Raising the Bar: Exploring Artisan Chocolate
Exploring Artisan Chocolate
A few years ago I set out to learn how to taste and understand fine chocolate. Not the chocolate made by companies with big marketing budgets and slogans like “best chocolate in the world,” but rather fine chocolate by artisan makers. These small batch ‘bean-to-bar’ makers are combining new and antique technology to process carefully sourced cacao, often collaborating directly with the farmers, to achieve the finest flavor possible. By working directly with small farms and co-ops, they are contributing to a more sustainable and fair cocoa economy. Learning about what these chocolate makers are doing inspired me to learn to make chocolate myself and my family will definitely agree with you if you call me obsessed.
Most of us like chocolate. But have you paused to consider exactly what you taste when you eat it? The chocolate confection that most of us grew up with has many ingredients that obscure its flavor, such as stabilizers and artificial flavors and sweeteners. In fact, the actual cocoa content is so low that I hesitate to call these candies ‘chocolate.’ Fine artisan chocolate, on the other hand, only has one or two ingredients: fine cacao beans and usually, but not always, sugar. Its cacao is procured from a more diverse gene pool, often heirloom and wild varieties and because it comes from a single origin, we can trace the ethical standards by which it was grown and sold. This cacao is grown for flavor; its intensity can be a shock to your palate if you are not used to eating it. This is the chocolate that I’m obsessed with.
How to taste chocolate: First, look at the chocolate, smell it, and crack it in half. What does the aroma tell you? Does it have a nice snap when you break it? Put it on your tongue. Chew it once or twice to break it up and then let it melt slowly. Observe how the flavors develop. If you are sampling multiple bars, sip water between tastes. Save the wine, coffee, or other pairings for later.
Fine chocolate offers a perfect balance of bitter, sweet, acidic, astringent, and, of course, that soothing fatty base that we all love. If any one of these (including sweet from sugar) is too powerful, the other elements and the aromatic flavors will be upstaged. The range of flavors one can sense is vast and might include floral, fruity, savory, fresh, herbal, spicy, earthy, and more. As with wine, description of these flavors is limited only by your imagination and the excellence of your chocolate. A single bar of chocolate might evoke taste sensations such as wintergreen, cinnamon, wine, cedar, and raspberry. Or it might inspire non-flavor words to describe it, such as ‘sparkles,’ ‘blunt,’ or ‘walking down a forest path.’
Here are a couple of fun ways that you can develop your own chocolate palate.
Compare origins: Try single-origin bars made with beans from different cocoa growing regions. Cocoa only grows within about 20 degrees of the equator and it is found all around the world within this ‘cocoa belt.’ For example, taste 70% bars made with beans from Madagascar, Mexico, Ecuador, and Vietnam.
Compare makers: Choose three or four bars made by different makers using the same beans from one country or region or even estate. For example, look for three different makers’ 70% bars made with Marañon (Peru) cocoa.
Try some inclusions: Chocolate has grown up since the old days when a ‘bar with stuff in it’ meant Cadbury Fruit and Nut, or Hershey’s with almonds. Many artisan makers are adding unique ingredients, such as absinthe, heritage spice blends, and smoke. Three of my favorite inclusion bars are: Brown Butter by Fruition, Triple Ginger by Patric, and Dominican Spice by Cacao Prieto.
Not ready to stray from your precious milk chocolate? Go out on a limb and try some dark milk. The latest development in the artisan chocolate movement is the ‘dark milk’ bar. Traditional milk chocolate is made using 40% or less cacao which results in a delicious but very sweet bar. Dark milk bars are made with 60% or more chocolate and have less sugar. Sirene makes my favorite, but virtually any dark milk bar that you find will be delicious and intriguingly different from traditional milk chocolate.
Become a fan. Follow the work of your favorite artisan chocolate makers. I am always discovering new makers, but a few who I love and follow include: Patric, Fruition, Marou, Palette de Bin, Map, and Vicuña. Just like wine or beer, every batch from a small maker will be different, depending on the harvest and what the maker has decided to explore in his or her beans.
Follow my chocolate adventures at ennachocolate.com