I had an unusual opportunity a few months back: I was invited to taste chocolate with professionals from France’s revered Valrhona chocolate company, and…here’s the best part!…to learn the secrets of professional chocolate tasting.
Whoa. I’m a taster. I’ve got tasting theory galore about, cheese, ham, steak, and on and on and on. I’d be happy to do a carpet tasting, if you want, with guys from Kashmir leading the charge.
But no one before had proposed a chocolate tasting primer. So of course I was fascinated, and of course I got on the #6 train post haste in pursuit of that gorgeous transformed theobroma (which, basically, is chocolate!)
Before I spill the didactic beans, as it were…I’d like to put Valrhona in context…and chocolate itself in context!
I always think of the chocolate world as having three tiers:
1) The Plantation Tier
Cacao beans (theobroma cacao) are grown on chocolate plantations in tropical climates (most of the world’s beans today are grown in west Africa, but South America, the Caribbean and southeast Asia grow large amounts as well). After growing the beans and harvesting them, plantation workers process the beans so that they become ready for transformation into what we call “chocolate.” But the transformation does not take place at the plantation. These “chocolate-ready” beans are then shipped to other places, usually northern, where beans undergo the all-important transformation into “chocolate.”
2) The Chocolate-Making Tier
France. Belgium. Switzerland. Hershey, Pennsylvania. You know the places. Such large companies as Valrhona, Lindt, Callebaut, and, yes, Hershey’s, receive the cacao beans and, through a rather complicated process, yield chocolate–usually in large blocks of the stuff. Typically, these blocks are shipped off as they are…to bakers and restaurants who buy big blocks of chocolate, or to other companies who then transform chocolate into a “product” the consumer can use. Today, of course, companies like Valrhona are making their own “products” from the chocolate they’ve created; the hot thing in the chocolate world for years now has been “bars” of chocolate created by chocolate-makers like Valrhona, usually marked with either the percentage of cacao beans used (I like 70%), or the region in which the beans were grown…..or both!
3) The Candy-Making Tier
But the world used to rely on tier-#-3 guys to get the chocolate to the people. Unfortunately, there is no great word for what this tier produces, so I’m going with candy. In France, professionals often call these candies “bon-bons.” But it’s much easier to give you a picture. When you walk into the Godiva shop, or La Maison de Chocolat, or any of the hundreds of chocolate candy retail shops around the country, you will see beautifully laid-out little candies in the cases: this one with a raspberry filling, that one a French-style truffle, etc. I myself call these “bon-bons,” and they are the products made on this tier. Usually…though there is much cross-over in the chocolate world today…a master chocolate-maker like Jacques Torres in New York will buy large blocks of tier-#-2 chocolate from chocolate producers, then convert those blocks at his atelier into “bon-bons.”
So let’s focus on Valrhona, for a moment. Created under another name (La Chocolatier de Vivarais) in 1922 by Albéric Guironnet, a pastry chef, Valrhona’s central operation is in southern France, in the Rhône Valley…which accounts for the company’s name, coined in 1947, a kind of twist on “Rhône Valley.” The factory, in fact, is in the heart of the Rhône Valley-making region; located in the town of Tain l’Hermitage, right on the banks of the Rhône, the building can be spotted from the legendary hill of Hermitage, as you stand among the famous vines and look down to the river.
I have been through their processing plant, seen the large bags of cacao beans come in from the tropics, watched the conching and tempering and all the other “ings” that finally yield big blocks of “chocolate.” Valrhona sells the big blocks, of course, to restaurants, institutions, etc…but sales to retail consumers today are dominated by Valrhona bars with cacao percentage on the wrapper. Valrhona chocolate is now available in 73 different countries; you can get yours at Whole Foods, regular supermarkets, gourmet groceries…and from Valrhona’s website: www.valrhona-chocolate.com
So let’s taste some.
The most important idea that came out of my tasting with Valrhona was the Tripartite Principle: taste every chocolate sample three times, in succession. To get the full effect, you must be tasting an unflavored chocolate; a beautiful bon-bon from Vosges Haut-Chocolat with a ginger ganache inside will not behave properly in this tasting! Look instead for something like a Valrhona 70% bar with no flavorings.
The very first bite of a chocolate sample will yield flavors of fruit and flowers. Fruit? Yes…I’ve long known that…if you’re lookin’…some chocolates taste like red berries, cherries, tropical fruits, maybe bananas. But I didn’t know that that’s the flavor storming your palate up front.
The second bite, taken right after the first, will yield flavors that are described by the Valrhona pros as “warm”…dried fruits (not fresh), and spices (things like nutmeg and mace come easily to mind).
The third bite, taken right after the second, brings on the roastie-toasties: woody tastes, roasted coffee, and a bit of bitterness, perhaps.
Why is this succession important to know?
First of all, clearly, if you taste each chocolate three times you’ll be getting more flavors out of that chocolate.
Secondly, these notes act as guidelines for your palate. steering you towards the apprehension of different flavors at different times.
Lastly, this knowledge facilitates the making of better judgments about chocolate, on a very personal level. If you’re a lover of, say, roasted notes in chocolate, and if you notice, for example, that a sample you’re considering has huge fruit in the first bite, moderate warmth in the second bite, minimal roast in the third bite–you’re broken it down analytically, and may conclude you don’t want to buy this chocolate. However, if the ratios are reversed in your tasting…if the third bite is a blast of roastie-toastie, and the other bites are quiet…you’ll be led towards the purchase of this sample.
It really is akin totasting. Yes, one sip for me can tell me if I like the or not…but breaking a taste of into “now I’m looking for fruit, now I’m looking for acid, now I’m looking for tannin,” etc., really helps the professional make judgments.
IDEAS FOR CHOCOLATE TASTINGS
While I was researching this story, I found a very good suggestion on the internet for different kinds of chocolate tastings:
Suggested Chocolate Tasting Sessions
There’s no one prescribed tasting session. You can be creative and come up with your own combinations of chocolates to sample. Here are some suggestions to get you started.
Collection of %Cacao: Try a range of chocolates from low (say, 35% cacao) to high (82%). You’ll be tasting across the gamut of milk, bittersweet, semisweet and extra dark.
Single %Cacao: Find different chocolates all at the same percentage. For example, taste only 70% Cacao chocolates in one session. Note the subtle differences.
One Kind of Chocolate: Try a selection of only bittersweet chocolates, or only milk chocolates. Experience the array of aromas, textures and flavors.
Single Origin: Sample chocolates from different regions. Observe the variations between chocolates from Central and South America countries like Guatemala, Venezuela and Ecuador; or between African, South Pacific and Asian regions.
American vs. European Brands: Taste artisanal American chocolates like Scharffen Berger and Dagoba and see how they compare with French and Belgian chocolate bars. All come in different percentages of cacao, and some brands also make single origin versions.