It wouldn’t be Christmas without chocolate, though, let’s be frank. It wouldn’t be daylight without chocolate in some households, including my own. And it sure wouldn’t be evening without chocolate, because there’s no sense in the sun setting without a piece of chocolate on hand to sweeten the coming night.
But too much of a good thing almost always turns into a bad thing, and so it was that once I set off to learn how to make chocolate, I discovered I was popping it into my mouth like a newborn seeking the nearest nipple. Ten minutes without it and I started to wail. And, like a newborn, I began to grow exponentially until in less than a year I soared from an emaciated size sub-zero to a healthy size ten which pretty much feels like being trapped in someone else’s body. Which would be perfectly fine with me if this someone else had come complete with her own wardrobe, and not just presumed that I would take her out to buy a new one.
Once I’d calculated what I was spending on chocolate, molding supplies and clothes that didn’t feel like sausage casings, I realized it would be cheaper to vacation in Monte Carlo than continue on the path to chocolate ruin. So I cleaned up the kitchen, scaled back my chocolate melting mania, and got by with the occasional hit of a Theo’s chocolate bar to satisfy my cravings. My finances wiped out by the rising cost of cocoa beans and polycarbonate molds, along with life and all it takes to sustain it, it wasn’t long before even the Theo’s was getting out of my reach. Something clearly had to change.
And I sure did miss those mountains of pralines piled high as I unmolded one ganache-filled platter of chocolates after another, savoring the subtly-profound distinctions between a single-origin Venezuelan and a grand-cru from Madagascar. Like a high class drunkard deprived of his Romanée Conti and facing a future of chugging Boones Farm straight from the bottle, I feared it wouldn’t be long before I’d end up back on seventy-five cent waxy bars snagged at the checkout stand. That is so not me.
Then, just when I found myself down to my last 70% dark and reaching into the sofa cushions for lost coins to score another, a mysterious package arrived. It was from France, and marked unpretentiously with a P.O. Box number and the single word, “Chocolate.” I quickly rifled my brain for the possibility that in my Christmas shopping frenzy I had sent myself some European chocolate I could scarcely afford, but alas, I knew I hadn’t. Who had sent it? I hadn’t blogged about chocolate for some time, so it was surely not a promo. Did I have a Secret Santa? We all should, I reasoned.
I quickly tore open the package, half expecting a dozen toy snakes to fly out like those Can o’Nuts gag gifts, but instead, I saw only another box inside, wrapped in a plain canvas bag, stating only “Z Chocolat.” A small pouch on the outside of the bag held a message. It addressed me by name and ssured me that although the chocolates were outrageously expensive, whoever sent them was sure they were not beyond anything I could do myself. Did that mean my Secret Santa thought I could easily afford outrageously expensive chocolates, I wondered, or that I could easily make these things myself? The cryptic comment left me puzzled, as most things I read so often do. “If you get inspired to try,” the message ended, “maybe I’ll enjoy a sample some day.” I turned the message over, looked back inside the box for an invoice, but saw nothing. Who had sent these?
Removing the silver box from the canvas bag I saw that it was quite heavy. I cut open the seal with a razor blade and pulled out the first of four small boxes. Each box held fifteen perfectly molded chocolates, dark, milk and white, each with a number on top. A small booklet helped break the code – each number, from zero to 24, represented a different filling. Some were filled with simple but elegant single origin chocolate ganache. Others contained complex spices, crushed nuts or tart and silky berry-infused ganache. I tried one, then two, and sure enough, they tasted as perfectly exquisite as they looked.
Yet it was not easy to just quaff these darlings – choosing and eating one required finding my reading glasses, examining the chocolate in the right light so I didn’t mistake the number stamped and circled on its top and end up gobbling a nutty milk when what I really wanted was a fruity dark, then looking up the number in the little book and cracking the code to know what I was eating. A rather laborious procedure that could send any chocolate addict running for the nearest bag of M&M’s, but clearly a deliberate tactic to compel one to slow down and pay attention to what the chocolate looks and tastes like. How utterly diabolic.
The chocolates tasted divine, and I quickly looked up the website to discover that they are, indeed, outrageously expensive. Whoever had sent these must like me very much unless, as my daughter suggests, the confections have been shot full of poison and sent by some disgruntled reader to finally shut me up, a possibility I would not dismiss given my proclivity to annoy the easily annoyable. I read and reread the message again and again, but the only thing I came up with was Secret Santa may not be a native English speaker and they have good taste in chocolate. Could it be my goofy Dutch friend Milly, I wondered? Milly reads auras, sees invisible gnomes, and kicks people in parking lots, the kind of lovable friend that keeps me entertained. Maybe she sent them, I wondered; they might not be so expensive in Europe, but still, they couldn’t be that much cheaper. It wasn’t likely Milly sent them, I knew, but she was the only person I could think of, once I’d settled on non-native English speaker who knows where to find me.
So I wrote her the question people hate to be asked: Did you send me anything for Christmas? Well, I was a bit more clear, I asked her, did you send me a box of outrageously priced chocolates for Christmas? These are the kinds of questions that force the respondent to uncomfortably reply, “No, I didn’t send you anything,” or if they are quick on their feet they’ll play along and say, “Yes, you got them? You didn’t think I’d forget you at Christmas did you?” and then you’d feel guilty and send them something terribly high priced in return. The beauty with this tactic is that you’ll stop looking for the real sender, and the real sender, assuming you’d received their gift and not realizing it wasn’t signed, will stop having anything to do with you once you didn’t even bother to say thank you.
But Milly wasn’t quick on her feet. She wrote back that she didn’t send me any chocolates, but she’d sent me an E-card and wasn’t that enough, must Americans always want more? (Yes, of course, it’s our culture. Super size us.) Maybe I had a mysterious French admirer, she suggested, knowing full well that the French would be the last to admire me what with my bad haircuts, intolerance for lap dogs and inability to distinguish the gender of nouns. No, whoever sent this box of chocolates didn’t come from France, though I didn’t rule out the possibility that some drunken Irishman with a gold credit card was stalking me from cyberspace and thought in his inebriated stupor that I might make a good catch. Then again, drunken or not, straight men aren’t likely to describe anything as “outrageously expensive.” That’s a woman or a gay man, I figured, since straight men don’t want women to think they consider any expense outrageous. Ridiculous, yes, but outrageous? That’s like describing a pair of shoes as fabulous. Straight men just don’t do it. Come to think of it, I don’t think they use adverbs much at all, it’s just one too many words. No, whoever sent these chocolates is either a woman, gay, or well to do and confident in his masculinity. Which pretty much limits the pool, if it’s the latter.
But I wasn’t about to ponder the origin of these chocolates much beyond Venezuela or Madagascar, once they were within my reach. They are, dare I say it, fabulous. We finished off the first box within forty-eight hours and then I hid them to finish them off by myself. No sense letting my daughter eat something whose origin is unknown and could contain a deadly poison or mind-altering drug. I’m a good parent, after all.
So I’ve decided to test each and every last one, just in case they’re tainted. So far, so good . . . but anything might happen. After all, if a box of exquisite chocolates can arrive from out of the blue, then who knows what the next surprise in life might be. And what better way to start off the New Year, with a bit of chocolate, a mystery and many more nights of sweetened joy.