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Vianne Rocher's dark chocolate mendiants

Anouk reads a book of nursery rhymes behind the counter and keeps an eye on the door for me as I prepare a batch of mendiants in the kitchen. These are my own favourites – thus named because they were sold by beggars and gypsies years ago – biscuit-sized discs of dark, milk or white chocolate upon which have been scattered lemon-rind, almonds and plump Malaga raisins. 

– Joanne Harris, Chocolat, chapter 7

There is no overt magic in this novel about a chocolatier who wanders into a small French village with her daughter and an imaginary rabbit on a Shrove Tuesday, the day of pancakes. I re-read this book after years, mostly because I'd forgotten large chunks of it and wanted to revisit Lansquenet-sous-Tannes before I read the rest of the series. This was my second "buddy read", which has been great for keeping my reading on track (case in point: the book I'm currently reading is taking far too long.)

Vianne's mother was a witch, we are told, but she prefers to not quite follow in her footsteps. Apart from sensing hazy things about people and scrying in liquid chocolate, one of the skills Vianne does use liberally is knowing people's favourite confection – florentines, chocolate almonds, double-chocolate truffles, cinder toffee. 

It's a knack, a professional secret like a fortune-teller reading palms. My mother would have laughed at this waste of my skills, but I have no desire to probe further into their lives than this. [...] A tame alchemist, she would have called me with kindly contempt, working domestic magic when I could have wielded marvels.

For this project, it seemed fitting to select Vianne's own favourite. (It was also probably one of the only things in the book I dared attempt. I made a note of every do-able delicacy I came across, but thanks are due also to this list.) So much of the book is about her feelings about other people, or responding to their stories and carrying her own memories closely intertwined with those of her mother, that this seemed like a rare insight into her own preferences. In the midst of running and fighting and emotional chaos, Vianne spends the first Sunday of Lent alone with her daughter, with expectations, yes, but also with something for herself. 

Mendiants get their name from the French word for 'beggar', and are a traditional French sweet. They are associated with Christmas, which makes their appearance at the beginning of Lent interesting; even more insightful in the context of the book, perhaps, is their association with the Catholic church and its mendicant orders. The chocolate discs are embedded with nuts, dried fruits or other toppings – usually raisins, hazelnuts, figs and almonds to represent the colour of the four monastic robes, though they can be far more creative. Perhaps their simplicity and minimalism make them the perfect confection for someone who has been running her whole life, with not much by way of worldly things. But does a mendicant's singular devotion collide with Vianne's rejection of faith?

I sell dreams, small comforts, sweet harmless temptations to bring down a multitude of saints crash-crash-crashing amongst the hazels and the nougatines. Is that so bad?



I chose a busy day to make mendiants. They are simple, but running back and forth isn't ideal for something such as tempering chocolate, which I've never done before. Still, the aroma of melting chocolate was awfully comforting. I used this recipe and Vianne's toppings – I grated the peel of two lemons, bisected a dozen almonds, and kept the raisins aside. I chopped a 100g slab of Amul's dark chocolate, 55% being about as strong as we could probably enjoy. I attempted tempering by the seed method, melting two thirds of the chocolate on a double boiler and stirring in the rest to cool it until it was smooth. 



Shining, glistening dollops and swirls with a spoon onto a silicon mat, spreading slightly every time a raisin or almond was laid on them, sprinkled with lemon rind like golden stars across a night sky. They sat in the fridge for a while to beat the Mumbai humidity, and tasted like an explosion of good things.


Vianne's lineage, her relationship with her daughter and her dead mother flow through the book, and mendiant-making is no exception. One of my favourite insights is towards the end of the story, when our protagonist prepares a lavish meal for her friends and explains how she learned how to cook. A self-taught skill for a self-made woman, which grounded her, gave "weight to [her] wanderings". 

Anouk likes the white ones, though I prefer the dark, made with the finest 70 per cent couverture... Bitter-smooth on the tongue with the taste of the secret tropics. My mother would have despised this, too. And yet this is also a kind of magic.

Her daughter favours a different flavour and her mother none at all, but Vianne Rocher's dark chocolate mendiants are an escape, an assertion, a subversion – just like her cooking, and her humble chocolaterie opposite the church.

***

Other posts in this series:

Anne Shirley's teatime biscuits (January)

Comments

  1. This is utterly lovely, Kriti. Really enjoying the series. A good blog read feels almost decadently luxurious these days; most of my reading list exists no longer because poof-into short-form social media they went. Looking forward to more.

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    1. KOYEL! I'm so happy to see you here! I revived my blog in October because I felt that too - social media snippets just aren't the same. Thank you for dropping by and reading and appreciating my humble attempts at making food-type things. :)

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    2. The pleasure is all mine! :D Been thoroughly enjoying all the other stuff here too, including your fascinating genealogy project.

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  2. > They are simple

    You're like, a professional :o

    Also what lens did you use to take the photos? Is it the Exakta tele lens? They have… a quality.

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    1. No they are quite simple! It's basically just chocolate blobs with toppings. I used the Canon 50mm lens - the lighting was nice from certain angles :)

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