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Food of the Gods

Since the Days of the Aztecs, No Food Has Incited More Passion than Chocolate
Sam Gugino
From the Print Edition:
Pierce Brosnan, Nov/Dec 97

(continued from page 2)

The quality of chocolate in any of these categories can vary dramatically, depending on the quality of the beans, how they are handled and what, if any, additives are used. Cocoa butter, sugar and vanilla may be added, along with a host of ingredients that can often detract from the quality. For example, vegetable or animal fats may replace some of the cocoa butter, and artificial vanilla, or vanillin, may be used in place of real vanilla.

The best way to find out whether the chocolate you purchase contains any of these ingredients is to check the label carefully. Chocolate that does not meet the above definitions must include a caveat on the label. For example, semisweet chocolate that contains fat other than cocoa butter must say "and vegetable fat coating." Author Coady also offers this suggestion: "The first point to look for is the cocoa content, which means the combined total of cocoa butter and cocoa solids. This should be at least 50 percent if it is plain chocolate, or 30 percent if it is milk chocolate. If sugar is high on the contents list, warning bells should be set off, because it constitutes the balance of the ingredients."

For chocoholics, the simple fact is that the higher the quality, the more you want to eat, which makes chocolate very much like almost anything else we ingest. While I was sitting in La Maison du Chocolat, Manhattan's premier chocolate shop and one of the best chocolatiers in the country, the manager, Alex Yezril, heaped chocolate after chocolate on my plate. (La Maison du Chocolat, the only U.S. outpost of the famous French shop, specializes in ganache, which combines chocolate and cream. Most of its cocoa beans come from Venezuela.) Each chocolate, from truffles to pralines to ganaches, was delicious and satisfying. But after eating a dozen or so I was nowhere near being sated. In fact, I could have eaten quite a bit more. When I mentioned this to Yezril, he smiled knowingly. "That's because you're eating chocolate with a high concentration of cocoa, not a lot of fat and only just enough sugar," he says. "We have people who come in almost every day and buy 12 to 14 pieces and eat them all in one sitting right outside on the bench."

Chocolate with too much fat, Yezril says, can coat the gullet, like plaque in the arteries. You won't get a heart attack, but you will feel as if you ate too much Crisco. A surfeit of sugar can also ruin good chocolate by masking the chocolate flavor. In some cases that's what inferior chocolate makers want to do. The key to creating delicious chocolate is balance. There should be just enough sugar to sweeten the chocolate, pleasantly. And just enough fat to give you an appropriately sensuous taste sensation. Several of the chocolates I tasted at La Maison du Chocolat also had a subtle fruitiness, which Yezril describes as acidity. With milk chocolate, he notes, one should again taste a balance, this time of butter, milk and chocolate, "but always chocolate first." Yezril likens the taste of good milk chocolate to cajeta, the Mexican caramelized milk used in desserts.

Tasting chocolate is very much like tasting wine. Start with the lightest first, then work your way up to the darkest. Put a small amount into your mouth and let it melt, then swirl it around with your tongue. Don't just chew and swallow. Unlike wine tasting, there is no need to suck in air. Or spit.

Yezril says that there has been a marked increase in the percentage of dark chocolate eaten at his shop since it opened five and a half years ago. He compares this development with novice wine drinkers moving up from lower priced varietals to premium wines as their palate becomes more sophisticated. Increased exposure to European confections through travel also has something to do with the trend, although according to Chocolate, An Illustrated History, by Marcia and Frederic Morton (Crown, 1986), Godiva chocolates imported from Belgium in the 1960s "are credited with awakening America's taste for luxury chocolate." Europeans typically consume a higher percentage of dark chocolate than do Americans.

Susan Smith, of the Chocolate Manufacturers Association, says that the change in American chocolate eating habits is largely a phenomenon of the East and West coasts. "The last survey we did in 1994 showed that 75 to 80 percent of Americans preferred milk chocolate and 20 to 25 favored dark. That hasn't changed a lot, maybe a few percentage points, since our previous study in the mid-1980s," she says. "The biggest difference in eating habits was by region. Dark chocolate is more popular on the East and West coasts. Adults in the middle of the country and kids like milk chocolate."

There are a number of top brand names of chocolate, although some companies do better with certain types of chocolate than others. Professionals such as Alice Medrich often prefer the French-produced Valrhona. When Medrich, one of America's leading authorities on chocolate, wrote Cocolat, Extraordinary Chocolate Desserts (Warner Books, 1990), she recommended Callebaut, Ghirardelli Semisweet and Lindt, in addition to Valrhona, in the bittersweet or semisweet category. For milk chocolate, she liked Callebaut, Tobler, Lindt and Valrhona. But today Medrich is less dogmatic about what properties distinguish the best chocolate.

"What I'm finding more and more is we should treat chocolate like wine. Everyone has their preference, so it's hard for anyone to tell you what's good and bad," she says. "I can tell you it should have a high cocoa-butter count and chocolate-liquor content. That it should be smooth and have hard snap when you bite it. But those don't mean anything if you don't like the chocolate."

This spring Medrich discovered just how strong people's chocolate preferences are when she conducted an experiment in Chicago at the annual conference of the International Association of Culinary Professionals. She gave a roomful of people two chocolates, Valrhona Le Noir Gastronomique semisweet and a semisweet by Van Leer. "The room split down the middle, and vehemently," she says. "Half loved the assertive, acid and winy flavors of the Valrhona. Half loved the toasted coffee, rich and comfy flavor of the Van Leer." When Medrich threw a third chocolate into the mix, a Guittard French Vanilla, the room was divided into thirds. The reason for the strong preferences, according to Medrich, is that "unlike whiskey and tobacco, chocolate is not an acquired taste. Chocolate is always something we liked as kids." *

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