Chocolate is one of the most unique foods on the planet in terms of available flavours notes from a single fruit. It is paralleled only by a few other foods known for such delicate artisanship and diversity of flavour, such as wine, coffee and tobacco.
Chocolate is very similar to wine in many ways. Both products can embody a range of desirable or undesirable qualities and flavours depending on some very specific conditions throughout the process. Environmental factors such as topography, season, rainfall, soil type and fermentation conditions can play a very significant role in the final taste of a bar of chocolate. Plant genetics also make a considerable contribution to flavour development. Like wine, the fruit pulp is fermented under certain conditions that greatly influence the formation of what are called the flavour precursors i.e. those compounds that are absolutely critical to the development of our well-known and loved chocolatey taste. Chocolate can even be aged in cellars for optimum flavour development and taste. Every little change in the production chain from tree to roasted bean can and will influence the final product in either beneficial or undesirable ways.
The bottom line is that every batch of chocolate can have very distinct flavours from one batch to the next and from one season to the next. No two are ever exactly alike and this is where the fun (and frustration) begin! What is exciting about this variation is that once it is well-managed and quality controls are ensured along the entire commodity chain, we can allow ourselves to explore with all our senses, the delightful differences and flavour nuances from one bar to the next, from one season to the next, from one vintage year to the next.
Yes we know it is easy to be intimidated by the thought (and act!) of critically evaluating a chocolate bar, but if you remember nothing else, remember this: taste is a very personal and very subjective thing. Let no one tell you what you should taste and what you should find in a chocolate. Have faith in your senses, and let your taste buds and your nose guide you instead. The more you learn to intentionally taste what you eat, the more you will build your flavour library and in so doing you will learn to truly tell the difference between chocolate bars and understand why you love what you love.
We’ve put together here some suggestions to help you begin to fully experience the unique flavours of dark chocolate.
#1: Clear your Palette
This should go without saying, but make sure you don’t have residual (strong) flavours in your mouth! This could be from a previous meal, recent tobacco use, a caffeinated drink, or even other chocolate. Make sure to rinse the mouth with a small amount of water before and between tastes of chocolate.
#2: Be Mindful!
Take your time to evaluate the chocolate. It is always helpful to cultivate a relaxed mood before you sample your first piece. The chocolate should preferably be a room temperature. If recently removed from the fridge, allow it to come to room temperature.
#3: Take in the look, feel and smell
Observe the colour of the chocolate. Pay attention to the shine, the thickness and especially to the way it “snaps” when you break it. Artisan, handcrafted chocolate should have a satisfying snap sensation, without being too sharp. Cup the chocolate piece in your hand and allow yourself to inhale deeply. The gentle warmth of your hands will help to slowly release the aromas of the chocolate.
#4: Place on your tongue and let melt
One of the best ways to truly appreciate the full flavour potential of chocolate is to allow it to slowly melt and cover your tongue. Pay attention to the texture as the chocolate spreads across the tongue. Resist the urge to chew!! Different parts of your tongue experience different flavours with varying intensities. Allow yourself to note what flavours emerge and what physical sensations are awakened at the beginning, middle and end of tasting the piece of chocolate. Remember, different flavours present themselves at different times in those moments of melting and so it is important that you be patient with yourself during this tasting experience.
#5: Observe the aftertaste
As you finish your tasting experience, pay attention to the lingering flavours moments after you have swallowed. Notice where they are on your tongue and notice if they change with time. Take a moment to reflect on the entire experience and feel free to help yourself to another piece to confirm what you thought you just tasted! Repetition (of the yummy stuff, at any rate) is truly your best friend.
#6: Recall the entire experience
We find it helps to try and identify names of flavours after each tasting. Writing down what you tasted tends to help a lot, and with continued practice you can even write it while you are tasting. This greatly increases your conscious awareness of each flavour from start to finish, and will help you to become a good chocolate taster with time and delicious practice!