The holidays, in chocolate: Part III, Nigeria

I’m not sure I did have high hopes for a robust holiday chocolate showing in Nigeria. But since I’m here, I thought I would have a look. I have lived in West Africa on and off since my twenties, and while I have usually been able to find chocolate here—perhaps with more variety and elegance in the former French colonies than British ones—it doesn’t transform the holiday retail landscape as it might in North America or Europe. There is more than usual, and more prominently displayed, but still not too much different to other times of the year.

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Holiday chocolate display at Cameron Road shop, Ikoyi, Lagos

Thinking to supplement my research findings of the past week with some internet searching, I Googled “Nigeria chocolate Christmas.” It returned results for “Nigella chocolate Christmas”: all of them Nigella Lawson holiday chocolate fruit cake recipes.

Switching the order of search terms helped a little: “Nigeria Christmas chocolate” returned “10 gift ideas for your girlfriend at Christmas” from the Premium Times. A personally curated chocolate hamper topped the list (10 was a portrait of herself). Ventures Africa listed chocolate cake as one of the five best online Christmas deals in Nigeria, though it made an odd bedfellow with a 16GB iPhone 5, Nikon D90 camera, and Microsoft Surface. (Even odder, the fifth suggestion was the book Why Nations Fail by MIT and Harvard professors Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson. I found this strange because, despite persistent state-disrupting violence by Boko Haram in the north, Nigeria is doing well on the democracy front. Earlier this year, the country celebrated an unprecedented peaceful handover of power when the incumbent head of state, Goodluck Jonathan, lost the presidential election and ceded gracefully to Muhammudu Buhari.)

But while Google may prefer Nigella Lawson to Nigeria when it comes to chocolate searching, chocolates are a gift-giving tradition in this part of the world. Christmas aside, there are certain moments when only chocolate will do, as my boyfriend learned when he started his contract here in Lagos last year. Upon arriving at work on his first day, his assistant greeted him politely by asking, “Where is the chocolate?”

Apparently, it is custom for people traveling in from abroad to bring chocolates as gifts for their colleagues. Not sharing this token of one’s time overseas was a minor, though still grave, cultural offense. I was on my way to Nigeria too at the time, and still en route. After a quick phone call to strategize, I ran through the duty-free shops of Heathrow, gathering bags of bite-size Cadbury bars. These were subsequently parceled out to every one of my boyfriend’s co-workers by his assistant, and much appreciated by all.

I am convinced this wasn’t so much about the chocolate itself. There isn’t a strong sweets culture in West Africa, and in any case it is difficult to maintain a cool chain to distribute chocolate widely throughout the region, so it’s not an everyday luxury here. Chocolate’s function in Nigeria may be less about particular love for it as a food than as a modest but meaningful way of saying, “I care.” It could as easily have been a pencil. When I was working at Port Lockroy in Antarctica and it was my turn to serve in the museum gift shop, I sold pencils by the fistful to Japanese visitors—hundreds and hundreds of them. Every Japanese tourist brought back a pencil for literally every co-worker they had. It seems the same for chocolate here: “I bring to you a small piece of my time away, in a different part of this world.”

To find out if I would have done better to bring pencils than Divine bars, I casually asked my driver, Olivier, if people thought chocolate was a good holiday present here. His reply was one I have heard in Nigeria before: “People appreciate any gift that comes from your heart.” I hope Olivier actually does like the milk chocolate and dark with raspberry varieties that I brought as part of his Christmas gift, but I think the sentiment is more important. I guess that is one of the human universals we ought to remember, anyway, this time of year.

Having said that, Nigeria is not without its extravagant holiday chocolate expressions. I love the Christmas season in Lagos, where banks and telecoms companies string this megalopolis with an abundance of twinkling lights, sometimes with ads embedded in the bulbs (“Airtel: Always on”). Here and there, the OTT displays that mark the giant clumps of wealth around Lagos take a chocolate form. Shopping in my neighborhood grocery store for bottled water and yoghurt this afternoon, I saw this:

10 lindor

I wasn’t sure it was real, or else I would have bought it to eat (over several hours, obviously). But I didn’t like to take the chance, so instead I continue with my Lagos staple of Lindt Excellence A Touch of Sea Salt and now, awesomely, Coconut Intense. I hope that you are enjoying chocolate so nice as well. Till next time, happy holidays.

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The holidays, in chocolate: Part II, Austria

Perhaps no country has impressed its holiday chocolate so indelibly on my mind as Austria. It was a decade ago that I visited, but I remember the experience clearly, mainly for its several horrors. They weren’t the kind of horrors that made me dislike Austria. On the contrary, I’ve thought often of returning. It’s more that the things I saw there were so hideous, they have left me with a dark and profound fascination with Holiday Austria, including its chocolate.

I visited Austria in early December and the Christmas season was vibrant. My friend Michelle, whom I was visiting, brought me on a multi-city tour of the Christmas markets, which are a seasonal highlight. Market stalls filled every town square, selling pretzel-like pastries and hand-carved wooden things, woolen sweaters and Lederhosen. Everywhere we went, trees and stately buildings were dressed fancily in strings of lights, and there was always glow-wine and deep-fried Emmentaler cheese.

There was also a relentless, freezing, soaking downpour that pursued us around the country. From Graz to Vienna, we dashed from stall to stall in Christmas markets, standing for a few frozen moments pressed up against the table of wares, endeavoring in vain to stay dry beneath the small flap of awning, like goats. Our respite was hot chocolate. Lured in by the glow that spilled out onto wet streets from Austria’s million cafés, we drank dozens of mugs, served on silver platters with tiny spoons and a cube of sugar.

After one such café visit, Michelle and I saw a break in the rain and ventured back out into the night. While we’d been sipping chocolate and eating Sachertorte, the townspeople had turned out in great numbers to line the windy cobbled street, and we soon saw the reason why: a Christmas parade.

Of course we stayed to watch, despite the bitter cold, and it was a lovely parade. Then at the end-where, say, in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York, Santa Claus would appear, driving his sleigh-a horned devil emerged from the darkness. The figure lurched and lunged at the children, who screamed and fled. We watched, transfixed, as he began to pelt them with balls of ice. Parents laughed and smiled. Michelle and I instinctively moved closer together as the figure approached us, swinging a vicious whip low along the ground, leering.

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It was Krampus. I had never heard of such a person, but he is part of European Christmas lore. The devil to Nicholas’s saint, his job is to punish naughty children, the ones who don’t deserve gifts. In some accounts, he leaves them coal. In others, he drags children off to Hell, or simply eats them. Wikipedia has a fantastic image from an early twentieth-century greeting card that pretty much sums up the experience of a visit from Krampus:

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That was my first enlightening moment regarding Austrian holiday cheer. The second was when we did our stocking stuffer shopping, for Mozart kugel.

It was not possible to step into a shop in Christmastime Austria without encountering a kugel. This was especially the case in Salzburg, Mozart’s birthplace (No. 9 Getreidegasse)–for the kugel are named after the famous composer. They are a three-layer confection: a heart of pistachio marzipan, surrounded by nougat, enrobed in chocolate. Mozart kugel means “Mozart balls” and of course it is only too tempting (in English, anyway) to add the possessive to “Mozart,” and give the confection a new layer.

Historically, the Mozart kugel are award winning and beloved. Competition over which brand is the “real” kugel is fierce. The Austrians are wild for them, if supply is any judge. Accordingly, I bought many boxes of Mozart kugel, to distribute back home as gifts. Back in our guesthouse, having never known a kugel, Michelle and I dissected one. Inside, we saw a hideous thing:

 

09 kugel

I mean, really! Green, surrounded by a paste the color of some human flesh? Visually, the inside of the kugel was a shock. Nevertheless, we tasted one. And here I have to say something that I genuinely do not wish to say about any chocolate, least of all one that seems to be the confectionary heart of an entire country’s holiday spirit: I did not like the kugel. I think this was mainly due to the marzipan, which I don’t fancy, even when it’s not pea-green. Or maybe I was simply too old by then, and had missed a crucial Mozart kugel imprint period. Or maybe I just chose a lesser brand. Who knows. I would seriously like to return to Holiday Austria and taste them again to see if our relationship improves.

But for now, I am glad to be going to a place where there will almost certainly be no Mozart kugel: Nigeria. I will look for holiday chocolate there, and report back next week on the treasures that I find.

The holidays, in chocolate

First, I must thank the resourceful Chris, a man whom I have never met, but who nonetheless appeared on the other end of my phone line today offering a brilliant blog prompt: holiday chocolates around the world. I liked the idea so much that I might even use it every week from now till New Year. I mean, there are 196 countries in the world (including Taiwan), which means there is a great deal of potential for holiday nationalism around chocolate. Plus, it sounded fun.

I ought first to address the more sober parts of such an exercise, before leaping into holiday sweets. While almost two hundred different national traditions around holiday chocolate are theoretically possible, in reality far fewer countries make a celebration of it at this time of year. The obvious first reason is that the current season is mainly Jewish and Christian holidays. The predominantly Muslim, Buddhist, Shinto, Hindu, Confucian, Jain, Sikh, Tao, or Zoroastrian places of the world are not likely experiencing a holiday-related chocolate rush right now. For most of those religions, the great celebratory festivals have passed already this year. Although, of course, many people around the world have adopted secular Christmas traditions, and so could be upping their chocolate shopping nonetheless.

The other limiting factor in any global chocolate holiday search is that the world is pretty much divided between places where cocoa grows and places where chocolate gets made and sold, at least in the shiny bar form that predominates at this time of year. As I frequently write about and teach in my classes, cocoa farmers are among those least able to enjoy chocolate. In my research in West Africa, where most of the world’s cocoa grows, I did find a celebratory aspect to sharing chocolate, including at Christmastime in the predominantly Christian regions. However, bar chocolate was widely unavailable in the rural areas. Where rural shops did carry them, chocolate bars (even small ones) were almost always too expensive for farmers to buy. Most expressed to me that they saved such luxury purchases only for very special occasions, if they made them at all.

So with those serious caveats in mind, taking care not to lump all the people of the world into chocolate-loving Judeo-Christians with disposable holiday income, let’s look at a few chocolate traditions that do exist at this festive time.

We can start with Chris, who is British. While I can offer no further description of Chris, having never laid eyes on him, his tender recollections of his best holiday chocolate—Quality Street—matched my own memories from several years living in the UK. The British do, as I recall, prize this purple tin of chocolates and toffees, made by Nestlé. The candies come wrapped in garish colors, and everyone has their special favorite (well, their favourite, I suppose). In my student days, people would grab for the Quality Street tin when one was produced at a holiday party, anxious to procure their picks before anyone else could take them.

Quality Street chocolates

I pressed the disembodied voice of Chris about another UK memory of mine: Terry’s Chocolate Orange. He agreed that this, too, was a British holiday tradition, and that without a Chocolate Orange in one’s stocking toe, it would hardly be Christmas at all.

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Terry’s Chocolate Orange is a thrilling experience, for which we have no equivalent in the US. On the outside, it’s a fist-sized sphere of chocolate, wrapped in bright foil that mimics (sort of) an orange peel. But the sphere is made up of segments, such as one would find inside a real orange. The thrill comes from opening it: traditionally, the Terry’s Chocolate Orange is placed upon a surface, then smartly thumped. This is delightful, I can imagine even more so to a child, because it breaks the sphere apart into its segments, each one flavored with orange. To be truthful, I can’t think of any combination that I like as little as chocolate and orange. But on the whole, I give the Terry’s Chocolate Orange Christmas tradition high marks for design and, frankly, the opportunity to smash something.

After reminiscing about his holiday chocolate memories, Chris asked me about my own. I thought this would be an easy question: holiday chocolate in the US, the largest chocolate consuming country in the world (by overall market value, anyway). Piece of cake. But the only thing I could come up with was Hershey’s Kisses wrapped in red and green foil, as one finds at this time of year, in addition to the usual silver.

08 holiday kisses

But that makes us seem very un-imaginative, when we are in fact a creative nation when it comes to chocolate. After the unknown Chris and I finished our call, other memories bubbled up, and I thought of chocolate coins. They have these in the UK too, but I remember them best from my childhood in New York: the thick luxury of the gold foil, the feeling of being rich, saving and counting my netted bag of coins as long as I could before eating them.

08 chocolate coins

Chocolate coins are a Christmas gift, but are also popular for Hannukah, perhaps even more so for that holiday. I remember getting them at school. Though strict in every other way, my Catholic grade school was rather fluid when it came to religion. We had regular Passover Seders in the cafeteria, complete with Matzoh Ball soup, and I remember receiving chocolate coins as a Hannukah present, probably from the nuns. As a child, of course, I didn’t think too much about religious fluidity; I was just happy to get cool chocolate. But now it makes me think that our faculty did right to give us a glimpse into ceremonies not our own, with chocolate as guide.

I have traveled pretty widely, and I like this theme (cheers again, Chris, whoever you are!). So next week, I will remember more holiday chocolates, and we’ll see how else this sweet makes for a festive time in places far or near.