TO TASTE: BE IT CHOCOLATE, WINE, TEA, COFFEE OR CHEESE, YOU NEED TO ENGAGE ALL FIVE SENSES.
1. Use your eyes
Look at the piece of chocolate you are about to taste, evaluating its texture before you put it in your mouth. The surface should be smooth and shiny, indicating that the cocoa butter is properly crystallized (tempered). Do not be swayed by the color. There are few rules about what color is best, and the shade of chocolate color is influenced by many factors such as bean type and roasting time as well as milk content.
2. Touch it
Is it soft or hard? Sticky, grainy, sandy, or velvety? Crisp or crunchy? Getting to know the feel of a chocolate helps you recognize it again in the future. It also helps you to identify quality. The smoother the texture, the more unctuous it will be in the mouth. The finer the chocolate particles, the greater the aromas you will find in it.
3. Listen to it
Even your ability to hear affects taste and loss of hearing can give the impression that a food has a strange taste. Tuning in to the sound that your chocolate makes when you break it is another way of familiarizing yourself with the product and assessing its quality. Did it break easily? Neatly? A chocolate that snaps without too much effort is a sign that the balance between cocoa and butter is right. Dark chocolate snaps more easily than milk because, unlike milk chocolate, it contains no milk powder.
4. Smell it
Taste is ninety percent smell. Our sensing equipment seems to pick up subtleties in aroma or vapor that we cannot detect in solids and liquids. You will have noticed that food is more tasteless when you have a cold and your nose is blocked up. You may even lose your appetite for it because there is nothing to savor. The vapor given off by food or drink and warmed up in the mouth has two routes to the brain. When we sniff it, with the aim of taking in its odor, the vapor travels up our nose to the olfactory receptors at the top. When we are tasting, the same vapor takes a back route, from the back of the mouth, up what is called the retro-nasal passage, to the same sensory organ. To test the effect that smell has on taste, try holding your nose and chewing a piece of flavorsome food. Then repeat the same exercise with your nose liberated.
Our sense of smell is a bit like a memory bank. You know yourself how the smell of freshly cut grass may bring back memories of your childhood, and how the smell of perfume or aftershave can remind you of the loved one who wears it. Aromas live within us, becoming an integral part of our senses, participating in a new function within our minds. The problem is that, in today’s world, we are so bombarded by artificial smells that many of us have lost our database of natural scents. Sadly, when a lot of people smell a fine chocolate for the first time, they do not recognize it as chocolate. For them, chocolate should smell of sugar and vanilla! Good chocolate smells often remind us of natural products fruit, flowers, woodlands, or spice. A chocolate that smells smoky may have been carelessly dried or roasted. One that smells moldy has been damaged in storage. Or a yeasty chocolate was poorly fermented.
5. Taste it
When tasting a new chocolate, try just a small, fingernail-sized piece. Put it on your tongue and chew for a few seconds to break it into smaller chunks. Then stop and allow it to melt so that all flavors are released. Make sure the chocolate is spread all around your mouth this way you will taste the flavors most intensely. When the taste of a wonderful chocolate reverberates long after we have consumed the chocolate, that indicates our olfactory system is going into overdrive. Our taste buds play a relatively minor role, picking up only crude definitions: sweet, acid, salty, astringent, umami and bitter. When you start tasting truly good chocolate, you will find that its flavor can linger for many minutes. This is the best incentive I can think of to invest in an expensive bar. It may cost three times as much as your usual bar, but the pleasure you will get from it is intense and long. The flavor of chocolate comes from the combination of several of the basic tastes listed opposite. Sugar, and slightly acidic beans, can both act in the same way in small quantities, they will enhance the flavor but in larger quantities they drown it out. Fine chocolate has harmonious tastes you will need to concentrate to sense their presence. Look out in particular for bitterness, acidity and astringency. Sweetness is tasted at the tip of the tongue. A simple rule with sweetness is this: if you notice the sugar, if it annoys you slightly, there is too much of it in the bar. Excess sugar is used to disguise poor quality or uninteresting beans, covering up the burnt, metallic or moldy flavors you might otherwise taste. Each time you taste a new chocolate, think about the sugar. Is it noticeable? Does it override the other flavors? Bitterness, sourness and acidity. When novices eat real chocolate, many use the word ‘bitter’ to describe it. (And it is the same word that often springs to people’s lips when tasting tea or coffee, interestingly.) It is their way of qualifying a new taste that is a bit more intense than they are used to. Nine times out of ten, it is not the most accurate word to use. Poor quality chocolate may be astringent (drying or puckering like chewing a grape skin). Alternatively, what you are tasting (if it does not seem sour) may be acidity. Try sniffing something very high in acidity, like vinegar, and notice how the edges of your tongue curl up in anticipation of how it will taste in your mouth. Acidity has a very strong effect on the sides of the tongue. Start smelling things routinely and you will realize how important a component acidity is in everything from milk to fruit.
True bitterness is felt in the middle at the back of the tongue. Test it in foods like grapefruit, to see how your mouth responds. Guanaja from Valrhona is rather bitter, but in such a mild and elegant way you will hardly feel it. With some training, you will even detect chocolates that begin with one flavor (sweetness, for example) and evolve to another (say, bitterness) with a hint of a third (salty) e.g. Lindt 99%. Saltiness is one of the first tastes you notice, and it lasts longer than sweetness. In chocolate, salt is used to reveal particular aromas from the beans.
Chocolate Tasting Vocabulary
Bite any square of fine dark chocolate, and try to describe the aromas and flavors, not just whether you like it or not. You might not be able to find the words to describe it. Try to find associations with the world around you. When you taste, close your eyes and think, ‘What does this remind me of?’. A tasting wheel will help you develop your own choco-vocabulary and help you become a chocolate connoisseur.
In the beginning, if you can at least identify ‘fruity’, this is excellent. Later on, as your ability to identify flavors and aromas grows, you will be able to fit more specific words to tastes. Find words that sum up what you taste, not what you think you should taste, or what someone else has tasted. On a graph, you could draw up one curve for the intensity of the flavors: in their initial attack, in their development, and in their finish. You may taste ‘flowery’ followed by ‘woody’ and then ‘woody flirting with spicy.’