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Chocolate Tidbits: Chocolate Features

January 2011

Holy Chuao!

One of the biggest developments in the fine chocolate world over the last year has been the opening up of the cacao-growing region in Venezuela. For many years, Amedei was the sole buyer of the coveted Chuao beans and they made (and still make) a wickedly amazing Chuao chocolate. Keep them coming, Amedei! Now that Amedei no longer holds the rights to these cacao beans, other fine chocolate makers have the opportunity to work with this cacao. Chocolate makers are traditionally competitive and the fight over Chuao has really brought this competitiveness out amongst artisanal chocolate makers. From the sourcing of the beans to determining roasting profiles and conching times, the making of a new chocolate from these coveted beans is exciting and difficult. Of course, once accomplished to exacting standards, every artisanal chocolate maker things that their chocolate is the best! For us chocolate lovers, this means that we get to taste and compare some amazing chocolate. Because of the benchmark set by Amedei's legendary Chuao, you can bet that every chocolate maker who gets hold of these beans is going to do their best to out-do Amedei! Since every chocolate maker has a different style this means that there will be at least a few different versions of the Chuao which all taste different but with similar underlying flavour tones.

Along with Amedei's Chuao, we have been able to add Domori's Chuao and Amano's Chuao to our inventory. Bonnat made a Chuao even while Amedei had sole rights, so we can't vouch for the authenticity of this origin - either Bonnat was able to sneak some Chuao out from under Amedei, or the cacao was sourced from somewhere nearby (isn't chocolate politics interesting?). If I were to compare these different Chuao bars as cousins, I would describe Amedei's Chuao as classy and elegantly refined, Amano as earthy and powerful and Domori as smooth, sweet and exciting. They are all amazing in their own way - I certainly can't pick a favourite, but maybe you will! We are also hoping to get Pralus' Chuao in stock in the near future, so watch for it!

October 2010

Trick or Treat?

I am often asked if chocolate is really good for you. There have been many studies done over the years exposing the health benefits of chocolate - and this gets many of us excited! The good news is that each new study corroborates previous findings or discovers new health benefits - there has not, to my knowledge, been a study showing opposite, negative results. Some of the health benefits discovered include: decreased blood pressure, decreased cholesterol and a thinning of blood platelets decreasing the risk of heart attack and stroke by helping to keep arteries flowing. Dark chocolate contains high levels of anti-oxidants in the form of polyphenols - more than any other food or drink (including red wine) and we have all heard that anti-oxidants are important disease-fighting compounds! The bad news is that the studies all use different methodologies and different chocolate, including different types and amounts of chocolate (this is often not even controlled) and there has not been an agreed upon "dose" that will produce the desired effects. More on the plus side though: chocolate contains a number of minerals that our body needs including iron, copper, zinc and magnesium and can lift moods due to the sensory pleasure of it melting deliciously in your mouth and the myriad of compounds in it like the "love drug" (phenylethylamine), caffeine and serotonin-producing tryptophan. Dark chocolate contains a cocktail of compounds all working together to make it so good, and apparently so good for you!

A Taste For Chocolate has been asked to participate in various consumer health shows to capitalize on chocolate's health properties and I always decline. In my opinion, despite all of the health benefits shown, chocolate is not a health food due to the amount of natural fat, added sugar and processing time. I eat chocolate because it tastes good and makes me feel good, not because it is good for me - that is just an added bonus. My advice for people looking for justification for imbibing in chocolate is that in moderation, as part of a healthy, balanced diet, chocolate will certainly do you no harm and possibly do you some good. Choose a fine dark chocolate over pastries, cakes and other such "treats"and you'll get to indulge in a delicious dessert without the guilt! 

Beware of the "tricks" played by some chocolate brands who claim that their chocolate is "healthy". In my opinion, this is simply a marketing ploy that any true, artisanal chocolate maker would never use, as it diminishes the importance of the entire chocolate making process and the end result of an exemplary tasting chocolate (yes, I am an admitted chocolate snob).   So, forget the tricks and choose the treat - pure chocolate made by artisans who focus on the art and science of chocolate making and the quality of the final product - all while benefiting from the inherent health benefits!

May 2010

Five Things to Look for in Fine Dark Chocolate (after you open the package)

  1. How does it look? Glossy and smooth or dull and matte? Fine chocolate that has been properly handled and stored should have a smooth, shiny finish. If it is dull looking it may have been bumped around quite a bit and if you notice a whitish-grey coating, then it either has not been stored in dry, cool conditions, has experienced temperature and humidity changes somewhere during storage, or was not tempered properly to begin with. Also note variations in the colour. Obviously chocolate is brown, but depending on the cacao variety and content, the hue can be quite light brown (e.g., Amedei's Porcelana), quite dark (e.g., Pralus' Fortissima) or even reddish or purple.
  2. How does it smell? Chocolate smells like chocolate, you say? Well, yes, most chocolate has a "cocoa" aroma. However, a lot of mass produced chocolate smells artificial with an overwhelming sweet smell. Compare a big brand to Amedei or Michel Cluizel and you'll smell what I mean. Smell past the cocoa and see if you can pick up any other aromas that may be floral, woody, earthy, spicy or vanilla. Rub the chocolate a little to release more aromas if you have a hard time deciphering any aroma.
  3. How does it sound? Break a bar in two, or take a bite and listen to the snap that the chocolate makes when broken. A well-tempered chocolate will have a nice snap, indicative of cocoa butter crystals nicely melded together. Chocolate that just bends or gives way easily is either too warm (it is best eaten at room temperature) or not properly tempered. Valrhona chocolate is one of the best examples of a well-tempered chocolate - the shine, the snap - heavenly!
  4. How does it feel? Once you have a piece in your mouth, chew it a couple of times to distribute the chocolate around your mouth, then let it melt. Fine chocolate should be very smooth with no noticeable particles and should melt soon after you put it in your mouth. Unless the chocolate maker is specifically going for a rustic feel, grittiness is usually not desired. Mass produced chocolate often has a waxy kind of texture that doesn't melt quite right. Again, if you compare a Hershey bar to Valrhona, you'll know what I'm talking about.
  5. How does it taste? Once the chocolate is melting in your mouth, enjoy the taste! See what flavours shine through. Are they subtle and well-balanced (e.g., Amedei's Toscano Black) or clear and strong (e.g., Michel Cluizel's Maralumi)? I find that the blended bars tend to have a nice well-rounded chocolate flavour with subtle flavour nuances, whereas single-plantation chocolates tend to be more complex and flavourful. Flavour notes often change as the chocolate melts so enjoy the ride!
You can be sure that all the chocolate we carry fits our strict requirements for "fine" chocolate. So, order a few bars, gather a few friends and spend a couple hours tasting and comparing. What better way to spend an afternoon than tasting some great chocolate in good company? For a full chocolate tasting experience, contact us to enquire about our chocolate tasting events.

April 2010

Five Things to Look for in Fine Dark Chocolate (before you even open the package)

  1. Just chocolate. So many of us Canadians call candy bars with a small coating of something resembling chocolate "chocolate bars". Do not confuse candy with chocolate! I admittedly enjoy Snickers at Halloween but for the sugary peanuts and candy, not the "chocolate" coating.
  2. Made by a relatively small company. How widely available is the chocolate? If you can find a certain chocolate bar in every store you go into, it is a mass-produced bar likely made with inferior cacao beans. The big chocolate company that produced it had to make some kind of quality sacrifice along the way to pump out such large quantities. Remember also that there are simply not enough finer quality cacao beans to make billions of chocolate bars. Look for bean-to-bar chocolate made by chocolate makers who focus on quality, not quantity. This usually translates into a better quality of life for the cacao farmers as well, but this is another issue...
  3. Ingredients. Dark chocolate should always contain cacao/cocoa beans (also called cocoa mass or cocoa liquor) followed by sugar. These should always be the first two and sometimes the only ingredients. Third on the list is cocoa butter and often pure vanilla and lecithin. Vanillin, artificial flavours and colours and other added fats are a quick giveaway that the quality of the chocolate is poor. Nothing artificial in my chocolate please!
  4. Cacao percentage. Not so much to ensure that you're getting your 70% cacao content, but more to ensure that you know what you are eating. If this is not on the label, you could be eating chocolate that barely qualifies as such (35% cacao is the lower limit to be considered dark chocolate). Cacao content refers to the amount of cacao beans plus any added cocoa butter, so just be aware that not all 70% cacao content chocolate bars contain the same amount of cacao solids.
  5. Origin of the cacao beans. Most fine chocolate makers put information on the packaging about whether the chocolate is a blend of cacaos or made from cacao from a single origin. If there is no indication about the source of the cacao, then the beans from which the chocolate began were likely not very good.
You can be sure that all the chocolate we carry fits strict requirements for "fine" chocolate. So go ahead, now that you know what to look for on the outside, enjoy what's on the inside!

March 2010

Comparing Apples to Apples (or cacao to cacao in our case)

If you have ever compared various fine dark chocolate, you probably noticed that two dark chocolates both with similar cacao content can have surprisingly different tastes and textures. This is dependent on the genetics of the cacao bean, the geographic location of the cacao trees, fermentation and drying procedures, roasting profiles, grinding and conching procedures as well as the type of sugar used and any other ingredients added like vanilla or lecithin.

If we remove the genetic component (one of the most important for taste) you may be surprised at the diversity of taste among the brands. Each chocolate maker has their distinct processing methods, so that even if different chocolate makers used cacao beans from the same harvest, their bars all taste different. As an example, many chocolate makers have a bar made from beans grown in Madagascar and although the origin is generally identifiable by a distinct fruity flavour, there are varying degrees of flavour and different nuances brought out in each bar by each chocolate maker.

So, next time you have a tasting, I encourage you to try comparing a number of bars of the same cacao origin. You may be surprised at the results, and after comparing various origins, you will get to know the style of the different artisan chocolate makers.

April 2009

Chocolate the New Caviar?

The Theobroma cacao tree (the "Chocolate tree"), is susceptible to numerous diseases, the most common of which are fungal diseases with names like frosty pod, black pod and witches broom. On a recent trip to CATIE, an agricultural research institute in Costa Rica, with subsequent visits to various cacao plantations, it became clear to me just how prevalent and destructive frosty pod (moniliophthora roreri, or monilia for short) can be. These fungal diseases have been ravaging plantations in Central and South America over the last decade, resulting in decreased cacao production in these areas. Cacao production in Costa Rica practically ceased in the late 1970s due to monilia, but efforts to revive cacao production began again in the 1990s and efforts are now underway to avoid the devastating outcome of a couple decades earlier.

At one large, well-run organic plantation, the workers spend two full days a week during rainy periods searching each tree for any cacao pods that are infected by monilia. The infected pods must be removed from the trees as soon as possible before spores develop and spread to nearby trees. It is estimated that about 40 - 50 % of the crop is being lost to monilia. Contrast this to cacao grown in the Talamanca region of southern Costa Rica where monilia is not well-managed. Here, healthy cacao pods are few and far between with a loss of about 90% to disease, making a 40 % loss seem not so bad!

At CATIE and other tropical agricultural research centres, there is much research taking place to find ways to manage the disease by finding trees with monilia-resistant genes. Testing is being done to find particular specimens that are resistant to monilia, however, this is a very long process. After resistant strands are determined the rootstocks are grown into trees. The trees are then grown for a few years in order to test them in the field before they are planted in disease-ravaged areas. If they are being sent across countries, the process is delayed an extra couple of years while they are kept in Reading, UK's international quarantine station to ensure that they are disease-free.

Not to be alarmist, but if this fungal disease were to spread to Africa where most of the world's cacao is grown, there could potentially be a severe shortage of cacao and even run-of-the-mill chocolate would become a rare and expensive luxury! Thankfully, there are procedures in place to prevent such widespread disease distribution, however, there are other diseases that could also be quite damaging.

This is all the more reason to support chocolate makers who are heavily involved in the entire process from the growing of the trees to the making of the chocolate as they truly understand the farmers' plight and work with them to improve production and quality, often without the use of chemical pesticides. This ensures protection of the natural environment as well as the health of the farmers and end consumers, and hopefully the survival of chocolate!

February 2009

The results of the 2009 Academy of Chocolate Awards have been announced and Amedei once again came out on top. This year, the Amedei "9" won the Golden Bean award for Best Bean to Bar. This is the Academy's fourth year of awards and with over 400 entries this year the judges were busy!

Other winners from our catalogue include:

Best Dark Bean to Bar

Gold Award: Amedei Porcelana, Amedei 70%, Valhrona Manjari

Silver Award: Amedei 63%

Bronze Award: Amedei 66%,Valrhona Caraibe

Best Flavoured Dark Chocolate Bar

Bronze Award: Amedei Dark Chocolate with Avola Almonds

Best Milk Chocolate Bar

Silver Award: Michel Cluizel Grand Lait

Best Flavoured Milk Chocolate Bar

Gold Award: Amedei Milk Chocolate with Hazelnuts

Best Dark Organic Chocolate Bar

Bronze Award: Valrhona Cao Grande

September 2008

Chocolate Guardian: How to Store Chocolate

At A Taste For Chocolate, we revere our fine chocolate. Some people even think we're a little obsessive about protecting it. It is stored under strict temperature and humidity controls. When transporting chocolate to our chocolate tasting events, it is placed in the coolest, shadiest place of the car, with cold packs if necessary. Once we even pulled over on the side of the highway to move it out of the sun! This is why we could not bear to ship our beloved fine chocolate across Canada in the summer heat - the thought of it melting en route or ending up with bloom is too much to bear! We want you to enjoy the chocolate at its best. So, thank you for being patient this summer we know we have left some customers waiting and wanting but the wait is almost over and the chocolate is so worth it!

If you want to keep your chocolate looking and tasting great, here are two simple guidelines to follow:

1. Store it in a cool, dry place

2. Keep it away from strong odours.

Fine dark chocolate likes to be cool and dry - heat and humidity can wreak havoc on chocolate. Some people like to keep their chocolate in the refrigerator, which satisfies the cool but not the dry. Around 16 degrees Celsius is a good temperature - the fridge is actually too cold. Keeping fine chocolate in the refrigerator is only recommended if you live in a hot environment without air conditioning, otherwise, it is gently discouraged. Some people like to eat chocolate straight from the fridge because it becomes harder and tastes different. Fine dark chocolate should be quite hard at room temperature, with a clear snap when you bite off a piece, and the flavour profiles can only be tasted properly at room temperature.

The problems with keeping chocolate in the fridge are:

1. The smell factor - most people's refrigerators contain food items other than chocolate, so your chocolate may end up tasting like last night's Indian food or that delicious yet smelly cheese in your cheese drawer. Fine dark chocolate contains a lot of fat (in the form of heart-healthy cocoa butter), so it can easily take on aromas to which it has been exposed.

2. Humidity - the humidity inside a fridge is typically higher than the ideal humidity for storing chocolate (relative humidity should be under 50%).

3. Altered taste and texture - the cold and humidity can alter the taste and texture of the chocolate (which people typically do not want to happen to their fine chocolate).

4. Development of sugar bloom - when cold chocolate is brought out of the refrigerator, it attracts moisture from the warmer air resulting in condensation that leads to sugar bloom (grayish-white coating on the surface of the chocolate)

If you live in a hot place, or you simply insist on keeping your chocolate in the fridge, when you are ready to eat it allow it to come to room temperature before opening up the wrapping. This will take about an hour or so depending on the size of the bar and the temperature of the room and hence requires some patience and forethought. This will help avoid the development of bloom from water droplets on the inside of the package caused by condensation when going from the cold fridge to the warmer temperature. As noted above, fine chocolate is best eaten at room temperature for the experience of proper texture and taste.

If you use chocolate for baking, some pastry chefs recommend keeping it in a tightly sealed plastic container or Ziploc bag in the freezer for longevity. I recommend just keeping it cool and dry, only using the freezer if you have no cool, dry place. Dark chocolate can keep up to about 1 1/2 years, so I do not see the advantage of keeping it in the freezer (unless it will melt otherwise). I'd rather my chocolate taste like chocolate than an old ice cube!

So, where should you keep your fine chocolate? A clean, odour-free, dark, cool closet or cupboard would work, on a dark shelf, or even under your bed - but only if you have no animals in the house!   Of course, if you plan on eating your chocolate within a couple of weeks - just keep it within easy reach and enjoy a piece whenever you want!

May 2008

The Darker the Better?

People often mistakenly assume that higher cacao content in a chocolate bar means that the chocolate is of better quality. Well, have you ever had a convenience store bought 70% or higher cacao content chocolate only to be disappointed by the bitter, unappealing taste? Many people who profess to dislike dark chocolate have not tried true fine dark chocolate. Based on the reactions of dark chocolate novices at my chocolate tasting events, I venture to guess that about 95% of participants who go in thinking they dislike dark chocolate, come away loving at least 2 of the 5 fine dark chocolates tasted. You see, fine chocolate is all about the "fine" cacao beans from which it is made and the care taken to make it - not the percentage of cacao.

Of the three main varieties of cacao, it is the trinitario and criollo varieties that are classified as "fine" or "flavour" cacao. Unfortunately, most of the world's cacao (over 90%) is of the lower quality forastero variety. That naturally means that most of the world's chocolate (think big well-known chocolate companies) is made from these "bulk" cacao beans which tend not to impart interesting flavours aside from a familiar basic chocolate flavour. Artificial flavours are often added to these mass-produced bars to compensate for the poor flavour of the beans.

At one time, there were many criollo trees in Central America. In a world where quantity is often valued over quality, most of these criollo trees disappeared many years ago. To satisfy the masses in Europe and later, North America, criollo trees were removed and replaced with inferior yet hardier forastero trees. In other areas, the delicate criollo trees were wiped out due to disease or natural disasters. The good news is that there are now fine chocolate makers with a mission to rescue criollo trees through grafting clones and reviving neglected or virgin criollo plantations. Amedei, Domori and Pralus are a few such chocolate makers devoted to the production of fine artisanal chocolate using fine cacao beans and superb processing methods.

In addition to the cacao bean varietals used, the taste of the chocolate is also determined by the geographical area in which the trees were grown, the fermentation time of the cacao, as well as roasting times and temperatures. Any change in temperature, time or humidity along the chocolate manufacturing process can significantly alter the taste of the final product! And then there is the quality and quantity of the other ingredients added. Pure cocoa butter, high quality sugar and natural vanilla are the rule in fine chocolate. Artificial ingredients, cocoa butter substitutes (usually in the form of modified vegetable fats) and added cocoa powder are not acceptable in a fine chocolate. Look for cacao/cocoa beans, sugar, cocoa butter (and sometimes natural vanilla and/or soy lecithin) in the ingredients listed on a dark chocolate bar. Milk chocolate will also have milk powder as an ingredient.

If you are serious about your chocolate take the time to visit the websites of various chocolate makers. If they do not mention from where their beans are sourced (in a general sense anyway) or if they are mainly sourced from Africa, or if there is no mention of the quality and variety of the cacao beans sourced, chances are they are not as serious as you! Rest assured that we at A Taste For Chocolate have done our research and only carry chocolate made from chocolate makers who care about quality over quantity.

So remember, darker does not mean better! Fine dark chocolate typically ranges from about 63% cacao content up to 100% cacao content. Some people prefer the unique, intensely complex flavours that are concentrated in specific single-plantation chocolates, whereas others prefer the more well-rounded flavours from a blended bar, and still others love them all (that's me). Taste preferences are very personal, so you'll have to try them for yourself to discover what you like best - luckily we have lots from which to choose!

March 2008

Tropical Chocolate

If you are growing tired of the cold, snowy winter, with a little imagination, fine chocolate can transport you to a warmer, beautiful place.

Did you know that chocolate grows on trees (or at least the main ingredient in it does)? Cacao beans are the seed of the fruit of the Theobrama cacao tree which only grows between 20 degrees north and south of the equator in warm, humid temperatures with plenty of rainfall. Cacao pods grow on the trunk and limbs of the tree and take about six months to mature. Once ripe they must be carefully removed from the tree, usually with a curved machete on the end of a pole. Inside these football-shaped pods are 20 to 40 cacao beans covered in white pulp (mucilage). When the beans are removed from the pods the chocolate-making process begins. The warmth of the tropics assists in the fermentation stage, and then the strong tropical sun is essential to the preferred method of sun-drying the cacao beans after fermentation.

The specifications of the fermentation stage is very particular to the type of cacao bean, which is one reason why fine chocolate makers often visit the cacao plantations from which they get their beans to ensure that the proper fermentation times are being followed. It is during fermentation that chemical and biological changes occur within the beans and the chocolate flavour precursors develop. Under- or over-fermentation can significantly alter the taste of the bean and hence the taste of the chocolate. Of course the subsequent steps in chocolate making also can influence the final taste of the chocolate bar, but that requires leaving this tropical paradise to enter a chocolate factory and we are reveling in warmth right now!

So...I invite you to take a chocolate journey to Venezuela, Madagascar, Papua New Guinea, Trinidad, or anywhere else along the tropical "cacao belt". Close your eyes (after you read this) and picture rows of cacao trees with a dense underbrush and an overhead canopy of trees providing protection from too much sun. Walk amongst the trees and marvel at the colourful cacao pods in varying sizes and shades of green, yellow, scarlet, purple. The leaves are rustling, birds are singing and you bask in the warmth and humidity enjoying the blue sky bursting with sunshine above the shade trees.

If you're still cold after our little visualization exercise, warm up from the inside-out with our delicious hot chocolate recipe!

January 2008

Chocolate: Why we love giving it to people we love

With Valentine's Day around the corner, did you ever wonder why chocolate tops the list of romantic gifts? Perhaps it is because chocolate is thought to be an aphrodisiac, or because it can easily be molded into cute little heart shapes, or simply because the first European chocolate makers thought of a great way to market chocolate for the holiday! Whatever the reason, chocolate is now associated with romantic love and traditionally given as a gift on Valentine's Day, and what better chocolate to give than some of the best in the world!

I am often asked if chocolate is really an aphrodisiac. The quick answer is "no", (sorry), but read on for the longer answer.

The Spaniards likely first introduced the notion that chocolate was an aphrodisiac. During the time of the Spanish Conquest, the famed Aztec ruler, Montezuma, was reportedly observed to consume 50 cups of chocolate during an Aztec banquet, while surrounded by his harem. Naturally, it was assumed that this chocolate drink provided him with needed stimulation for later that night!

There has been no definitive proof that chocolate acts as an aphrodisiac, although chocolate does contain certain compounds that could help put one "in the mood". Chocolate contains phenylethylamine (PEA) which, boosted by fat and sugar, can lead to feelings of ecstasy. PEA has been nicknamed "the love drug" as people falling in love experience an increase of PEA in their brains and it floods the brain during orgasm. The stimulants theobromine, and to a lesser extent caffeine, are also present in chocolate. This is counter-balanced by serotonin which produces a relaxing, calming effect, and the release of endorphins while eating chocolate leads to a pleasurable rush. Add in anandamide, a pleasure-producing cannabinoid naturally made by the human brain, and you have a pretty amazing feel-good cocktail!

Despite the presence of these components, and the 400 or so others that have not yet been studied, it seems as if the sensory experience of eating chocolate is what makes us love to eat it. From the first smell of a rich chocolate aroma when you open the package, to the first glance of the glossy dark bar, to the snap of a good chocolate when you bite into it, to the way it melts creamily in your mouth and the exquisite taste - mmmm - nothing can compare to enjoying a piece of fine chocolate - a true inspiration for your senses. No wonder chocolate is such a popular romantic gift!

Inspire Your Senses

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