Top | First Person

Sight unseen

(article, Nancy Greenleese)

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Admit it: We like our food pretty. Short of a sash and a shellacking of hairspray, our edibles are beauty-pageant contestants. 

Glistening smoked salmon, the rosy color of flushed cheeks, makes forks quiver. Poached eggs with perfectly round yellow yolks gaze up at us, shamelessly flirting with our taste buds. And Little Miss Dessert is the cake rimmed with waves of frosting, like a gorgeous face framed by cascading curls. You hesitate to touch it, much less cut into it, worried that you’ll spoil the perfection. 

But when we close our eyes, we find out whether the beauty is fleeting. The other senses perk up, allowing us to taste more clearly our food’s flavor, texture, and personality. Is this food worth devouring, or simply a tiara-topped marshmallow? 
 
At a chocolate festival in Perugia, Italy, I play the judge. I’m taking part in a blind tasting along with a dozen other chocolate lovers. We gather deep inside the ruins of the Rocca Paolina, a 16th-century fortress built by Pope Paul II; the cavernous rooms have craggy walls and no windows. It’s cool and there’s an air of mystery. Chocolate has never been this dark. 

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As instructed, I pull open a heavy curtain and step into total blackness. A woman takes my hand. 

“Viene con me.” Come with me, she purrs, her Italian flowing over me like chocolate sauce on performance artist Karen Finley. And without hesitation I follow her, knowing chocolate is the reward. It’s like giving candy to a really tall baby. 

She deftly steers me through the space, even though there’s not a glimmer of light, and seats me in a high-backed chair. Another woman places a plastic dish on a surface in front of me, instructing me not to touch what’s inside. I trust it’s chocolate, but for all I know, it could be Ex-Lax. 

Once everyone is settled, we’re permitted to feel inside our dishes; mine contains three small squares of what I hope is Theobroma cacao, the food of the gods. Not exactly Willy Wonka’s world, but we are in the pope’s digs, so I concede that gluttony may be frowned upon. 

Our guides — two women and a man — encourage us to explore with what senses remain to us. They instruct us to touch a square; there’s a design inscribed on one side. I break it in two, hearing a snap; the sharp sound indicates that there’s little milk in this chocolate. We press our noses close and sniff. The group inhale is followed by an exultant exhale.  

“Cacao!” the group cries. It’s deep and rich, sophisticated and serious. This is chocolate. I imagine the group is as relieved as I am that we’re not sniffing glue. 

But now we’re dizzy with desire, anticipation making our stomachs growl.  Finally, the guides allow us to satisfy our taste buds.   

I take a tiny bite. The chocolate coats my tongue, and soon I’m swirling it around my mouth like a fine wine. The prelude to this chocolate kiss has made me appreciate it more, lingering over its complex flavor. 

I recognize its quality with my mouth alone. The texture isn’t slippery, a clue for me that no vegetable oils (more common in American sweets) were used. The sugar is pure, not the processed stuff that leaves my teeth aching like a marimba player used my molars as a keyboard. 

As I try not to swallow, I think of the famous chocolate-factory episode in “I Love Lucy,” in which a wide-eyed Lucy stands over a conveyor belt, shoveling dozens of pieces of chocolate into her mouth. If she’d taken the time to enjoy just one of those chocolates, it might have made her swoon for the rest of the half-hour sitcom. 

Meanwhile, the docents of decadence are letting us sample the next chocolate from the dishes. The room falls silent as we take even longer this time to savor the flavor.  

A male voice breaks the silence. 

“Dolce . . . e amare,”_ he says. Sweet, and bitter. This is a chocolate in which the high percentage of cocoa is evident just from its taste. The group echoes with a collective “Mmm,” which translates in any language of any species into, “Our mouths are having too much fun to talk.” 

We don’t know or care what it looks like; this chocolate could be Barbie pink or Smurf blue. This is just the chocolate, with no packaging to influence our opinions. 

We’re starting to learn what our mothers always told us: What’s inside matters. The final chocolate offers an unexpected bounty, bursting with orange and almonds. It melts faster in our hands and our mouths, the guides telling us that this means it has less cocoa. 

As the session winds down, the guides reveal to us what we’ve been eating: Lindt chocolates, from the Swiss maker famous for its dark chocolate. We guess at the cocoa percentage of the chocolates we’ve just eaten; we’re all wildly off. The second chocolate, our guides tell us, was packed with an astounding 85 percent cocoa. 

Lights flick on and our edible exercise is abruptly over. We blink, adjusting to the reawakening of our fifth sense. We’re seated around a horseshoe-shaped bar, every plastic dish empty. We came, we didn’t see, we conquered. 

I look at our two female guides. Their eyes are sunken and they don’t look me in the face.  

They’re blind. 

I had no idea. I wonder how I would’ve viewed them differently if I’d been able to see them from the start, just as I considered pretty chocolate sweeter and better. Milan’s Institute for the Blind helped organize this event, their motto being, “You don’t have to look to see far.” Tonight, my eyes were wide but shut, allowing me to judge fairly both the chocolate and who gave it to me. I liked what I didn’t see. 

p(bio). Between chocolate samplings, [ngreenleese@hotmail.com "Nancy Greenleese"] is a radio and print reporter based in Italy who covers food, wine, culture, and sports.


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