What makes a great chocolate great? Taste? Texture? Aroma? Snap? Marketing? Beans? Fermentation? Roasting? Something else? All of the above?
Identifying great chocolate is sort of like knowing art when you see it. It's hard to describe but instantly recognizable. And answering the question of what attributes constitute a great chocolate brings us no closer to an understanding of what it takes to actually make a great chocolate (bar or confection).
It is my belief that while selecting a "best" chocolate is a personal and subjective decision—it's all about individual taste preferences—identifying great chocolates is objective in the sense that a group of trained chocolate professionals can all agree when they come across it.
More Than Just Taste
It goes without saying that a great chocolate engages all of the senses. A great chocolate has to look inviting, smell glorious, make an alluring sound when we snap it or bite into it, and feel luscious in the mouth. The taste then has to invoke one of the OMG responses: Oh [pause] My [pause] God, or, ohmigawd!
It is fair to say that a great chocolate not only has no defects but that it has a certain indefinable something that transports it out of the realm of the merely very good. How do I know a great chocolate when I eat it? Well, like I said, it's like recognizing art.
Eat a Lot of Chocolate
In order to be able to recognize great chocolate it's an absolute requirement that you eat a lot of chocolate. A lot of chocolate. Really, a lot of chocolate. While I do not eat chocolate every day, I eat it as often as not. Since I started my journey to becoming a chocolate critic over fourteen years ago I reckon I have tasted (that is, consciously paid attention to what I was eating with the express intent of evaluating the sensory impressions) two to three times a week on average, consuming thousands of different chocolates (bars and confections) from hundreds of different brands.
Through all of this tasting, a pattern builds up in your mind that defines greatness to the point where it's more or less instantly recognizable the moment you pick up a piece.
Patience Pays Off
While I may not know how to define it (and, truth be told, I really don't want to because it might take all the enjoyment out of it for me), I do know what it takes to make a great chocolate: patience. To make a great chocolate you have to take the time to do every step of the process correctly, right from the very beginning.
Not only must the chocolate maker select great beans, but they must work with their farmers to ensure that the beans are optimally fermented and optimally dried. Once the beans arrive at the factory they must be cleaned properly, roasted precisely, winnowed carefully, ground gently, blended tastefully, refined smoothly (with only the highest quality sugar and dairy products if used), and finally conched lovingly. All this takes time and attention to detail coupled with a commitment to do what's best for the chocolate (not the share price) every step of the way.
For the chocolatier the tasks that confront them when making great confections can be similarly stated: start with great chocolate and then take the time to do the right thing every step of the way. Of course, if it were that simple, then everyone could not only aspire to greatness—everyone could achieve greatness. Which is clearly not the case. This is where that indefinable essence called taste comes into play.
A Balance of Textures and Flavors
Making a great chocolate also requires that all of the sensory components are properly balanced. The texture of the center—whether ganache, caramel, gianduja, or praliné—must perfectly complement the texture of the outer chocolate shell, and vice versa. The taste of all the components must also possess artful balance and harmony. It must also smell inviting and possess seductive allure to the eye.
Jacques Torres told me once, "I can teach anyone to master any technique. But taste? That I can't teach." That which can't be taught is exactly that which separates a "great" chocolate from the merely "very good."
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