On Monday, when all the little ones were heading back to school, I went to class too - chocolate class. The class was a Valrhona Chocolate seminar called The Cultivation of Taste and my classmates were a pretty swell group. Among the 70 or so people who played hookey from work to learn more about chocolate and to taste Valrhona's new crus were the cookbook author Rose Levy Beranbaum, Judiann Woo and Raina Bien of the go-to website Pastry Scoop, Chocolat Moderne's Joan Coukos, Alexandra Leaf of Chocolate Tours of New York, and my tablemate for the afternoon.
Michael Laskonis, pastry chef at Le Bernardin and 2007 James Beard Outstanding Pastry Chef of the Year.
It's not easy to keep a room full of opinionated professionals quiet for three (count'em) hours, but that's what Pierre Costet, Valrhona's Chief Cacao Sourcer (I almost wrote sorcerer)
And Vanessa Lemoine, their Sensorial Analysis Manager, did.
Speaking in French (there was a simultaneous translator on hand) and working in tandem, Pierre and Vanessa led us through the growing, fermenting and drying of cacao beans, the intricacies of finding and working with growers and the science - and pleasure - of tasting.
There was way too much for me to recap reasonably, so I'll just hit a couple of the highlights.
Cultivating Cacao and Cacao Growers: As Pierre was talking and showing us pictures of the cacao growers he works with in South and Central America, the Caribbean Islands and Africa, I was struck by two things: the startling contrast between where chocolate starts, i.e. the rustic plantations and simple fermentation and drying facilities, and where it ends, i.e., the world's most luxurious boutiques; and the similarity between cocoa and coffee. Then, in yesterday's New York Times, there was a long and thoughtful piece about coffee and the similarities were reinforced for me.
The Difference Between Odor and Aroma: While we English speakers think of odor as something unpleasant and aroma as something delicious, Vanessa Lemoine made a completely different and extremely interesting distinction between the two. When you bring something to your nose and smell it, what you smell is the odor. Odor is direct. However, when you are eating something, you are also smelling it, but indirectly or retronasally. What you smell through the post-nasal route is aroma. According to Vanessa - and I've heard and read this before - 90% of the information you get about what you eat and drink is gotten through your nose.
FiveTastes And Maybe One More: This is my favorite news flash. As you know, our tongue can distinguish sweet, salty, acidic and bitter tastes, as well as umami, which is a very complicated taste found most notably in protein foods. Now, according to Vanessa, there's the possibility that our tongues have a sixth taste receptor and what it tastes is licorice! (As many of you know, I'm a licorice lover, so you can be sure that I'll be finding out as much as I can about this and reporting back to you.)
How to Taste Chocolate: Here are the seven steps to getting a full picture of the chocolate at hand:
1) look at it so that you can appreciate its color (and its sheen - if it has been properly tempered, it will have a shiny finish);
2) bring it to your nose so that you can smell its odor;
3) break it and listen for a crisp snap (another sign of good tempering);
4) put it in your mouth to assess its texture;
5) let it melt in your mouth by pressing the piece of chocolate against your palate with your tongue;
6) distinguish the aromas, which usually come one after another and often in this order - the volatile aromas, the fruity and floral aromas, come first; they give way to the warmer aromas, those of roasting and spice; and finally the heavier aromas, aromas of toasted nuts, camphor and woods, come in; and
7) while you're appreciating the chocolate's aroma, you taste it, and with most chocolate what you taste at the start is acidity, which makes you salivate, and then bitterness, which is a persistent taste and an important chocolate flavor.
And, after you've tasted one chocolate and want to taste the next, you should clear your palate with flat water and crustless bread - the crust (we're talking about a loaf with a significant crust) has too much flavor and it will interfere with your tasting.
Having been instructed on how to taste, we began to taste, starting with two chocolates that Valrhona is just releasing: Abinao, a strongly flavored, toasty, roasty chocolate with long-lasting tannins and a very high cacao content, 85% (I loved it); and Tainori, a Dominican Republic chocolate with 64% cocoa and a kind of tang, which Vanessa referred to as freshness (from the camphor flavor) and likened to the flavors you get from a sucking candy.
Then we tasted another chocolate that I really liked, Alpaco, which was so interesting because it had the same cocoa percentage as Tainori, but was much stronger in chocolate flavor, proof once again that you can't buy chocolate by the numbers. With chocolate, it's about where the bean came from, how it was fermented, dried and roasted and how the beans were blended. (It really sounds like wine, doesn't it?)
Finally, we tasted Palmira, which is a 68% chocolate, but which was completely different from all the other chocolates in the panel. Palmira is made from extremely rare porcelana beans and it is a single-estate chocolate, meaning all the beans come from one estate, Plantation Palmira near Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela. I really liked this chocolate, which seemed warm and toasty and a little spicy and all-around lovely. (Lovely was the word I wrote in my tasting notes, even though it wasn't one of the "approved" descriptors.)
Our reward for being such good students was five chocolate desserts made by Derek Poirier, a Valrhona chef who teaches and trains pastry chefs in the US and Canada, and Yann Duytsche, a former Valrhona pastry chef, now chef of Dolc par Yann Duytsche in Barcelona. Some of the desserts came from Duytsche's new book, Sweet Diversions, some were based on recipes from Valrhona's L'Ecole du Grand Chocolat and all used what Valrhona calls Grand Cru chocolates.
Here's the box of desserts we were each given
The five cubes in the line up were: Coca Nibs Foam; Alpaco Sacher; Abinao Hot Chocolate (with a brioche beignet); Tainori Jelly (a light agar-agar mousse); and an Araguani Cube Cake.
As I walked home, I kept thinking that if school were always this interesting - and delicious - there'd never be an attendance problem.