Tasting Chocolate

On a warm, bright evening the doors of Victoria’s Plenty Epicurean Pantry were flung wide open late into the evening for a very special event: Plenty’s first chocolate tasting. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Plenty, it’s a tiny —but astonishingly full— food shop with an old-fashioned feel and a commitment to local, organic, and fair trade goods. On this particular evening, the old butcher block table that sits in the middle of the boutique was cleared off for trays of chocolate ranging from 55 to 83% . At the back of the shop, the wooden top of the cooler (an antique version that churns away in fortissimo and refuses to quit) was stacked high with bars of many origins, darknesses, and flavours.

Passersby were encourage to wander in and try as many samples as they liked. It was not long before a constant loop of curious customers were circling around the old butcher block. A few instructions were given before tasting; for example, to focus your attention on the task at hand, to take a moment to smell the chocolate first, to chew the chocolate into small pieces and then let it melt on your tongue, and to close your eyes while tasting, in order to help oneself concentrate on the experience.

According to John Scharffenberger, one of the founders of Scharffen Berger’s chocolate, it takes about six seconds to experience all the flavours and sensations in a single piece of chocolate. And something different —from the initital tartness to the following fruitiness to the smoothness and richness as the fat dissolves to the release of the tannins and the finish of sweetness— happens roughly each second. “If you can imagine these six seconds of tasting as a very short symphony,” writes Scharffenberger in the book The Essence of Chocolate, “you grasp what we’re trying to do when we blend various beans to make our chocolate.”

Chloe Doutre-Roussel, author of The Chocolate Connoisseur, offers helpful cues when tasting chocolate. “Close your eyes and ask yourself, ‘what does this chocolate remind me of?’” She includes in her book a wheel divided among aromatic families that offer some suggestions for the different flavours chocolate can provide: fruit notes may include dried plums, preserves, red berries, or tropical fruits; spicy notes could be cinnamon, vanilla, or licorice. Chocolates that lean on the side of vegetal may have a hint of hay, wood, moss, or mushrooms, while flowery varieties can smell and taste of jasmine, rose, or orange blossoms. But these are only suggestions and many chocolatiers, Doutre-Roussel among them, encourage tasters to develop their own palettes without worrying too much of what their peers may think.

At Plenty’s chocolate tasting, I took notes of my own perceptions as well as some of the customers’. It is interesting how similar some of the responses are to the same bar of chocolate, as well as how varied the experiences can be. For some, the almost pudding-like texture of the Blanxart bar from Spain is pinultimate, for others it can feel too rich. I taste an earthy, mineral start to Organic Fair’s 83% Forte bar with a berry wine finish, while a fellow taster pronounced hints of plum and caramel. Cocoa Camino’s 55% has a pronounced butterscotch and cream taste (in my opinion), while the Tazo stoneground 60% zings with a citrus fruit start and a spicy, coffee ending.

Whatever you may taste, the point is less about pinning down the exact nuances and more about discovering the art of tasting, of slowing down and appreciating the complexity of well-made chocolate. Like wine, chocolate has a story to tell of its roots and its terroir. And also as with wine, tasting within a group can be a lot fun and offer other perspectives, but should not distract you from your own personal experience.


All chocolate bars referenced here can be found at Plenty Epicurean Pantry.

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