Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press. Like her amateur sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust. Originally from Georgia, she enjoys traveling the world and learning about other cultures and customs, which she incorporates into her novels. She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband who is a law professor. Where the Bones Are Buried, the fifth book in the series, is in bookstores now . You can learn more about Jeanne’s books at www.jeannematthews.com.
In 1641, a German scientist named Johann Georg Voldkammer traveled to Naples and discovered the Neopolitans drinking a strange concoction called cocoa, which was believed to stimulate the spleen and aid digestion. He returned to Germany with a supply of the stuff and introduced it to his fellow countrymen. They lapped it up and quickly adopted the custom of taking a cup of hot cocoa at bedtime. Gradually, the medicinal benefits of drinking chocolate gave way to the sheer pleasure. Today the average German consumes approximately twenty-four pounds of chocolate a year and the city of Berlin lays claim to the largest chocolate house in the world.
Two chocolate-making families – Fassbender & Rausch – combined forces in 1999 and opened their chocolate mecca on Charlottenstrasse in one of the most beautiful neighborhoods in the city. As you enter the shop, the first thing you see is a chocolate volcano erupting aromatic spurts of molten chocolate. A few steps more and you come face-to-face with a display of Berlin’s most iconic landmarks – recreated in chocolate. A monumental replica of the historic Brandenburg Gate topped by its chariot with four perfect horses stands over three feet high and weighs three hundred pounds. A model of the Reichstag, the building that houses the German parliament, measures five feet tall by five feet wide. Its spectacular mirrored cupola is crafted from mousse and glittering gold leaf. One can only marvel that the chocolatiers found receptacles large enough to melt such a quantity of chocolate, a stove large enough to support the receptacles, or a mold that could duplicate the structure’s shape in such intricate detail.
The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church is another work of jaw-dropping chocolate artistry. The bell tower and part of the entrance hall is all that remains of the original church, which was bombed by the Allies during World War II. The new church – a tall, slender edifice (nicknamed “the lipstick” by Berliners) and the flat, hexagonal building (“the powder box”) – were built around the ruins of the old. Fassbender has rendered this symbol of Berlin’s resilience as lovingly in chocolate and gold as the architects rendered the real one in stone and glass. And suspended from the shop’s ceiling is the one of the most famous symbols of the Cold War – a chocolate airplane like the ones used during the Berlin Airlift.
The most popular pilot of the Berlin Airlift was Lt. Gail Halvorson, known as the “Chocolate Flier” or “Uncle Chocolate.” He would signal his approach to the chocolate-starved children of East Berlin by wiggling his wings. As the children gathered and waited in anticipation, Lt. Halvorson dropped hundreds of chocolate bars attached to handkerchief parachutes.
Of course Germany’s history with chocolate also had a dark side – forgive the pun. In addition to his fondness for martinis and cigars, Winston Churchill liked chocolate. When Adolph Hitler got wind of this, he ordered his bomb makers to devise thin bars of explosives, coat them with a layer of rich dark chocolate, and giftwrap them in expensive black and gold foil. He planned to have his secret agents in Britain smuggle the package (labeled Peters Chocolate) into the dining room used by Churchill and his War Cabinet. The bomb was rigged to go off seven seconds after the chocolate was removed from its wrapper. If the plot had been successful, most of the British leadership would have been killed in the blast. Fortunately, British intelligence discovered the fake chocolates and posters were distributed, warning the public to beware of the Peters brand. That wasn’t the only Nazi plot involving chocolate. Declassified MI5 files reveal that they poisoned tins of powdered cocoa expecting them to be seized and consumed by the Allied troops.
Berlin has been the site of terrible crimes and skullduggery in the past, but today the city is filled with peace and goodwill and its happy denizens are stoked on endorphins and flavonoids derived from its rich bounty of chocolate shops. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can sample chocolate flavored with goat cheese and elderflower essence at in’t Veld Schokoladen. Walk around the corner and you will find Atelier Cacao with its curated selection of handmade chocolates made with organically produced raw cane sugar. And if your craving still isn’t satisfied, you can return to Fassbender & Rausch. Not only does it offer more than two hundred varieties of delicious chocolate candies, it has an upstairs restaurant where you can enjoy a four-course dinner that features chocolate in some form in each and every dish.
A while back, I wrote a blog about my fictional sleuth putting on a few pounds during her time in Berlin. I called it “Fattening Up the Franchise.” It’s just possible that I was projecting the wages of my own dark sins onto her.