The art of chocolate-tasting

A first-hand account of being schooled in taking one’s chocolate seriously

Wine-tasting? Check. Rum-tasting? Done it. Scotch-tasting? Like a pro. Chocolate-tasting? Say again? Chocolate-tasting??

I have to admit, I had no idea there even was such a thing as a ‘chocolate-tasting’. Last month, I was deliciously taught otherwise.

Chocolate-tastings, while still harbouring a pleasant air of underground gourmet adventure, are something you can book for a group through The Newfoundland Chocolate Company.

Chocolate lends itself to the science of ‘tasting’ extremely well.

What started as a home-operated venture for Brent Smith and co-owner Christina Dove, in 2008, has blossomed into their recently opened, downtown St. John’s chocolaterie, featuring a shop and on-site chocolate production. Chocolate-tastings are one of the lesser known services they offer.

Chocolate lends itself to the science of ‘tasting’ extremely well. It’s not just a matter of brand-names and ingredient combinations. Much like grapes, whose distinctions form much of the basis of wine-tasting, cocoa beans come in different varieties too, depending on where they were grown and from which hybrids they originated.

Some beans — like some grapes — are more sought after than others. I discovered one of my favourites was the Criollo variety, a rarer bean which originated in the Americas; it’s also less robust and hardy than more common varieties such as the Forastero, from which 95 per cent of the world’s chocolate comes.

If you’re looking at a decent chocolate product, Smith explains, the ingredient list will identify the type of bean. If it doesn’t, it’s likely a blend of cheap ones. Cocoa beans, incidentally, are actually seeds — the seeds of the cocoa pod (fruit).

At the tasting, Smith hands out baskets full of cocoa beans for us to try, accompanied by a pod to show us where our chocolate actually comes from. As the braver ones crunch down on the raw bean, Smith takes us through a brief history of chocolate innovations — the invention of solidified chocolate (bars), the addition of sugar and milk, etc. — before we get to the part I’ve been waiting for.

Learning to taste

Much like wine, there’s a proper way to taste chocolate. First off, you observe the chocolate. The sheen of the chocolate can tell you how fresh or old it is (ever wondered why the bars you get in discount bins sometimes have a chalky white sheen?).

Then, you caress the chocolate. The feel of the chocolate — soft, grainy, velvety, hard — can tell you a great deal about how it was produced and what type of chocolate it is you’re about to eat.

Then, of course, you smell it. Taste, Smith points out, is 90 per cent smell, so this is an important prelude to the final moment. And as for that “melts-in-your-mouth, not-in-your-hand” nonsense? Well, melting the chocolate slightly between your fingers releases the aroma more effectively, so don’t be afraid to get a bit messy.

Step 4: listen to the chocolate. Yes, you heard me. While chocolate probably speaks many things to many people, there’s a proper way to listen to it — crack that slab right in half.

Start at the top of your tongue, enveloping the chocolate tightly between your tongue and the roof of your mouth.

“A nice snap is the sign of good chocolate,” Smith explains, as the room is punctuated by dozens of little snaps.

Then — and only then — is it time for the final act: chocolate to mouth. But one isn’t supposed to just bite back on that slab. Start at the top of your tongue, enveloping the chocolate tightly between your tongue and the roof of your mouth. Then, move it around your mouth with your tongue, while opening your mouth slightly and breathing in. There’s even a word for this — oxygenating — and it helps us to taste better.

Each part of the tongue is capable of tasting different types of flavours. And, given the many flavours comprising fine chocolates, working it around your mouth as it melts and oxygenates enables you to get the full sense of just what sort of a chocolate you’re consuming.

And what then? Clear your mouth with a dry cracker (removes the cocoa butter from your taste buds) and some water and start it up all over again.

Chocolate is not a solitary sport

The aesthetics of a chocolate tasting are one of the main attractions. Seeing baskets full of glistening chocolate in all sorts of shades and scents can leave the viewer swooning — and that’s even without the accompanying wine. At the tasting, Smith’s assistant Peter explained how different reds and whites go better with different chocolates (whites are more difficult, but there are some possible pairings).

For those who want to take their night of chocolate-tasting seriously, tasting-logs are produced for them to document their impressions and write down which pairings, bean types and cocoa percentages work best for their tastes (lest the wine impact their memory the next day).

“You can dish out $200 on a bottle of wine, but chocolate is something everyone can appreciate. It’s very, very affordable — even the better chocolates.” –Brent Smith

All the fancy connoisseur-speak might have you thinking that a chocolate-tasting will drain your wallet long before it drains your appetite. Not so, says Smith, and in his view — this is the beauty of chocolate.

“Unlike wine, chocolate is accessible,” he explains enthusiastically. “You can dish out $200 on a bottle of wine, but chocolate is something everyone can appreciate. It’s very, very affordable — even the better chocolates.”

Smith says they’re usually booked to do at least one chocolate-tasting event a month. But, as St. John’s becomes more cosmopolitan, and its people become more daring and adventurous with what they eat — and how they eat it — he anticipates that will change.

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