The little known but fascinating process which is required to simply create one piece of chocolate is amazing. It is easy to take this sweet treat for granted, given that chocolate is so ubiquitous, but I was unaware of the time and lengths required in this process. However, everything changed after I attended a chocolate tasting at Madison du Chocolat.
Since my chocolate taste test at
and review of
the New York City chocolate show
were so well received, I decided to share this new experience with you. It was an incredible two hour event that could best be described as part history lesson and part feast. I would like to thank our informative host (Mike) who was great about giving us extra time (and chocolate!).
History and process:
I feel better about my chocolate obsession by knowing that it has been used for many centuries, even for medicinal purposes! We learned in detail about the Aztecs’ love of chocolate, and how they found uses for it ranging from snacks to drugs (don’t ask.) Once chocolate became a staple in the United States, companies have endeavored to improve its manufacturing process; today these can differ depending on which brand or store is creating the chocolate.
We had a long and intriguing discussion about the way in which chocolate is currently produced. The beginning of this process occurs when cocoa pods are grown on trees located in tropical environments. Each tree requires nine square meters of space to grow (think about that for a second), and only one out of every two hundred trees is good enough to be used to create chocolate. This seemed baffling to me, but this was only the start. The majority of these trees are the Forestario variety, which makes up about seventy-five percent of them. Unfortunately for smaller gourmet stores like Maison, these are used almost exclusively by the biggest brands such as Mars, Nestle, and Hershey.
A few cocoa pods were then passed around; I noticed a number of ridges and sides on each and I could shake them to hear the cocoa beans inside. When the pods are ready to be used, they are hacked open, and then the beans and pulp are removed. (The pulp apparently tastes like bananas, something which attracts monkeys who try to break the pods open before they are mature.) To make a long story shorter, the cocoa beans are then sent to different locations for various processes: they are dried in a warm climate, then roasted, and sent off to be mashed. At this point, the cocoa butter in each bean is separated from the cocoa mass, but there is always too much butter so some of it is removed. Finally, the last step in the creation of chocolate is to mix the butter and mass back together in a process known as cinching which can take up to three days. Voila: who could have possibly known that biting into a chocolate bar represented the culmination of such a lengthy process?
As we sat down at small tables in the private back room of Maison du Chocolat, each of us was presented with a tray of six chocolates. They were arranged in terms of cocoa percentages from milk to dark, the lowest on the left and highest on the right. (This doesn’t even include the small cup of their Guayaquil hot chocolate which I tried while waiting; I highly recommend it and I was surprised to learn that this is less intense than the other flavor they serve.) There was also bottled water and a mysterious dish with three products on the table: a disc, a bean, and some grains. These turned out to be: cocoa butter, which is great for keeping your skin soft, a roasted cocoa bean, which is nutty with only a hint of sweetness, and cocoa nibs, which are a tiny bit sweeter but still quite bitter. Interspersing the lecture with the tasting, our host would speak for a while then we would try one of the chocolates and compare our feedback.
- The first selection of a forty-one percent disc of milk chocolate was smooth and creamy as one might expect. However, this was a relatively high percentage for a milk chocolate, which made the overall flavor bolder than I had expected.
- Another surprise was in store when I tried the forty-one percent Boheme bonbon: Maison took the same chocolate from the first disc and created quite a difference by blending it with a little cream. This square delight was airy, delicate, and really made the sharper notes of the chocolate stand out.
- The next piece was a disc of sixty percent Madagascar dark chocolate. While I tasted the usual fruity notes and slight bitterness on my pallet, it also seemed a bit dry.
- Once again, a fascinating change occurred when I bit into the Guayaquill bonbon, made from the exact same chocolate. The dry texture I had noticed was transformed into a silkier texture, and the whole piece felt much lighter. I finally realized that this was part of the point of the tasting: to show how the plain chocolate discs are used as a base to produce outstanding creations.
- When I tasted the next disc, composed of sixty-four percent dark chocolate, I knew it felt just about perfect. I tend to be a “chocolate nerd” at times, that being said; my favorites are usually in the sixty to seventy percent range. This selection exemplified an optimal balance between being bitter, fruity, and smooth. (Bitter is not necessarily a bad thing, it can be very nice to experience in small amounts.) I even wondered how this would taste if used in a
Chocolate lava cake or chocolate coulant.
- The final piece on my tray, which I expected due to the pattern thus far, was the Caracas bonbon containing sixty-four percent dark chocolate. I could find no fault with this selection, and it was definitely my favorite. That is, of course, until we were told that there would be two extra chocolates to compensate for the delay at the beginning. This was rather nice considering the session only started about ten minutes late and our host stayed an additional twenty minutes to answer questions.
- Our next piece was a seventy percent dark chocolate infused with orange. Maison could do no wrong in my mind at this point, and I only felt mildly surprised when my pallet was hit with the bright and fresh citrus notes.
- The final selection, a bonbon called Arriba composed of seventy-two percent dark chocolate from Ecuador, was our host’s favorite since he continually found it to be so complex. After my first bite, I understood exactly what he meant although I couldn’t necessarily identify all of the particular flavors he mentioned. I reflected, at this point, that each time the percentage increased, I discovered new notes and qualities in the chocolates, and I truly comprehended the meaning of this tasting event.
I was lost for words when I left. Overall, this chocolate tasting was impressive and I felt extremely overwhelmed with the entire experience. Thank you Maison du Chocolat!