Have you strolled through the high-end chocolate aisle of your grocery store lately? It's hard to miss the proliferation of brands, variations of cocoa content and specialty flavors and seasonings. Maybe you've already jumped on the bacon and chocolate craze, but have you tasted indulgent dark chocolate mixed with black licorice? It's divine and completely unexpected.
There's so much to learn and taste when it comes to enjoying quality chocolate. Start by scooping up a wide selection of bars with a range of cocoa content. One bar of milk, and several bars of pure dark in cocoa contents of 60 percent to 100 percent will give you and your guests plenty to work with, but adding in a couple bars that feature a fruit, nut or spice will keep things interesting.
Photo credit: klikk/ iStock/360/ Getty Images
Break bars into large sections so each guest can have a generous serving to observe, smell and taste. You may choose to hide the brand names from your tasters, so preconceived notions from packaging can be minimized. However, each guest should have a large enough piece to notice the unique mold of the bar, be able to break their own serving in half, and smell the broken edge. This is all part of the tasting process. Finally, the chocolate should come to room temperature on the tongue. Guests can take notes on the flavors and notes they notice.
Shelley Warkentin, Western Regional Manager for Kakao Berlin Chocolate, compares the learning process to that of training the palate to enjoy fine wines and cheese.
"I suppose learning to taste chocolate is a lot like learning to taste wine or cheese. You just need to let it sit on your tongue for at least a good 30 seconds to let all of the flavors and olfactory neurons fire up," says Warkentin. "Different notes will develop and even your sense of smell will play a part in the experience. Try eating a piece of chocolate quickly, not even pausing to enjoy, and then try letting it sit and dissolve on your tongue. It's a whole different experience."
Set out cubes of bread or plain crackers and serve water so your guests can clean their palates between tastes. Save the wine or Champagne for a post-tasting toast. Contrary to popular belief, wine makes a tricky pairing to chocolate. You may be better off pouring some freshly brewed coffee or simply sticking to water until you're ready to compare tasting notes.
"People are often suggesting that I do a chocolate and wine pairing," explains Warkentin. "It's just a common belief that they go together, but believe it or not, wine and chocolate more often than not really do not pair well. It can be difficult to find the right wine to pair with chocolate's complex flavors, which are often bitter and acidic. I'm not saying it can't be done, but it definitely takes some research to find the right wine to complement the chocolate. The research part can be a lot of fun though."
Pepper your tasting party with a little bit of background information on chocolate's origin. Cocoa farming has come under significant pressure from human rights groups due to longstanding practices of using child slave labor for harvesting crops. Farmers have also suffered from middle men taking the lion's share of their crops when distributing to major chocolate manufacturers. For these reasons alone, consumers are encouraged to support companies that are committed to fair trade policies and humane working conditions. You can learn more about your favorite chocolate company's background by visiting their website and by doing a few minutes of research at Fair Trade USA.
When your tasting is done and everyone has their favorite beverage in hand, it's time to share your notes. Find out who liked what best and then reveal the name brands. You'll probably walk away from the table with a new favorite indulgence and a healthy appreciation for the time and effort that goes into your sweet escape.