Bitter Chocolate: Investigating the Dark Side of the World's Most Seductive Sweet

Bitter Chocolate: Investigating the Dark Side of the World's Most Seductive Sweet

by Carol Off

Award-winning author and broadcaster Carol Off reveals the fascinating – and often horrifying – stories behind our desire for all things chocolate.

Whether it’s part of a Hallowe’en haul, the contents of a heart-shaped box or just a candy bar stashed in a desk drawer, chocolate is synonymous with pleasures both simple and indulgent. But

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Award-winning author and broadcaster Carol Off reveals the fascinating – and often horrifying – stories behind our desire for all things chocolate.

Whether it’s part of a Hallowe’en haul, the contents of a heart-shaped box or just a candy bar stashed in a desk drawer, chocolate is synonymous with pleasures both simple and indulgent. But behind the sweet image is a long history of exploitation. In the eighteenth century the European aristocracy went wild for the Aztec delicacy. In later years, colonial territories were ravaged and slaves imported in droves as native populations died out under the strain of feeding the world’s appetite for chocolate.

Carol Off traces the origins of the cocoa craze and follows chocolate’s evolution under such overseers as Hershey, Cadbury and Mars. In Côte d’Ivoire, the West African nation that produces nearly half of the world’s cocoa beans, she follows a dark and dangerous seam of greed. Against a backdrop of civil war and corruption, desperately poor farmers engage in appalling practices such as the indentured servitude of young boys – children who don’t even know what chocolate tastes like.

Off shows that, with the complicity of Western governments and corporations, unethical practices continue to thrive. Bitter Chocolate is a social history, a passionate investigative account and an eye-opening exposé of the workings of a multi-billion dollar industry that has institutionalized misery as it served our pleasures.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Praise for The Ghosts of Medak Pocket, winner of the Dafoe Book Prize:

“A first-class account . . . her prose is lively and her tone impassioned.”
The Globe and Mail

Praise for The Lion, The Fox and the Eagle:

“This is an explosive look at what really happened in the failed peacekeeping missions in Sarajevo and Rwanda.”
Ottawa Citizen

Product Details

Random House of Canada, Limited
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.36(w) x 9.35(h) x 1.09(d)

Read an Excerpt


In the Garden of Good and ­Evil

“In my dreams I gorge on chocolates, I roll in chocolates, and their texture is not brittle but soft as flesh, like a thousand little mouths on my body, devouring me in fluttering small bites. To die beneath their tender gluttony is the culmination of every temptation I have known.”
–Joanne Harris, ­Chocolat

The broad highway leading out of the city of Abidjan is marked on the map of Côte d’Ivoire as a principal ­two-­lane thoroughfare, but with the city behind us, it narrows quickly and degenerates into a potholed road no wider than a driveway. Tangled vines and shrubbery encroach on both sides of our vehicle while we push through what resembles a dark, leafy tunnel. Constant ­precipitation–­a perpetual cycle from warm mist to torrential thundershowers to ­steam–­seems to stimulate new jungle growth before my ­eyes.

Koffi Benoît is at the wheel on this excursion into the unknown. He’s an unflappable Ivorian, and I would trust him in any situation. Ange Aboa is our principal guide into la brousse, as he calls ­it–­the bush. Ange is a reporter for the Reuters news agency and spends much of his time in Côte d’Ivoire’s backcountry trying to make some sense of the murky, muddled world of African business. Together, we travel west out of Abidjan, deep into the tropical forests and remote farm country that stretches for hundreds of kilometres towards the Liberian border. Our mission is to seek out the truth about Côte d’Ivoire’s most precious commodity, ­cocoa.

My two companions know the bush country well, but they are perpetual strangers here where people trust only their own clans. We need help from local residents if we are to penetrate the walls of history and vegetation and probe the mysteries within. In a small village, we meet up with Noël Kabora, a seasoned pisteur who travels the tiny pistes, or back trails, every day as he makes his rounds of farms, gathering sacks of cocoa beans from the farmers. Abandoning the relative comfort of Benoît’s Renault for Noël’s dilapidated truck, we turn off the highway and head deep into the bush. Ange has moved to the back of the truck to chat with some local people while I sit in the cab with Noël. Benoît decides to stay behind and have tea with some newfound ­friends.

Nearly half of all the cocoa in the world comes out of this humid West African jungle and eventually finds its way into the confections that enrich the diets and the moods of chocolate lovers around the world. The bonbons, truffles, hot chocolate, cookies, cakes, ice cream sundaes and the ubiquitous chocolate bars; the sweet morsels that ostensibly say, “I love you” on Valentine’s Day, “Merry Christmas,” “Happy Birthday,” the Halloween treats; the Easter eggs–thye started the long journey into our stomachs and our ceremonies here in this tropical hothouse. Yet I could not be farther away from those cherished ceremonies of life, the pageants of celebration and happiness in the developed world, than I am driving along these rutted paths through the ­jade-­coloured forests of Côte d’Ivoire.

Noël points out the cocoa groves tucked in among the tall banana trees, the mangoes and the palms. Exotic green, yellow and red cocoa pods, the size of butternut squash, cling precariously to the smooth trunks of the trees called, in Latin, Theobroma cacao – “food of the gods.” Farmers lop the ripe pods from the bark with machetes and split them open to harvest the riches within: dozens of ­grey-­purple seeds the size of almonds embedded in pale ­tan-­coloured pulp. Through the bushes, we can see the racks and mats where the contents of the pods are piled up to ferment for days in the humid ­heat, producing ­a marvellous alchemy in which the seeds steep in the sweet, sticky juice from the pulp while sweltering in the hot tropical ­sun.

Micro-­organisms in the fetid pile go to work, stirring into action about four hundred different chemicals and organic substances that magically transform a bland bean into the raw material that is the essence of the world’s most seductive sweet After five or six days of malodorous mulling, the beans are then laid out on racks to dry. This delicate series of operations, augmented by manufacturing techniques, has made chocolate addicts out of millions of people around the world throughout history. Children invest meagre allowances for just a bite of it; some women say they prefer fine chocolate to sex; and modern science claims for chocolate myriad potential health benefits, from reducing cholesterol to boosting libido. Chocolate is the embodiment of temptation. It creates a mysterious addiction, which, in turn, sustains a vast international trade and an industry with a seemingly insatiable appetite for raw product. For their survival, the captains of the chocolate industry depend on these remote farms and the pisteurs who make daily excursions into the bush, gathering sacks of carefully fermented and dried cocoa ­beans.

Noël expertly navigates a ­mind-­boggling road that seems at times to disappear completely. He points towards the tops of hills where groves of cocoa trees grope for sunlight and comments knowingly on the quality of each farmer’s ­produce, noting the ones who have perfected drying and fermenting and castigaing those whose beans are always dirty. From time to time, we can see a little ­one-­room schoolhouse or tiny chapel surrounded by the poor mud houses of the people who cultivate “the food of the gods.”

Farmers in this region have been growing the world’s cocoa for a relatively short ­time–­since the 1970s and ’80s, when Côte d’Ivoire’s benevolent dictator and founding father, Félix ­Houphouët-­Boigny, realized that this fecund farmland could grow a botanical equivalent of gold. He wanted to transform his ­post-­colonial country, just reclaimed from France, into the economic engine of West Africa. In the 1960s Houphouët-­Boigny announced that he would turn the jungle into Eden and everyone who lived here would enjoy the fruits of their own labour. The creationist vision worked and, for a time, Côte d’Ivoire became arguably the most profitable and stable country on the continent, mostly through providing the world with ­cocoa. All that has changed.

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