No – let me hasten to assure you, I did not judge 900 chocolates – but that was the number of entries into this year’s Academy of Chocolate Awards. And from all over the world. Just skimming through the winners from 2016 they come from Madagascar, Nicaragua, Peru, Honduras, Nigeria, Belize, Dominican Republic, Switzerland, France, UK, Japan – to mention but a few.
The Academy was founded in 2005 by Sarah Jayne Stanes (author of Chocolate , the Definite Guide, maker of fine chocolates herself and CEO of the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts) to celebrate fine chocolate. Its mission in life?
‘Currently, only about 10% of fine cocoa beans reach our chocolate. The rest are destined for ‘industrial’ chocolate or chocolate confectionery.
What brings us together in the Academy is the belief that few producers really understand the difference between fine chocolate and confectionery……
We strongly believe that giving people the chance to savour and to learn about fine chocolate will give them a greater appreciation and therefore anticipation for more ‘proper’ chocolate’. ‘Proper’ comes from a myriad of factors including the variety of the beans, where they are grown, the fermentation process, the drying and the manufacturers recipe and methods, not just chocolate with high cocoa solids.
Once you have discovered what pleasure, complexity, richness and wide sensations there is in fine chocolate, you never look at chocolate the same way, you never buy chocolate the same way.’
This was the first time that I had attempted to judge chocolate so I was really looking forward to it – although slightly nervous as to whether my palate would be up to it. However, the Academy had prep-ed us by sending us some excellent judging notes. So excellent indeed that I think that the eating enjoyment of anyone who is interested in chocolate would be enhanced by reading them. So, with their permission, I am reproducing below.
APPEARANCE: chocolate should be flawless, evenly coloured and, if a plain chocolate bar, a deep shade of mahogany or red. ‘Black’ is not necessarily an indicator of a good chocolate, it tends to indicate that the beans have been over-roasted or are an inferior genetic variety. There should be no cracks or air pockets, streaks or sugar bloom.
AROMA:The chocolate should smell good as you unwrap it, with a complex fragrance. The cocoa bean contains over 400 different naturally occurring chemicals, all with their own aromas. It should be sweetly fragrant but not overpowering. You could detect vanilla, red berry, citrus, sandalwood, caramel, roasted nuts, etc. etc. Vanilla, if present, should be subtle and not dominant. It is bad for the chocolate to have no smell at all – if you cannot smell you cannot taste. Burnt, musty, chemical or medicine-y is not good.
(This is one of my fellow judges, a cocoa expert, testing out the aroma of one of the samples. Interestingly, he was able to identify an Indonesian coffee chocolate as coming from Indonesia…)
TOUCH:It should feel silky and not sticky and should just begin to yield to the warmth of your finger.
SOUND: Take a piece and break it – it should snap cleanly, sharply – if it splinters or crumbles that’s not good. Milk and white chocolate will inevitably have a softer ‘snap’.
MOUTHFEEL: texture. Most taste buds are on the front of the tongue which is where you should start tasting the chocolate. If it does not start to melt straight away this is probably a sign of poor quality or improper crystallisation of the cocoa butter. It should be smooth and buttery, gently dissolving into a creamy liquid filling the mouth with its complexity of flavours. It must not be grainy, ‘gluey’ or ‘clay-y. If it is ‘waxy’ or ‘clacky’ it sometimes means the cocoa butter has been replaced with vegetable fat – and it is not real chocolate. Be aware that a number of producers favour stonegrinding and deliberately avoid a smooth melt to augment certain flavour release characteristics.
FLAVOUR: plain chocolate is going to be bittersweet, fruity and spicy with a good balance of acidity and the effect should be subtle rather than overpowering. The overall experience should be harmonious with no bitter, acidic, astringent notes fighting in the mouth. That said, some excellent chocolate has distinctly ‘wild’ flavour notes. Good milk chocolate will still convey something of the original character of the cacao beans, despite the softening effect of the milk. Again vanilla should not dominate the flavour spectrum. Although vanilla is generally more prominent in white chocolate, a growing number of producers are creating white bars from non-deodorised cocoa butter and avoiding compromising the resultant aromas and flavours with the addition of vanilla. This is a relatively new departure and you will need to decide if the experience is interesting and pleasurable!
(These, as you can see, are 16 of my 25 tasting samples – all lined up in case I needed to refer back to any of them – which indeed, I did…)
FINISH: you want a flavour to linger for several minutes (good chocolate can linger for up to 45 minutes) with a clean aftertaste and no residue; and certainly not be overpoweringly sweet. Vanilla should not be detected at this stage. (Vanillin is a complete no-no).
OK – now that you know how to taste, these are the Academy’s guidelines for recognising good chocolate. (And here is founder, Sarah Jayne in the background with one of my fellow tasters busily writing notes in front.)
- The quality and provenance of the cocoa beans along with the manufacturing process are vital just as for fine wines.
- The country of origin or the genetic variety of the bean, such as Criollo, have become marketing tools used by mass market brands as well as fine market brands. These criteria are not necessarily signs of quality.
- Even if true (origin) the process and added ingredients will determine the final quality of the chocolate.
- Ideally chocolate should contain a minimum cocoa content of 60%+ for dark and 30%+ for milk. In the case of white chocolate, 30% cocoa butter content has become a norm amongst good quality bars and couverture.
- However, just because a chocolate contains 70% cocoa does not automatically mean it is good – if the cocoa beans, original ingredients and the production processes are not good, then you are not buying good chocolate. It is as irrelevant to select a chocolate from the cocoa solid percentage as it would be to select a wine by alcohol percentage.
- Ideally, chocolate should not contain anything you do not recognise – i.e. if you see an ‘e’ number, artificial preservatives or hydrogenated fats, think again. The longer the list of ingredients the more suspicious the chocolate.
So what of my tasting? Well, obviously, I can tell you nothing about what might win – but then given that I only tasted 25 out of 900 chocolates and I was only part of two panels tasting those 25 – I have absolutely no idea!! However, I can tell you that I was very agreeably surprised by my favourite, which was a clover honey and rosemary flavoured bar – no idea where it was from or who made it. I am usually deeply dubious about such strange mixtures of flavours as so many of them just do not work – but this was terrific.
To find out what deliciousness has won the 2017 awards, keep an eye on the awards’ website here.