Not all chocolate is created equal. For some it is passionate love affair, an expression of taste that is savored on the palate slowly. You have most likely enjoyed a Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Bar, or nibbled on a bag of chocolate chips, but have you really experienced the taste of a gourmet chocolate? Most mass produced commercial chocolates use only a semblance of the real thing, as they need to use certain ingredients to keep the price at a reasonable point.
What is Cacao?
Cacao is the basis for chocolate. It comes from an evergreen tree that grows anywhere from 10 feet to 30 feet tall, growing in tropical regions such as Central or South America and Mexico. The Philippines, Indonesia, as well as several Western African nations are also prominent growers.
The fruit of the cacao, or the cacao pod, grows to weigh about one pound and up to 12 inches in length. It can be orange, yellow or purple in color, and is full of the cacao seeds or beans. Each seed is made up of about 40% fat, which is extracted as cacao butter. There are four main varieties of cacao: Criollo, Forastero, Trinitario, and Nacional. The varieties relate to different regions, giving them different flavors and aromas as the end result.
The flavors of the cacao beans are dependent on their environment. Soil, rainfall amounts, temperature, and hours in sunshine are factors in the taste. Many chocolate connoisseurs area able to distinguish where the beans came from based on taste and aroma. Specialty chocolates are made from the beans of one area and are considered a better product than those made up of beans combined from several.
The cacao beans are harvested from the fruit, and allowed to ferment for a period of two to seven days, depending on the desired aroma. This fermentation transforms the flavors into chocolate or cocoa. From there the beans are sundried, and then roasted in various ways to bring out the flavors. They will then be exported to various companies to be used in making chocolate.
The manufacturer will take the beans and grind them to a desired consistency, creating cocoa liquor or extracting the cocoa butter. These ingredients will follow various processes and combined with sugars, flavoring agents such as vanilla, and other ingredients to create the actual chocolate. Different manufacturers will have varying processes to make delectable flavors from semi-sweet, milk chocolate, and dark chocolate to name a few.
The Best Places to Find Chocolate
There are a number of sites available to find gourmet chocolates that will delight your sensations.
Richart Paris. Since 1925 this French chocolate maker has left an indelible mark on the industry. Their products are considered the gold standard for many. “Two generations later, we consider it our daily mission to seek out both an inexhaustible supply of the finest cocoa the world has to offer and, along with it, an equally endless amount of the happiness and pleasure that chocolate has to offer,” Michel Richart states.
Recchiuti Confections. This San Francisco based company’s mission is to change the way people taste chocolate. Many of their creations are literal works of art, painstakingly looked after by Michael Recchiuti himself. He will suggest chocolate pairings to complement fine wines or whiskey. “One bite of these handcrafted morsels will change the way you think about chocolate forever,” says Recchiuti.
Lake Champlain Chocolates. Located in Vermont, all natural ingredients are employed, with each chocolate made to perfection. The New York Times has recognized this chocolate maker as one of the best in the United States numerous times. They have been known for their gourmet chocolate truffles for over twenty five years.
Cote d’Or Chocolates. This famous Belgium chocolatier travels to Africa for their magnificent cocoa. For more than a century they have created some of the finest flavors the world has known, with bars and candies available in the finest gourmet shops. You can also purchase directly through this site.
Ghirardelli. Since 1852 Ghirardelli has been considered the finest chocolatier in America. Their chocolates are available in specialty shops, department stores, and grocers, and through their online shop. Their unique flavors are world renowned for their rich, creamy base.
Creating a Real Chocolate Palette
You can influence your children’s chocolate palette through fun taste tests. Purchase several bars or pieces of a gourmet chocolate company, focusing on the various flavors available. You may even mix brands. Chocolate is best tasted between 66 and 76 degrees.
Ask your child to smell the different pieces to see if there is a difference. Once they have described any differences, ask them to taste it slowly, allowing it to melt in their mouth. Most kids will love this, as it makes them slow down and actually taste it. Ask them about the different flavors, what they liked or didn’t like.
There are many small chocolate makers around the country that allow tours during certain times of the year. This would be a great opportunity for your child to see what goes in to making the chocolate and gain an appreciation for the process.
Have your child compare flavors of gourmet chocolate with those of a mass produced brand. Ask them if they find differences in the consistencies. Children under the age of seven will not have the patience sometimes to do this, but like any great food experience it is important to teach them early the idea of enjoying the flavors. Make it a point during your travels to stop at specialty shops and try the unique brands – it will be something they carry with them through life.