Chocolate finale

How do you make 24 foodie students happy? So easy. Make their last class on Friday afternoon a chocolate tasting session. We were reunited with our affable guide through cured meats, Mirco Marconi, who confessed his passion for artisanal chocolate, and treated us to a sampling of 23 different varieties.

We learned a bit about the history of cacao – its discovery by the Olmecs and its appreciation by the Mayans who consumed it as a liquid, relishing the foam. He showed us a picture of the Mexican chocolate whisk, the molinillo, which was actually a contribution by the Spaniards.

The New Taste of Chocolate by Spanish writer Maricel Presilla is, he says, the best book he’s read on chocolate. There seemed to be interest among my long-suffering classmates in doing more of the onerous research required to master this subject: there are chocolate festivals enough to keep us happy: CioccolaTO in Turin next month; the recently elapsed but highly recommended purists’ festival, Cioccolasita; and one to look forward to, Le Salon du Chocolat in Paris, from October 19-22, 2007.

We heard about the chocolate making process, from harvest through fermentation and drying, to refining, conching and tempering. We tasted chocolate beans, unsweetened chocolate, liquid chocolate, and ‘grand cru’ chocolates from Venezuela; we tried chuao and porcelana; criollo, forestero and trinitano. Bewildering varieties and many epiphanies of taste and texture.

My favourites were Guido Gobino’s Cialdine lemon and ginger – a chocolate covered nugget of exquisite candied fruit; Ravera‘s Baci di Cherasco – a crunchy fusion of fine chocolate and top quality hazelnuts (nocciola from Langhe); and Château Domori Porcelana – a silky bite of Venezuelan (70%) criollo — from a company evidently run by a chocophilic poet!? Marconi even brought us a special treat from his personal collection – a Bodrato cherry chocolate, the kind of treat he’d adored as a child and which is now produced with high quality cherries (la ciliegia d.o.p. di Vignola) which, bathed whole in grappa, are encased in a fabulous dark chocolate.

As we were picking and chewing I couldn’t help but think if we’d been served any one of the sampling – unsweetened versions aside – we’d probably have been overjoyed. Taken together, of course, you really notice the differences.

There were three artisan producers named from the US, Scharffen Berger (which has been bought out by a multinational since he’d first encountered them), Ghirardelli and E. Guittard. I’m eager to get back to Hot Chocolates in Courtenay and do a little taste-testing to see how they measure up now…

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