason. After I've read the book, I know at least a little more. I admit that I'm always more interested in individual characters and what happens to them rather than the general events and the “great lines” of history, which is why I may not always glean any facts from these books but rather just a “feel” for the period. On the other hand, sometimes a novel gets me interested in the era or the events so much that I want to learn more about them.

Such a book was a Finnish novel titled “Veriruusut” (translation: “Blood Roses”) by Anneli Kanto. I first came upon Kanto's debute novel “Piru, kreivi, noita ja näyttelijä by accident; I was just browsing in the library when the old-style font on the spine of that book caught my eye (one of the things that attract me, as I've mentioned before). The novel is set in the 17th century, my dear husband's favourite era, so I borrowed the book for him. He never read it though, so I – a greedy, curious creature that I am – decided to read it instead. I didn't fall in love with it, but I liked it well enough to want to find out what else Kanto had written. And there was this book about the Finnish Civil War in 1918 (yes, way too modern a period for me!). More particularly, it is about the women who joined the “Red Guards” and fought in the war. Immediate interest. It is also a subject of which I knew very little.

The story isn't beautiful. It's brutal. The women who had dared to take up arms... let's just say the endings they got were far from the "happily ever after". Kanto describes how the women ended up joining the “Red Guards”: how some hoped that the labour movement, with its goal of improving the workers' conditions and rights, would also make women equal to men. How, for some, it was a necessity (as the factories were closed down, women lost their jobs, and they had children to feed – the Guard members were paid and they received food and clothes). Some had no idea what they were getting themselves into. Many of these women were very young: some of the girls were only 14.

It seems impossible to describe the horrors of war, yet Kanto does it and by doing so, she breaks your heart. The cruelty a human being is capable of – and what that cruelty does to those who wield it – makes you despair. That could easily make the reading experience intolerable, but Kanto gives us humour, she gives us brave, resilient, yet very human heroines, but above all, a glimmer of hope – and often where you'd least expect it. Someone greedy and violent is stunned by the atrocities of war and, even against their will, ends up extending a helping hand. A truly spineless person is pushed to that one act of courage which may seem small but will have a tremendous influence on the lives of others.

I had just complained to a friend how books no longer touch me, but suddenly I had in my hands a book that brought tears into my eyes more than once and that I didn't want to put down. The story still lingers in my mind. I will want to read more about these women, and I hope there will be another novel, preferably historical fiction, from Kanto.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Review: Cloetta Sprinkle Salted Icecream Waffel and Mint & Crispy Rain

Since I haven't been up to wrestling with words lately, I decided to attack some wrappings. These two are fairly new, so here goes:

The wrappings are colourful with cute/funny images and texts. They let you expect something playful rather than quality chocolate. The chocolate comes in nice thick pieces, which somehow suits the milk chocolate.

The waffle: I wrestled with this wrapping in high hopes, being 1) a big fan of caramel and 2) having developed a liking to the sweet-and-salty combination that some chocolates with a bit of salt offer. The chocolate is very sweet and has no particular character. There are slivers of waffle everywhere in it. If you like waffle, you'll probably enjoy this, too. The association works: eating this chocolate made me think of ice-cream! However, I generally like my chocolate as chocolate – some additions are fine but I prefer them not to take the centre stage as the waffle bits do here. On the other hand, the crunchy caramel bits are lovely – I just wish there were more of them! And the salt? It can surprise you, for it isn't present in every bite, but where it is, it is nicely intense and an interesting contrast to the otherwise very sweet chocolate.

The mint: The mint chocolate has tiny dark spots in it and on the other side you can see some white little pearl-like thingies (rice puffs, presumably). The chocolate is very sweet (probably exactly the same as the other one). The mint flavour isn't too strong, yet it is clearly there, present in tiny pieces of hard, sticky mint brittle. The rice puffs are, as expected, crispy. The chocolate / additive ratio seemed a little more balanced with this one; still, I had a feeling that the rice puffs almost overwhelmed the chocolate. The texture is crispy but the flavour is smooth, which makes an interesting combination.

The additives make both chocolates crispy and crunchy. They're perfect for those moments when you want to chew and munch on chocolate rather than let it melt in your mouth.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Review: Galler Chocolatier Noir 70 % Menthe – Citron Vert

It's been a while since I wrestled with wrappers – let's fix that now. I have something special to review this time, namely some chocolate brought to me by my dear sister all the way from Brussels! And as we all know, Belgian chocolate is legendary, so... talk about great expectations!

Let's rustle some wrappings. And, as it happens, rather stylish ones! The outer case is dark with a gold lettering and green images (appropriate, considering the flavours of the chocolate). The inner wrapper is a luxurious gold. The chocolate itself is very thin, which enhances the impression of decadence. The tablet is divided into rectangular pieces of a very pleasing size (= not too small).

The 70 % cocoa content takes this to the dark side of chocolates, but it must be mentioned that it is in no way bitter. As far as I can trust my (almost non-existent) French, I gather it is flavoured with mint and lime. The scent is a nice mix of the almost earthy richness of dark chocolate and the refreshing aromas of mint and lime.

The taste, however, is where it gets really interesting. Since I tasted this chocolate at various occasions, I can say that this is the chocolate that has made me most clearly aware of the fact that with chocolates – just like with wine and, say, quality rums – what you've eaten prior to tasting can have a huge influence on how you perceive the flavours. On one occasion, I tasted the chocolate when I hadn't had anything else to eat in a while. In that context, the mint and lime flavours were rather strong, almost overwhelming the chocolate. It could almost be characterised as “spicy”. But on another occasion, I sampled the chocolate after a rather heavy meal where various strong flavours were present. And at that time, it was wonderfully refreshing, with a perfect balance of smooth chocolate and those fresh, crispy flavours of mint and lime. It was like an iced drink on a hot day!

Therefore, this chocolate was not only delicious but is also surprised me with the different tasting experiences.