Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Review: Chocolat by Joanne Harris

“Chocolat” sounds like the perfect book for a chocoholic like myself, and I was thrilled to find a copy in our local library (their collection of English books is small but somewhat eccentric; you never know what you're going to find. That's why I love going there - it's an adventure!). I saw the film based on the book some years ago, and remember it being a lovely feel-good movie that makes you want to try your hand in the art of chocolate making. But even though I was familiar with the story, I still wanted to read the book.

Vianne Rocher, a vagabond chocolatier, and her daughter settle in a small French town. As outsiders, they encounter prejudice and suspicion – but who could resist chocolate? With a bit of magic and lots of joie de vivre, lives are about to change...

The story has two narrators: Vianne with her sensuality and lust for life and the local priest, who sees chocolate (and indeed any and all enjoyment and indulgence) as something sinful. One of the novel's themes could be said to be Christianity vs paganism, but that is not at all everything this book is about. Prejudice/tolerance and belonging/rootlesness are other prevalent themes, as is finding courage to live (and, perhaps, to die) on your own terms.

The descriptions are beautiful and sensual (yes, you will crave pralines and truffles and chocolate cake and chocolate almonds and pain au chocolat and mocha with kahlua... and dozens of other mouth-watering treats). I especially loved the parts where chocolate, “the food of the gods - - - the bitter elixir of life” was described, and where cooking acquired an air of mysticism or a kind of alchemy:

There is a kind of sorcery in all cooking: in the choosing of ingredients, the process of mixing, grating, melting, infusing and flavouring, the recipes taken from ancient books, the traditional utensils – the pestle and mortar with which my mother made her incense turned to more homely purpose, the spices and aromatics giving up their subtleties to a baser, more sensual magic. And it is partly the transience of it that delights me; so much loving preparation, so much art and experience put into a pleasure which can last only a moment, and which only a few will ever fully appreciate.”

(Sensual magic! I will remember that the next time cooking feels like a chore.) 

The novel has more depth than the film and is also more melancholy. The way that the characters are haunted by their past becomes more poignant, and the themes of love and loss, of having to give up something precious, are central. At the same time, though, it is a celebration of fleeting moments and reminds the reader of how important it is to enjoy those moments and life's little pleasures.

If I had to offer criticism, I'd say that the priest's narrative was somewhat repetetive (but then, I suspect that was on purpose: to underline his obsessive-compulsive thoughts) and, although the characters were interesting and complex, I never felt as close to any of them as I would have wished. Even so, "Chocolat" ranks as the best book I've read this year so far (and that makes me very happy: last year wasn't very good, book-wise - perhaps this one will be better!).

Like a luxury chocolate praline, this novel is sweet, delicious and satisfying – but also complex with some deeper, darker notes. It left me wanting more.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Review: Corné Port-Royal Marc de Champagne truffles

No, I didn't spoil myself and buy this box of Corné Port-Royal's Marc de Champagne truffles! It was a gift from my dear sister, who clearly has a great taste in chocolates and who obviously knows how much such a gift would be appreciated. :)

The package already tells me that this is no ordinary chocolate. The deep red box, the gold lettering, the smallish, stylish picture, the ribbon – every single element adds a bit of extravaganza to the package, yet it is far from being garish or tacky.

In a clear plastic wrapping nestle the truffles. The package promises “+/- 11 pieces” – unfortunately, I forgot to count them! They are of a nice size, however (i. e. not too small), and the shapes and sizes are just a tiny bit irregular, which enhances the impression of gourmet artisan truffles. They've received a pretty white dusting of powdered sugar.

The scent is seductive: sweet, mellow chocolate with a lively, tiny tang from the champagne.

The chocolate coating is just the right thickness. It's creamy and full-bodied. The white filling is almost buttery but yet somehow very light and melts in your mouth. The champagne isn't overpowering; it is there, certainly, but it doesn't overwhelm the aromas of the chocolate and it doesn't leave that bitter, stale aftertaste that some chocolates with liqueur do. If the combination of chocolate and champagne sounds decadent, I'd say that decadence has been perfectly captured in the flavour of these lovely truffles.

I don't like rating chocolates, but I have to go so far as to say that this is undoubtedly one of the best I have ever tasted. It's definitely not something I'd turn to for my daily chocolate fix; it is something to save for special occasions, celebrations; something to indulge in.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Blog birthday with literary figures

I can't believe it's been a year since I started writing this blog! It was supposed to be just an experiment, to see whether I even like blogging, but this seems to be my 73rd post... It isn't many, I know, but since my intention was to write something like two posts per month, it's not that bad. And it's been fun. I think I will continue rambling about books and chocolates and some other random topics. Thank you for reading. :)

And now, since I feel that one of those random topics is in order, let me introduce you to my latest literary friends:

Oh, we're going to have so much fun...

Like my heathen horde, these two are surprise presents from my DH. He has clearly selected each of these minifigures with care (Well, what can I say? The man knows my taste!). I was thrilled beyond words to discover that there is a Shakespeare Lego minifigure with a tiny quill and a parchment that says “To build... or not to build?” and a Hamlet (or a thespian) with a sweetly grinning skull. I think the two make a wonderful pair. Maybe it's my weird sense of humour, but I find them hilarious!

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Reading is good for you

Since this has something to do with two topics of this blog, namely books/reading and translations (or just wrestling with words in general), I'm going to recommend this article from Bookriot, titled "Reading more translated books will make you a better person". It's an interesting text, and I suppose what is said about reading translations also goes for reading books in the language they were originally written when it's not your first language.

It also reminded me of one of my reading quirks, the drive to read outside your favourite genres and/or about times, topics, locations etc. you don't know much about. This not only increases your knowledge and understanding about these topics, but might also make you more tolerant and compassionate. So, clearly, reading is good for you. :)

Monday, 13 April 2015

Review: Dove Caramel Liaison

I may have mentioned before that I'm a big fan of caramel, so while I think I've sampled Dove's Caramel Liaison before, I'm puzzled by the fact that I haven't bought it in ages.

The wrapping is pretty, with hues of chocolate and caramel swirling together (nice image for the whole liaison thing). Opening the wrapping reveals two bars, each of which is divided into three sections. I'm happy with the solution: you don't have to eat the whole bar at once, and it's easier to share it with someone.

Upon opening the wrapping, my first impression was of something very sweet; the scent is rather sugary. The milk chocolate is indeed sweet and does not have any particular characteristics. It's still tasty, though, and has a very smooth texture that melts deliciously in your mouth. The filling, as promised, is caramel... and there's plenty of it! It's very sweet (well, what else?) but luscious and runny. This means you have to be careful when eating the bar; the caramel tries to sneak out of its chocolate shell and you have to devour it fairly fast if you don't want that tasty filling to escape.

While this chocolate is definitely very sweet, the combination of chocolate and caramel just works. It's the perfect liaison.

Friday, 10 April 2015

11 questions from a fellow blogger

A friend of mine from the wonderful Almond Valley blog sent me 11 questions to answer! A little like those five questions earlier. This is fun!

1. Why did you start blogging?

I had been thinking about it for quite some time – I even had the blog named and ready to launch for a couple of years, but never did anything about it. Then Fantastic Books Publishing, the publisher of the Elite: Dangerous anthology 'Tales from the Frontier' that featured my story, 'Blood is Thicker', advised all anthology authors to start blogging. It was not compulsory or anything, but I guess it was the push I needed.

2. Where do you find ideas for blog posts?

I decided that this blog should be about things that I find fascinating, and chocolate and books/reading/stories were obvious choices. Since they are something I love, ideas are pretty much everywhere. I'm not making any promises to limit the topics to those things, however, so you never know what's coming!

3. What's your favourite treat?

Do you need to ask? ;) Chocolate, obviously! But what most people don't know is that I love ice-cream just as much as I love chocolate!

4. What dream would you want to realise?

From the wording of this question, I assume this means the kind of dream I can actually do something about – something where I can act to make it happen. Hmm. It seems that there's very little I can do about most of my hopes and dreams, but let me think... Visiting Constantinople (yes, the present day Istanbul since I guess a time machine would be too much to ask) is one of my dreams. Another trip to Scotland would also be lovely!

5. Do you live in a dream home?

Well, my dream home sits by a lake and it has a library that looks a little like this "English Library" from Flickr or the next one, a library from The Bookriot:

So, no. :D And our house is definitely not one of those picture perfect homes. Now and then I fantasise about redecorating: buying new furniture and other things, painting, all that (so many things I'd want to do!), but there never seems to be enough money or time. Or I never do it because it doesn't really matter: we feel very much at home in our house, such as it is. There may be a bit of a chaos most of the time (let's just call it a bohemian lifestyle, shall we? :P) but there's also plenty of love and warmth. Home is where the heart is, isn't that what they say?

6. What does your family think about you blogging?

My husband also writes a blog, so he understands perfectly... and my daughter is too young to know (or care) what it is I do.

7. Do you find it difficult to come up with ideas for blog posts?

Not really, no. I find it difficult to find time to write those posts!

8. Have you ever participated in a bloggers' meeting?

No, I haven't.

9. What's your favourite blog?

I'm afraid I don't read very many blogs... Naturally, I'm partial to my DH's blog, Wolfwood's Corner, where you can find plenty of book reviews and all sorts of things about the 17th Century. And then there's the beautiful Almond Valley that I already mentioned.
My sister-in-law writes a blog Drawings by Dell, and it's always exciting to visit and take a look at her latest artistic endeavours. I've known her since she was a little girl, and I've had the pleasure of watching her grow up and become a talented artist. I love her style; there's something about that combination of fragility and strength that mesmerises me.

10. Do you advertise your blog?

I sometimes post about a new blog text in Facebook, but other than that, no.

11. What's the most beautiful thing you saw today?

The flowers that my daughter picked for me. I had no idea they were already blooming! Spring is coming, after all. :) 

Monday, 6 April 2015

Chocolate Easter eggs

For the final day of Easter holiday, I thought I'd post some Easter pictures. Well all right, some chocolate egg pictures (sorry, no frolicking naked in the nature... as fascinating as these ancient traditions may be, this part of the world is simply too cold for them).

The problem with Easter eggs is that most of them hardly deserve to be called “chocolate”. Their taste barely resembles chocolate, and if you look at the ingredients list, they're mostly just sugar. This goes especially for those eggs that contain a surprise – I guess children aren't supposed to care what the “chocolate” tastes like, they only want the tiny toy inside. Alas, this seems to be true; our six-year-old used to favour eggs made of somewhat better chocolate, but now that she's a little older, she doesn't care. She eats them all. (Interestingly, though, she eats the chocolate first and only when it's all gone she opens the little container to see the surprise inside.)

Fortunately for us chocolate lovers, you can also find chocolate eggs that are quite tasty and even delicious.

The best example are my absolute favourites: Fazer's Mignon. These are solid chocolate/nougat eggs that come in real eggshells! Fazer has been making these since 1896. Now there's an Easter tradition I can get behind!

I also happen to like these: the green ones have a hazelnut nougat filling, the orange ones come with an almond nougat filling.

And some dark chocolate eggs with liqueur fillings: amaretto, crème de cassis, advocaat and whisky cream.

Plus a variety of small eggs with fillings that range from nougat to orange, strawberry and vanilla cream.

Those were mostly for kids, but naturally I had to sample a few. ;) They were also used to decorate my version of pasha, a traditional Easter treat that contains, among other things, quark, raisins and almonds (the shape isn't very traditional, simply because I don't have a proper mold – I just make one out of an empty ice cream container). The chicks behind the pasha seem to be having a wild time...

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Review: Lindt Excellence Strawberry Intense

Before we start devouring chocolate Easter eggs, I thought I'd post another chocolate review... nah, who am I kidding, of course I haven't been able to keep my paws off those chocolate eggs!

Anyway, this is another product in Lindt's Intense line, where I've already sampled the coconut version. This time, however, we have white chocolate and strawberries.

The wrapping with its mellow yellow and strawberry picture is cute. The chocolate squares are the typical size and shape for many Lindt bars: thinnish, but fairly large.

The scent is certainly intense, but the first word that comes to mind is sweet. There's that sweetness characteristic of white chocolate and it's rather overwhelming: I try to find the scent of strawberries in there somewhere, but not with any great results.

There are small pieces of dried strawberry scattered in the white chocolate. They are soft and chewy and there is a fairly generous amount of them. They have that lovely fresh tartness of dried berries and as such are a lovely accompaniment to the white chocolate. And, most importantly, they taste real, that is, there is no artificial strawberry aroma. The white chocolate, in turn, is very sweet (as white chocolate tends to be) and creamy. I will confess that I don't love white chocolate as much as milk or dark chocolate, but here it's really tasty and, together with the strawberries, not sickly sweet. And the white-and-red chocolate is very pretty; I'd imagine it would make lovely decorations for cakes and other desserts as chocolate shavings or as roughly chopped bits and pieces.