Thursday, July 22, 2010

Serious Chocolate

Pre-Chocolate hors d'ouevres...gluten free crackers, mmm.

Ok, I know we’ve been through this before, but chocolate is seriously one of my favorite things on the planet. So it should be no surprise to you that I invited some friends over for a chocolate smorgasbord on the evening of my turning 24. We tasted and tittered over 17 bars of Theobroma cacao (in its processed form, of course).

As I have mentioned in other posts, Theobroma cacao hails from the humid tropics, originally found in only the New World. While consumption of these hefty pods predates both Mayan an Aztec civilizations by a good 1000 or more years, their entrance into the global arena has its roots in Western imperialism. The import of cacao into Spain during the 16th century spurred on the expansion of cocao products from New World royal and ritual comestibles to a luxurious drink for the aristocracy of Europe. Chocolate production is entangled in smallpox epidemics among native South American people, the African slave trade and the spread of cash-crop plantations of the 17th and 18th centuries, and domestication and genetic manipulation of the Theobroma trees. With the advent of cocoa powder in the early 19th century, chocolate penetrated the emerging industrial processing system that would lead us down the road to our current food trends.

The rise in popularity of cocoa, mainly in the form of drinking chocolate but later confections, prompted the use of poorer quality and mixed-source cacao, as well as spreading the crop from its origin to Africa and the Southeast Asian Islands. As with most of our commodity crops today, the history and implications of cultivation are fascinatingly complex (for detailed account, consult The New Taste Of Chocolate by Maricel E. Presilla). With the plethora of cheap, undiscriminating chocolate bars stocking the grocery shelves, many of us have never known or even actively dislike more pure forms of chocolate, especially small batch manufacturers, with higher cacao content and more traditional growing methods (like reverting to canopy-shaded growing operations). Well, I think my palate is becoming more discerning and appreciative of the subtleties of different chocolates.

For the past six months, give or take a couple, I have been accumulating dark chocolate of varying concentrations of cacao and a wide spectrum of brands. All but two are completely dairy-free and most are certified fair-trade or organic (read more about impacts in my earlier post). As Mr. Presilla warns in his tome, you still must be wary when purchasing these labels, as they can be misleading about the actual level of social and environmental responsibility embedded in the chocolate. Seeking out chocolate from farmer cooperatives and legitimate bean-to-bar operations, just as getting to know your local farmer, are probably your best bets for ensuring a clear(er) conscience and a smiling face!

For a bit of chocolate tasting tips check out Chocolate and Zucchini’s suggestions. If you want a bit of help identifying flavor notes as you savor a bar, consult

The Line-Up:

1. Whole Foods Market Brand 52% Swiss Dark Chocolate

Certified Fair-Trade (TransFair USA) and Organic (Quality Assurance International).

No soy lecithin!*

Flavor Notes: like a good hot chocolate; milky and smooth

2. Newman’s Own Organics 54% Dark Chocolate

Organic (Oregon Tilth) and Rainforest Alliance Certified**

Flavor Notes: bitter with burnt aftertaste

3. World Market 64% Sea Salt Dark Chocolate

No certifications or additional information

Flavor Notes: no bitterness, but powerful salt interjections

4. Chocolate Santander 65% Dark Chocolate

Collaborative between Nacional de Chocolates and small farmers

Source: Colombia

Flavor Notes: Caramel and toasted marshmallow

5. Green and Black ‘s 70% Dark Chocolate

Certified Organic (CCOF) and Fair-Trade (as of February 2010)

Contains organic whole milk powder

Flavor Notes: port, smooth, rich

6. Theo 70% Dark Chocolate

Certified Organic (WA State Dept. of Agriculture) and Fair-Trade (TransFair USA)

Seattle’s Bean-to-Bar operation. No soy lecithin!

Flavor Notes: fruity, nibby, with citrus undertones

7. Kallari 70%

Organic and Rainforest Alliance Certified

Grower cooperative of 850 indigenous Kichwa farmers

Source: Ecuadorean Amazon

No soy lecithin!

Flavor Notes: herby

8. Endangered Species 72% Supreme Dark Chocolate (Chimp)

10% of profits donated to support species, habitat and humanity

100% “ethically traded” and shade-grown

Source: Nigeria

Flavor Notes: cinnamon, nutty

9. Ghirardelli 72% Twilight Delight

No certifications or additional information

Flavor Notes: waxy, dark fruits/cherry

10. Dagoba 73% Conacado Dark Chocolate

Certified Fair Trade and Organic (International Certification Services, Inc.)

Contains milk

Source: Dominican Republic

Flavor Notes: mushroom, earthy

11. Theo 74% Dark Chocolate

Source: Madagascar

Flavor Notes: citrus, fruity

12. Kallari 75%

Source: Ecuadorian Amazon

Flavor Notes: juniper, gin

13. Equal Exchange 80% Extra Dark Chocolate

Certified Fair-Trade (TransFair USA) and Organic (Oregon Tilth)

Worker-owned cooperative, features different co-op members on packaging

No soy lecithin!

Source: Panama

Flavor Notes: vanilla, nice melt

14. Theo 84% Dark Chocolate

Source: Ghana

Flavor Notes: dry, balanced

15. Kallari 85%

Source: Ecuadorian Amazon

Flavor Notes: dry, bitter

16. Endangered Species 88% Extreme Dark Chocolate (Black Panther)

Source: Nigeria

Flavor Notes: bitter, nutty, grainy

17. World Market 99%

Flavor Notes: surprisingly not bitter, toasty, smooth


So which chocolates reigned supreme?

1. Chocolate Santander took the cake. I found this bar at my favorite chocolate shop in Seattle, Chocolopolis on Queen Anne Ave. It was my priciest bar, but also the best!

2. Theo 70% came in second, but did not sit well with everyone. Theo bars have a distinct tone that don’t appeal to milder chocolate lovers.

3. Kallari 70% followed closely, though experienced more uniform approval. One of my friends served as a representative for the company, and passed on this article!

4. Endangered species 72%

5. Theo 74% Madagascar (same caveats – was hit or miss with people)

6. World Market 99% This was a shocking hit! “I’m surprised it’s not more bitter” – L

7. World Market 64% The salt really stole the show on this one!

8. Equal Exchange 80%

9. Whole Foods 52% The mid-point of chocolate enjoyment…

10. Kallari 75% G really didn’t like this one – “dead babies” ok, a bit of an exaggeration!

11. Ghirardelli 72%

12. Theo 84% Ghana “boring” – unanimously

13. Green and Black’s 70% This actually was a hit with several in our group, but my family generally didn’t care for it. Generally considered to be a good brand, and my dad loves the Espresso!

14. Newman’s Own Organic 54% severely disappointed Butch Cassidy…

15. Kallari 85%

16. Dagoba 73% was disliked by all.

17. Endangered Species Black Panther 88% I thought we liked this one more…so maybe give it a shot. It also elicited some Anchorman quoting…Sex Panther, anyone?

"88% of the time, this tastes like a frosted mini-wheat doused in chocolate" - T

By the end of the evening, we had all overdosed on theobromine, caffeine, and chocolatey goodness. We finished up with a round of blind tasting, which resulted in quite different takes on each bar. An indication that 17 different varieties is about three times the recommended quantity! Well, I hope you enjoyed our adventure and try some of the fantastic chocolates we tasted. If you need suggestions of bars with add-ins, let me know. At the same time, if you have read this far and have your own suggestions, feel free to comment below! Or finally, if you want a second opinion, the NY Times did their own tasting a couple of years back.

“I don’t even know where I am anymore” – T, at the end of the evening

* Soy lecithin is used as an emulsifier to bind the ingredients. It is used to replace cocoa butter, which manufacturers often remove to sell for cosmetic uses.

** Rainforest Alliance Certification targets the sustainability of farming practices, including protecting soil quality, clean waterways, and wildlife habitat. It also parallels fair trade ventures by striving for high standards in the welfare of workers, their families, and communities.

*** Single source chocolates have very distinct flavors resulting from growing conditions and the soil properties. This interactive tool will provide some insight into their specific flavors.

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