How to Taste Chocolate Like an Expert
Just Because It's Expensive Doesn't Mean It's Good
“Try to recall the smell of foods you like (such as freshly baked bread or pungent cheeses) or the aroma of nature itself: flowery, herbal, spicy. Remember the smell of a gush of rain on a hot street pavement, the tempting scent of ripening fruit, or the disturbing pungency of slightly rotten fruit.”
–Maricel E. Presilla, The New Taste of Chocolate
“Hold your nose,” instructs Cat Black. On her cue we spoon some melted chocolate into our mouths and taste without smelling, quietly considering what’s happening in our mouths. Contrary to the deliciousness my brain is anticipating, it’s an anticlimax: I can detect a slick of chocolate across my tongue and some vague sweetness, but almost no flavor.
After a few moments, Cat signals to let go of our noses. Whoosh! As the aroma molecules waft from my mouth to the back of my nose, they fire the nerve signals that tell my brain about the different compounds in the chocolate. Suddenly there’s a flood of flavors: rich chocolate, a little bitterness, some bursts of fruitiness. And just when I think the flavors are fading, I detect a wave of something else. Is it coffee? “You can see that a lot of the subtlety of the flavor of chocolate is in the aroma,” Cat says. By some estimates, only 10 to 20 percent of what we perceive as flavor comes from our taste buds—the rest is delivered through our nose.
Cat has the kind of covetable job careers advisers never tell you about at school. A chocolate expert and judge in international chocolate competitions, Cat also lectures at the International Institute of Chocolate and Cacao Tasting (IICCT) in London—and she is teaching us how to taste chocolate like professionals. As I will learn on this Level 1 course, tasting chocolate like a connoisseur is challenging and not just a matter of devouring different bars to see if we can notice the difference. Chocolate lovers like Cat would like more of us to learn to appreciate the complex flavors of fine chocolate—the “notes of origin,” as some aficionados describe it—because there is so much more to enjoy than in mass-produced bars. Fine chocolate—made from high-quality cacao beans that are often from a single origin (country or region)—is a world away from cheap chocolate confectionery (although that has its place, too).
Fine chocolate’s flavor is like a completed jigsaw puzzle, where pieces have been added at each stage of cacao’s journey from the tree to the bar. When we place a piece of chocolate in our mouth, we are tasting the genetic profile of the beans; the soil, climate and environment where they grew; the care (or otherwise) with which they were nurtured and harvested; the fermenting, roasting and other processes that turned them into chocolate. The beans themselves deliver astringent and bitter notes, and then the fermented pulp delivers fruity, winey and flowery flavors. Roasting and Maillard reactions give rise to a symphony of toasted, nutty, floral and spicy notes. Conching balances out these flavors, and then milk, sugar and other ingredients might be added. The flavors in chocolate comprise hundreds of aromatic compounds.
Appreciating all the nuances takes practice and focus—and a good palate. At one stage on my course, classmates agreed there was a note of “unripe banana” in the chocolate we had just tasted. Everyone, that is except me: I had no idea what they were talking about. But Cat stresses there is no right or wrong way to eat chocolate, and the aim should be to enjoy it. flavor is notoriously subjective; we all appreciate food differently, through the prism of our personal preferences, food culture, memories and physiology.
But connoisseurs have devised a structured approach to chocolate tasting that uses all the senses to detect the subtleties of flavor and texture. Obviously, you don’t need or even want to eat chocolate this way all the time, but it’s a fascinating and delicious thing to try.
You don’t have to buy expensive chocolate. These days, many supermarkets sell a range of high-quality “single origin” bars. Specialist chocolate suppliers and makers also offer ranges that enable you to enjoy an interesting variety of flavors and textures.
Avoid tasting chocolate straight after eating strongly flavored food—that spicy curry might prevent you from detecting some of the subtle notes—and clear your palate by drinking water before you start. On the IICCT course we were given soft polenta.
Look at the chocolate
First, look at the chocolate and notice whether it’s light or dark. Although there are no “best” colors, the shade might indicate the percentage of cacao, the kind of beans used, how they were roasted (a very dark or black color might indicate over-roasting, for example) and whether ingredients like milk have been added.
The surface of well-made chocolate should, generally, be smooth and shiny, indicating the cocoa butter has been properly crystallized (tempered). A “bloom” on the surface—white or light colored splotches—can occur if the chocolate has come into contact with moisture or has not been tempered correctly. It might also tell you the chocolate has melted and solidified again, for example, after being left out in the sun. (Bloomed chocolate might not be pleasant to eat but is perfectly safe.) Also notice how the chocolate breaks: a clean snap is another sign of proper tempering.
Smell the chocolate
Now, smell the chocolate. Aroma is an important but often neglected part of appreciating flavor, as Cat’s exercise demonstrated. That is because our tongues can only recognize the five basic tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, sour and umami (often described as savory). flavor is delivered through aroma compounds that have two routes to the brain: via our nasal passages when we sniff food (orthonasal olfaction) or via our mouths when we eat and breathe out (retronasal olfaction). Both ways, receptors in the nose receive the aroma molecules and send signals to the brain that allow the identifications of flavors. Interestingly, the brain detects flavors differently depending on whether we’re breathing in or breathing out, so we need to do both when tasting chocolate.
To smell chocolate most effectively, hold it up to your nose and sniff and breathe several times; some people recommend holding it in cupped hands, like you might sniff brandy from a balloon glass. Cat suggests making a note of your first impressions. “Your most immediate gut reaction is very important, if only just to tell you whether you like it or not,” she explains.
Taste the chocolate
Now, place a small piece of chocolate in your mouth. “Let it melt, don’t munch,” says Cat, echoing the IICCT’s mantra urging chocolate tasters to take their time. Allowing the chocolate to melt in your mouth, perhaps chewing it a little to break it up, enables aroma molecules “trapped” by the cocoa butter to escape and drift into your nasal cavity and through to the olfactory receptors. Quickly devouring chocolate wastes some of the interesting flavors.
Observe the texture
Notice the texture of the melted chocolate in your mouth; generally, the smoother it feels, the more it has been refined, but this is not necessarily a sign of quality. Some high-quality small-scale makers produce chocolate that is not as smooth and silky as mass-produced versions, simply because they are making it in small batches with different machinery. (Some chocolate, Mexican-style versions, for example, is intended to be slightly coarse.) There might be a fatty sensation in your mouth, due to the addition of too much cocoa butter; an unappealing waxy sensation might suggest that fats other than cocoa butter have been used, like vegetable oil.
Concentrate on the flavors
Focus on the flavors as they develop and change. Breathe out through your nose with your mouth closed and different aromas will come to you in stages; some people refer to this as a flavor “journey.” Are there tiny bursts of fresh fruit and if so, do they remind you of anything specific, like banana, raspberries, stone fruit or lemons? Are there spicy notes like black pepper, cloves or licorice? Maybe you can detect a nuttiness that reminds you of almonds or hazelnuts? Or there could be roasted flavors such as tobacco, burnt caramel or coffee.
Chocolate can also have defects that make it taste bad or flavorless. Some varieties of cacao simply taste bland or very “earthy.” But beans can also be affected by mold, which imparts a musty flavor, or contaminated with chemicals or smoke. If beans have been over-fermented they might have a “cheesy” flavor, and if under-fermented, taste flat or like “cardboard.” Over-roasting can make chocolate taste bitter and burnt.Some of the best bars deliver a series of flavors, some which linger for 20 minutes or more.
Cat says another thing to look for when tasting chocolate is the balance of the tannins. These are naturally occurring compounds in cacao beans (also in grape skins) that create a dry, bitter, astringent sensation in the mouth. These come from compounds that are part of cacao’s natural defense against being eaten by predators, and it is normal to detect them in chocolate. The finest chocolate makers balance the tannins with good flavor (and get the fermentation, roasting and other processes right) so they do not leave an unpleasant, mouth-puckering dryness.
After you swallow the chocolate, think about the aftertaste—some of the best bars deliver a series of flavors, some which linger for 20 minutes or more. Remember that whatever you taste or experience, no one’s appreciation of chocolate is wrong. Food likes and dislikes are shaped by social and cultural factors, your food history and even what your mother ate while she was pregnant. We taste with our hearts and minds as well as our tongues. In fact, a number of chocolate aficionados I spoke to while researching this book recommended ignoring the flavor notes printed on chocolate wrappers. “I hate being didactic about the flavors people should find,” Cat says. “Different people, different food cultures, have different reference points for taste. I want people to be open to the notion that there may be a journey when they taste chocolate and be attuned to it.” Really, the most important thing is: do you like it?
Our senses detect hundreds of chemicals when we taste chocolate. Once we decide whether we like it or not—the amygdala part of our brain tells us whether it is safe to eat—we sort the flavors into “archetypes” or groups based on our own personal experiences. But flavors are incredibly hard to describe: being able to detect a flavor is much easier than putting a name to it. So, here are some descriptors that might help you:
Fruity: Red berries, tropical fruit, dried fruit, stone fruit, citrus
Earthy: Wood, hay, soil, olives, nuts, herbs
Caramel: Butterscotch, brown sugar, molasses, toffee
Floral: Jasmine, orange blossom, rose
Dairy: Milk, cream, yogurt, butter
Toasted: Espresso, smoke, tobacco, burnt
Spicy: Black pepper, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, liquorice, vanilla
Cocoa: Brownie, cocoa powder, dark chocolate, fudge, chocolate milk
Nutty: Hazelnuts, almonds, walnuts, peanuts, sesame
Excerpted from Cocoa. Used with permission of Quadrille. Copyright © 2019 by Sue Quinn.
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