City of Chocolate

Anna Spargo-Ryan remembers the sweet, sweet shoppe of home.

When I was a little girl my mother spent a lot of time in the law courts, being a lawyer. They were long hours. Sometimes she had to go in on the weekend and she would take us all with her, me and my brother and sister. We would wait in the car and we would fight. Someone would kick someone else. My brother would get out of the car and start running around the car park. It felt like hours. Other cars came and went and at times I thought Mum might never come back.

But she always did. And she always brought a bag of Haigh’s chocolate frogs with her.

My love of chocolate is a running joke in my family and my therapist’s rooms. I’ve never managed to save anything from Easter beyond April. I try every weird flavour spin-off the moment it hits the shelves. Strangers sidle up to me in the street and whisper, “Got any chocolate?” and usually the answer is yes. I have a choice for every occasion. Reading in bed: Maltesers. Having friends over: chocolate orange. Feeling blue: Green & Black’s milk block.

And there’s only one way to treat homesickness.

Among the rush of inner-city Adelaide is Beehive Corner, a neo-Gothic building built more than 120 years ago. It’s beautiful: all spires and nickel-plated columns and plate-glass windows. And since 1922, it’s been home to Haigh’s Chocolates.

When you grow up in that town, there’s a good chance you’ll be inducted into many food fandoms. You will enjoy the strange brown liquid that is Sno Top. You will spend your life explaining what a real Yo-Yo biscuit is. You will eat Golden North giant twins and Balfour’s pies, and drink Farmer’s Union Iced Coffee and reminisce about pie carts.

But more than anything, you will love Haigh’s. Ideally, you will develop a sense of ownership of it, busting into other people’s conversations to remind them how good it is. You will order it online and open the silver packaging with reverence. You will wake in the night, still muttering “Haigh’s peppermint pastilles” from your dreams. And you will always, always talk about it as though you alone discovered it, as though you were the one who, 100 years ago, founded the company with your own two hands.

Like all chocolate, Haigh’s is allegedly a “sometimes food”. There were trips with my grandparents to buy a single chocolate in a small box. Later I went with my boyfriend on our way to Hindley Street, hiding a few Aprichocs in a pocket. Once, Mum bought us each the coveted giant frog, glossy in its coloured foil and bigger than our heads. (“Don’t eat it all at once!” she warned, but of course we did.) Each time I walked past that building with its spiny roof and its cocoa-scented air, I understood something special happened inside. A secret, indulgent transaction that was more than just chocolate. I knew, without knowing why, that it was an Adelaide institution. It was something no-one else could claim, like urban legends about Glenelg’s Magic Mountain theme park and having a friend who’d seen Ben Folds at Burnside Village.

When I moved to Melbourne 20 years ago, I felt I had left a lot behind. All those foods with no Victorian equivalent. I walked the strange streets with part of me missing. Everything was huge and unfamiliar. The river flowed differently, the people wore black and tipped coffee into bins, no-one knew what a Kitchener bun was. I was confused, disoriented and completely lost.

At some point I wandered into the glorious Block Arcade. Right away, it had the same vibe as Beehive Corner – the same olde worlde, fairytale mystique. The same musty hint of all the people who had been before. The same smell.

I ran into the store before I’d really even looked at it properly. “Chocolate frog!” I bleated, part of myself coming back. “Hazelnut block! Berry Chocs!” I might have frightened a few children, sure. And okay, people ran away from me. But for a second, in an arcade where I had never been, I felt connected again. Like I had remembered something. It was a burning-hot summer but I stood in the sun and let the chocolate sit on my tongue. Creamy, but not stodgy. Bitter, but not sharp. Sweet, but not sickly. Exactly as I remembered it.

Haigh’s is objectively amazing chocolate. In 2013 it was one of only 58 brands to get a star rating from the World Chocolate Awards. It’s so good that there are now more Haigh’s stores in Melbourne than there are in Adelaide. It’s in Sydney and Canberra.

But that’s not the point. Haigh’s isn’t just something delicious to stuff in your face. It’s not even mostly that. Haigh’s is a cold morning in your nanna’s kitchen. It’s sneaking freckles from your school bag on an O-Bahn bus. It’s knowing you were lucky to live in the greatest place in the world.

It’s waiting for your mum on a Saturday afternoon, and the crinkle of plastic that means you’re home again.

Anna Spargo-Ryan (@AnnaSpargoRyan) is the Melbourne-based, Adelaide-bred author of The Gulf and The Paper House, and winner of the 2016 Horne Prize. Her work has appeared in MeanjinGood Weekend, The Guardian and other places.

First published in ed#585.

Illustration by Xenia Latii.