The Academy of Chocolate, as founder and Chairman Sara Jayne Stanes explained to me, “was founded in 2005 for educational purposes, to teach people how to distinguish between chocolate and chocolate confectionery and explore the long journey from bean to bar.” With this is mind, as well as its annual Conference, the Academy of Chocolate holds a number of events throughout the year.
It was one such Academy of Chocolate event at the Adam Street club, which saw Vanessa Lemoines, Valrhona’s Sensory Analysis Manager come over to Britain to talk an audience of around 30 people through how to taste chocolate. Elegant and charming, Vanessa presented her considerable expertise accessibly and clearly. Working around the world, as Valrhona does, producing a huge range of high-quality chocolates from many different countries, being able to assess the chocolate is key.
“Taste is at the heart of what do at Valrhona,” declared Vanessa, whose job involves working with and training Valrhona’s experts and numerous chocolate tasters. “We always taste at the same time in the day at 11.45am, just before lunch, a good time to taste as we’re hungry. We don’t have coffee, smoke or chew gum in the hours before tasting – that’s very important.”
To start, Vanessa explained a little bit of the chocolate-making process. A “very important” part of Vanessa’s job is working with the cocoa growers in the different countries. “We give them our chocolate to try – a lot of times they have never tasted chocolate in their lives – so that they understand the flavours we’re trying to create and the importance of getting the drying and fermenting right.” The environment, the cocoa variety and the growers’ knowledge are all key to creating high quality cocoa, with Valrhona preferring sun-dried beans as they feel this gives a smooth, rounded flavour to the chocolate.
Vanessa then explored different elements of taste, including smell and aroma, getting us to sip and chew assorted liquids and foods. The role the nose plays in perceiving flavour was graphically demonstrated by getting each of us to place a coriander seed on our tongue, hold our noses, then crush the seed, let go of the nose and breathe out, releasing the flavour. “I see people concentrating on their mouths, but it’s their nose where the majority of the tasting is happening. Concentrate on your nose.”
She talked us through the tongue and its acid, bitter, sweet and salty taste receptors, emphasising its complexity; “Everybody has to learn how their own tongue works, we each have different receptors, so we each taste in different ways.” Acidity – a characteristic of much chocolate – produces salivation. Bitterness is experienced at the end of the tasting; “it takes time to appear but is very persistent.” The important role of texture in establishing flavour was effectively demonstrated by eating a crisp that had been dampened then dried so lost its crispness alongside a crunchy crisp. Eating a piece of green banana resulted in a dry coating sensation in our mouths, making Vanessa’s point about the physical effects of astringency very graphically. In order, to ‘rinse’ our mouths out effectively between tastings, Vanessa recommended eating a piece of cracker, then drinking some water.
The time had come to taste some chocolate. In analysing what we were tasting, Vanessa pointed out the similarities between chocolate and wine. Both are made from a fruit, an agricultural product affected by climate, variety, environment, terroir and planter know-how which is fermented. In chocolate, however, the cocoa butter has to melt in order to release the aroma and one has to swallow it to experience its taste fully. “I have tried spitting out chocolate rather than swallowing it,” admitted Vanessa, “but you need to swallow it to fully perceive all the aroma. So, sorry, you’ll have to eat the chocolate! Take the same quantity of chocolate each time in order to release the same amount of aroma, smell it first, break it to hear the crack, then melt the chocolate on your tongue, rubbing your tongue against your palate to accelerate the melting and breathe out through your noise to maximise the aroma perception.” The volatile aromas – such as flowers (“The hardest to perceive”) and fruits - are released most quickly, then come body aromas such as dried fruits, nuts and spices, with the heavier aromas at the end such as roasted or woody notes.
We set about the tasting process. “There’s no right or wrong way to describe it,” encouraged Vanessa, “it’s what you taste.” With each chocolate tasted and talked about among the group, Vanessa drew a diagram using lines that depicted the tasting process on the tongue and in the nose, which proved to be a very clear way of visualising what we were experiencing in our palates.
“Fresh”, “fruity,”, “citrus”, “earthy” were among the descriptions of the first chocolate, Andoa Noire 70% made from organic and Fairtrade cocoa. The second Alpaco, 66% from pure Ecuador Nacional Cocoa, a firm favourite on my table, was “rounded”, “sweet”. “woody”, with light, volatile flowery notes right at the start. Much to the surprise of myself and other tasters, the third chocolate which tasted “alcoholic”, “vinous” and of “red fruits” proved to be Manjari 64%. Vanessa was pleased at our surprise at not recognising a chocolate we thought we knew. “A blind tasting means you have no pre-conceptions, so you don’t look for what you expect to be there. It’s good to be surprised!” The fourth chocolate Macae 62% from Brazil had “peach” notes, “smoky”, “roasted notes”. “Good, you’re experts now!” announced Vanessa. It had been a fascinating insight into the complex world of producing high-quality chocolate with different flavour profiles and the skills needed to analysis it.