Wednesday, July 14, 2010

the world's best chocolate

Last Saturday, I had the opportunity to see Audra McDonald perform at a small theater in the round in Orem, Utah. The theater was so intimate that I was never more than 15 feet away from her AND when she entered the stage, I could have reached over and tripped her or grabbed her depending upon my level of inappropriateness (I did neither). While this was a memorable event, perhaps even more memorable was the trip we took afterwords to visit the Amano Chocolate factory store not too far down the road.

For those of you unfamiliar with Amano Chocolates, this three-year local start-up has gained international prominence in the world of chocolate for its amazing dedication to producing the finest quality product possible from some of the best cacao beans in the world. In 2008, they stunned the chocolate world by winning a third-place finish for their Madagascar Chocolate Bar at the Academy of Chocolate Awards in London. Up until that time, nobody had really heard about Amano Chocolates. To put this honor in perspective, many chocolatiers in the past have submitted their own chocolates for years, never attaining even a mention, let alone a third-place finish. Since that time, many awards have followed.

This year, Amano became the first U.S. based chocolatier to win the rights to receive Chuao chocolate. Every chocolate maker worth its sugar hopes to one day use the Chuao beans. For the past several decades, Amedei, an Italian chocolate company, had exclusive rights to all of the Chuao beans produced. Last year, those exclusivity agreements expired and weren't renewed, making the revered bean available on the open market. Just what makes the Chuao bean so special? First of all, it can only be produced in one very small region of Venezuela in very limited quantities. The Chuao bean exhibits a wonderful complexity unmatched by other cacao bean. It is both fruity (with tones of plums, blueberries and blackberries) and smoky (molasses, coffee and almonds).

Art Pollard, the owner of Amanos, spent several weeks carefully roasting, grinding and making small test batches to better understand the Chuao bean's unique flavors before producing a pure and wonderful chocolate bar. Incidentally, a 2-ounce bar goes for $10, a bargain in the world of exclusive chocolates.

If you're hoping to become a true connoisseur of chocolate, below is a guide to tasting chocolate, courtesy of Amano's website. I must warn you, it is a little long and very detailed, but if you're like me, you'll find the entire process fascinating and will eventually incorporate it into your repertoire of snobbish behavior.

"Enjoying high-quality chocolate is an experience like no other. The flavors are rich and complex, and there is a large variation in flavors among various chocolates. In fact, the flavor compounds found in dark chocolate exceed those in red wine. For this reason, we have put together this tasting guide to assist people new to the world of chocolate tasting.

Chocolate tasting is not unlike wine tasting. Each type of chocolate bar contains its own set of unique flavor profiles. Since the cacao bean is the source of all chocolate (as grapes are the primary source of wine), its flavors can be imparted by a multitude of variables, such as topography, weather (e.g. drainage properties, etc.), post-harvesting processing (e.g. fermenting, roasting, etc.) and of course genotypic properties. With so many variables affecting the flavor of just one chocolate bar, it's important to taste carefully so that you can extract the fullest flavor potential.

First, it is imperative to taste chocolate in an environment free of distractions and background noise, such as television, music or conversations. Being able to concentrate as intently as possible will enhance flavor detection because your mind needs to focus on one task and one task only. It is often a good idea to have a piece of paper or notebook handy for you to take tasting notes in. Such things as smells, flavors, and textures should be noted.

Your palate should be clean. This means that your mouth should not contain residual flavors from a previous meal. If necessary, eat a wedge of apple or piece of bread, since these foods will wipe out all preexisting flavors without imparting their own. After all, chocolate should not taste like lasagna or beef burgandy. Water, especially sparkling water, also works as a palate cleanser.

Make sure that the piece of chocolate is large enough to accommodate the full evolution of the flavor profile. A piece too small may not allow you to detect every subtle nuance as the chocolate slowly melts. The important thing to remember is that flavor notes gradually evolve rather than open in one large presentation. Ideally, the beginning of the length (the time it takes for the chocolate to melt) will be different from the middle and the finish, so it is important to discern how the flavor evolves from beginning to end. 10g should me a minimum starting point.

Never taste cold chocolate. If it is stored in a wine cooler, allow the chocolate to rest at room temperature before tasting. Why? Cold temperatures will hinder your ability to detect the flavor. Some advise even rubbing the chocolate briefly between your fingers to coax out the flavor.

Look at the chocolate. The surface should be free of blemishes, such as white marks (called bloom). Observe the manufacturer's job at molding and tempering. Is the chocolate afflicted with air bubbles, swirling or an uneven surface (results of settling after molding), or is it clear of such defects? Also, the bar should have a radiant sheen. A matte surface is usually an indication of poor molding but will not affect the flavor. Next, note the color. Chocolate comes in a brown rainbow of multifarious tints, such as pinks, purples, reds and oranges. Some chocolates may even look black or so dark that at first glance a tint may be indiscernible. But probe further and hold the chocolate at different angles. What do you see?

Smell the chocolate. The aroma is an important component of flavor. Inhaling the fragrance and noting its profile will prime the tongue for the incoming chocolate. It further engages the senses and gives you a chance to compare how similar or different aroma and flavor are.

Break the piece in half. It should resonate with a resounding "SNAP!" and exhibit a fine gradient along with the broken edge. If you hear a "THUD" chances are good that either the chocolate was too warm or it was improperly tempered.

Place the chocolate on the tongue and allow it to arrive at body temperature. Let it melt slowly. This step is crucial, for it allows the cocoa butter to distribute evenly in the mouth, thereby muting any astringencies or bitterness of the chocolate. Chewing immediately will release these properties and might offend the palate.

Study the taste and texture. As the chocolate melts, concentrate on the flavors that unfold on the tongue. It is important to notice how the flavor evolves from beginning, middle, to end, and how the flavor exists in the finish (after the chocolate has melted).

Chewing is optional, but do not chew more than three times. Since the cocoa butter has had time to coat the mouth, chewing just may release even more flavor components. Remember, we're tasting and not eating.

Now the chocolate is nearing its finish. How has the flavor evolved? Is the chocolate bitter? Heavy? Light? Was the texture smooth, creamy, dry or grainy? Do any changes in texture and flavor occur? Take note of how the chocolate leaves the palate and slips into its finish. Does a strong reminder linger in your mouth, or does it quickly vanish?"

So, should you desire to enter the rarefied world of the very best chocolate available, you need not look further than your own backyard (for those of you located here in SLC). Amano chocolates are available at Tony Caputo's and Liberty Heights Market. For the rest of you, there's always the web. I encourage all of you to indulge just once to sample what the world's best chocolate tastes like. You may never be the same.


Sarah said...

Very cool! I'll definitely have to try some, and add chocolate tasting to my repertoire of "snobbish" habits!! :) Honestly, I think we must be genetically related.

Stephen Seko said...

I've often thought the same thing! Cooks Illustrated, CSA, weight loss obsession, Star Trek . . .

Too spooky! And rather funny we've never met!

Sarah said...

I know; if I didn't look exactly like my dad, I'd have to wonder about you and my mom 30 years ago...

Stephen Seko said...

In one of those alternate universe scenarios, perhaps I am your father. "Sarah, I . . . AM . . . Your . . . FATHER!" Oh, wait, that's "Wars" not "Trek."