Sunday, 11 October 2009

Chocolate: raising the bar

It's national chocolate week and the city is buzzing with chocolate themed events, giving me the perfect excuse to indulge for 'research' purposes. I headed down to the Mayfair Hotel for Chocolate Unwrapped, the first event of its kind in the UK dedicated entirely to chocolate.

All of the big names were represented, from Artisan du Chocolat and Rococo to Hotel Chocolat. The fascinating thing for me, aside from getting to compare colours, flavours and textures, was learning about how chocolate is made - the detailed process from 'bean to bar'.

The word chocolate comes from the Nahautl 'xocol√£tl', meaning bitter water. It reminded me of when I first got into wine - the excitement of discovering a new world, with its own vocabulary. From conching and winnowing to tempering, chocolate has its own language, which is as foreign as wine speak to the uninitiated.

Comparisons with winemaking kept coming up. As with wine, terroir is crucial in determining the taste and characteristics of the chocolate. Different chocolates actually taste of where they are from. And as with single vineyard wines, single origin chocolates from one plantation produce higher quality chocolate to those from a combination of sites, and companies seem keen to shout about provenance on their labels.

The chocolate making process is also quite similar to winemaking - from the harvesting (twice yearly in May and November) to the fermenting, drying, de-shelling and roasting, through to conching, where the chocolate is ground down, melted and turned with oxygen.

Only three companies in the UK make their chocolate from bean to bar. The rest buy it ready made, which they melt down and add their own flavours to. There seems to be a big debate over cocoa percentages - with 70% seen as the ideal. Some of the chocolatiers argue that it all depends on the bean, and the flavour you are going to blend it with. 'A raspberry chocolate could never stand up against 70% cocoa', one chocolatier insisted. 'The flavour can only come out at 60%'.

Chocolate certainly seems to be raising its game – there is a huge difference in quality between your average bar of Cadburys and the artisanal creations from the likes of Hotel du Chocolat. To reflect this rise in quality, an 'Academy of Chocolate' has been set up to promote fine chocolate in the UK and honour the best in chocolate making in their annual Academy of Chocolate Awards, much like our Decanter World Wine Awards.

Top 5 chocolates of the day -

Sir Hans Sloane drinking chocolate, which I tried in pellet form – made from chocolate spun around a single grain of sugar, it had a lovely crunchy, almost biscuity texture.

Pacari Raw Chocolate - 100% unprocessed cocoa made from cocoa powder, cocoa butter and nothing else. It was surprisingly smooth and, I'm told, rich in antioxidants.

Artisan du Chocolat salted caramel - their best seller, these dusted truffles burst in the mouth, filling it with delicious oozing salty caramel.

Scand Choco white chocolate made with goats milk - not the tastiest chocolate of the day, but wins points for individuality. Tastes of sweet goats cheese, which is confusing for the palate.

Rococo Darjeeling chocolate - dusted with gold, real perfume is added in order to achieve the strong Darjeeling flavour - this is apparently top secret.

Weird fact of the day: monkeys love the sweet white pulp from cocoa pods.

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