Edging my rental car through Barcelona’s rush hour traffic at eight in the morning, a light mist is falling, my window is down, and the roaring freeway air carries the distinctly European aroma of diesel exhaust blended with two-stroke exhaust, cigarette smoke, and urine. After the 16 hours of travel it took me to get here from Portland, the snug, stylish seat of the Leon 2.0 TDI car hurts my rear, which has already suffered enough abuse after successive transcontinental and transatlantic flights. I remember the bar of Michel Cluizel chocolate the bag beside me.
I’ve not yet eaten the Vila Gracinda chocolate, which Michel Cluizel recently substituted in for the Tamarina bar as its representative for the company’s São Tomé origin bar. Chocolate’s intrigue for me is bound up in its power to surprise, and in the way it enlists the sensualist, the scientist, the philosopher, and the poet in us to taste and make sense of it. The importance of a chocolate bar is not in its flavor, but in the experience it evokes in us. A good chocolate bar is travel, sex, and mescaline in a foil wrapper; it imparts exotic knowledge, alerts our bodies, and exalts the mind. Through our experience of chocolate we trace the lineage of our private and collective histories.
Tired, suddenly strangely lonely, but with the metallic tingle of adrenaline from the abnormally rough 767 landing just half an hour ago, I pull Michel Cluizel’s Vila Gracinda from its black box, peel back the foil, and snap off a piece. The gray sky above fades. The smell of fennel pollen and alkaline rock, the palm of one hand pressed hard into the vanilla-flaked bark as I climb along the vast trunk of a fallen oak. Eight years old, I leapt toward the small gray lizard with a blinding flash of optimism; the beasts, warmed by the early afternoon sun, were fast, like self-firing bullets invented by some once-famous but now long-forgotten Chinese firework master, a reptile blend of charcoal, sulfur, and salt peter. Dispersed among the toppled wreckage of ancient oak trees, these dragons in miniature were the proud sentries of the valley oak savannah where I conducted reconnaissance virtually every day of my childhood.
The lizards and I shared an uneasy relationship. We probably desired a similar notion of peace, or at least détente–but at the time their reptilian cortex and my boyish fixations were unable to merge sufficiently to establish the proper metaphysical framework for advancing such a union. As the years passed, I became skillful at hunting these reptilian projectiles–which is to say that I did in fact occasionally catch them, as I did this day. Under my hand, the animal struggled madly, but once lifted in my palm, it calmed, cocking its head, and looked at me with its eagle eyes.
The pursuit of lizards was the chief solace I found in the cruel span demarcated on one side by the day I realized (at the tender age two) of my mother’s breast was now irretrievable reserved for my baby sister, and on the other by the day my alert fingers discovered the intriguing parts of the first, miraculous female who agreed to be my girlfriend.
I recall my sister’s ascension with perfect clarity: on vacation, our wood-paneled station wagon trundling through the desert to Palm Springs, my little legs dangling from the vinyl bench seat, unable to reach the floor, an Oreo dissolving on my tongue. My father had just bought me–probably at a truck stop–a fabulously long armed, white furred stuffed monkey whose arms I was wrapping in knots around the head of my baby sister, who was sitting beside me. This blissful moment tormenting my sister with monkey love was interrupted when my mother reached back and lifted her to the front seat. My brother, who was younger than me by a year and older than my sister by as much, said he wanted to go up front, too. My mom had replied, “Mommy is for baby now.” The scales fell from my eyes. Baby sister snuggled to my mother’s bosom, little brother rebuffed and stunned with a paste of Oreo cookie crumbs around his trembling mouth, myself, forgotten. The clammy lagoon of time yawned open, and into it I plunged, left to struggle in murk until my little legs grew long enough to reach bottom.
I was allowed at a blessedly early age to set out alone with my dog, patrolling the fields that ranged from the back yard garden to swaths of coastal sage scrub and ceanothus chaparral. In the purple dusk coyotes would flicker like shadows, killing cottontails. In the morning bobcats would perch on rocky outcroppings, keeping a weather eye out for the puma that occasionally came down in search of water—a massive animal that had once sized me up from a distance of no more than 30 feet. I was wild then, for moments.
Warm air filled with mustard flower and the fragrance of thirty species of drying savanna grass, moist cool air emulsified with chanterelle spores, loam, and wet rocks: these were the climates in which my animal senses waged their long, unsuccessful insurrection against the formidable contours of logic, psychology, and even pathology which, even at the tender years of my life, gripped me. Given their way, the mountains would have had me emerge a sage or a prophet, but I had issues. Tant pis.
Still, the universe of arid silence, the tactile cappuccino laying of thermals rising from the sea, the stern hues of avocado and olive, the yeasty flavor of a stem of helicopter grass–this was the brew on which my senses were honed. The warm scale of my lizard captive, his iridescent blue belly, the surprisingly strong musk–all ineluctable pleasures of predatory boyhood. Had his not smelled so bad, I might have tried to eat him: his blood driving me to madness, I would have gone feral, fashioned myself an elaborate headdress of mud, sycamore leaf, and peacock feather, the wolf-boy of Santa Barbara. Biology had other ideas. The transformation of my ascetic sensibilities into the more fecund desire to dally in drugs, sex, and food took place with the discovery of the female.
The unexpected import of these beings was revealed to me a few weeks after I met a girl who, dark eyes and pale skinned, beautiful as stained glass, was playing Space Invaders at the video arcade not far from my house. I cannot remember a single word we ever spoke to one another, but I remember her body like a terse poem. Her oblivious parents would feed me chili dogs whenever we emerged from the bedroom. My sense of those days consists principally of her female taste and the smell of Hormel wafting in from the kitchen. We spent a year together before I grew arrogant, and ended it in the delusional belief that my lonely lizard-hunting years were behind me, and that I was now free.
The brake lights refracted in pellets of moisture on the windshield go abruptly silver. The elaborate camphor of licorice and fermenting fruits and baking spice dissipated by the Vila Gracinda chocolate bar dissolve past decades into the present. Traffic is letting up. My sore butt returned to me, suggesting some walking, and when I get out of the car at the next rest stop, the arid landscape of Catalonia carries the smell of sagebrush and almond blossoms.
Mark Bitterman :: Oct.05.2007 ::
Chocolate Musings, Dark Chocolate, Single Origin Chocolates ::
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