Guide: Chocolate for Connoisseurs

Chocolate—of the finest quality—is spell-bindingly sensuous in the mouth, an artisanal victual that deserves to be savored with love and care

Chocolate— real chocolate, not the mass-produced confection piled upon supermarket shelvesis a sensuist's delight, its emotional resonance making a square of the finest dark a luxury to be imbibed, eyes closed, with pleasure and pause.

Origins

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For centuries, chocolate was imbibed as a drink, not eaten. Today, hot chocolate remains a hot favorite for many

The Aztecs first christened chocolate xocoatl ("bitter water"), and proclaimed it a cloud-borne gift from their feathered deity Quetzalcoatl. Served as a viscous liquid, it was believed to bestow divine faculties upon the drinker. When Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés swashbuckled his way into Mesoamerica, chocolate-drinking had reached its apex of decadence: then-Aztec ruler Moctezuma himself enjoyed his chocolate iced, chilled by runners bearing snow from the mountains.

Cortés became the first exporter of chocolate, and its hypnotic power spread over Europe like a dark spell from Quetzalcoatl himself. It was there that refined sugar was first mixed into the murky brew; upper society ladies spiked theirs with orange and cinnamon. The Europeans then fattened chocolate by adding milk...and in the 19th century, Briton John Cadbury emulsified chocolate, making history—and the first solid chocolate bar.

How It Is Made

The magical allure of chocolate stems in part from the painstaking process it takes to produce your glossy slab. In its raw form, chocolate is a bean from the tropical Theobroma cacao tree. First, the pale white beans are extracted from their fleshy pods, "sweated" to remove excess moisture, then dried and fermented. Fun fact: the "sweating" step is a crucial one—if the beans aren't thoroughly dry, the resultant cocoa will retain an astringent taste reminiscent of raw potatoes.

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Ground cocoa nibs. Cacao beans were used as currency in the Yucatan region as late as the 1840s

After roasting, de-shelling and grounding, you are left with a thick liquor that is the base for chocolate as we know it. Much like how cream is separated from milk, the liquor is then further broken down into cocoa solids and cocoa butter. It's the varying proportions of sugar, cocoa butter, cocoa liquer, vanilla and other, sometimes esoteric additives—chili for example—that give rise to the dizzying plethora of different chocolate types and flavors.

Dark Versus Milk

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Milk Chocolate. Note its immediately recognizable cafe-au-lait color

Ah, that perennial debate among chocolatiers—milk or dark? First, a primer on those contentious adjectives. Milk chocolate must, by EU regulations, contain at least 25 percent cocoa solids, blended with sugar, cocoa liquer and, of course, milk or condensed milk. Despite sneering from some purists, very fine milk chocolate can be had these days. Houses like Amedei and Pralus tout the nostalgic, piercingly simple pleasures of milk chocolate, and have experimented with region-specific milk, to produce versions of that childhood favourite boasting an unbeatably lush, voluptuous creaminess.

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The bioflavonoids in dark chocolate have been shown to elevate mood and lower blood pressure

Dark chocolate is more austere, with little to no milk added. For those with a stickler for rules, EU regulations contend that "dark" chocolate must comprise of 35 percent cocoa solids, but extremely dark bars may hit 70 to even 80 percent. What makes dark chocolate so appealing is its velvety texture and sophisticated subtlety. Proponents compare it to wine, with fruity accents that sound like the tasting notes of a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon: apricot, raisin, raspberry...Finally, we have couverture, with its cocoa butter content of 50 percent and above yielding a supreme sheen, a satisfying "snap" when broken and a rich mouthfeel. Because of its high cocoa butter content, couverture chocolate from brands such as Valrhona is often melted as glazing for premium desserts. 

How to Select

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If chocolate splinters or feels mealy to the touch, it may have been adulterated with low-quality vegetable oils

Whatever your preference, high quality chocolate should always exhibit a lustrous sheen (above). A dull surface may indicate cheap additives like wax. Next, touch. If you're at a boutique, ask the chocolatier for a sample. Good chocolate should feel silky, never sticky. Chocolate with higher cocoa butter content melts faster so if it starts to soften between your fingers within a few seconds, chances are it is of superior quality.

Break the piece into two. It should snap cleanly and decisively, and showcase a fine grain along the broken edge. If you hear a dull thud or if it crumbles, the chocolate may have been stored at too warm a temperature. Finally, scent. Chocoloate should give off a pleasing bouquet. Like judging a wine's nose, notes to look out for include vanilla, caramel and berries.

Tasting Suggestions

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Try sprinkling sea salt on milk chocolate. The salty-sweet juxtaposition will jolt your senses in the best way possible

Like any fine food, a degree of ritual will greatly enhance the experience of savoring premium chocolate. First, your chocolate should, contrary to popular perception, not be consumed straight out of the fridge. The cold blots out taste and smell, so have your chocolate at room temperature, or warm it up slightly by rubbing it gently between your fingers. 

Ensure your palate is clean: have a glass of sparkling water to remove residual flavor traces from your last meal. Place the chocolate—at least 10g, to allow for the full bloom of flavor—on the tip of your tongue. It will start to melt, and the cocoa butter will spread. Study the taste and texture. Is it bitter-sweet, fruity or spicy? Does it taste grainy or smooth, heavy or light? Like cognac, see if you can tease out the top, middle and base notes.

Finally, the finish and review. Has the piece of chocolate parceled out a complex string of different flavors? Does the finish linger on your palate, or is it airy and evanescent? Jot down notes if you like, so you can make comparisons in future. And there you have it, a brief guide to chocolate. Now go ahead, get out and get drunk on the joys of being a newly converted chocoholic!

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