In this, the final article in a three-part series on chocolate tasting for dessert professionals, I am going to provide some concrete suggestions for ways to use some of the ideas presented in the first two articles – in other words, ways to take chocolate tasting to the table.
Boiled down to its essence, the focus of the first two articles is the following simple idea, looked at from different angles:
Why don’t dessert professionals present chocolate on their menus the same way they present other ingredients?
Chefs are often very specific about the use of Madagascar Bourbon vanilla as opposed to Tahitian vanilla for Mexican vanilla, or Key lime as opposed to kaffir lime or Kalamansi lime, or opal basil versus purple basil versus lemon basil – even though the vast majority of diners have no clear conception of what the differences between those flavors really are. Given the fact that chefs are often very specific about naming ingredients on their menus, what is keeping dessert professionals from making the leap and meaningfully describing the chocolates they use in their desserts?
The answers turn out to be surprisingly complex, even given the current interest diners have in wanting to know where the ingredients in their meals are coming from. They want to know the name of the farm where the cheese comes from – and often the name of the farmer or cheese maker. They want to know the type of cow or goat or the breed of hog or turkey or the name of the heirloom species of tomato in their salad, and that the micro-greens were grown on the roof.
The challenge, with chocolate, is that most of what dessert professionals know about a chocolate from reading the label gives no clue about what the chocolate tastes like.
Knowing that a chocolate was made in Belgium tells us nothing about what that chocolate tastes like.
Knowing the origin(s) of the beans in a chocolate gives very few diners any clear idea what tastes to expect.
Knowing the percentage cocoa content of a chocolate is not an indicator of how it will taste on its own, let alone in a dessert.
If most of what we know about a chocolate isn’t all that useful, what’s a dessert professional to do?
The first step is to go beyond the superficial, easily understandable numbers (cacao percentage) and geographic identifiers (Belgium) and understand what it is about a particular chocolate that lends itself to a particular recipe or dessert. To do this, it’s necessary to take the time to taste chocolate and learn to describe them.
The second step is to find ways to present chocolate so that the diners can understand and appreciate the choice of a particular chocolate.
The third step is to actually make it a priority to find the time and do it. Why? Because it’s different and fun; maybe you can raise the price of some of your desserts; it can drive coffee and after dinner drinks sales; and it even gives your PR people something to promote which could drive more business.
Because I can’t do steps one and three for you, here are some ideas for step two that I hope will inspire you to take your tasting to the table.
The first approach is based on the classic idea of ‘flights’ in beverage service applied to the idea of a ‘trio’ presentation. In a classic flight, there is a theme – all one type of grape varietal from different growing regions, for example, or the same wine from the same vineyard from several vintages. Whatever the theme is, the idea is a presentation that can be easily compared and contrasted: what taste elements are the same among the member of the flight, and what taste elements are different.
Tasting flights are especially powerful because they are easy to understand and they make powerful points, in part because it’s easy for people to make comparisons – this one is sweeter, that one more bitter, that one tart.
The question for the dessert professional is what to compare and contrast because there are so many decisions that go into any successful dessert.
Density is one textural element to play with, so one idea would be to present exactly the same chocolate in multiple forms – say a foam, a mousse, and a ganache – and see how the intensity and clarity of the chocolate flavor comes through. When describing the dessert on the menu, name it along with a single taste characteristic of the chocolate you wanted the dessert to highlight. For example, “A Chocolate Trio consisting of a chocolate foam, a chocolate mousse, and a chocolate ganache, each made with E Guittard Complexitie 9-bean blend, chosen for its intense chocolatey taste.” To take this to the next level, consider a paired flight of beverages – wines, spirits, coffees, and/or teas. A variation on this could be a sorbet, a gelato, and a cooked crème anglaise ice cream. The differences in fat and sugar content should deliver a different taste.
If you have retained your skill at table tempering chocolate or are lucky enough to have a small automatic tempering machine (such as a Chocovision Rev2), then one thing to consider is making your own chocolate tasting squares or bonbons. (A tasting bonbon is a shell-molded chocolate where the chocolate in the shell and the chocolate in the ganache is the same. You could also do these as hand-rolled or pavé-style, lightly dusted with cocoa.) Plate a selection of these squares or bonbons – perhaps in a flight of 60%, 70%, and 80% paired with coffee, a single-malt scotch, or a late-harvest dessert wine. The interplay of the flavors of the chocolate and the beverages will be quite different for each pairing.
There are many different ways to approach organizing these flights when it comes to the selection of the chocolate itself:
by country of origin (e.g., three chocolates made with beans from Venezuela)
by country of manufacture (e.g., three French-made chocolates – Bonnat, Pralus, Valrhona)
by percentage (e.g., all the same percent, all different percent)
by flavor profile (e.g., all with dominant red fruit notes)
When making any selection it’s important to have a point of comparison in mind. When making a tasting of country of origin chocolates, if one is presented as a mousse, the next a cake, and the third as a sorbet, the nuances of the chocolate may be lost in the differences of the presentation. In these cases, having the same basic form (e.g., small pots de crème) will highlight the chocolate – which, in the end, is what every diner wants when they order a chocolate dessert.
What may not be entirely apparent here, but is a fundamental element of this whole concept, is chocolate education. The locavore movement did not happen overnight. It took years of people writing about it and promoting it before it started to gather momentum and to appear in menu descriptions everywhere. The same thing is true with chocolate. Dessert lovers love chocolate and, when all is said and done, they hunger for more information about the chocolate they eat. When dessert professionals proudly talk about the chocolates they use, and present them in ways that help diners achieve greater appreciation not only for the chocolate but for the talent of the chef, a greater good is served.
This is the third in a series of three articles on chocolate tasting for dessert professionals by Clay Gordon, a chocolate consultant, the author of Discover Chocolate (Gotham Books, 2007), and the creator of TheChocolateLife.com, an online community for chocophiles.