Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Ah! Chocolate!

You don’t ordinarily see a complicated graph and accompanying instructions on how to eat it when you unwrap a chocolate bar. But then, a 99% cocoa bar is no ordinary chocolate bar.

The first thing you see when you unwrap part of a Lindt’s 99% cocoa bar is a cautionary notice. “Important,” it screams, “The chocolate you are about to have is a chocolate that has a very high cocoa content! To fully appreciate this exceptional chocolate, we invite you to follow our suggestions on tasting.” If the intent is to intimidate, Lindt succeeds admirably. In most cases anyway. But a confirmed dark-chocaholic only drools in anticipation on reading this and feverishly tears off the outer cardboard package. Inside is a golden wrapper with more instructions. And more warnings. “This chocolate brings out all the force and richness of cocoa beans,” it intones, before going on to suggest that you prime yourself, or rather your palate, by first adjusting to 70%, and then 85% cocoa. Been there done that, I think. Next? Lindt suggests you first take a small bite and let it melt on the tongue to savour the flavours. Now we’re talking. Except there is a scary graph that follows which lists the various flavours you can expect and their intensities – bitter, acidic, astringent, fruity. Whew!
Chocolate these days is serious business, I realised, comparable to wine with all its attitude. So to help you appreciate it better, here’s a quick crash course on what goes into making a chocolate bar. Like wine, good chocolate has terroir, which means geography matters. So the true chocolate connoisseur will detect the hints of vanilla in cocoa beans from Madagascar, smoky or earthy undertones from West African beans and fruity or even flowery flavours in those from Central and South America. To savour these differences, single-origin chocolates are all the rage right now in many parts of the world though they are difficult to come by in India. But many a fine chocolate is made of a blend of premium beans. Lindt uses beans mainly from West Africa with a small proportion form South America – the exact blend is a closely guarded secret!

The type of cocoa beans used can also affect the ultimate taste experience. The three varieties of cocoa beans are Criollo, Forastero and a hybrid of the two called Trinitario, named after Trinidad where it originated. Criollos are considered the best beans for making fine chocolates, on account of their fruity flavours, but they account for only 10% of the world’s cocoa crop. Most of the world’s chocolates are made from Forastero beans.

And then there’s how the beans are processed. Cocoa pods are harvested twice a year. The pods have to be split open to get the beans which are inside. The beans are then fermented either by spreading them out and keeping them covered with banana leaves for four to seven days, or by keeping them in leaf-lined covered baskets. Too less fermenting and the beans can become bitter and astringent; too much and you can get other undesirable flavours. Then they are dried and shipped off to chocolate manufacturers who will roast the pods to get the nibs – the meat of the cocoa bean – out. The nibs are ground until the friction and heat of the milling reduces them to a thick chocolate coloured liquid, known as 'mass' or chocolate liquor, which contains 53-58% cocoa butter. This is the basis of all chocolate and cocoa products.
Not all chocolate is created equal. Milk chocolate can have anywhere from 25 to almost 50% cocoa (although some American chocolates can have far less) and as the name suggests, it also generally has milk, milk powder or condensed milk, along with sugar and emulsifiers. Dark chocolate, sometimes called bittersweet chocolate, contains a lot more cocoa, upwards of 60% and much less sugar. If you’re wondering how it is different from simply eating cocoa powder, the answer lies in the fat. Cocoa, or to be more precise, cocoa solids, include cocoa butter and cocoa cake. Cocoa powder is made from cocoa cake alone, while chocolate also contains cocoa butter.

While the sweetness of milk chocolate has almost universal appeal, dark chocolate is not your everyday comfort food. Like wine, it can be an acquired taste and needs a refined palate to truly appreciate its nuances. Which is why Lindt’s suggestion that you educate your palate in stages actually makes sense.

So to get back to the 99% percent cocoa bar. The not-so-fine-print and the daunting graph and instructions past me, I finally take a bite and wait to be transported to chocolate heaven.

Heaven is bitter. And somewhat dusty, initially. But patience has its rewards and a few short moments later, as the chocolate melts, I can feel the myriad flavours of the cocoa beans coming through. There are the hints of acidity, lots of fruity notes, a whisper of sweetness, and finally, a creaminess that, once the experience is over, begs for an encore.

A slightly modified version of this article appeared in Deccan Herald some months ago.

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