Centuries before Nigella was seducing us to eat exotic chocolate flavours the Mexicans, Spanish and Italians had it sussed.
University of Waikato masters student Maria-Teresa Corino, Italian by birth, is immersing herself in the history of chocolate as she begins an historical novel on the subject. She has a year to complete her first draft – a requirement for her Master of Professional Writing.
Helping her along the way is a $15,000 Masters Scholarship, which will cover her course fees and assist her research costs.
The former Qantas flight attendant and volunteer radio broadcaster already has arts and law degrees from the University of Sydney. She hosted her own radio show for 10 years, called belly, which mostly focussed on food and food producers, including a chocolatier. Following a move with her partner to New Zealand, Maria-Teresa has been studying English papers at the University of Waikato.
“I’d been doing MOOCs [massive open online courses] before I began university study and it was when I was doing one of those I found a story that talked about Hampton Court in the days of the Georgian kings and how there was a kitchen just to make chocolate,” Maria-Teresa says.
Back then, chocolate was only consumed in liquid form. It was as exotic and expensive as spices; aristocratic hypochondriacs would use it as medicine, and because of the intensity of flavours in the chocolate and the spices that were added to it, it could also be used to disguise poison.
“Chocolate cooks had access to royal bedrooms and I got to thinking about the goings on in those different levels of the palace and the potential for a murder mystery. That was plan A, but the story is already changing into something else as I write it.”
Maria-Teresa is the daughter of a “restless wine-maker”. She and her family are from Alba, which is where the international chocolate company Ferrero had its origins, so chocolate’s long had a presence in her world.
“Yes, definitely the idea of writing a novel about chocolate has been stewing for while,” she says. “I speak three and a bit languages so I’ve been doing a lot of research, reading, and watching videos and YouTube, learning about the old chocolate-making techniques and also finding out about some of the early characters involved in chocolate making. Producing a secret, special blend was a way to show off. There certainly existed a chocolate diplomacy.”
Maria-Teresa continues to research her subject. She’s already done loads, but still needs to do more. “The staff in the university library are being amazing, helping me research ─ online databases, and getting books often in the original Italian or Spanish. This is one of the main reasons for doing this project, or any project within a university – there’s so much support and advice available from a broad range of sources.” Help and encouragement also comes from her supervisor, writer Dr Tracey Slaughter, and her classmates who are working on their own projects.
Creative writing students are set weekly deadlines and their writing is workshopped in a group setting. It would be easy just to keep on researching, Maria-Teresa says, but having to bring writing to class each week means she’s had to start crafting her story.
In addition to her masters study, Maria-Teresa works about 10 hours a week as an e-tutor at the university, helping staff and students with e-learning technologies, and as a writer-for-hire on a completely different writing project – a history of the Tauranga Rowing Club. “I constantly find myself using the writing, editing and peer review skills that I’ve learned here at Waikato on both those jobs,” she says.