Hay, tamarind and a walk in the woods: how to identify truly great chocolate

I feel hopelessly out of my depth judging the chocolate industry's academy awards.

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Columbus may not have “discovered” the Americas, but capturing a Mayan trading canoe full of cocoa beans in 1502 nearly made him the first European to try chocolate – if only he hadn’t mistaken its cargo for almonds. Even later colonists, who recognised the value of cocoa to indigenous cultures, took a while to warm to its flavour: one Italian called hot chocolate “more a drink for pigs, than a drink for humanity”, confessing he only tried it after more than a year in Mexico because he’d run out of wine.

Now, of course, we can’t get enough. But I’m still not sure I could pick a cocoa bean – or a great chocolate – out of a line-up, which is how I find myself hopelessly out of my depth one sunny March afternoon, staring intently at a single square of the stuff. Judging sessions for the Academy of Chocolate Awards, which last year attracted 1,200 entries from 45 countries, go on for months – and apparently calling everything “quite nice” is not particularly helpful.

I squint desperately at the chocolate tasting map in front of me as I struggle to articulate my feelings about this entry in class B2B, “dark bean to bar”. The map’s creator, Hazel Lee, sitting to my right, is having no such problems: “I’m getting a slow walk in the forest.” “It’s complex,” former chocolatier Sara Jayne Stanes says across the table. “At a certain point it was singing to me.”

“Errr… I got brown sugar?” I venture. They nod kindly. Though Lee’s map confines itself to a mere 111 descriptors, from hay to tamarind, Stanes says that there are about 300 flavour and aroma compounds in cocoa – “that we know of, anyway”. The taste of a chocolate indicates the terroir of the bean, and the people who processed it: as Sue Quinn explains in her gloriously rich new book Cocoa, “Every batch of cacao has its own personality, and fine makers strive to draw out the finest features of its character.” Just as a wine buff will have no problem telling a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc from a French one, Hazel is fairly confident this sample is Ecuadorian: “They’re always quite dark, and there are usually floral flavours in there.”

Appearance is important: very dark brown suggests the beans may have been over-roasted, while cloudy white blotches are a giveaway that the chocolate has got too damp or hot, which will affect the texture. A good sniff is also vital – we pick up less than a quarter of flavours through our taste buds – and even your ears can come in useful: good dark chocolate in particular should break with a satisfying snap.

Chocolate expert Will Torrent advises tasters to close their eyes and hold their nose when taking that first bite: cutting out the other senses helps you taste more keenly while it melts on to your tongue. Think about the texture as it does so; it should be smooth and buttery – waxiness, by contrast, is a telltale sign some of the cocoa butter has been replaced by cheaper vegetable fat, a practice first developed during the Second World War to stop chocolate rations melting in the heat. Then, and only then, consider the flavour: the profile, the balance, whether it changes over time, and how long it lasts once you’ve swallowed it – some can linger on the taste buds for 45 minutes.

That said, as Torrent, who I catch pondering the merits of toffee truffles, tells me, really the most important question you should ask yourself when assessing any chocolate is – “do I want to eat any more?” And even amateurs like me find that one pretty easy to answer. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article appears in the 18 April 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special