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How to buy the best chocolate

The world of chocolate is as fascinating and complex one as the world of wine but you wouldn't necessarily think so from the vast majority of what's on sale which is about as far from the real thing as a bottle of Liebfraumilch is from Yquem

To find out what you need to know to buy great chocolate I arranged to meet Sarah Jayne-Stanes, author of the award-winning Chocolate: The Definitive Guide and co-founder of the Academy of Chocolate which was set up three years ago to improve the standard and knowledge of chocolate in the UK.

Stanes believes we have all been ‘tastewashed’ by the high sugar content of the mass-produced chocolate bars we grew up with. “Sugar is not only addictive but also murders the taste of real chocolate”

Chocolate, she believes, is similar to wine, both in the way its produced and its tasting vocabulary. (She should know. She’s married to a wine merchant.) As with grapes - and coffee - there are different types of bean and terroir.

Cocoa is the product of the cacao tree which grows only in the tropics 20 north and south of the equator including south and central America, West Africa and Madagascar. The best tends to come from the north of south America - Venezuela and Ecuador - though the aromas and flavours (of which between 300 and 400 have been identified) will vary from plantation to plantation and harvest to harvest.

It was the French company Valrhona in the ‘90’s who were the first to identify and label their chocolates with specific terroirs or ‘crus’, borrowing their vocabulary from the wine trade. Now other top producers such as the Italian company Amadei, who Stanes regards as a model producer, do the same. The most highly rated plantations such as Chuao and Porcelana in Venezuela are the chocolate world’s equivalent of Petrus. “Like wine the flavour of the beans reflects the terroir” says Stanes. “Chocolate from Cuba has quite a marked tobacco note. In Ecuador you can sometimes pick up spearmint.”

There are two harvests for chocolate, one main one around November and another in April or May, Stanes explains. The weather conditions will produce beans which vary in intensity, astringency and acidity. “Sometimes the flavour is more powerful. Chuao for example can get pruney preserved plum flavours in some harvests and fresh fruit flavours in others. You can get variations within an area - even within a tree.”

The quality of chocolate also depends very much on the way the beans are handled. Quality has increased markedly since producers started to work more closely with the growers and pay them a premium rate. “When Amadei started negotiating with the growers on the Chuao estate they were paying $1.4 a kilo. Now they’re paying $8.”

As with other foods every stage of the artisanal production process takes longer than its commercial counterpart. Waiting till the pods and beans are fully ripe before harvesting. Allowing up to 9 days for the fermentation process which reduces the bitterness of the beans and enhances their flavour. Drying the beans naturally in the sun. “Some farmers use fires that are fuelled by paraffin or diesel which can leave its residue in the chocolate” says Stanes. There should be two to two and a half weeks processing before the beans are sent to the factory.

When the beans arrive they are graded and roasted. Another potential source of off-flavours if this isn’t carefully handled. “Large companies frequently roast at too high a temperature which burns the chocolate then add a lot of sugar to compensate” says Stanes. The beans are then winnowed (dehusked) and the remaining seeds or ‘nibs’ ground to a liquid paste that consists of about 55% cocoa butter. It is at this point other ingredients are added - sugar and vanilla extract in the case of artisanal dark chocolate, even more sugar, vanillin and vegetable fat in the case of cheap commercial chocolate.

The final processes are designed to enhance the texture of the chocolate and give it its characteristic melt-in-the-mouth texture. First the chocolate mixture is ‘conched’ - heated and constantly stirred to break down any remaining particles. This normally takes 8-28 hours but artisanal producers may do it for up to 5 days. “ Short-cutting the process can result in a chocolate without any perfume and one that can be excessively acid” says Stanes. Finally the chocolate is tempered through a repeated heating and cooling process to crystallise the cocoa butter and set into bars.

One myth Stanes is keen to dispel is that the higher the cocoa solids (the name for the cocoa mass and cocoa butter in a bar), the better. “That would be like judging a wine by its level of alcohol. Some beans are better at 60% than 70% which is the norm. Over 75% is too high in my opinion, let alone 100% which just wrecks the palate.”

So how should you taste chocolate and what should you look for? Good chocolate should be satin-smooth, shiny and break with a crisp snap. To taste, place the chocolate on your tongue, let it rest a few seconds then tap it on the roof of your mouth. It should spread over the palate and leave a lingering aftertaste.

Like someone new to wine I can’t immediately register the flavours. Stanes describes Chuao, for example as tasting of ripe plum jam and rich red fruits but I could detect only a deep chocolatey aroma and flavour and an amazingly long finish. I shall obviously have to eat more chocolate to hone my tastebuds. Shame about that . . .

Sarah Jayne-Stanes runs chocolate appreciation classes. For details visit her website

Fine chocolate and wine
Artisanal chocolate is both easier and more difficult to match with wine. Easier because it is less sweet and the texture isn’t as palate-coating as filled chocolates or chocolate desserts. More difficult because the wines generally associated with chocolate - powerful sweet red wines like port and vin doux naturels such as Maury and Banyuls - can overwhelm the delicate taste of a fine, complex chocolate bar. Certainly it’s worth experimenting with dry red wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon (though you’re likely to get more misses than hits) but I’ve found the best bet are wines such as old madeiras, sherries and Rivesaltes vieux ambre whose slightly oxidative character match the acidity and bitterness of good dark chocolate well. Or, a discovery I owe to Roberto Bava’s Decanter masterclass a year or so ago, a Barolo Chinato (Barolo infused with bitter herbs)

This article was first published in the April 2008 issue of Decanter. For another perspective on wine and chocolate matching read my colleague David Furer's recent report here.

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