How to Taste Chocolate with Valrhona
Vanessa Lemoine is a master taster and for her first time in the UK she came and spoke to a packed room of passionate chocolate lovers at the Adam Street club, organised by Kate Johns for the Adademy of Chcolate. Nor before you think I’ve gone all posh and joined a club or something, I have yet to find the right private members club for me so I was there as a guest.
Vanessa is a sensory analysis manager which means she trains people to taste chocolate. She took us through three major steps:
Method of tasting
The sensory policy – taste is still a very young science and while nominally you use your 5 senses, there is a lot more to ti than that. Being a taster means tasting chocolate every day, several times to guide quality & development at Valrhona. Not all chocolatiers do this but Valrhona does. They need to maintain consistency across all elements of development of their chocolate. The development is also to discover new flavours in the chocolate. There are in Valrhona more than 20 juries, with 3 levels of training, making it a total of 60 chocolate experts tasting. Lest you think all they do is eat stuff from the moment they join, it takes more than 1 year to become an expert, and there are 100 flavour molecules that they have to recognise. Ouch!
We then learned that 250 people taste every day at every step. Holy cow. They start on the plantation to understand fruit, fermentation, drying, bean, etc. They go to the plantation to learn about the process because what happens on the farm is critical – Valrhona respect ancestral methods but control quality and create rules to control flavour. New origins of chocolate require 3 years of work – can find a new taste but requires consistency so takes time to make sure it is right. Vanessa then took us through some origin stuff:
Madagascar – Sambriano valley – they grow criollo & trinitario beans
Trinitario has different beans in pod – some are white, some are purple – all different!
Chocolate is harvested by collecting the pods and extracting the seeds from the centre. They are then fermented in pile or in a box. Here cocoa beans can develop different aromas based on fermentation.
We then had an anatomy lesson about aroma receptor – molecule locks in to same place for taste as scent – 90% of taste is smell. Of course, as any psychology student knows (well, anyone who did neurology as part of their degree that is), smell is the one sense that is hardwired directly into the brain without any interpretation and requires a molecule shape match to smell. Well, it’s more complex but… in order to taste you have to release the volatile molecule in chocolate to actually taste it.Everyone tastes differently – you salivate before you realise you are eating something acidic. Acidity is at start, bitterness is perceived at the end – bitterness comes after you swallow and is persistent. It is apparently difficult to teach the pure molecule taste so we tried to learn a few.
Scientists have identified 1,000 flavours but not the specific receptors in the mouth. That tongue map thing is a myth and taste is time & mood dependant. Whoa. At Valrhona 11:45am is their tasting time.
We then moved on to the vocabulary of chocolate:
Terroir – climate- botanical variety – environment – fermentation – planter know-how – cocoa or grape is same and affected by conditions of the moment
Assembling – nose – single estate – chamber (storage to tasting are different temperatures) – millesime – body – grand cru – fruity aromas
Chocolate is fermented like wine but is taken to vinegar state so more stable and interestingly the same micro-organism that does fermentation for wine does it for cocoa.
There is a whole tasting ritual –
Look at colour
Allow the choc to melt, flavours are revealed, acidity makes you salivate, bitterness comes through strongly and remains at the back of the tongue.
Volatile – head aromas: flower, fruit
Body – middle of tasting: warmer dried fruits, spice
Heavier – end of tasting: roasted coffee, woody
You must taste chocolate 2 or 3 times to really get it. So we got to try a bunch of chocolates – yum. Overall it was extremely educational and fun!