The Mastery of Tasting Chocolate

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[Photograph: Liz Clayton]

In part one of our trip into chocolate exploration, we visited a few of Valrhona Chocolate's partner farms in the Dominican Republic to see firsthand how cacao farming in this country can affect flavor, and what developments in agriculture can influence the final chocolate outcome. We now take a look at how the actual flavors of chocolate are considered and cultivated: now that we know how the chocolate grows, how should we begin to think about its flavors?

Getting up close and intimate—often muddily intimate—with the chocolate growing climes of the Dominican Republic whetted our appetites here at Serious Sweets to know more about the diversity of chocolate farming. We picked Valrhona Chocolate's sourcing manager and "Manager of Taste Mastery" Pierre Costet's brain about how a fine chocolatier talks about chocolate, region to region, and the difference between what those in the industry understand, and what consumers are only beginning to.

As with wine and coffee, chocolate lovers increasingly have the benefit of being able to identify incredibly specific growing origins of their favorite finished product. But do we make assumptions we shouldn't based on the label? What can we really know about what a chocolate is going to taste like based on the country of origin written on the bar? Though the temptation is there to "know" in advance, Costet warns that simplification may lead your palate astray.

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[Photograph: Carrie Vasios Mullins]

"For a consumer, it's quite difficult to really distinguish from one chocolate to another," explained the master taster, who has been on the forefront of defining a still-nascent vocabulary for chocolate tasting that's still leagues behind, say, wine.

"We used to have about 20 descriptors to describe a profile of chocolate," said Costet in an interview on location from Valrhona's farm in the Dominican Republic. "We decided to increase the number of descriptors in 2006, and today we've got 35. We need 35 descriptors to ensure that we will describe all the flavors in the cocoa—we really needed more."

It's through these descriptors that chocolatiers can group chocolate flavors into families and profiles, rather than simply categorizing them by origin. "In fact, our quality system is no longer to check whether it's coming from Madagascar or Haiti, but to check in which flavor family it's going," said Costet. So while chocolate can vary dramatically along the spectrum of flavor—for instance, you might taste bread, nuts, jam, spices, and ripe yellow fruit, with brighter or more muted acidities—these flavors, though affected by terroir, are not predictable based simply on the chocolate's origin country.

And while one of the reasons for this is that regional classifications simply haven't been established—some countries are starting to work on this, like Colombia and Ecuador—another is that the technology involved in cacao farming is antiquated and imprecise. From the actual cacao trees growing on the farm to the processes of fermentation and dring, varieties are invariably commingled.

"At the end, very often, you've got a blend. High quality, but it's a blend. In the future we will be really able to adapt fermentation and drying to what is exactly in the field, and that will really widen the differences in between the cocoas," said Costet.

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[Photograph: Liz Gutman]

And of course while both terroir and processing at the farm level will impact what these distinct flavor families are, it's up to the chocolatier to compose the ultimate flavor in the stages of roasting, conching, and the art of balancing fats and sugars. "Chocolate is not so difficult," laughs Costet, who says Valrhona allows the unique flavors of the chocolate itself to guide them in getting it to its final point.

"To give you another example, when we design a new chocolate, we are not designing the total identity. It's not important for us whether it is very strong. We try to make a chocolate that tastes chocolate, so it's something you want, it's something long, you will have a lot of discovery when you taste it, it takes time, the flavors will come little by little, the acidity, the fruits, and then the flowers, and then the spices, and then the bitterness and astringency. And what will remain in your mouth will be bitterness and astringency," said the Taste Master.

"It's like a train coming little by little," said Costet of the tasting process—and perhaps, coincidentally, of the growing science of understanding the flavors of chocolate. Rather than rushing into definitions and easy categories, the act of tasting of chocolate itself can be compared to the ongoing process of discovering chocolate's many flavors, flavor families, and all the complexities within that we're just beginning to build a vocabulary for. But don't forget to stop and savor each individual piece along the way, letting it slowly reveal its language to you—like Costet's locomotive metaphor.

"We work at this to make this a long, long train," the master taster says. That's the richeness of the chocolate."

About the author: Liz Clayton drinks, photographs and writes about coffee and tea all over the world, though she pretends to live in Brooklyn, New York. She is the creator of Nice Coffee Time, a book of photographs of the best coffee in the world, published by Presspop, is the New York City correspondent for Sprudge.com, and contributes to other outfits worldwide.

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