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Packaging Study

David Arnold
(New York, U.S.A.)

1. When did you start reviewing/studying plain fine dark chocolate and what is it about chocolate that gives you the passion to make it such a big part of your life?

I’ve always been interested in food and particularly in the flavors and qualities of food ingredients. My interests in chocolate grew shortly after the first origin bars became available and makers started highlighting the huge varieties of flavors of cacao. With different genetics, growing conditions and the many processes used in making chocolate it is exciting seeing and following what is now being created. I’m especially interested in what the future of fine chocolate can be.

2. Do you have a standard review process that you follow and can you share it here? What makes your reviews different compared to other reviews you have seen? 

My reviews were usually personal ones and not generally seen by others. Daily morning tastings with detailed notes were a way to consider regions, makers, styles, ingredients and all that went into a fine chocolate bar. It’s a great exercise to master. Currently there is less note taking but I spend more time with the chocolate. Some of my thoughts on taste have shifted. A few years ago I would have discounted emotions influencing taste and now I see nearly everything affecting it. My favorite way to get to know a bar is to taste it throughout a day and note how different it can be from one hour to the next. The chocolate isn’t changing but one’s enjoyment of a bar can be greatly enhanced with the right situation.

Blind tastings in a quiet room with a clean pallet will always have their place. Finding chocolates that hold up and wow you at a particular moment is what I’m looking for.

Should we avoid all bias? Shouldn’t we listen when a maker tells his or her story, philosophy, thinking behind the bar? Should a chocolate review not consider the package? I never want a bar I can’t easily open or one that isn’t protected properly. More reviewers should also be critical of claims that are made. I want to take everything into account but narrow my focus to what’s going on with the bar.

3. When reviewing chocolate, how do you rank the different aspects in order of  importance. 

Let the bar highlight what is most important. What qualities strike first? Overwhelming aroma? Amazing creaminess? Supersaturated taste or just whispering subtleties? What happens next? Pay attention to that bar. What’s different about this dance in your mouth that you’ve not experienced before? Figure out what questions that particular bar requires. I like the way this works with the finest chocolate but it isn’t helpful with poorer quality bars. Scoring with a standardized checklist has the potential to not fully recognize greatness.

4. What is your ideal ingredient list and what do you consider acceptable when you are referring to fine plain dark chocolate?

Cocoa beans, sugar, cocoa butter.

Salt is not acceptable in a plain bar unless labeled as salted or salty. I enjoy the kick salt can bring but state it clearly up front and not just in the ingredient list.

Plain dark bars made with cocoa butter substitutes should not be called fine chocolate. However, when making confections with chocolate I can imagine cases where different fats are used for flavor and texture along with other ingredients.

Using different sugars can work but is rarely done well. Other sugars  generally come with a taste. A particular sugar would need to compliment the cacao being used. Sugars behave differently. The texture, melt, mouth-feel and other properties also need to be carefully watched. What I don’t accept is a refined sugar alternative (or vanilla for that matter) being used to mask bad cacao.

I prefer as few ingredients as necessary but I’m somewhat neutral when it comes to lecithin. A lot of it is made from GMO soy and I understand anyone refusing to eat it. Some lecithins have a strong flavor that interferes with the chocolate. Although lecithin is not specifically added for increased shelf life, and I don’t recommend storing beyond an expiration date, I happen to keep some of my chocolate selection in cold storage for years and have noticed that while most chocolate holds up well the bars with lecithin sometimes do better.

5. What aspects in the chain of chocolate making  do you think have the biggest impact on flavor?

Almost everything in the making of chocolate has an affect on flavor. Some makers rely on different aspects having more importance. If I needed to pick just one thing it would be genetics. Even then the best beans need a very talented chocolate maker.

6. If you could standardize how fine chocolate is labeled, what information do you think should be included on every package? 

As fun as it is to compare all the different details in the chocolate processes I only need the ingredients list and an approximate expiration date. If the maker has more completely documented accurate information to share let them. I’m usually curious about uniqueness but too many misleading claims and attributes appear on bars.

7. Is there a person in the chocolate world whom you especially admire?  Who and why?

Chocolate makers with the most control over the most steps in the entire process have the most potential for achieving great chocolate. Maybe it is the gardener in me but Claudio Corallo not only makes chocolate but gets to grow the beans too.

8. “Bean to Bar” is often used as a quality indicator for fine chocolate even though there are many bean-to-bar makers with no real intuition or understanding for flavor or quality development.  Are there other models or examples of companies who are not fully bean to bar that interest you and why?

Bean to Bar is no indication of quality and does not have a clear enough agreed upon definition. I would prefer to talk about talented [I want to say “artisan” but it too is used too broadly] chocolate makers who have the most control over the entire process. I also applaud larger companies that are willing to put their time, effort and funds creating fine chocolate.

9. Who are your top five favorite chocolate makers/brands?

I’m asked this all the time but you will not get a list from me here because so much depends on the situation, time or place. I do however like to interview others and figure out chocolate recommendations specifically for them. Individuals are different and so are my recommendations.

10. Magic wand question.  If you could order the production of any plain dark chocolate bar(s), what would you like to see made and who would make it for you? 

I’ve often asked myself this very question. I wish there were more grower/artisan makers like Claudio Corallo in all growing regions reinventing chocolate from the ground up. I don’t want to see one type or style of chocolate but an enormous variety of fine chocolate that takes into account local variations. If done exceptionally well and with care and innovation that’s the chocolate I would most want to experience.