Raising the bar
Small-batch chocolate's complex flavours, aromas appeal to the senses
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 31/08/2016 (2348 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
‘I almost feel like a drug dealer when I bring these out,” Doreen Pendgracs jokes as she shakes some cocoa beans onto a napkin.
A self-described “chocolate adventurist,” Pendgracs is here to give me a lesson in chocolate tasting. And sure enough, after one afternoon sampling of bean-to-bar offerings, I’m hooked.
The Matlock-based freelance writer is a passionate promoter of chocolate education, organizing cocoa-themed tastings, events and tours. Blogging about the growing trend of chocolate tourism at www.chocolatour.net, Pendgracs travels the world. On the day I speak with her, she is just back from a chocolate festival in Grenada and will soon be heading to the Ottawa Valley to meet some award-winning Canadian chocolate makers. She has also penned Chocolatour: A Quest for the World’s Best Chocolate, Volume I, with Volume II due out in 2017.
Pendgracs starts by showing me a cocoa pod, which typically contains 30 to 50 cocoa beans, and then hands me one small bean. She wants me to experience the straight-up taste of pure cocoa. I brace myself, but it’s actually not as bitter as I thought it would be.
We then move to a selection of “bean-to-bar” artisanal chocolate. Bean-to-bar, which is sometimes called small batch or craft chocolate, is the latest big thing in the chocolate world. It means the chocolate maker starts with raw cocoa beans, which are processed in-house, rather than working with finished chocolate supplied by another manufacturer.
“First, take a slug of water to freshen your palate,” Pendgracs advises. Neutral water crackers are also good if you’re tasting multiple bars.
“There’s a whole process involved,” Pendgracs explains. “You want to excite all your senses.” This means going slowly and savouring the experience, as you would with a wine tasting. In fact, the language around chocolate tasting shares a lot with oenophilic talk (“earthy,” “jammy,” “bright,” “smoky”). If you’re used to thinking of chocolate as candy, this might sound far-fetched. Try thinking of it as a bean with amazing transformative powers.
We begin with sight, taking in the gorgeous packaging before moving to the deep, glossy colour of the bar inside. We listen for the clean snap of the chocolate as it breaks.
Then there’s scent. “Inhale those notes,” Pendgracs instructs. “Finally, just take a little bit — a little bit! — in your mouth.” The flavours go through subtle, complex shifts as the chocolate melts on the palate.
Pendgracs starts by offering some bars from Hummingbird, a standout Canadian outfit from Almonte, Ont., that snagged the Golden Bean at London’s Academy of Chocolate awards last month. Pendgracs likes the company’s commitment to quality and high ethical standards. (Using single-origin beans helps to track the supply chain, an important issue in an international trade marred by child and slave labour.)
Hummingbird’s Hispaniola, a dark chocolate bar made with beans from the Dominican Republic, is full-bodied but fruity, “with some deep cherry and citrus notes,” Pendgracs adds. We also sample a Hummingbird bar finished with hand-harvested fleur de sel from Vancouver Island.
It’s important to keep in mind, Pendgracs says, that taste and texture are influenced by where the beans are grown, how they are handled, and by every step in the chocolate-making process.
“Cocoa grown in different countries is just like the ‘terroir’ with wine,” Pendgracs points out. Soil and climate will affect the beans.
“You’ll get different flavour notes depending on what it’s grown with,” says Pendgracs. “In the Dominican Republic, in Peru, in Madagascar — those are my favourites — you get slightly acidic, fruity notes that always have that red fruit flavour.”
We move on to some chocolate from Omnom, a Reykjavik-based artisanal chocolate company. (Omnom’s bars are now available at the New Iceland Heritage Museum in Gimli.) The white chocolate bar, which is actually a warm blond colour with subtle caramelly flavour, is not overly sweet. “White chocolate has no cocoa mass or cocoa liquor in it,” Pendgracs explains. “It only has cocoa butter, which gives it that beautiful, silky texture.”
We also try some deep, toasty dark chocolate made with beans from Papua New Guinea. Pendgracs reads the tasting notes supplied by Omnom, which promise “nutty leather and smoky tobacco with a whisper of burned oak tamed by a buttery bourbon finish.” I like it, but Prendgracs is not convinced — “a little overdone,” she calls it.
Of course, when it comes to a chocolate tasting, differences of opinion can be part of the fun. How you react to a particular bar can depend on the time of day, what you’re pairing it with, or even your mood.
“My goal is to just educate people about tasting chocolate and make them interested in the learning process,” Pendgracs suggests. She doesn’t like what she calls “the chocolate snob sites,” where people lay out what’s good and what’s not. “I always tell people, it’s all about what you like,” says Pendgracs. “It’s not what I like.”
She just wants to help people appreciate the complexities of chocolate flavours in the bean-to-bar form: “I love watching people’s faces, seeing what they’re interested in and what surprises them. That’s what make it worthwhile.”
Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.