"Think of chocolate like wine," suggests Alice Medrich, author, chocolate guru, and founder of the San Francisco Bay Area's Cocolat shops. As with wine, the world of chocolate is one of varietal distinctions, origins, unique blends, and manufacturing methods. But these influences on the character and quality of the confection have long been secrets. Now the nuances are becoming public, and a more aware consumer is bent on obtaining higher-quality chocolate.
Joseph Schmidt, a San Francisco confectioner, uses coffee as a comparison. He notes that chocolate is going through changes similar to those that upgraded coffee in recent years as consumers became aware of varietals, origins, and specialized styles. "People are looking for more intense flavor, more bitterness, less sugar. Dark chocolate is growing."
It's no secret that in the past, European chocolate met a different standard than most American-made confection. European makers and consumers grew aware before we did that it matters what kinds of cocoa beans go into the product, and where they were grown (short of revealing formulas, European chocolate labels often name the types and origins of the cocoa beans). But noted Seattle chocolatier Fran Bigelow observes that Americans' taste for chocolate has gotten more sophisticated with international travel. Our interest has attracted artisans right here to ply their skills in chocolate factories, and they are spilling the beans, so to speak ― dispensing more information on labels about their premium chocolates.
And it all starts with the cocoa beans, adds Bigelow. Follow their trek from pod to chocolate below (see "From beans to bars," below).
Just for the record, chocolate doesn't mean just milk chocolate anymore. Medrich, Schmidt, and Bigelow ― and more and more Americans ― prefer dark, rich chocolate for eating and cooking. Simple recipes, such as the following, show off a chocolate best. You can use bittersweet or semisweet, the latter of which is usually sweeter, although the FDA definition is the same for both. Keep in mind that chocolate, like butter, absorbs odors and flavors readily, so wrap it well and store in a cool, dry place.
From beans to bars
Cocoa trees grow in a tropical belt that undulates across the equator around the world; production areas include Central and South America, the Caribbean, Africa, Southeast Asia, and, for the last decade, Hawaii.
The cocoa (also called cacao) tree, Theobroma cacao, has two main varieties, Criollo and Forastero. Criollo cocoa trees, which are finicky, are planted on a limited scale and sparingly produce beans highly valued for their aroma, essential oils, and complexity. Criollos, native to Venezuela, grow in South and Central America, Southeast Asia, and Hawaii.
Forastero cocoa trees, on the other hand, flourish readily and are very fruitful, producing 90 percent of the world's cocoa beans ― but the beans are less distinctive than Criollo beans. The top producers are in Africa (Republic of Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, and Cameroon), Indonesia, Malaysia, Ecuador, and Brazil.
Once extracted from pods that grow on the trees, cocoa beans are put through a natural fermentation process, then sun-dried.
In the hands of the manufacturer, they become chocolate: Roasting deepens their color and flavor. Heavy rollers crush them into a dark, gooey chocolate liquor that's roughly half cocoa solids (which give the chocolate its unique flavors) and half cocoa butter (which makes chocolate melt-in-your-mouth smooth). The liquor is flavored with sugar, vanilla, lecithin (an emulsifier), and other ingredients. Then for hours, or even days, this coarse mass is kneaded until it is an aromatic, thick, silky liquid. This critical step ― called conching ― determines a chocolate's texture.
Finally, a warm river of molten dark chocolate flows into molds to cool into shiny slabs for eating or cooking.
A few manufacturers, such as Hawaiian Vintage (Hawaii), El Rey (Venezuela), and Valrhona (France), produce chocolate from specific cocoa beans and specific locations (estates or appellations ― think wine), and some of the facts are on the label. The majority of chocolate, however, is a blend of varieties, and the formulas are trademarked secrets. But sophistication of processing is becoming an important part of the chocolate scene, especially here in the West. A few manufacturers are customizing chocolate to bring out more complexity in flavors, like John Scharffenberger and Robert Steinberg at Sharffen Berger in South San Francisco.
A BITTERSWEET TASTING
We invited chocolate amateurs and professionals to rate two dozen plain bittersweet and semisweet chocolates in a blind tasting. The professionals were precise about what they liked ― rich, balanced overall flavor and a smooth, pleasant meltdown in the mouth. They downgraded chocolates with off-flavors from the beans or flavor defects from processing. The amateurs just went for taste and texture.
Their collective favorites, in alphabetical order:
Belgian Recipe Gourmet Chocolate. Good base chocolate flavor for chips. Nice acidity, along with citrus and honey flavors; smooth.
Callebaut Bittersweet Chocolate. Robust chocolate flavor with vanilla; complex; melts nicely.
Droste Bittersweet Pastilles. Vanilla and slight raspberry or almond flavors; melts nicely.
Lindt Excellence Swiss Bittersweet Chocolate (Criollo beans from Central America). Mild and pleasant, caramel flavor; melts smoothly with just a little graininess.
Michel Cluizel Chocolat Amer Brut. Ends nicely with strong chocolate flavor, bitter edge.
Valrhona. Equatoriale (beans from South America, Africa): basic chocolate flavor with citrus and hints of other fruit, smooth. Le Noir (beans from Trinidad): fruity, winy, spice notes. Le Noir Amer (beans from Venezuela): clean, sharp chocolate flavor on the acidic side, fruity, winy, smooth but waxy at the start. Le Noir Gastronomie (Criollo beans from South America, Forasteros from Africa): good base strength, good vanilla, fruity, winy, smooth; melts nicely.
The new premium chocolates are sold with either cooking or snack chocolates in specialty food markets, fancy supermarkets, and natural-food stores. You can also often buy chunks of the huge bitter- and semisweet bars made for commercial confectioners from candymakers. Or you can contact the following for retail sources.
Dynamic Chocolates (800/661-2462) for Belgian Recipe Gourmet Chocolate.
El Rey Chocolates (800/357-3999) for Venezuelan chocolate.
Hawaiian Vintage Chocolate (800/429-6246) for Hawaiian single-estate chocolate.
Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker (800/930-4528) for handcrafted chocolate.