So, a few weeks back on Facebook, a company I had "liked" offered a contest. Divine Chocolate is a fair trade chocolate company that has made my kryptonite all the years I've worked as a volunteer at Ten Thousand Villages: they make a version of mint-filled dark chocolate squares that I've bought, telling myself I can have a square a day. Ha ha ha.
The contest announced several new limited time holiday flavours: dark chocolate with cranberries and hazelnuts, milk chocolate with spiced cookies, dark chocolate hazelnut truffle, and milk chocolate with whole almonds. People were invited to describe the people with whom they would share a sample pack of chocolate.
I was cheeky. I suggested this had to be a trick question -- that any chocolate lover was greedy about her chocolate. I said something about saving crumbs for my family and making recommendations more widely.
I did look back to see if I had won, and put it out of my mind until early this week when I spotted an item on the Divine news feed asking the following winners, drawn randomly (alas for all the earnest folk who suggested they would share with their mum or their kids), to send in their mailing addresses. Lo and behold, I saw my name and did as I was bid.
This morning, I came home from walking the dog to discover a small cardboard box on my doorstep. My first thought was that I had been "boo'd" -- an occasional Halloween version of a Secret Santa -- but it was The Chocolate.
And not only the chocolate. I had to take photos as I unwrapped the box. Shipping chocolate is delicate business, as it turns out. Not only was there crumpled paper along with the explanation and survey, but the bars were wrapped in a heat-sensitive bubble wrap, and nestled beside a squishy cold pack, that was still cold, and which would keep the bars at optimum temperature.
I took out my bars and lined them up. I opened the Divine Guide to Chocolate Tasting and read carefully the pages about how to taste chocolate. I decided it would be a public service to share the how to's with you here.
Appearance: I was given a list of possible adjectives to describe the appearance of my chocolate -- was it glossy, shiny, dull, mottled, waxy,discoloured? Was it coarse or crumbly at the edges? (I can report that my chocolate was glossy indeed, with divine little hearts printed on its squares.)
Touch: Apparently chocolate should feel silky not sticky, waxy or gritty in one's hand. (As much as touch is one of my keenest senses, I had never focused here before, although I probably would have noticed gritty.)
Sound: The lower the cocoa content, the less snap. Dark chocolate should have a nice crack when you break it. (And it did.)
Aroma: "Take a small piece of chocolate and let it melt between your forefinger and thumb, cup your hand around the chocolate and then smell." (Oops. It was not because these instructions were confusing that I omitted this step. It was because my teeth wanted to see whether the chocolate would crack. Will try to remember this step next time and to apply some of the words used to describe the aroma -- anything from earthy to fruity to wine, toasted nuts or floral.)
Mouthfeel: I had trouble with this one too. They suggest pinching your nose during the first bite in order to "let your tongue and mouth isolate the chocolate" at the front of the mouth where the tastebuds predominate. For me smell is entirely wrapped up in taste, so I kept cheating quickly on this one. What to pay attention to here included the hint of flavours and how long these last. Apparently the flavour should "steadily rise and linger" -- and some fine dark chocolates can linger up to 45 minutes. Also, the finest chocolates will produce a series of flavours. (This last part I found to be true, especially for the darker chocolates.)
Flavour: "The basic flavours are acidity, bitterness, sweetness and astringency." (Hm. I wasn't able to distinguish between acidity and astringency, at least not enough to know to identify them.)
The process reminded me of watching the ballet -- I almost never keep track of the storyline at the ballet because I'm so dazzled by the beauty of each movement and the exquisite dancers. Here, it was challenging to articulate what specifically I liked or didn't like about each kind of chocolate.
I have to confess that I let one of my kids taste with me. We discussed our reactions. He found the dark chocolate too intense; it was probably my favourite. We both really liked the hazelnut truffle -- unlike, say, Nutella or a Ferrero Rocher chocolate, here the chocolate dominates nicely and is complemented by the hazelnut. He liked the almond chocolate -- I could barely taste the chocolate, although I thought the almonds were nice. We both were dazzled by the milk chocolate with spiced cookies: it had a crunchy texture from the cookies and the flavours were, ahem, divine together. We agreed it was something we could eat at any time of the year. We also both agreed that we kind of wished for a white chocolate with crushed candycanes in it, as another holiday flavour.
I'm not sure I was particularly good at testing, but I imagine I could get excellent if given more opportunity. To which I am very much open. Because I am nothing if not about learning. Especially when it comes to chocolate.
(PS Divine didn't ask us to post anything publicly -- they just wanted our opinions)