It looked like a gift from heaven, or at least one from a good friend, hanging on our country-style mailbox on an achingly grey day: A deep, luxuriously brown glossy cardboard folder with an enticing tagline in gold script that read "Indulge your senses today..."
Above it, a gold logo for Nestlé Noir Hot Chocolate. Below it, on the folder's doors, just the hint of a woman's face emerging from chocolatey shadows. Superimposed awkwardly right below the tip of her nose is what must be a cup of hot chocolate. But it looks like what happens when artists try to draw a face and get the mouth wrong - slap something overtop.
Normally I'm a very good reader of emotions in faces but this oddly flat, ambiguous rendering is impossible to read. Is she determined? Confrontational? Hiding something? Is she flirting with us - or daring us, and if so, to do what?
Never mind. I grab the mail, and the packet, and head inside and the first thing I do is rip open the folder. Despite the mysterious presentation, or maybe because of it, this little package promises chocolate, and what full-blooded woman can resist the lure of same, especially in the middle of sprinter, when it's not full-on winter and not quite spring and everything feels suspended?
Therein, I'm certain, lay the key to unlocking it all, a glossy packet containing the NEW Nestlé Noir Premium Dark Hot Chocolate - caps and emphasis theirs.
The copy writing promises more: that I can now enjoy a premium, dark hot chocolate right at home... a dark indulgent hot chocolate. (Hey, maybe that's what that woman is doing - indulging). Not only that, it's made from the finest cocoas from around the world and it's irresistibly blended to complete perfection. No wonder I never read this stuff.
But wait, there's more. It also promises me the health benefits of pure cocoa since it is a natural source of polyphenols, which will help me maintain a healthy circulatory system. And all I have to do is add hot water, or milk, for an extra creamy indulgence. (For sure that's what she's supposed to be doing - indulging!)
And if that isn't enough, I can later "savour every sip of the smooth & creamy caramel experience" in Nestlé Noir Caramel. Or, if need be, satisfy my craving for rich and darkly delicious hot chocolate "without the guilt" by trying Chocolate Noir Liberté. (Ah, so she is hiding something - her guilt over drinking this hot chocolate! Tch, tch, naughty girl-monkey!)
So I'm all ready to go for it and dump this nice shiny little tube of "hot chocolate" stuff into my mug of hot water. And then I read the ingredient list.
The first item is maltodextrin. To understand what this is, I turn to Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking and find maltodextrins on page 679, under "Grades of corn syrup." Maltodextrins, explains this world-renowned authority on the chemistry of foods and cooking, are syrups that contain less than 20 per cent glucose, plus maltose. A chain of two glucoses is called maltose; glucose is a simple sugar, and the most common sugar from which living cells directly extract chemical energy. Glucose is found in many fruits and in honey, but always in a mixture with other sugars - that is, until we humans refine it out.
Maltodextrins are used mainly to give viscosity and body with little sweetness and moisture absorption. Right, they want this stuff to remain a powder no matter what.
Next ingredient: sugar, no explanation needed. Third: creamer. Now this is a complex substance made with 12 ingredients. First off is coconut oil, which, at nearly 90 per cent, has the highest ratio of saturated fats of all cooking fats; it's also one of the slowest to go rancid. Then there are corn syrup solids, sugar - I should say more sugar - and sodium caseinate, defined by answers.com as "a tasteless, odorless, water-soluble, white powder; used in medicine, foods, emulsification, and stabilization; formed by dissolving casein (the predominant protein in cow's milk and cheeses) in sodium hydroxide and then evaporating."
Next in the creamer list are mono-and diglycerides, chemical relatives, says Gee, of true fats that act as emulsifiers to make fine, cream-like mixtures of fat and water, even though fat and water don't normally mix with each other.
Then we have dipotassium phosphate, and for this I go to Wikipedia, which describes it as a highly water-soluble salt, which is often used as a fertilizer, food additive and buffering agent. In non-dairy creamers, such as this, it is used to prevent coagulation. After this we have salt; sodium aluminum silicate, an anti-caking agent; lecithin, another emulsifier found in various plant and animal tissues, including egg yolk; artificial flavour and colour.
Now finally we have the cocoa - remember the cocoa?
Next is cellulose gum, which, according to foodproductiondaily.com is an additive derived from cellulose fibre (such as wood pulp or cotton linters) that is 99.5 per cent pure. It's used for thickening and stabilizing foods including ice cream, yoghurt, dairy drinks and other processed foods.
Next we have more salt, then "flavour" and "artificial flavour".
Finally, ta-da, we have silicon dioxide, which, besides being a very common substance in the Earth's crust (think quartz, opal and glass) is found naturally in some foods such as potatoes and milk, but is also frequently added to processed foods, in this case probably to make the "hot chocolate" powder flow freely.
By now you've correctly guessed that I never did open that packet of "indulgence." Not to pick on Nestlé, after all, the parent company is Swiss and who can find fault with the Swiss?
Nor do I want to present myself as a purest, far from it - you can find more than a few processed foods in our house. But that ingredient list left me, frankly, listless. Besides, I always have my own polyphenol supply on hand, a good trick learned from my mother - a few bits of good chocolate here, a tin of real cocoa there.
It's more that I have a problem with any processed food with such a remote relationship to the food it's purporting to be. And, no, I don't insist on using milk in my hot chocolate, just like the Meso-Americans didn't.
As for making your own hot chocolate, here's the time-worn method from the Fry's cocoa tin. Works every time: Warm a cup of milk. In the bottom of the empty cup mix one rounded teaspoon of cocoa powder, two teaspoons of sugar, and add a bit of milk slowly, stirring constantly, to make a thick paste. Pour in the warmed milk, stir, and indulge. C'est tout.
Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who finds her guilty pleasures elsewhere.