I follow the basic methodology most teach and I teach, to listen to each of our senses one by one, ending with the aromas in the mouth/nose. Nothing secret, just making sure my body & the environment are in the right conditions, and listening the same chocolate, many times, each time focusing on a different sense and sub part of the sense (ex in the mouth you feel texture, flavors then aromas)- Unconsciously, automatically, my brain connects these” feelings “ with other bars I have tasted, adding this new chocolate in a specific place in my sensorial data base in my brain.
I hardly take any notes, unless I have to discuss or share with someone. By the time I have spent so much time, with so much attention, on a chocolate, I know it by heart, I think I could recognize it blind – If there is anything left over I put it in one of my wine cellars properly wrapped in clear film and add this new entry in an excel sheet of my “stock”.
I must admit I do not look much at other reviews, I know that words are often not enough to describe what one feels and that for chocolate, there is no education nor standards as there is in the wine world, even the coffee world, so often what other people write about a specific chocolate is different from what I write, or “think” as I do not often write. I prefer one to one discussions with people, tasting if possible at the same time the same product (same batch in same conditions of environment and same conditions of stoagre of that chocolate).
I do not rank, I give just like as for people a global view, a style- preferences are very subjective, just like with music or people- I give more importance to aromas and flavors than to texture as I think that it is always easier to improve texture (particle size or bad tempering) than the aromas and the flavors so if some one has got tempering or texture wrong, I do not give it too much “negative” points. I just hope they will improve that part.
If astringency is quite bad, then not much hope to get rid of it in future batches; if acidity or bitternes is too strong they might be able to improve. Aromas can be boring, they’re hidden but either not interesting or expressed to their potential. It is aromas and flavors I give the most importance to. 4. What is your ideal ingredient list and what do you consider acceptable when you are referring to fine plain dark chocolate?
SUGAR: Anything that adds aromas to a chocolate besides the cacao contribution should be called “added aroma”- sugar that is not neutral in aromas, like brown sugar, vergeoise, panela, coconut sugar, etc. all bring an aroma thus do not make “plain “ chocolate – So (to call it) plain chocolate it needs a neutral sweetener.
FATS: As for the fats other than cacao butter, I dislike them for 2 reasons: 1. Most of them are less good for health than cacao butter. 2. They do not have the same melting point so the chocolate melts in a weird, not homogeneous way, and for me, this sensation is frustrating and unpleasant.
SALT: It is close to sugar, as it usually does not bring aromas but rather creates a “flavor”, opens the aromas if not overpowering. This is my head speaking but my body thinks salt changes the experience of the aromas, as much as an added flavor , it is not pure . A change strong enough to put salt bars in the same category as flavored bars.
Every one says the same thing, and from my tasting experiences, it seems quite true: each step is important, even if some are key to make an exceptional product. It is impossible to give a % of importance to each (genetic, maturity of the pod, fermentation, drying, storage, roasting, conching, even storing of the finished bar).
In some cases, genetics can make a huge difference when all the rest is done "as well as possible"(fermentation +drying+ roasting).
Terroir plays an important role; look at Chuao, the genetics in the valley are a mess, but the special trio "terroir+fermentation+drying" of that place gives almost systematically a very good chocolate.
I tend to think that the old fashion % + country of origin + genetic if really pure genetics would be enough; like labeling 10 years ago… why? I am not sure if any of this information is useful for more than a niche of aficionados, and even for this niche, the detail given is not “useful”, not enough to bring any better understanding of the chocolate. Too many details about the beans and process are research, not chocolate marketing; the most important relation between chocolate and us “humans” is pleasure and there is no need for reading tons of technical info nor to have learned encyclopedic knowledge on cacao and chocolate to get if a chocolate is good or not and listen to the emotion it brings to us; I think all this information deviates us from the most important we should all do: connect to our body, listen to our senses, forget all the rest and discover the subtle notes of the music this chocolate brings to our body.
I am of course interested in an intellectual point of view on any information useful but the information would need to be far more detailed than “conching time , fermentation time “ etc. A conching time tells you absolutely nothing if you do not know the brand of the machine, the size of the batch , the parameters of the machine (temperature and duration); if anyone decided to give us much detail, it would be only useful to compare two different cacaos processed with different conching times or temperatures ; Fresco’s approach giving roasting level is useful as you can clearly see that high roast flattens the complexity, gives a standard “roast” aroma, compared to the same cacao with a lighter roast- But at the end, people like bar X more than Y for the pleasure it gives to them and not because the conching time or roasting is higher or longer. And what it teaches you is true for his products, not for chocolate in general.
It is a very difficult question, the list is very long: I have met fantastic people, and some of them make me feel insignificant. I have many names that come to my mind but I take this opportunity to mention the most recent encounters, the highlights of 2012, people that make a real difference in their country:
* Samantha Aquim in Brazil: a great palate, perfectionist and workaholic, a bright and adventurous mind, she first introduced “Belgium and French” luxury chocolate in Brazil, and soon realized it was an aberration to import chocolate in a country producing cacao; she visited plantations, fell in love with the cacao, the plantations, the people working there, the smell of the fermentation and drying beans and tried to share the sensorial experiences in a fine chocolate range called Q chocolate-educational, elegant, with a packaging and aromas that transport you into the plantations of Bahia. I have smelled the fermentation boxes of the cacao used by Aquim in their chocolate, smelled and tasted the beans on the drying beds, spent hours in the middle of those cacao trees. The packaging as well as the aromas of the different chocolates really dive you into what your senses experience there. It was her objective, and it is a success.
*Mark from C-spot the website has an amazing quantity and quality of information (I am not referring to the choco bars reviews, that I have not read) – it is extensive, bright, fun- We waited years for it, but it was worth the wait.
* María Fernanda di Giacobbe in Venezuela founder of the brand Kakao bombones venezolanos–in a country where the private sector is suffocated by a despotic government, she managed to open many fine chocolate shops, create an atmosphere full of joy and generosity- she spends most of her time setting up and giving classes to “cacao country people”, showing them they can make some income from the jewels that grow in Venezuela-and organizing cacao and chocolate festivals. Her positive attitude, creativity and generosity, in such a difficult context, makes her a choco-cacao hero.
There are a lot of bean to bar brands run by people focused on fame or money or fun, or various of these criteria together- they do pay attention to quality and their chocolate reflects it- some brands start with a poor chocolate, it is just the beginning of a learning curve- but to improve you need to think, understand what you do, why, and try to find the optimal ways, in the context of your constraints, to get there, step by step- the people that do not pay attention to quality in every detail do not improve on the other hand you have people that cannot necessarily do all the bean to bar, but when they subcontract some steps (like cacao plantations, fermentation, drying , bean to bar) will have their own criteria, and quality control. They make a great chocolate, because they have the right attitude, even if they do not own every one of the steps. Very good chocolates of people that do not make the bean to bar but source their own beans : Akesson, Original beans, Q chocolate
It is people, attitude and work that interests me, and often the chocolate reflects these values.
Ideally collaborate for months with a choco maker that controls quite a lot his machines. To experiment together various parameters on the machines on different beans- more than the final result, I would adore to learn from the process of making it and share this with the public, not only the chocolate.