Chocolate Sensations

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by Katie Israel Jan/Feb 2008 Issue

I recently had the privilege of attending a gourmet food convention where I overheard a sophisticated gentleman in a suit and tie saying: “I was dying to compare Valrhona Ampamakia vintages, but I discovered my last 2005 was eaten by rats.” His friend chuckled but looked a little puzzled. Did he realize what delicious treat the vermin had discovered? It wasn’t wine or cheese but chocolate!

In most recent years, including 2007, the presence of premium chocolates has exploded. Consumers who still see chocolate as a rewarding and luxurious treat are hungry for more handcrafted, artisan chocolate. Like wine, the origin and year that cacao beans are harvested is critical. Let’s take a time out to catch up with some chocolate lingo (much of the language is borrowed from the wine world).

Limited Edition: A collection or single bar that’s made in small batches from one harvest. Use it in a sentence like the following: “Godiva was just another chocolate until it started offering its limited-edition G Collection.”

Percentage: Short for the total percentage of ingredients in a particular chocolate derived purely from the cacao bean. This means- the higher the percentage equals more quality chocolate. Have you ever heard one of your chocolate loving girlfriends say, “I no longer let anything less than 75 percent touch my lips?”

Single Origin: Refers to chocolate made from beans harvested from a specific country, region, or a single farm, plantation, or estate.

Vintage: Refers to the year the cacao beans were harvested.

Thanks to online food resource, www.Chow.com.

Premium chocolate along with some of their high-end companies, have had to work hard this past year, battling it out with other chocolate manufacturers who are adding “healthy” ingredients to confectionery products. This isn’t bad news. As health conscious chocolate makers and gourmet chocolate companies compete to secure their spot in the market, new products and trends emerge.

One of these trends is single-origin chocolate. This has been available in Europe for many years but recently made its way to the states. Like a good Bordeaux, some chocolate comes from a particular place, for instance, Venezuela’s Sur del Lago.

And just like wine grapes, the source of cacao beans is very important. The uniqueness of the climate, habitat and soil all leave their signature on cacao beans, resulting in distinct tastes and aromas. For example, chocolate from Colombia might seem peppery or spicy while chocolate from Venezuela might smell like sweet vanilla. Barry Callebaut, one of the world’s leading manufacturers of high-quality cocoa and chocolate, agrees with the single-origin hype saying they tend to have “more expressive flavors and fruity, herbal, spicy or floral notes.” Some large regions such as the Amazonian basin or the Pacific region produce a number of different cocoa bean varieties in countries like Venezuela, Vietnam, Ghana, New Guinea and countries along the Ivy Coast.

To satisfy the health conscious consumers and manufacturers who are exploring the potential health benefits of eating chocolate, specialty chocolatiers like Scharffen Berger began printing cacao percentage on their labels. The number, a combined total by weight of cocoa solids and cocoa butter reflects the percentage of ingredients derived purely from the cacao bean. This means, the higher the percent of cacao the least likely it is to have unnecessary ingredients added.

Percentage is important but there are a lot of other things to consider says chocolate-maker Michael Recchiuti. “It’s really the bean profile and where it’s grown and how it’s fermented that dictates its intensity, its level of acidity, and its astringency.”

Dark and Darker

Another chocolate trend flooding the gourmet market is the popularity of dark chocolate. Some companies have catered to this idea by producing nearly all their varieties in dark chocolate, leaving milk chocolate fans with fewer choices. It is said that the number of Americans who prefer dark chocolate to milk almost doubled from 1991 to 2003. Industry experts and leaders such as John Scharffenberger, now owned by Hershey, say dark-chocolate-lovers are growing at a rate of 25 percent a year. That’s a lot of chocolate snobs!

Clay Gordon, editor of chocolate blog chocophile.com and author of an upcoming book on the indulgence says milk chocolate eaters “have become the white-Zinfandel drinkers of the chocolate world.” Others in the industry have also noticed a change- consumers wanting milk chocolate often enter stores embarrassed- “I’m looking for a fine milk chocolate” they whisper over the counter.

The boom in dark chocolate is fueled by studies highlighting the possible health benefits of antioxidants found in dark chocolate and, the growing interest in refined, artisan foods like cheese and wine. Cacao beans have natural antioxidant compounds called flavanols that have been shown to fight vascular disease which can cause other serious health problems like diabetes, strokes, heart attacks, hypertension and dementia. A 2005 study funded by Hershey concluded that the more cacao present in chocolate, the higher the antioxidant levels.

Chocolatiers Step it Up

To compete with so many top chocolate competitors located throughout the world, several large companies have enlisted the help of expert truffle makers, chefs and pastry chefs. Their special talents and creativity are essential when it comes to introducing new products to the market. This past year, a few libations were created: Nestle went into partnership with Belgian chocolatier Pierre Marcolini and the UK-based Zetar has acquired Lir chocolates in Ireland.

Some companies also make decisions to re-work existing or previous chocolate ranges that may have peaked a few years back, giving them a ‘gourmet twist’. It’s kind of like a greatest hits CD, you’ve heard all the songs before but with all the new stuff like extras and remixes, you can’t refrain from trying it right? Chocolate companies stay one step ahead of the game; they anticipate what their consumers want by keeping up with other food trends like the popularity of pomegranate, cranberries or other foods, and incorporate those to introduce new and eye-catching products.

Interesting Chocolate Facts

Per-capita, the U.S. was ranked 11th for chocolate consumption in 2005. Number one was Germany followed by Belgium and Switzerland.

According to the Associate Press, the Guinness World Records has just declared the most expensive dessert in the world. This outrageously priced chocolate concoction costs $25,000 and chocolate lovers can find it at Serendipity 3, a restaurant in New York. The Frrrozen Haute Chocolate dessert contains a cold and slushy mix of cocoas from more than 13 different countries, as well as five grams of 24-carot gold. The treat is served in a diamond and gold goblet with golden spoon customers can take home as a souvenir.
The mixture is topped with whipped cream and truffle shavings.

They’ve Raised the Bar!

Over the holidays we tried some haute Chocolate Bars from Sapphire Pantry. Wow, rich creamy dark, milk chocolate with exotic ingredients like the Woolloomooloo Bar with roasted and salted macadamia nuts, Indonesian coconut, and hemp seeds or the Barcelona Bar with hickory smoked almonds, and grey sea salt. The package instructions made us smile and of course we followed along.
How to Enjoy an Exotic Candy Bar:

See…Don’t be deceived by the looks of this bar- it’s just a milk chocolate of a new variety, blended with a bit of dark chocolate to deepen the flavor and the color.

Smell…Take 3 deep breaths. Rub your thumb on the chocolate to help release the aromas. Inhale deeply.

Snap…Break the bar in two pieces. Hear a crisp, ringing pop, which indicates a well-tempered bar of chocolate. You will hear the loudest snap with dark chocolate, a soft break with milk and a faint whisper with white.

Taste…Place a small piece of chocolate on your tongue and press it to the roof of your mouth. Within thirty seconds, the chocolate square will slowly begin to melt around your tongue. Deep milk chocolate melts into the mineral and sumptuous taste of sea salt and roasted almonds, reminiscent of Marcona, Spain.

Feel…Hickory smoked almonds are laden with protein, fiber and vitamin E, buried in caramel noted deep milk chocolate bliss. Your tongue sings as sea salt arrives carrying vital minerals and electrolytes.

11 Rank of the United States in per-capita chocolate consumption (12.3 pounds) in 2005. Germany’s 24.5 pounds tops the list; Belgium in No. 2 (24.3 pounds), Switzerland is No. 3 (23.6 pounds). (The International Cocoa Organization)

Coco Nibs

The California Raisin Marketing Board has partnered with Barry Callebaut, the world’s largest producer of quality cocoa to unveil a recipe booklet titled Natural Indulgence. The booklet features recipes for chocolatiers and confectioners that blend the fruity taste of California with Callebaut chocolate. The recipes (12 total), offer a variety of chocolate treats like two layer raisin truffles, raisin ganache and California brownies.