Monday, August 10, 2009

Proscuitto pizza and painless porridge

I couldn’t eat toast for years when I was drinking heavily, because it was too noisy.”
Clarissa Dickson-Wright

I’ve felt that way a few times myself.

On Friday morning, that horrible old feeling was there again and it was my own damn fault. Nobody forced me. There wasn’t any peer pressure, nor any compelling need to be ‘with it’, to fit in, be part of the cool crowd. No bloke to impress, job to score, prize to win. I willingly did it all myself: elbows creaking from the incessant hand-to-mouth motions. Even when the room slowly started to spin and my heart began pounding unbecomingly and my stomach sent a few gluggy bellyflops as an ominous warning I still didn’t stop…..

This time however, it wasn’t a substance that, once suffered via a hangover, would be avoided for the rest of my life. No, not blackberry nip, Grandfather Port, St Agnes Brandy or no-name Ouzo. It was chocolate.

I was one of three esteemed* judges invited to select the winners of the Australian Chocolate Championships held at the Royal Melbourne Showgrounds. We were required to thoroughly test, taste, sample, view, dissect, examine and sniff all of the entries, score them on about 12 different aspects and write detailed feedback so that the chef or enthusiast responsible could improve their batch for next year.

I barely slept the night before. I’d warned my doctor, Love Chunks, Sapphire and
Bernadette Young’s listeners that high cholesterol or not, I was going to fall off the wagon.

Hell, I was going to DIVE off the wagon, full speed, face first, doing a triple pike somersault with a gaping open mouth into a fast flowing, roaring, gushing, bottomless RIVER of chocolate. It was shaping up to be one delightful afternoon to dip my eager toe back into the cocoa pool and enjoy it deliriously, decadently and delightfully before sadly slumping back to the real world of extra fibre, vitamin B, fish oil and a weekly ration of four measly squares of chocolate, sucked more avidly than a pensioner with lost dentures.

Thursday afternoon eventually arrived and I found myself in a gorgeous boardroom with Helen, the master-taster and owner of a palate that can tell what side of an Ecuadorian mountain the rare Criollo bean was grown on and who picked it; and Andy, a Belgian chocolatier with a fondness for blending chocolate with beer and nuts and able to spot an over-tempered hand-enrobed boutique flavour failure with a mere glance under the beribboned box.
What was I doing with these two?

Clearly, I was the enthusiastic consumer, the belly-filling bogan brought in to judge the chocolates as my Dad would abstract art: whether he likes it or not. No cutting remarks about sugar bloom, unsightly air bubbles, unevenness of shell or undue bitterness; just ‘Ooooh yeah, this is nice, really r-e-a-l-l-y noice…’ Hey, I was willing to do it for the rest of us.

Boxes and boxes and boxes of entries were in front us, with categories that included Assorted box of 16 moulded, Assorted box of 16 enrobed/hand-dipped, Assorted box of Innovative Chocolates, 12 Identitical moulded, 12 Identical enrobed/hand-dipped, box of Competitor’s Choice, Box of Commercial Quality….

Twenty three entries in the first category, with two boxes each to inspect, smell, slice, sample, roll on the palate, examine closer, check for evenness of coverage, sheen, thickness of shell, dodgy air pockets and that much-celebrated ‘crack’ of good chocolate on the first bite. (Or ‘thock’ if you’re snapping off a row or three from a family-sized block in your living room at home).

Three huge silver mixing bowls sat in front of us to spit, throw or scrape the remains in and a platter of soft white bread and jug of cold water was nearby to refresh our palates. Bread Shmead, I thought. Why would I fill myself up with bread when all this glorious bounty was afore me?

Half of twenty three chocolates wasn’t tooooo greedy (well really it’s only eleven and a half, a mere morning tea for me) and we’d all easily agreed on the winner. Then came the next category: 21 entries of a single variety, so only ten-and-a-half chocolates or thereabouts to eat. Our bowls had to be emptied of their leaking, dissected and disrespected contents and I found myself actually reaching for the simple blandness of bread and water.

Sixteen individual chocolates this time. “Remember how much effort they’ve put into designing, creating and decorating each one to be unique and delicious, so we have to try each one to give every entry the fairest judgement.” Er, yes, Andy you’re right. Salted caramels, crackling toffee, sweet spiced sesame seeds, blindingly strong coffee, creamy passionfruit, thyme and lemon combinations, lavender and blueberry, beer and 70%, pop rocks, smokey bacon, mini wagon wheels, ginger biscuits, apple crumble, silver spray paint, fruit salad, summer pudding, chili cherry, strawberry reduction, limoncello, Tasmanian pepper, basil and balsamic….

Three hours later and we were only a third of the way through. My eyes were like moist maraccas as my pulse beat madly behind each retina and my throat became tighter and drier. “Oh goody, here’s another 25 entries that are their own choice….” Helen sighed. “I normally quit after two hours, because my taste buds are shot by then, but----” she clipped my arm in a classic We’ll Soldier On motion, "-----there’s plenty more to try!”

I was shaving my chocolates into quarters and then sixteenths by then and sniffing them for far longer than required to give my distended stomach a tiny breather before inflicting it with more cocoa, sugar, edible transfers and bizarre flavour fillings. Baileys Irish Crème, peppermint, organic almond, mango puree, meringue, olive, orange, pumpkin seed, malt flakes, agave syrup, goji berries, buttermilk, champagne and pear, Mojito cocktail, kaffir leaves, blackberry mousse, peanut butter, whipped vanilla cream…..

Andy’s chirpiness increased as my appetite and will to live decreased. “Come on Kath, we’ve only tried seventeen versions of lime jelly today and I’ve yet to find the quintessential stout-and-black truffle. Have some more bread!”

Seven hours later, we were finished. My score sheets were decorated with brown smudges that wouldn't have been out of place on the wall of a Solitary Confinement cell and any wayward crumbs that had settled on my crotch area had long ago melted into unappealing rat droppings. My shaking hands were dark brown and incapable of slicing or holding a chocolate, let alone trying to write something understandable and my gut was tighter than a busker’s drum and making about the same volume of complaint.

We’d used up seven packets of paper serviettes wiping our sticky knives clean and eaten two loaves of white bread and I honestly wasn’t sure I’d be physically able to stand up and leave the premises without the need of an ergonomic trailer and skilled paramedic.

Helen, Andy and I leaned back from the long table, surveyed the wreckage of gift boxes, ribbons, brown paper bags, bubble wrap, recipe sheets, clear containers and smashed chocolate remains with absolute exhaustion. Andy was the first to struggle to his feet. “Well, it’s been nice meeting you, but I’ve got to meet my girlfriend back at the office for dinner, so see you later!”

DINNER? Helen nodded. “You won’t feel like it Kath, but you need to go home and eat some salty protein like ham straight away. It settles the stomach and helps me after I’ve spent a half-day tasting nothing but litres of vanilla icecream or hot coffee.”

I took her advice and, after a lie down, a good groaning session and a panadol, ate a cold slice of proscuitto pizza. My body lapped up the savoury flavours with gusto and sleep soon overtook me.

It was the next morning that the full wrath of the Chocolate Hangover really hit hard. The day was spent drinking water like a delirious camel, straining to make myself heard above a squeak and massaging my pounding temples, wondering who was pulling my eyelids down and forcing me to walk in slow-motion, farting like a flame-thrower all the way. My breakfast of choice (which could only be contemplated at 2pm), was porridge, because of its silence and utter monotony.

Yep, I couldn’t eat chocolate again for three days. Or talk about it for five.

* the term is meantly loosely and egotistically.


Cat J B said...

Oh my gosh Kath! What a marathon! What at first seems like heaven to me would quickly start to feel like some sort of punishment thought out by ..........gee, I can't think who, a suitable punishment giver escapes me.

Hope you're continuing to feel better. Sigh, the things we must do in the name of work.

Baino said...

Beautiful chockies though. Hilarious that you could back up for Pepperoni Pizza after all that! Well done girl. A marathon indeed.

louisalowry said...

Goodness gracious Kath - what a way to fall off the wagon!! Don't get that cholestorel checked for a month or two...gorgeous chocolates though. As my beautiful sister Miss Cat said I hope you're continuing to feel better too.

Anonymous said...

.....I also did not go near anything of that colour,shape or form for at least 4 days....What an experience !

Highly enjoyed having you by my side Kath : )


Monique said...

oh god kath, i feel sick just reading that. i should stick it on the chocolate drawer at work...

drb said...

It is a shame you had to do all the categories in one sitting!
All these chocolate wasted!!

Did you bring any home? For the 16 identical/box entries, surely you didn't have to taste each of them in the box, so they should have at least 10 left per box?

Kath Lockett said...

CatJB, yep, it's one helluva sacrifice, but someone's gotta lean over the barbed wire fence to let their buddies climb over to safety.... :)

Baino, it's the kind of marathon that this arse of mine was made for!

Louisa I don't have to see the evil Dr Checks until January next year, so I'm hoping that a little stumble off the wagon every now and then isn't going to hurt me.

Four days, eh Helen? I was chomping away again on Sunday, three days later. Your coolness and strenght in the face of the challenge was a huge inspiration.

Monique you should, but unlike brandy and cheap cask wine, chocolate always lures you back even a day or two after your last overindulgence.... Oh hell, what am I saying - an HOUR after!

Dr B - nope. Any 'nice' ones were kept to display at the event, especially the winners and runners-ups which of course were the ones I wanted to take home.

The Man at the Pub said...

That's a pretty hardcore effort. Well done! Couldn't do it myself, but if there was a competition for jelly snakes...?

*My last post has a reference to Ecuadorian mountains too. What a freakish co-inkydink!

River said...

7 HOURS!!! OMG. No wonder you were reaching for the bread and water.
There certainly are some bizarre flavours in there. where did the silver spray paint come into it? Was it a flavour or a spray on wrapper?

Miles McClagan said...

When I was 11ven, I had to eat about 26 packets of M&Ms for a Pepsi competition...

To this day, I can't eat an M&M without a wacky radio DJ voice coming back to me like an acid flashback...

I share your pain...

Anonymous said...

Heard you talking to Carole Whitelock on the ABC about it this afternoon....felt quite proprietal...."Ey oop, our Kath's on t'radio!"


Helen said...

What have you done woman? The Net Nanny at my work has suddenly decided to do the BLOCK PRONOGR*PHY thing on your blog. And once it makes up its mind like that, it never changes it. Is a surfeit of chocolate considered pron-ographic in Net nannyland?

Drat, no more reading BFTB at work, possibly a good thing as it makes me laugh out loud until the tears run down which is not a good look.

Helen said...

Ok, so first you say you're taking a break from ABBA, next you're sick from too much chocolate... Who are you and what have you done with Kath?

Kath Lockett said...

Man At The Pub - if there was a jelly snake competition, I'd be running in the opposite direction, shouting for your help....

River, it was artistic spray paint but when something is so gaudily spacey but it's just a humble ganache you wonder why they didn't go all-out and put in some Tang or a dehydrated astronaut meal or suchlike...

Miles can you still eat M&Ms now, despite the flashbacks? .....(attention diverted).... Ooooh, M&Ms.... have a bag of the new orange flavour, calling to me right now ..... 'Coming, my lovelies!'.....

Aye, BS that were me on tha' wireless, talkin' shite 'boot ma cocoa overdosin....

Aw shucks Helen, it's nice to read that my writing makes someone cry -in a GOOD way! Hmm, I wonder if my recent title 'Enid Blyton Nude Tennis' got your net nanny's knickers all a flutter?

Helen2 - Please don't worry - I've been doing some Abba singstar with Sapph (and rather enjoyed being the poor second-schmuck who has to sing 'Pooopa Poooopa' as the background to 'Super Trouper') and, since Sunday, have ventured boldly back into the world of chocolate tasting. Just not as much as last Thursday, obviously!