Sunday, January 25, 2015

Proper Chocolate

Handmade chocolate from Chocablog

Once, when I was in my early 20s, I put in a stint at a very exclusive chocolate shop in London around the busy Christmas period, where I worked in their basement packing chocolates into very fancy boxes all day long. It was kept chilly in the basement for obvious reasons, and we wore thin cotton gloves so as not to leave fingerprints on the wares. We were taught how to pack them tightly so that they didn’t shuffle around when the box was handled. Best of all, we were told we could eat as many as we wanted.

Packed just right

There was a good reason for this: by the third day I’d had about as much as I could consume before realizing that if I kept on, my pants wouldn’t fit. It was a decent holiday job, as holiday jobs went. But then the owner, a young chap, decided it was a new policy to pat down the female employees as they left each night to make sure the merchandise wasn’t leaving with them. Surely it would be counterintuitive to smuggle chocolate in the warm folds of a bra? Not for this guy. No thanks. So that was the abrupt end of my career as a chocolate packer.

In general it seems to me that there are four levels of chocolate. Starting in the proverbial basement there is the cheap stuff epitomized by the eponymous Hershey bar.

Blech. Don’t eat this.

Then there are the global brand bars you can find in your supermarket that cost a little more. After this you have to go into a chocolate shop to find smaller, artisan chocolate maker brands that produce interesting combinations that are many times more expensive than the stuff your average person spends. This is special occasion chocolate. Finally, in the rarified attic, nearer to God, are the individuals who still make their chocolate in small batches by hand. These are far harder to find, and almost impossible unless you live in a BIG city of actually know them.

It must be noted that the more costly the chocolate, the better it is. Naturally if costs more for an individual to produce and distribute bars than it does for a vast conglomerate, and the overhead built into the price is greater for a single shop than it is for a supermarket. But cost isn’t the whole story.

Chocolate is alchemy: a delicate balance of ingredients and production method and atmospheric conditions that transforms raw stuffs into gold. Chocolate makers are part gourmand, part magician.

Thus is came to pass that when the opportunity to try some chocolate made by hand presented itself, I jumped at it. Dom Ramsey, editor of leading chocolate review site Chocablog and general chocolate expert, has started making his own bars.

Worth their weight in gold!

They come sealed in their own golden pouches, each batch and bar numbered with the bean’s country of origin and ingredients. The ones I ordered were made from Ecuadoran beans in late December 2014. Here is a video of a similar batch from these beans being made.

Ecuador 70% (Batch 5, Bar 8)

The first thing that hit my brain when inhaling from the freshly opened pouch was that this chocolate smelled like rich red wine. Strong and bitter and full; the kind of wine that requires an equally robust steak to go with it. It’s also a little ashy, the way some coffees can be. It snapped nicely and had a mellow mouthfeel. The chocolate is a perfect thickness so that it melts at a perfect rate when held on the tongue. The hot, wet cave of your mouth is infused with a burst of flavor, as if you were eating that steak, drinking that wine, and eating desert all at the same time. As I write this, ten minutes later, I still carry a faint sensation of floral bitterness from it. Dom said “Intensely chocolaty & nutty with a hint of cherries.” This is true. I like dark chocolate with salt — Dom’s bar makes that seem very sweet by comparison.

Ecuador 48% (Batch 6, Bar 7)

The milk chocolate made from these beans has the same strong, visceral scent, and is far more flavorful than most milk chocolates I’ve tasted, and also far less sweet. The flavor dissipates quickly once it’s melted off your tongue. I found the mouthfeel to be crumbly as opposed to waxy, the way a bitter Cheshire cheese is compared to a Colby. It melts easily, but is slightly sticky and grainy. The added whole milk powder and soy lecithin feel like they’re still dating the cocoa rather than making babies with it. I expect that a little more experimentation will help this along. In any case, a taste of this will serve as a brilliant counterpoint to the chalky and sickly sweet milk chocolate you might be used to.

Dom’s fledgling chocolatier career is well worth supporting. Check out what he does and order some from him. You’ll be able to say you were an early admirer. Tell him I sent you! 

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