OK, so maybe “saved my life” is a bit strong, but the year I was thirteen, my family moved to London and enrolled me in an exclusive girls’ school. The school hadn’t been painted in a good 40 years and had retained the traditions and attitudes of that bygone era vis-a-vis Jews also, to go with the depressing, peeling, institutional green paint job. (The headmistress always called me “Ruth” which isn’t my name, but that’s what she called all of the Jewish girls, I guess.) Mostly, they didn’t much care for Americans either.
But enough about me. Let’s talk about the chocolate. Back when Scharffen Berger had a factory in Berkeley, I took a couple of tours (and wouldn’t you?) and on one of them I learned that the reason I like English chocolate so much is that when the English started making chocolate, they used the machinery they had been using for making toffee, imparting the British chocolate with its traditional, buttery, toffee-like “flavour.”
In recent years, English chocolate has been reformulated (i.e., cheapened) and some of the best chocolate bars, like Yorkie, are now made by Nestle to a really inferior standard. But back then, in the late 70s, the chocolate was still amazing — and hazelnuts, the peanut of Europe — were studded throughout many of my favorite confections.
My school was miserable. Most of the subjects would have been considered college level in the US (physics in the 8th grade anyone?) and I was flunking everything except English and for some reason, French, even though I couldn’t understand most of what was going on. I left for school every morning in the pitch black, standing on the Pentonville Road inhaling diesel fumes until the bus came, at which point I was forced upstairs with the smokers. It was hard to see my stop through the haze of cigarettes and then there was also the trick of getting downstairs against the flow of people going up (those London bus stairs are narrow and winding) and finally, the difficulty of jumping out of the open back of a moving bus wearing high-heeled vinyl boots. It was 1978! Those boots were my pride and joy (although totally unfashionable in London at that time) and in those days, there was no door in the back of the buses and no time for them to actually stop at the busy stops on Oxford Street. (I later read that lots of tourists had gotten killed jumping out of buses into traffic which is why all of the buses in London have back doors now.)
It was dark when I got out of school too and none of the #73 buses would go any further than King’s Cross at that hour, leaving me an uphill, nasty mile’s walk to my house.
But the chocolate saved my life. Curly Wurly, Flake, Revels, Fudge fingers, Penguin biscuits, Walnut Whip — and most of all — Whole Nut. In those days, you couldn’t get English candy in the States (although the versions you find here today aren’t the real thing either — they are usually made for the US market to US standards, which allow for a much higher percentage of cockroach parts and carnuba wax.) I had never seen any of the candy bars I came to love before I moved to England. And I couldn’t believe how freaking delicious they were. They made American candy bars taste like bars of wax and cockroach parts in contrast (see above!).
To this day, I have dreams (nightmares?) that my plane is leaving Heathrow and I’m torn, because I’m in a shop in the airport, filled with chocolate, and I have to choose between buying chocolate and missing my flight. If you’d ever had a real Whole Nut bar, you’d understand why that’s a tough choice. In fact, I have a Whole Nut bar in my freezer right now that someone brought me from England, but the reason you won’t see photos of it here is that it is strictly IN CASE OF EMERGENCY and when it’s gone, it’s gone. Sorry. I’m not opening it for editorial purposes only. Here’s a random photo I pulled off of the web instead: