Although I don’t consider myself a chocolate connoisseur, I think over the years I have acquired a refined taste for chocolate, and I can distinguish fairly well now a good from a bad chocolate. So, for those of you interested in learning a little more about chocolate, here are some info, tips, and useful links.
Theobroma cacao (Mayan: kakaw, Nahuatl: Cacahuatl), also cacao tree and cocoa tree, is a small (4–8 m or 15–26 ft tall) evergreen tree in the family Sterculiaceae (alternatively Malvaceae), native to the deep tropical region of the Americas. Its seeds are used to make cocoa powder and chocolate. There are two prominent competing hypotheses about the origins of the domestication of the originally wild Theobroma cacao tree. One is that wild examples were originally distributed from southeastern Mexico to the Amazon basin, with domestication taking place both in the Lacandon area of Mexico and in lowland South America. But recent studies of Theobroma cacao genetics seem to show that the plant originated in the Amazon and was distributed by humans throughout Central America and Mesoamerica.
The tree is today found growing wild in the low foothills of the Andes at elevations of around 200–400 m (650–1300 ft) in the Amazon and Orinoco riverbasins. It requires a humid climate with regular rainfall and good soil. It is an understory tree, growing best with some overhead shade.
Types of Cocoa Trees
Most of the chocolate tress in the world can be divided now into three types: criollo, trinitario and forastero. The most prized, rare and expensive are the criollo trees, the original ones used by the Maya. These are less bitter and amazingly aromatic. However, the trees are difficult to grow, and today less than 5% of the chocolate use these beans, but these are among the best you will taste. The vast majority of trees are forastero, from which ~90% of the world chocolate is produced. These are hard-resistant trees (resulting in cheaper beans), and the reason why most of the chocolate you can buy in stores suck. ~10% of the trees are trinitario, a hybrid between criollo and forastero, which brought relative improvement to the quality of some chocolates.
Making chocolate from the beans
In its basic form, cocoa beans are obtained from cocoa pods (fruit that grow in cocoa trees, it takes 5-6 years for a tree to produce fruit, and each tree will produce only ~30 pods/year). Once harvested (a process which is extremely labor intensive, since its must be done by hand), the beans are fermented and dried in a two-step curing process that is critical for the final flavor of the chocolate. Fermentation usually takes 2-8 days, and drying can take several weeks. After these steps, beans are stored in sacks for shipment to chocolate producers. If properly fermented and dried, the beans should already carry a brown center and be aromatic. Once in the factories, the beans are roasted (yet another critical step in flavor development), milled, pressed (from where cocoa liquor and butter are obtained) and refined. At this stage, a smooth paste is ready for the next critical step called conching, where the chocolate is put through a kneading process that can last few hours to several days, and gives the final characteristic texture to good chocolate (and poor-sandy texture to bad ones not processed properly). As final steps, the chocolate is then tempered (cycles of heating-cooling to solidify it while keeping its “glossiness”), molded, and packaged.
Now, before giving you some advice on good chocolate, we need to remark here an important thing: chocolate and candy are two VERY different things. Don’t get me wrong, when I’m in a mood for some sweets, I love eating chocolate cakes, truffles and, of course, argentinian alfajores (the more dulce de leche, the better!!), but that has nothing to do with eating chocolate. When chocolate fans talk about eating chocolate, they refer to the bars. The plainer the bar, the better. A real good chocolate does not need any additives (almonds, coffee, spices, etc.) since you will find a huge variety of flavors coming just from the cocoa beans. All you need to do is let the chocolate melt, and try to discover those flavors while you eat the bar. In this context, people usually find the following flavors/aromas: earthy, forest, woody, acid fruity, berry fruit, tobacco, coffee, bitter, roasted nuts, caramel, tea, mushrooms, fresh grass, etc. As you can see, just as in wine, basically every natural flavor can be found, and it usually depends on the soil where the cocoa tress grow, as well as the roasting process (see this page for a nice graph on flavors- http://www.allchocolate.com/enjoying/intro_to_chocolate/chocolate_notes.aspx). With regards to cocoa percentage, most of the good chocolate range between 54%-75% cocoa content. Below that is just not enough cocoa (mostly milk and cocoa butter), and I find that above 75% most of the bars taste too dry or flat (but this is a personal statement, I know some people die for an 85% bar, and there are impeccable comments for the Lindt Excellence Dark 85% bar).
Although defining whether a chocolate is good or not is a relative thing (no one has the last word when it comes to taste), here are some chocolates I find particularly great:
- Valrhona: the first company to ever produce chocolate with beans from a single place (varietals) in the late 80’s, they still remain among the best chocolate I eat. You can try some of their special bars (Gran Couva from Madagascar, Ampakaia from Trinidad, Palmira and El Pedregal, from Venezuela, Manjari from Madagascar, Alpaco from Equator) but even their regular black bars are amazing (definitely their 56% bar is one of my favorites).
- Another French company, Michel Cluizel, has some amazing bars as well (Los Ancones from Santo Domingo, Mangaro from Madagascar and the 72% bar are quite unique).
- From Italy, two great makers, Amedei (63% bar) and Domori (60% bar with cocoa nibs) are just perfect. I even tried recently a white-chocolate bar from Amedei which was fantastic. Of course, the original first bar Amedei created (Chuao) is a piece from heaven (and if you are interested, check in google how this bar put the Amedei siblings in the map).
- In Spain, the city of Barcelona has a long-standing tradition in making good chocolate. The first company I was aware of is called Chocovic, and they made a couple of bars (criollo and trinitario) that are extremely unique in flavor.
- A new company from Barcelona that emerged recently, Sampaka, is making some of my current favorites chocolates. Their 71% Venezuelan bar is just perfect. If you are in for a special taste, then try their 70% La Joya bar, made with criollo blanco cocoa beans from Mexico; uniquely acidic, it will surprise you.
- A remarkable story of a long-lost and recently found in a remote valley in Peru, Fortunato N04, from Moonstruck (68%), is something unique. Made from Pure Nacional cacao beans (thought to be extinct), has an extraordinary blend of floral, fruity and nutty flavors. But particularly, an intense vanilla after taste that I find hard time believing it is just cocoa beans!
- Another French makers, Pralus (75% Equator Trinitario, 75% Madagascar Criollo), Bonnat, and of course, La Maison du Chocolat (Akosombo 68%, a delicacy) and Debauve and Gallais (“The official chocolatier to the French Court”) are indisputable among the best.
- Local companies producing chocolate at the site of cocoa trees plantations are rare, but few of them are definitely doing an outstanding job. Chocolates El Rey (Venezuela), Santander (Colombia) and more recently Madecasse (Madagascar) are producing amazingly rich chocolates that are worth trying. I recently tried a new one from Madagascar (Mora Mora, 73% bar, also from the Sambirano Valley) and is great, perfect blend of smoky, earth tones, and savory after taste.
- Although the USA has not a long-standing tradition producing high-quality chocolates, in recent years we have experienced a sprouting of chocolate makers that can easily take on any European bar. Among them, Sharffen-Berger (their 62% bar is perfect), Recchiuti and Chuao in California, and Jaques Torres in NY have great bars to try. More recently, I tried Christopher Elbow chocolate N09, and despite being a little milky for my taste, I truly enjoyed it.
Now, after all this chatting you are probably asking the most important question, which is where you can get these chocolates?? Well, although some of them are available in specific supermarkets in US (WholeFoods, Trader Joes), I found that the easiest way to get them is on-line. See below for some useful
Links, both to buy them and to learn more about chocolate. Bon Apetit!