For many, Valentine’s Day will have to be adapted this year. Perhaps dinner parties and romantic getaways will be postponed, and many will celebrate at home or virtually. That doesn’t mean the night has to be a bust, though. A really fun and sensory way to celebrate Valentine’s Day this year is to host a chocolate tasting.
Engage all five senses in the experience and make it an unforgettable evening.
You want to go with a number of tasting samples that will allow for plenty of comparison and discussion (and fun), but it’s not too overwhelming on the palate.
“Five or six selections of chocolate is a good number to start with. It may even be useful to break up a larger tasting into shorter “flights” of, say, three chocolates with an opportunity for a rest break in between. flights,” said Michael Laiskonis, creative director of the Institute of Culinary Education. Michael is the head of ICE’s Chocolate Lab and is an expert in the chocolate field.
If you’re creating multiple flights, Laiskonis says, it might also be worth introducing a “calibration” sample, a way to test your palate over an extended experience (professionals often do this when judging chocolates for high-stakes prizes).
There are many approaches one can take to create a themed tasting. A free assortment of random chocolates can work great, but it’s not the only way. “The experience can be enhanced by judiciously grouping the samples, where at least one element of the chocolate is relatively consistent, allowing the taster to better identify and appreciate the subtle nuances that may emerge from sample to sample,” said Laiskonis.
Choose samples made with cocoa beans from a country of origin. “With this type of flight, you can notice the differences in style or formulation (cocoa %) where the genetics and the terroir (sense of place) are theoretically similar,” Laiskonis said.
Madagascar, for example, is known for its bright and fruity intensity. In contrast, floral aromas and nutty aspects are often typical of chocolate made from Ecuadorian beans. “Different manufacturers’ recipe, process, or roasting style can shift the expression or prominence of these classic flavors from bar to bar,” Laiskonis said.
While some chocolate experts may assign broad flavor profiles to countries of origin for tasters to use as a road map, a tasting can also reveal the diversity of flavors within a single origin. “An origin like the Dominican Republic can defy being pigeonholed by a narrow flavor profile, so building a tasting around a tour of different regions and producers is an ambitious, yet potentially eye-opening approach,” Laiskonis said.
Here, says Laiskonis, one could even seek to compose different interpretations of bars made by a single producer like Zorzal or Öko-Caribe, or explore a variety of geographical expressions offered by a larger producer like Rizek/Kahkow. “Go even further and look for chocolatiers producing cocoa-based bars,” Laiskonis said.
On the other hand, step back further to compare chocolates from countries in a wider region, such as Africa (Ghana, Tanzania, Uganda, Ivory Coast), the Caribbean (Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Grenada , Dominican Republic) or Central America (Guatemala, Nicaragua, Belize, Mexico).
“Another variable that a tasting can focus on is the cocoa formulation or percentage. Flights from a range of bars all come in at 70%, for example, where the origin distinctions may be more obvious (perhaps at least one sample could be a mix),” Laiskonis said. This type of range can also reveal surprising differences in intensity due to roasting style, manufacturing method, or cocoa bean genetics.
Sourcing bars for tasting through a specialty retailer like Bar and Cocoa in Denver, allows for enhanced guidance and search functionality – here, for example, a search filtered by 70% cocoa formulation .
Whether you opt for an established name that sets the standard or a pretty exciting newcomer, showcasing the work of a single manufacturer is another fun option. “There is no need to limit tasting to ordinary dark bars – chocolatiers are increasingly experimenting with complex milk chocolates (and bars swapping out plant-based alternatives) and a range of flavors and inclusions added,” Laiskonis said. A manufacturer like Fruition or SOMA can offer more than enough options for a varied tasting experience.
Quality and price
While it’s best not to create influential biases and quality judgments, peeking into the mix of an otherwise structured tasting can be fun. Insert a mainstream Hershey or Lindt bar into an otherwise high-end Craftsman range, for example. “Sometimes the perception of a chocolate – no matter how familiar – can change when tasted in a particular context,” Laiskonis said.
Put in place
Make sure the setting is relatively quiet, calm and free from distractions that might obstruct the senses – the more comfortable and relaxed tasters are, the more they can focus on the subtle nuances from sample to sample .
Provide a tasting sheet for each sample (see some basic sensory parameters below), or simply a pen and paper for tasters to record their observations. “Do some pre-research on the bars being tasted to better fuel the conversation and analysis of the results – a light discussion of geography, history, or the chocolate-making process can add a fun educational aspect to round out the experience” , Laiskonis said.
Tasting chocolate can exhaust the senses, so a palate cleanser is highly recommended. “The most effective approach is to keep things as neutral as possible – a glass of room temperature water (cold water can dull the taste buds) and plain water crackers (no spices or flavorings) are the best way to prime the palate from one sample to the next,” Laiskonis said. or a bite to discuss the results.
How to taste
The order of a tasting is not a matter of great importance, but a rule of thumb that Laiskonis tries to adhere to – especially when tasting a wide range of cocoa percentages – is to start with the highest and end with the lowest. Reserve the sweeter milk chocolate and flavored bars towards the end, as they can sway the palate.
Provide enough chocolate for each taster to taste at least two five-gram pieces. “That often translates to a 50-60 gram bar for four to five tasters,” Laiskonis said. Several pieces allow the taster to revisit a sample if he wishes.
Although the tasters may know the general context or the theme of the tasting, it is preferable to taste blind in order to reduce the effect of bias. “It can be difficult in some cases, like manufacturers branding their bars with identifying logos,” Laiskonis said. Retain packaging – after tasting and evaluation, display the box or wrapper and allow tasters to reconcile their tasting notes with any useful information provided by the manufacturer.
After an individual chocolate or sample flight, allow tasters to open up and discuss their impressions – group tasting dynamics can provide a lively evaluation (or debate) of individual impressions of flavor and texture .
How to evaluate
Encourage tasters to engage all of their senses in chocolate tasting and record their impressions of the following:
Note the visual aspect first — color, shine, any flaws, says Laiskonis.
Try to make sample pieces large enough to break. “The satisfying sound of the brittle break can offer clues to fat content or degree of temper,” Laiskonis said.
Encourage tasters to smell the sample before tasting. “Although aromas are eventually collected in the nose during tasting to create the full spectrum of flavors, an initial sniff can have its own impact,” Laiskonis said.
By touch or feel, we really mean texture. “After an initial chew or two, tasters should let the chocolate melt in their mouth, revealing the resulting texture or mouthfeel,” Laiskonis said.
“As the chocolate melts, it releases flavors – often an evolving experience with a range of flavors detected in the front, middle and finish,” Laiskonis said. This is where the fun often begins, as tasters begin to identify familiar flavors. “Because these flavors can be difficult for some to express verbally, the group discussion can be particularly interesting as different tasters describe their own experience. The host can moderate this conversation by drawing observations from the tasters – the most important thing is to remember that much of the perception and appreciation of chocolate is subjective, there are no wrong answers! said Laiskonis.