It turns out there’s more to chocolate than I ever realised.
Like a fine wine or a premium coffee, the highest quality chocolate has subtle flavours and aromas reminiscent of the plantation where the caca0 beans were grown. Along with the cocoa mass concentration, which determines the degree of darkness, these flavour variations can be experienced in a good old fashioned tasting.
Yes, today I sat down to a formal chocolate tasting and experienced an education.
Lesson 1 — Know your cacao beans
There are three different types of cacao beans: the really good ones (criollo), the everyday ones (forastero) and a hybrid of the two (trinitario). 95% of world chocolate is made from forastero, while criollo beans (higher quality, lower yield, more susceptible to disease…) are reserved for the most special of special chocolates.
Plantation location is also becoming increasingly significant, in a similar way to grapes for premium wine and single-origin coffee. There’s a distinct trend towards single country of origin — even plantation of origin — in premium chocolate production.
Lesson 2 — The basic ingredients
Chocolate is made from a blend of cocoa mass and cocoa butter (both derived from cacao beans — for details see wikipedia!), sugar and milk. The amount of cocoa mass determines the ‘darkness’ of the chocolate — more than 50% is considered ‘dark chocolate’ — and cocoa butter contributes to the smoothness. The darker the chocolate, the better for you from a health point of view.
Lesson 3 — Mr Lindt was a genius
The smooth, melt-in-your-mouth quality we expect of chocolate today is also due largely to the invention of ‘conching’ by Rodolphe Lindt, who devised a method of mixing cocoa butter, sugar and chocolate particles that resulted in 0.2 micron particles that basically can’t be detected by our palate. Prior to this, chocolate tasted a bit gritty, owing to undissolved/mixed sugar particles.
Lesson 4 — Experience with your 5 senses
Look at the chocolate — it should be shiny and aesthetically pleasing. Listen to the chocolate — snap it close to your ear and listen for a crisp crack and look for a smooth edge. Touch the chocolate — cocoa butter melts below body temperature, so it should start to melt in your hand. Smell the chocolate — try to identify regional variations (like wine). Taste the chocolate — swirl it around your tongue to use all your taste buds… try to identify saltiness, acidity, bitterness (as well as the regional variations). Focus on what’s going on inside your mouth!
Lesson 5 — Taste from darkest to lightest
Start with the darkest, most intense chocolate and move through milk and then white. (Not what I expected.) This is because you start with the purest chocolate, uncontaminated by additives (such as sugar…).
The taste test
Our tasting this morning was conducted by a Melbourne company called Chocoholic Tours as part of the Chocolate Journey walk.
- We started with a 72% dark chocolate from NZ company Whittakers, beans from Ghana.
- Next was a 67% dark Belgian chocolate from Callebaut (the world’s largest provider of coverture chocolate). The beans were Madigascan and a blend of all three types — with hints of blueberry, licorice and coffee.
- Then came a 65% Swiss chocolate from Felchlin, a company that only uses criollo beans from 100-yr old trees in Venezuela — with hints of coffee, plumb, orange blossum and cinnamon. (my favourite!)
- Followed by the first milk chocolate, also from Felchlin, this time 38% cocoa mass.
- We had to try a mediocre chocolate of course, 32% milk chocolate entirely made from Callebaut Javan forastero beans, which we dubbed ‘Easter Egg chocolate’.
- Last one was a white chocolate (zero cocoa mass, only cocoa butter). Callebaut again, 29% cocoa butter with the rest being sugar and milk. Very good quality for a white chocolate — but can it really be considered chocolate?
Going through each chocolate, step by step, focusing on the five senses (especially the palate swirling) was amazing. I could really taste the difference between them… and it made me realise I should eat chocolate this way all the time. Not that I should regularly do a progressive tasting, but that I should stick with good quality chocolate and focus on the experience, rather than just shovel it in.
Lesson 6 — How to make hot chocolate
There was one more lesson to follow — we visited Chokolait, a wonderful little cafe in the Hub Arcade that specialises in hot chocolate. Here, we tried the most amazing hot chocolate, and found out how to make it! The key tips are:
- Use good quality chocolate (doh!). Chokolait has several different single-origin chocolates and blends available (plus additives like chilli).
- Melt the chocolate first. This is to prevent too much mixing when you add the milk.
- Add the textured/steamed milk to the molten chocolate, not the other way around, and fold gently. You don’t want to mix too much to destroy the texture.
- Ratio is approximately 1/3 chocolate to 2/3 milk.
So, there endeth the chocolate lesson. What’s your favourite chocolate experience?