Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Valrhona chocolate tasting

If you eat dessert in high-end restaurants, you've had Valrhona chocolate. The company, based in France's Rhone Valley (hence the name), is probably the world's best large professional producer of chocolate.

Most of Valrhona's chocolate goes to pastry chefs and confectioners. In fact, many "chocolatiers" use Valrhona, because actually making chocolate, as opposed to adding ingredients to it, requires some economy of scale. It's a bit like sugar in that way; everybody uses it, but who actually makes it?

For decades after its founding in 1924, Valrhona sold only to the pastry/confection trade. But two years after being purchased by the French agro-conglomerate Bongrain in 1984, the company began selling chocolate bars for consumers. In many cases these straightforward bars of chocolate, which are not cheap, sit on upscale grocery shelves besides more complex bars (ancho-lime, or whatever) from other companies that actually contain the same Valrhona chocolate.

The company is famous among chocolate aficionados for its standoffish approach to marketing. You never hear about pastry chefs who don't like Valrhona chocolate, but you do hear complaints from people who don't like its attitude that, you have to be worthy to buy our product.

Perhaps I am not worthy, but nonetheless I had the Valrhona chocolate bar lineup here recently and decided to take tasting notes on them.

One thing I learned is that for eating chocolate bars straight-up, there's a definite "sweet spot" (pun intended) for cocoa percentage, and that's about 64%. Chocolates below 60% cocoa aren't dark enough for me; chocolates above 70% cocoa are good for baking, but for eating they're too brittle, bitter and simple.

I must point out that the higher cocoa percentage chocolates are much better with wine, mostly because they're not as sweet. The Abinao (85% cocoa) works pretty well with a lot of red wines that taste sour with other chocolates -- but I don't like it by itself. I'd rather have the most delicious chocolate, and not worry about the wine pairing.

I tasted the lineup from least-sweet to sweetest, and have listed the notes in that order. Bon appetit.

Abinao 85%
Weakened chocolate flavor, more like unsweetened cocoa. Waxy texture. Doesn't melt easily on tongue. Not particularly intense, in fact the mildness is a disappointment. Proof that 85% is too much cocoa. Good in baking, but I don't find this particularly enjoyable by itself.

Guanaja 70%
Fruity, a stone-fruitiness (nectarine) that intensifies as it melts in the mouth. The actual chocolatiness of it seems secondary to the fruitiness until the finish. A good level of sweetness, with some notes of bitterness but those well in line. Not the most “chocolatey” of chocolates, but a sophisticated and tasty one.

Caraibe 66%
Chocolate flavor with notes of Concord grape and just a hint of strawberry initially that soon fades into a richer, more complete chocolatiness than the Guanaja. This feels rich and decadent, like the chocolate of a hot-fudge sundae, but in fact is not overly sweet. It's as if you took the hot-fudge quality and halved the sugar. Good stuff for people who like chocolate flavor. Leaves you with a slightly bitter aftertaste.

Alpaco 66%

An initial cream cheese quality, then a milkiness on the midpalate. Smoother than the previous ones. I don't get the “floral” notes promised on the label. Seems sweeter than the Caraibe, which is not a bad thing, but also lighter in body. A lighter, slightly fruity finish.

Palmira Finca Criollo (64%) Plantation Palmira Venezuela
This is a single-plantation chocolate, which is interesting because it allows us to taste its terroir. It's complex: intense chocolatey notes along with toffee, coffee, floral notes, lime peel, hint of fresh herbs and lavender. Melts easily and consistently in mouth. Finish of chocolate mingled with herbes de Provence. Bitter notes that add interest early do not linger into aftertaste. This is the most interesting of the lineup, but not the richest or sweetest. This is the red wine lover's chocolate, and overall my favorite in the lineup.

Tainori 64%

Sweet, red apple notes with hints of cherry; segues into dark chocolatey cocoa. There's a clear note of cherry in the aftertaste. Seems simple after the Palmira, but that's like having a Napa cult cab and complaining of its one-dimensionality, as this is a likable chocolate with a nice finish. People who don't like acidity -- that may include most Americans -- will like it more than the Manjari.

Manjari 64%
Very tangy. Strong acidity in the flavor. The cocoa quality of it seems subdued until the finish. This is the one that would be easiest to eat a whole bar of, because the acidity leaves me wanting another bite right away. Initially there's a hint of curry leaves but I don't get the citrus fruit you expect with so much tanginess; it's more of a pineapple/tropical fruit acidity. Subsequent bites are better and better. A white wine lover's chocolate (though not if that means oaky Chardonnay.)

Jivara 40%
Milk chocolate with strong notes of caramel and toffee. Caramel note takes over on midpalate and the finish is not particularly chocolatey. This is not a bad chocolate confection, but it's not satisfyingly chocolatey enough for the dark chocolate fan.

Tanariva 33%
Milky, creamy, sugary, with notes of orange and coffee bean. After tasting the others, the low level of cocoa is really noticeable, but for what it is, I rather like it. That said, it's too sugary to be something I would eat. But if I had to eat milk chocolate, this would do. I like it better than the Jivara.

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