|Unblended Chocolate: How to Get It|
|Champagne Tasting Report|
|Sexy Wines for Valentine's Day|
|Other Sam Gugino Tastes Columns|
It's no big deal to belly up to the wine bar and ask for an Alsace Riesling or an Oregon Pinot Noir, or to choose Sumatra Mandheling or Kenya AA coffee at the market. But when it comes to chocolate, what is there besides bittersweet, semisweet, milk chocolate and white chocolate? Plenty.
"More and more upper-crust chocolatiers are getting persnickety about where chocolate comes from, what beans are used, what the percentage of cacao is, and so on," says Randall Turner, president of U.S. operations for Chocolates El Rey, a Venezuelan chocolate producer that supplies a number of top American chocolatiers.
Chocolate aficionados are even into terroir these days, because premium, unblended "single-origin" chocolates can exhibit distinctive and exciting characteristics that reflect something about where the cocoa beans they're made from were grown and processed.
French chocolate maker Michel Cluizel offers a fascinating tasting kit of seven different chocolates, each of them a dense 72-percent cacao (more cacao denotes more chocolate strength). His Venezuelan chocolate is silky and smooth, with hints of black and red fruits. The chocolate made from Ecuadorian beans is rich and full-bodied, with blackberry essence and a lingering finish. The Grenadian has a concentrated chocolate flavor, with bright berry character peeking through. Ghanaian is earthy and smoky, but has little fruit. Javanese has a pronounced roasted flavor with subtle fruit notes. Sumatran has a nice balance of cream, earth and fruit, though it finishes a bit short. Beans from Madagascar yield a chocolate with more orange than berry flavor, and a long finish.
There are other single-origin chocolates worth trying. French chocolate-maker Valrhona, which is generally credited with introducing the concept of gôut de terroir in chocolate, produces the vintage-dated single-plantation Gran Couva, from Trinidad. The 2001 vintage is roasted- and rustic-tasting, but still plenty fruity. The company's Caraibe blend is made of beans from Venezuela, Trinidad and Grenada. It's smooth but intensely chocolaty, with a lovely cassis core.
El Rey's two main chocolates, Rio Caribe and Carenero Superior, are from two different regions of the world's premier cacao-producing country, Venezuela. El Rey's Cariaco Rio Caribe, from the Paria Peninsula, is a deliciously creamy chocolate with strong dairy notes. Bucare Carenero Superior, from the Barlovento Valley, has a great balance of sweetness and chocolate, with plenty of blackberry, plum, raisin and date nuances. Then there's the Michel Cluizel 1er Cru d'Hacienda Concep-cion, a single-plantation chocolate also from Venezuela's Barlovento Valley. It has fabulous raspberry fruitiness that pops as the chocolate melts in your mouth. "Before, chocolate was red, white and blue. Now we're filling in with pastel colors," says Pierrick Chouard of Vintage Chocolates in Elizabeth, N.J., who imports Cluizel's chocolates.
When single-origin chocolates were introduced to chefs a few years ago, they had a field day with them. In the autumn of 1999, when George McKirdy was executive pastry chef of the W Hotels in New York, he needed a chocolate for his warm chocolate gratin with cinnamon sable and walnut gelato. He chose Maracaibo, an old and very pure chocolate variety from western Venezuela. "It had tobacco and earthy tones that echoed the fall flavors in the rest of the components in the dish," he said. Chocolatiers took notice, too. To complement the different fillings in his premium Ricard Chocolat candies, New York's Richard Muszynski needed a versatile chocolate. He found it in an organic variety from Madagascar. "[Combined] with the honey-yogurt filling, it brings out dark berry flavors, almost resembling a dessert wine," he says. "With the white chocolate interior, it takes on an espressolike flavor, giving the overall effect of café au lait."
The cacao plant, which is indigenous to Central and South America, produces a multihued pod (shaped like a mini football). The three main categories of beans are criollo, forastero and trinitario, with a plethora of subspecies and clonal variations. It's now grown in equatorial zones around the world. Criollos, highest in grade, are produced in small quantities because they are delicate and more susceptible to disease. But they're sought after for their complexity and powerful fruitiness by top chocolate makers such as El Rey, Michel Cluizel, Valrhona and Berkeley, Calif.-based Scharffen Berger.
"The holy grail of pure criollos" is the white porcelana bean, writes Maricel Presilla in her book The New Taste of Chocolate, a new and excellent resource book on chocolate. Even before I tasted the porcelana, its fresh aroma leaped out at me. The rich fruit and deep chocolate flavor reminded me of a fine California Cabernet Sauvignon. Unfortunately, writes Presilla, porcelana is "under siege" from farmers who are switching to less demanding crops.
High-yielding, disease-resistant forastero cacao beans are the bulwark of the chocolate industry, comprising about 90 percent of the world's chocolate production. The hybrid trinitario, named for the place it originated, Trinidad, combines many of the flavor characteristics of criollo with the heartiness of forastero. Some trinitario species are as prized as the finest criollos, and top-shelf chocolates such as Carenero Superior and Rio Caribe are made exclusively from high quality trinitario beans.
How cacao beans are fermented and dried are also important factors in the taste of chocolate. If the fermentation period is too short, the beans can become bitter, astringent and overly acidic. Over-fermenting them can produce unwelcome flavors. Long, slow drying -- with much hand labor -- produces the best beans. When this process is sped up, problems can occur. For example, some plantations in West Africa dry beans over fire, which gives them a smoky characteristic -- undesirable for fine chocolate.
While single-bean and single-origin chocolate is gaining popularity, premium blended chocolates are still considered to be superior. John Scharffenberger, co-owner of Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker and a former sparkling wine producer, says that chocolate is more like Champagne than Burgundy, in that the best flavor is usually achieved through blending. For example, though forastero beans can't be used to make high quality chocolate on their own, they can play a role in perfecting a top-shelf blend. "Forastero brings a low- to midpalate fruitiness and tannin to a chocolate blend," Scharffenberger says. "It's the tannins -- which criollo beans don't have -- that give chocolate a long finish."
The tastes of chocolate from different countries can add further complexity. The South American flavors in Valrhona's Manjari chocolate are spiked with some beans from Mada- gascar -- to add a saffron spice note, say its makers. Valrhona's richly flavored, floral and long-finishing Guanaja, as well as its Caraibe, are both excellent blends of diverse Latin American beans. Scharffenberger chose beans from 11 different countries -- including fruity beans from Venezuela and the Caribbean and high-acid Indonesian beans -- for his intensely flavored 70 percent cacao chocolate. Scharffen Berger's 62 percent version has no Indonesian beans and is less acidic but very smooth.
If you're looking for novelty, or if you just want to learn more about chocolate, you owe yourself a taste. These may not be single-vineyard wines, but they do open up exciting flavor possibilities for connoisseurs.
Sam Gugino, Wine Spectator's Tastes columnist, is the author of Low-Fat Cooking to Beat the Clock (Chronicle Books).
How to Get It
Chocolates El Rey
(800) 357-3999; www.chocolates-elrey.com
(877) 992-4626; www.chocosphere.com
(877) 826-3443; www. ricardchocolat.com
Elizabeth, N.J. (Michel Cluizel chocolates)
(800) 207-7058; www.echocolates.com
Ann Arbor, Mich.
(888) 636-8162, www.zingermans.com
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