Saturday, 15 August 2009

Roses chocolates (Σοκολάτες Τριαντάφυλλα)

For a Greek chocolate story, try ION .

Roses chocolates. There was always a box of these lying around in our house. It was my favorite chocolate; in fact, I never ate any other kind, and I'm still not a chocolate bar kind of person. But I can never tire of Roses chocolates. Who could ever tire of Roses chocolates, with their colourful wrappers, the different shapes, the explanatory leaflet listing all the unique flavours. You could never confuse one with another: each chocolate had its own unique coloured wrapper, making them look like precious jewels sitting in a window display.

It was always a delight to find the queen's face imprinted on the plastic lining of the box, lying under the dairy milk chocolate with the purple wrapper. The sturdy box they came in was highly sought after; we all fought over who would get to keep it once all the chocolates had been eaten. I had one for storing photographs, letters and gifts from my penpals, and another one for my stamp collection, an almost forgotten hobby in our times with the demise of snail mail.

We each had our own favorite Roses flavour. Mine was the toffee fudge which turned soft and chewy when it had been in your mouth long enough. My sister liked the minty one, my mother preferred the hazelnut, while my father wanted the barrel shaped one that tasted of alcohol. And we had second favorites too, because there were only two of each flavour, but they were all delicious, and no one could resist them, even if their favorite flavour had run out.

Roses chocolates were expensive. We never bought them ourselves, yet two boxes were always to be found in the cupboard of the living room wall unit in our house. They had all been brought to us as presents on my father's nameday, wrapped in Christmas paper printed with the words "Season's Greetings" and decorated with pine trees covered in snow, even though summer was only just beginning.

We weren't really allowed to eat them ourselves. They were for serving guests as they arrived to our house to join us on Christmas Day. It has always been customary to carry a small gift to namedays, usually a home-made sweet, the only affordable custom of the time in my parents' Greek villages. As immigrants, they maintained this custom, so that wherever we were visiting, my mother would make a pavlova, a karidopita. We never bought store-made cakes and sweets into our home; Mum made everything. If she didn't have time to make something, then Mum would take out one of the wrapped boxes of Roses chocolates from the cupboard, in lieu of a home-made Greek sweet, the same ones her guests had brought to our house when they were visiting us. A large cluster of namedays are celebrated from October onwards, so the Christmas wrapping paper wasn't seen as inappropriate; in any case, New Zealanders are always being reminded to send off their Christmas cards early. Sometimes Mum would ask us to change the wrapping paper, like for instance on St George's Day which was always after Easter, because it would've been obvious that we were recycling our presents, even though everyone did it anyway.

roses chocolates
The explanatory leaflet is now more eco-friendly...

These chocolate boxes made their way from one Greek house to another all over Mt Victoria, Hataitai, Kilbirnie and Miramar, the Greek suburbs of Wellington. This was convenient because the boxes didn't need to travel very far; it was easier to take care of the wrapping paper so that it suffered less wear and tear. They had probably started off on a display shelf in Woolworths, above the pick'n'mix counter where you could choose your favorite Roses flavour and buy it in bulk. Whenever I saw those chocolates piled high in the transparent glass containers, my mouth would water; I often wished I could choose my own flavour of Roses chocolates, buy a humungus bag full, take them home and stash them away in a secret drawer so that I could eat them whenever I wanted.

As the guests arrived, they would greet us with the customary Χρόνια Πολλά! (hronia polla - "may you have many years of life to celebrate!"), and they'd pass on a cake or wrapped box of chocolates (or some china ornament) to us. We in turn thanked them, and then the kisses on both cheeks would start, everyone's faces becoming slightly damper. The guests were led into the lounge, the only room in the house that was used only two or three times a year for celebrations like this one (which explains why it hardly ever needed dusting or tidying up). They'd take a seat in the plush velvet armchairs spread with anti-macassars and my mother would pour liqueur into a small stem glass for the women and a shot of whisky on the rocks in a glass tumbler for the men, all served on a silver tray with a crochet doily lining it. I would follow behind her with the open box of Roses chocolates. The box would then be closed and returned to the cupboard, ready to be taken out when the next guest arrived.

I recall one occasion when there was no open box of chocolates. Concealing my movements, I took one of the wrapped boxes from the cupboard (just in case someone recognised the wrapping paper as their own) and went to the kitchen to open it, just as the guests had seated themselves. Mum was serving them their drinks and I followed en suite with the chocolates. The box was the old-style shoe-box type; this was about the time when Cadbury had changed the packaging of Roses chocolates and began selling them in soft blue flexible cardboard boxes which opened from a side flap, with a piece of cellophane on the front so that the chocolates could be seen. But these boxes could never replace the majestic look of the old boxes, especially since the chocolates were all mixed together, rather than sitting in their own little space, serving as a kind of throne; the newer box wasn't made to be kept, either.

roses chocolates
Roses wrappers are not as charming as they once were, and they never carried warning signs like "Contains nuts or soya products" like they do now.

After serving the guests, I took one myself, a treat we allowed ourselves only when the box of chocolates was being opened for the first time. I took the wrapper off the strawberry-flavoured heart-shaped wrapper, which was overly sticky. I bit into the chocolate; that, too, was a soft sticky mess. I suddenly realised to my horror that these chocolates must have been bought years ago, and had been doing the rounds of the Greek households for a long time, ending up in the back-most corner of our wall unit, waiting patiently to be used. As I furtively left the room, taking the box of chocolates with me, to chuck out the remaining ones and puke up what I had swallowed, I suddenly noticed a trail of ants that were marching to and fro, from the wall unit to a corner of the room which I could not ascertain, as they were keeping themselves well camouflaged on the red and yellow floral carpet, and their trail was disappearing under the heavy velvet sofas. Oh, fuck, I thought. Whether anyone got sick or had caught wind of what was going on with the chocolates, I never found out.
The liqueur must have countered the effects.

*** *** ***

Roses chocolates were unheard of in Greece at the time of my arrival. I went completely off chocolates in Greece - nothing came close to my favorite ones. I had to learn to accept so many other more essential novelties in my new surroundings (like diposing used toilet paper in a trash can next to the WC). Learning how to enjoy new brands of chocolate was a long lengthy process similar to evolution; it came towards the end of the process, a skill mainly acquired after I became a mother.

The only time I saw boxes of Roses chocolates in Greece was in the advertisements of English magazines which I'd treat myself to every now and then, read while lying on the beach or in the middle of the day when the sun was so hot it had heated up the cement that Greek houses are all made of, making them unbearably hot, too hot to even sleep, as you'd only end up waking in the pool of sweat that your bedsheets would become. It was also in Greece that I learned to store chocolates in the fridge. They always melted if they were left anywhere else. In New Zealand, butter needed half a day just to soften outside the fridge, let alone melt (apparently, there's no butter conditioner in Kiwi refrigerators any longer, making butter another obsolete Kiwi food item, much like whitebait fritters).

Each reminder of Roses chocolates flooded my mind with memories of that wall unit and the boxes of gift-wrapped chocolate boxes. But it would be a long, long time before I would find myself holding another box of Roses chocolates - over a decade in fact, when I returned to New Zealand for a visit with my family. We hadn't bought much spending money, as it had cost me and my husband an arm and a leg to make that trip, travelling from the Mediterranean winter to the Kiwi summer (don't forget your brolly), with two kids in tow. So I contented myself with the sight of the chocolates on the shelves at the New World supermarket and Whitcoulls bookshops, and decided to buy myself a box as a souvenir, to take back home with us and serve in that old-fashioned manner with a drink on a silver tray to our guests who would come to greet us on our return and see our photographs.

roses chocolates
The 'Dorothy' purse or handbag

I put them in the fridge and avoided the temptation of opening the box until we finally had some company. Not even my husband had tried one yet, and when he eventually did, he couldn't understand what the fuss was all about over my preferred chocolate brand. He didn't like their overly sweet colourful fillings, preferring something far more simple, like the Greek ION Amigdalou. The glossy foil wrappers made choosing which chocolate to take difficult, since they didn't give away the flavour they were hiding. The flavour combinations were simply too exotic for his liking: mint is still associated only with chewing gum and cough lollies in Greece. The children spat them out in disgust; these chocolates were clearly an acquired taste, too adult-ish for their liking.

roses chocolates
Desecration or enjoyment?

The last straw came when I served them to my guests. I let them each choose a chocolate and left the box on the coffee table while I busied myself in the kitchen making coffee and filling up glasses of water. When I came back into the lounge, I found half a dozen unwrapped chocolates on the table that had all been bitten into and had then been discarded. How denigrating; my Greek friends had no idea how sacrilegiously they had behaved.

*** *** ***

Roses chocolates is an English invention that has been enjoyed for years in New Zealand, being the chocolate of choice to celebrate an anniversary or as a thank-you present. I'm older and wiser to know now that in my house, only I can enjoy Roses chocolates in my house, therefore, I deserve the whole box to myself. When they come into my house, I hide them, somewhere at the back of the fridge (mum's territory), coming into view only when I use the tomato paste which they are hiding behind. I must remember to limit myself - they need to last a long time; they don't come into my house easily. With each bite I savour of a Roses chocolate, I bring back memories of a life I can never go back to, and an upbringing I cannot relate to my children in a comprehensible way. They need to see it for themselves, and maybe read this story to understand their mother's poignant gaze whenever she sees a picture of a box of Roses.

A big thanks to Stella for the Roses chocolates.

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