The nuances of chocolate

A panel of tasters finds not all chocolates are created equal

A panel of tasters finds not all chocolates are created equal

February 25, 2009|By CHRIS COPLEY

Today is the first day of Lent, a seven-week period during which some Christians fast from chocolate or other indulgences as a sign of penitence.

But for some people, chocolate is simply not optional. It's a mythic substance that nourishes body and emotions. It's a celebration, a solace, a happily-ever-after. There is no bad chocolate, and any piece will pretty much soothe the soul.

But some high-end chocolate-makers beg to differ. Lindt, Ghirardelli, Scharffen Berger, Valrhona and many others want consumers to rethink cacao products. Eat attentively, they say, and you'll see that chocolate is not all the same, that it's more than just sweet and rich. Chocolate has depth of flavor; it has unexpected nuances of fruit or flower or other flavors.

So The Herald-Mail invited a group of area residents to sample 13 chocolates - from cheap-o, mass-produced milk chocolate to high-end, organic, dark chocolate - most purchased at Hagerstown-area grocery stores or pharmacies.


The panel of samplers were Charlie Harris, who works at Al Pomodoro restaurant in Hagerstown; Ashley Haywood, owner of Skyline Caf in Hagerstown; Fedora Copley, a junior at North Hagerstown High School and former writer for the Herald-Mail's teen section; Yolanda DiFabio, former restaurant reviewer for The Herald-Mail; Julie Cantrel of Hagerstown; Marla and Joe Camarano of Williamsport; and Veeda Bassett and Burnest Griffin of Hagerstown.

How to sample attentively

Chocolate tasting involves more than just the taste buds. Professional chocolate tasters assess appearance, aroma, texture, flavor profile, even how the chocolate breaks.

Our group of amateur tasters approached their task with a similar attention. Chocolates were presented in groups - a group of four milk chocolates and two groups of dark chocolates. Chocolates were not identified until after the tasting.

The milk chocolates were presented, numbered 1 to 4, and the panel began their assessment. They looked at the samples, broke them in half and sniffed the aroma. Then they tasted. Panel members were conscientious about noting and comparing the different aspects of each chocolate rather than simply saying "I liked it" or "I didn't like it."

"No. 1 has a bitter, toasted smell," said Joe Camarano.

"No. 2 smells sugary, almost sickeningly sweet," said Marla Camarano. "It's much creamier than No. 1."

"Two is definitely sweeter than one," Harris said.

"It tastes rich to me," said Bassett.

"No. 3 is sweet and salty," said DiFabio.

"I taste vanilla," added Cantrel.

"No. 4 almost tastes more like chocolate flavoring," said Harris.

"It tastes like what we've been taught milk chocolate should taste like," Marla Camarano added.

After the assessments were in, the chocolates were identified: No. 1 was Shaman Chocolates Organic Milk Chocolate with Macadamia Nuts and Hawaiian Pink Sea Salt; No. 2 was Dove Silky Smooth Milk Chocolate; No. 3 was Absolutely Divine Creamy Milk Chocolate; and No. 4 was a Hershey's Milk Chocolate bar.

Sampling the dark side

Then panel members prepared for the dark chocolate rounds.

Under FDA standards, milk chocolate must have at least 10 percent chocolate liquor (a nonalcoholic mixture of cocoa solids and cocoa butter) and at least 12 percent whole milk. The remainder is sugar; an emulsifier such as lecithin; and usually vanilla or vanillin, an artificial vanilla flavor.

But dark chocolates must have at least 35 percent chocolate liquor. Many chocolate bars feature higher percentages of chocolate liquor; some print the percentage on their wrapper. A higher percentage of chocolate liquor generally leads to less sweetness, a stronger chocolate flavor and a wider range of flavor undertones.

The first round of dark chocolate had five samples with a variety of chocolate percentages, as high as 82 percent. And panelists' views were all over the map.

"No. 1 is spicy, relative to the rest of them," said Harris.

"It's almost like a dry wine," Bassett added.

"No. 2 has a really peculiar taste - fruity, not chocolatey," said Marla Camarano.

"It's definitely got a buttery flavor," said Harris.

Reviews on the other three samples in the second group were equally as diverse. Sample No. 3 had undertones of cotton candy to one panelist, of sweet coffee to another and of garlic to another. No. 4 tasted like sugar water to one panelist, like caramel to another. No. 5 had a deep chocolate flavor to one person, tasted overcooked to another, and buttery to a third.

"I didn't like any of these," said Marla Camarano.

"Me, neither," said Griffin.

And then the chocolates were identified: No. 1 was Shaman Chocolates Organic Extra Dark Chocolates (82 percent cocoa); No. 2 was Hershey's Special Dark; No. 3 was Newman's Own Sweet Dark Chocolate; No. 4 was Tropical Source Rich Dark Chocolate; and No. 5 was Dove Silky Smooth Dark Chocolate.

70 percent solution

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