Back in the days of Russell Stover and Whitman Samplers, chocolate lovers could pretty much be sorted into those who liked to take a chance and those who wanted to know what they were getting into. But the new millennium calls for both more risk taking behavior and better preparation when it comes to eating chocolate. The pleasures of chocolate are increasingly reserved for those who have perfectly trained their palates to discern a nuance from a note and a nose from a finish with the skill of a master French perfumer. And for those who can’t or won’t keep up, I fear, there is only one conclusion to be drawn. “Let them eat Hershey's.”
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But you can have more, so much more, once you surrender yourself to the science and secrecy of the cocoa bean and its' Gods, our masterful chocolatiers.
Tasting and eating are not the same thing
The first thing you need to keep in mind is that tasting chocolate is not the same as eating chocolate. By the time the chocolate reaches your teeth and melts down your throat, it has played on your palate for as long – or as little – as you deem the chocolate worth it. Make it worth it by investing in a few high end artisanal chocolates – whether molded and filled or French-styled rolled truffles. Or better yet, take the purist’s route of springing for some high quality bars of chocolate.
Chocolates found in the supermarket just don't cut it
Even the priciest and darkest don’t compare in taste to the single-origin bean to bar chocolates you will find in upscale markets, gift shops and on-line. And despite the trend toward dark chocolate, consider a selection of high quality milk chocolate, so that you can know for yourself if it is really dark chocolate you most favor, or just plain good chocolate.
Invite a friend
After selecting your chocolates, inviting a friend (or indulging all by your devilishly deserving self), and creating a lovely ambience with soft music, fresh water and perhaps great wine or tea, let the tasting begin.
Examine your chocolate
What is its color? Does it shine? Are there any marks, discoloring, air bubbles or signs of sugar bloom (a faint veil of grayish-white that some find ethereal and lovely, but chocolatiers recognize as a sign of poor tempering). Break it in half (if it is a bar) – does it have an audible snap? If it is a molded chocolate, examine the filling – is it firm and dense, soft and sensual, or dry and crumbly? Smell it – cup your hand around it as you bring it to your nose and take a few short, deep whiffs. Place it in your mouth – allow it to soften on your tongue and melt just a touch. As you savor it, how many flavors can you discern? Do they change over time? Do you taste it on the tip of your tongue where our palates register sweetness? Does the sweetness overpower the cocoa? Or do you taste it best in the back of your tongue, where our tongues taste bitterness? Do the sides of your tongue curl a bit as if recoiling? If so, the chocolate may be too acidic. If the sides of your tongue taste salty, does the saltiness detract from the taste, or enhance it? Finally, eat your chocolate, and then wait a moment to savor the lingering aftertaste.
Mastering chocolate is a blessing and a curse
As you embrace the art and science of tasting fine chocolates, you will find yourself blessed and cursed. Blessed with the ability to taste the complex world of great chocolate – and cursed that a Hershey Bar will never again satisfy and your food budget will take some tinkering to make way for the six dollar bar or the two dollar bite-sized confections. But while we may not be able to buy a good friend in this life, we can always buy a good piece of chocolate. And a good life includes both. Savor them.