What is chocolate? Surely it is that simple sweet indulgence, in wrappers unchanged since childhood, that we reach for when comfort calls. Well yes, but chocolate can be also so much more! In my role as a member of the Grand Jury of The International Chocolate Awards I taste the finest chocolate in the world. And from Ecuador to Copenhagen, from London to Japan, chocolate is having quite some renaissance. Increased knowledge, far better technical kit, and an appetite to reconsider the potential of this universally loved food, has created a gourmet landscape in which better chocolate is being made now than ever before.
We are used to considering wine as both plonk at the local supermarket and something worthy of far greater consideration. Grape varieties and great wine makers are of interest to sommeliers and customers alike. Chocolate connoisseurship is the new kid on the block, but there are striking similarities to that of wine. Influenced by terroir, cacao variety, and fine-tuned processing, finished chocolate has a potential for diverse and complex fine flavours that are thrilling and rewarding to the palate.
Knowledge of cacao varieties is complex, as new sub-species are still being discovered. But broadly speaking 95% of the world’s cacao is what is termed ‘bulk’ cacao, and is never going to yield much complexity of flavour. The remaining 5%, officially termed ‘fine flavour cacao’ is capable of delivering a flavour journey to thrill! I know that the first time I tasted a truly interesting chocolate, my gasps of delight and astonishment bordered on obscene!
So how best to appreciate this new wave of chocolate?
Before you put anything in your mouth, look at it. The colour of chocolate can tell you a lot. For example a light colour akin to milk chocolate in a high percentage chocolate might indicate white porcelana beans, which have a particularly mild and nutty taste.
Then smell it. Taste buds only detect basic distinctions between sour, sweet, salt, bitter and umami. The remaining detailed experience of ‘taste’ is actually aroma, and happens in the nose. This explains why we hold our noses as children to avoid tasting a food we don’t like. Try placing some food in your mouth and begin to eat it holding your nose. Then release your nose and you will experience a rapid flood of the full flavour you were missing. Both before and during tasting pay full attention to your nose.
Chocolate is uniquely sensual in that it melts at body temperature, which gives it the potential to deliver a gradual flavour journey as it melts in the mouth. So do allow it to melt. Break up larger pieces if need be, or if it is particularly cold, but chomping and swallowing too quickly only allows the first flavours of the chocolate and its tannins through, resulting in a sharper, shorter, impoverished experience. Unlike wine tasting, don’t spit chocolate out, as the aromas are all held in the cocoa butter, so allowing a complete melt and aftertaste delivers the full quality of the chocolate.
Good complex chocolate will have top notes, middle notes, base notes, and a long and pleasant aftertaste. The brightest flavours usually come first, the sweetest and nuttiest in the middle, and lastly the deepest flavour notes. Contrary to many people’s expectation, dark chocolate should not be bitter. Cacao is a delicate thing, and handling it well takes expertise and patience. Historically much cacao has been treated crudely, then over-roasted to sanitise any defects. It wasn’t the cacao that tasted bitter; it was that it was burnt! Our milk chocolate habit comes from dowsing the burnt result in milk and sugar to make it palatable.
Chocolate should only contain cocoa beans (cocoa mass in the ingredients list), sugar, and milk in milk chocolate. Soya lecithin is an acceptable, natural aid to emulsification. Vanilla, however, is an added flavour, and I even find that some types of sugar can be too assertive. I don’t think either should be present if the intention is to fully showcase the flavour of the cacao.
It is a media promoted myth that 70% cocoa mass is a holy grail, neither percentage, nor cacao variety or origin, guarantees quality. Each is only a part of the story. You wouldn’t say a wine was good simply because it was Sauvignon. The terroir, cacao variety and processing will determine the result, a fine balance of ingredients and makers skill. I would infinitely rather eat milk chocolate from a fine maker than an indifferent bar of 70%.
The winners list of The International Chocolate Awards would be a fine place to start to learn and get a feel for what you like most, whether that be the red fruit notes typically found in Madagascan cacao, or the hints of black olive that I so love in fine Nicaraguan. The best chocolate makers are striving now to be ‘true to bean’, by which I mean that they are aiming to showcase the phenomenal complexity and beauty of flavour of each individual origin and variety of cacao they work with. Which means that we, as mere chocolate eaters, have a world of wonderful flavour journeys to explore.
Bars © Rococo
Patterned chocs © Rococo
Filled chocolates © Rococo
Open cocoa pod © photographer David Brealey
Cocoa tree © photographer David Brealey