IT IS THAT TIME AGAIN? LET’S START IT WITH THE STAR OF THE SEASON: CHOCOLATE

Glorious Fresh Figs

I promised to write about how to truly “taste” chocolate and how to evaluate them for your specific needs. I will not bore you with any information that is available through other countless sites; however, if you have any comments and/or questions about this glorious topic please send them to me. It is quite easy to miss something that you consider important or simply you may want more details. Just keep in mind that tasting and evaluating chocolate is a very personal experience and there is no such thing as right or wrong.

Just as you thought, chocolate tasting is not a rocket science, but it could be educational, in addition to enjoyment and fun. If you want to able to differentiate among the many different brands/varieties that are available on the market today, or if you would like to know how to identify your favorite brand/product, then you need to know how to taste them skillfully. Learning to taste fine chocolate and appreciate their unique “personalities” will give you a new, pleasurable aspect to eating chocolate (it certainly did for me, after I was exposed to it at the Callebaut Academy. For those of you who are not familiar with the name, Barry Callebaut (originally from Belgium) is a global leader in manufacturing high-quality chocolate.

Since then, I have led numerous tasting events. At these events attendees were always amazed by the differences in taste, aroma or “mouth-feel” even among chocolates that contain equivalent concentrations of cocoa solids. Why? Because the taste of a pure chocolate will depend on multiple factors, such as the origin of the cocoa beans, whether the manufacturer used beans from a single source or multiple geographic locations, the method of production, the additives used and their concentration in the final product.


In this post I’d like to concentrate on tasting techniques. In the feature, I may write about other interesting aspects of chocolates.
If you have attended a wine tasting event you know that the bartender (or the leader) will tell you to sniff and inhale the aromas of the wine prior to vigorously swirling the glass which will release the different constituents of the aroma, then sniff it again to feel the difference and he/she may continue to guide you through the entire fun procedure. Chocolate tasting events are very similar.

At a large chocolate tasting event, I may have had up to 20 different “types” of chocolate, ranging from 80% dark to 44% milk chocolates. Here, I will try to concentrate on comparing and contrasting different chocolates among a few manufacturers, at times with comparable cocoa contents.

A collection of dark chocolates with various concentrations of cocoa (60% - 72%)

Believe or not, the time of the day that you taste a chocolate also makes a difference. Mid-morning or mid-afternoon is the best times because we are far from the usual meal times and more predisposed to feel the aromas and flavors of different kinds of chocolate.  In addition, the temperature of the chocolate will also affect your enjoyment. For most chocolates, the ideal temperature for releasing all its aromas is around 65-68F.


SO LET’S GET STARTED!

(I hope you can follow with a chocolate you selected for testing)

The first thing that you must do is assuring not to have any residual flavor in your mouth from previous meals (remember mid-afternoon or mid-morning times?) But if you really want to have a “clean” palate, a small scoop of any citrus-based sherbet will go a long way.

Sight

The first sense we use in evaluating a chocolate is – sight. When we walk into a chocolate shop, the first thing we do is look around – basically, we “indulge” with our eyes. As we inspect all the different types of chocolate on display we start to realize that it will not be an easy task to select a product.

Nearly the same happens in a tasting event, except that during an event we can examine the chocolate closer. For instance, good quality dark chocolate will have a smooth surface, with a deep mahogany color and a brilliant shine without any cracks, tiny holes, streaks or sugar bloom (caused by exposure to undesirable temperature changes).

Dark chocolate collections with various concentrtions of cocoa

Milk chocolate has a lighter brown color, but the degree of darkness will vary based on its cocoa content.

Milk chocolates with varying cocoa concentrations

In general, the color of the final product will be affected by the origin of the cocoa beans and the roasting process used in the creating the chocolate. For nearly my entire life time, milk chocolates used to contain may be up to 30% of cocoa solids, but (TG) as the artisanal chocolate market grew so did the concentration of cocoa in milk chocolates. Today you can find milk chocolates with up to 45% of cocoa solids, which nearly borders on dark chocolate designation. Finally, I can also eat some milk chocolate and enjoy it

Touch

The next sense we use in our expedition is touch – we pick up a piece of chocolate and feel the surface – it should feel firm, smooth and silky (not sticky) and slowly yield to the warmth of our hand. You will be surprised how the right texture enhances the tasting experience. So, go ahead and caress the piece in your hand. Do not worry about getting your hand dirty with the slowly melting chocolate; what do you thing you tongue was created for?


Smell

Smell is the third sense in our journey. Place the broken piece to the proximity of your nose; the subtle aromas should stimulate your olfactory senses with delight. Your sense of smell is indispensable in evaluating a chocolate and savoring the experience. High quality chocolate will always maintain a strong scent from its cocoa content. Most chocolates will have a sweetly fragrant aroma, but not overpowering. A good chocolate will never smell musty, medicinal, burnt or give you the feeling of being in a chemistry lab. A good chocolate will never have “no” smell, as well

Sound

When you break a piece; high quality chocolate will snap cleanly, will not crumble or fall apart. Examine the broken side of the piece in your hand: if it appears to be entirely solid (firm) and smooth all the way through with no blemishes, you have a great chocolate in your hand.

Clean snap

Taste

This is obviously the most important aspect of our chocolate tasting experience so, now go ahead and inhale the aroma one more time before placing the chocolate on the front of your tongue in your mouth.

To really taste all the flavors the chocolate contains let it sit in your mouth for about a minute. DO NOT CHEW IT! An exceptional chocolate must melt in your mouth effortlessly, reflecting its high cocoa butter content. The biggest test is, however, starts now:  do you feel the beginning of an explosion? Just about now the chocolate should feel buttery, gently melting into a creamy liquid and filling your entire mouth with its complex flavors. In order to experience the full range of flavors let it rest lightly against the roof of your mouth for another full minute. This method will assist the texture of the chocolate to reveal itself to your palate – it is radiant, yet not overwhelming, it should have a harmonious, but distinctive bouquet (Did you know that cocoa beans boast more than 400 aromatic compounds and over 300 different flavors?)

Since cocoa is a fruit, the principal taste will reflect that. But you may also taste spices, herbs, and flowers, all coming together into a wonderfully unique taste that is responsible for the extraordinary feel.

As a guide you might detect any of the following flavors (POSSIBLY WRITE IT DOWN FOR FUTURE REFERENCE): melon, citrus, orange flower, cherry, berries, plum, raisin, honey, preach, vanilla, butterscotch, licorice, cedar, almond, hazelnut, eucalyptus, toast, wild herbs, mint, bell peppers, freshly mown grass, hay, green olives, clove, exotic flowers, tobacco, tea, coffee, wine.

NOTE: Do not expect to detect more than three or four flavors in any one chocolate at a single tasting.

I personally, find it more difficult to detect as many flavors in milk chocolate as in dark because of the low cocoa content. The milk chocolate has an overpowering presence of sugar, which sometimes may overpower the different tastes and aromas. Having said that, a number of manufacturers have improved their milk chocolate by using a higher proportion of cocoa solids, therefore using less sugar. These new chocolates are worth searching for.

Finally, just enjoy the chocolate, embrace the lingering, exploding taste in your mouth. The sign of a really great chocolate is a long, well-defined aftertaste that lasts for a few minutes, like a good wine – this is the best confirmation that you just indulged yourself with a top quality chocolate.  If, however, the taste fades rapidly, it suggests either the use of cocoa that lacks an aromatic structure, or the manufacturer used acidic cocoa, which is initially pleasing to the palate but lacking the depth of character to last.

I trust you enjoyed this virtual tasting experience. Let me know which chocolates you selected for your personal experience – and why did you chose that particular one? What was the result of your experiment?

Just a brief note: Periodically, I am leading chocolate tasting/appreciation events in Southern California. If you are interested to attend one of these inexpensive indulging events, let me know; I will send you more details.

A great favor presentation