Chocolate is a Valentine's cliché - right up there with red roses and diamond rings. (Look for a piece tomorrow on how chocolate and Valentine's got so intertwined in the first place.) But it can be a great opportunity to ditch the too-sweet truffles and bonbons and really taste the pleasures of excellent cacao.
We got all twitchy to try some top chocolate after our extended series in Chocolate Week and we went looking for some tips on getting the most out of our Valrhona and Pralus.
So we turned to the provider of our Valentine's Contest chocolate basket prize, the Chocolate Manufacturers Association. Whether you're single or coupled, Valentine's is a great time to gather some friends and taste some wonderful chocolate - read on for chocolate-tasting tips...
While anyone can eat chocolate, it takes attention to taste it - just like when drinking good wine. We talked to Susan Fussell, a top executive at the National Confectioners Association. Here are her tips on holding a successful chocolate tasting.
Chocolate tasting involves using all of our senses - sight, smell, taste, sound and touch. Here are the best tips for each sense to truly appreciate your chocolate tasting experience:
• Is it light brown in color to suggest a milk chocolate or a darker shade to suggest a dark chocolate?
• The origin of the cocoa beans can also affect the color. For example, West African cocoa beans tend to produce lighter chocolate than cocoa beans from Ecuador.
• A very dark brown may suggest alkalized or "dutched" components present in the chocolate. This is a special process that neutralizes the natural acid from the cocoa bean and produces unique flavors.
• If chocolate has a greyish cast, it's possible that it was exposed to some temperature fluctuations. This is not harmful and is caused from the cocoa butter or sugar that has risen to the surface. Commonly known as "bloom," this process should not affect the overall flavor of the chocolate as it melts in your mouth.
• The chocolate aroma entices the olfactory system, which is responsible for about 70% of our overall chocolate tasting experience.
• Smelling the chocolate first sets the expectation for the flavors you may experience when you taste it.
• When you bite into a piece of chocolate or break off a piece with your hands, listen to the sound it makes.
• Milk softens chocolate so it'll make a soft and quiet sound – the more milk in the chocolate, the quieter the chocolate.
• A sharp "snap" sound is typical of well tempered dark chocolate.
• First, place the chocolate on your tongue and feel the smoothness as it melts in your mouth.
• Use your tongue to push the chocolate against the roof of your mouth and feel it melt there.
• Generally speaking, the smoother it feels, the finer and more luxurious the chocolate.
• Now pay attention to the individual flavors in the chocolate.
• Does it taste like caramel, dried fruits, malt or have nutty flavors?
• The nuances that can be tasted are almost endless.
• The cocoa beans' origin and how they are processed and blended with the other ingredients, such as the milk, help determine the components of the overall flavor experience.
• Always taste mild (milk) chocolates first and then progress to more intense chocolates like dark, similar to how wines are tasted white to red.
• If you taste a series of dark chocolates, start with the lower cacao percentages and move your way up (e.g. start with a 50% and end with a 75%).
• Our senses fatigue when tasting, therefore it is best to do no more than three pieces of chocolate per "flight" and no more than three "flights" at one time.
If you're planning a chocolate tasting soon, check out this PDF of chocolate tasting guide and notesheets at Chocolate USA.
(Image: Pralus Pyramid, $44.95 at Amazon)