Monday, 18 June 2007

Merci pour le chocolat

Were any proof necessary that my palate is advancing more slowly than my age, it was amply provided at a chocolate tasting I attended about a week ago. The object of the event was to blind taste bars of bittersweet dark chocolate (70% to 80% cocoa) and record differences in aroma, flavour and texture.

I suspected that I was rather outclassed as soon as I learned that my fellow tasters included a chef and a woman seemingly on first-name terms with all the big name chocolatiers in Paris. I was also a bit self-conscious about the chocolate I brought, two bars of Valrhona. This may considered relatively fancy stuff outside of France, but it's available here in all but the slumpiest supermarkets. It also looked decidedly middle-brow when compared to the heavy, matte paper wrappings of boutique brands like Patrick Roger or Jean-Paul Hevin. Out of its packaging (I had noticed the branding when I picked up a piece to taste), the Valrhona fared little better, appearing a bit waxy and grey and eliciting either non-descript or negative comments from most of the tasters, myself included.*

But leaving aside the fragile state of my ego, the chocolate tasting was interesting for a few reasons. In the private stage of the tasting, I struggled to match what was a surprisingly wide array of tastes to words. The vocabulary I had learned to apply to wine was on the whole of little use here. Although a few of the chocolates were also identified by others as having woody, smoky or bitter-cherry qualities (like the Italian reds I so much like), most of the discernible differences were very difficult to describe with any degree of precision. Surely it's insufficient to say that bittersweet chocolate is, well, bitter.

Later on it occurred to me that while I make an effort to analyze the wine that I drink, I rarely devote comparable effort to thinking about the tastes on my plate. More often than not, I've made the food myself, and it seems a bit artificial to dissect the influences of known ingredients. The result, however, is that I find it hard to figure out why certain things appeal to me, or why a certain dish hasn't come together in the way that I expected. But what I also learned is that--at least at this stage--very focused tasting can take some of the joy out of eating. I appreciated meeting some like-minded people and having the opportunity to try some artisanal brands that I probably would not have bought for myself. But the emphasis on comparing, ranking and criticizing meant that I didn't fully appreciate the embarrassment of riches on the table in front of me.

I'm unlikely to stop scouring books, blogs and discussion boards to find out what is deemed to be the best food that my new, temporary home can offer. And I'm already signed up for this week's tasting of French olive oil, one that is likely to be even more perplexing to my taste buds than my recent foray into chocolate. But in between all of these efforts to learn and master, perhaps the best thing I can do is just enjoy the embarrassment of riches which is eating--and drinking--in Paris.

*Very few Parisian chocolate shops make their own couverture. Most rely on Valrhona, although this is either prepared with an exclusive recipe (as, I am told, is the case with La Maison du Chocolat) or is re-blended and adapted in-house.

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