NEW YORK (Money magazine) -
Unless you've been shopping on another planet, you know chocolate is no longer a simple matter of dark or milk, with or without interesting lumps.
Supermarkets sell Lindt and Perugina. Godiva, a pioneer in mass-market luxury now owned by Campbell Soup, has so many boutique outlets that it's starting to look like Starbucks. Premium chocolates, which used to be something you brought back from Europe, now account for about 10 percent of the $14 billion U.S. market.
But is there more to those deluxe assortments than pure snob appeal? Can it possibly be legit for the British Web site seventypercent.com to say that a chocolate bar (Michel Cluizel's Amer 72 percent Cocoa) has "strong but refined tobacco aroma with hints of damp woods and dark fruits?"
Well, yes. The subject is so complex that descriptions are bound to sound like win-espeak, making it easy to fear hype about what's haute.
Whether you're shopping for yourself or for a gift, when it comes to chocolate, of course, you'll want to do some tasting yourself. It's wise to start with the straight stuff -- plain dark-chocolate bars. Here's what to look for.
Like wine, chocolate is an agricultural product that goes through enhancing transformations, which can turn blah into acceptable. What no amount of processing can do is create greatness without great raw material.
Like wine grapes, most of the world's cacao beans are workhorse types, useful for providing bulk but unable to deliver more than a basic chocolate taste. Only a small percentage can express the enormous range of flavors that inspires poetic analogies.
Again, as with wine, it's a long way from field to table. To achieve greatness, these best beans must be correctly fermented, dried, roasted, blended, ground and sweetened before the final grinding that produces optimum texture.
And all this just gets you to the best plain chocolate. Add the butter and cream, the fruits, nuts, spices -- hot pepper! -- that turn chocolate into chocolates, and the whole subject may seem impossible to sort out.
Fortunately, it's quite easy to spot the subtleties that make good chocolate stand up and say, "Choose me, I'm better," as long as you start with the basics.
An informal sampling of four or five top chocolates is enough to start you on the road to connoisseurship. There's no need to do a blind tasting. What matters is that the chocolates be dairy-free, unflavored -- except with vanilla -- and at least two-thirds chocolate.
It's legal to call a product dark chocolate if it contains 41 percent cocoa, but as Pierrick Chouard, an importer of high-end products (echocolates.com) points out, "the higher the percentage of cocoa, the less opportunity there is to cover off-flavors or hide defects."
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Products containing 65 percent to 70 percent cocoa or more are unquestionably the best, although above 85 percent, there's too little sugar for most tastes -- even very sophisticated ones.
Anything that densely chocolate will be pretty dark, but you will see slight differences in color that hint at different roasts. You should also notice a definite snap at first bite that confirms both high cocoa content and careful mixing.
According to Chouard, who started out as a tropical agronomist and still gives courses that include chocolate botany, the seeds (beans) of Theobroma cacao have over 1,000 flavor components.
Not all will be discernible, but as the chocolate melts slowly in your mouth, it should deliver a blend of several pleasing aromas. Be on the alert for flowers, fruits, spices, nuts, tobacco and toast. If you taste rubber, mold, straw, grass or strong acid or smoke, you know there were problems in processing, storage, manufacture or (worst case, but it happens) all three.
The ideal is a balanced, lingering flavor, with the inborn bitterness of chocolate offset by sweet fragrances and a bit, but only a bit, of natural acid and added sugar.
Blends versus single origin
Most connoisseurs are quick to point out that the finest chocolates are blends. Nevertheless, the hottest thing in chocolate right now is single-origin chocolate made entirely from beans grown in one country or even on one plantation. The differences between single-origins are striking, so they are ideal for taste tests.
Terroir, "the taste of the place," is probably less important for chocolate than it is for wine, but the emphasis it puts on first-class beans bodes well for the future. So does the fact that most premium bars cost $3 to $5. Even the most expensive won't run more than a ten spot; that's a hell of a lot more than Hershey's, but a mighty democratic price for the very best you can buy.
Leslie Land is a freelance writer who specializes in food and gardening.