In search of a more meaningful relationship with chocolate, I went to a chocolate tasting at Xoxolat (sho-sho-la) in Vancouver
I’ve indulged in my fair share of fabulous chocolates, but a chocolate tasting requires professional guidance. Luckily, Hodie Rondeau, owner of Xoxolat leads intimate groups of cocoa-curious folks through an educational and delicious Chocolate 101 class several times a week in her store.
100% Dark Chocolate: Welcome to the Dark Side
Hodie starts off the class with an enthusiastic, “Welcome to the dark side!” And she’s not just being witty. We begin our tasting with two different 100% cocoa samples, one from São Tomé and one from Madagascar.
At 100%, you’d think there wouldn’t be much difference, that your palate would be blown away from the heavy cocoa content. Surprisingly, they were both lovely (in small doses, of course) and also distinctly separate in their flavour profiles. The one from Madagascar was very bright, almost ever-so-slightly acidic with citrus notes, while the one from São Tomé was mellower with well-balanced notes and what I thought was the classic chocolate flavour.
The way Hodie encouraged us to discern all the different notes in the chocolates, you’d think you were in a wine-tasting class. This is how complex and finely nuanced good chocolate can be. Chocolate actually contains 1,500 flavour components. To develop a palate that can really appreciate all the notes in chocolate is a rare thing. In fact, some of the finest chocolates Hodie carries she rarely recommends to clients, because not very many are able to pick up on their subtle notes.
The Cost of Quality Chocolate
We tried more samples of varying percentages, and by the time we got to the 70% samples, they tasted almost cloyingly sweet. Still delicious, of course, but at this point we really began to understand what makes for good quality chocolate and how most commercial chocolates are more candy-like, using sugar to mask the flavour of inferior and insufficient cocoa.
With a premium chocolate, you can smell its earthiness, hear a snap when you break it, and feel its richness on your tongue as it melts, lingeringly, in your mouth.
Throughout the evening, Hodie introduced different brands from around the world that she’s personally picked for her store. She advocates for “clean" chocolate – free of waxes and emulsifiers on top of being as organic and fair-trade as possible. She considers what kind of beans each producer uses, how they process, ferment, conch and roast those beans, and ultimately how the final product looks, smells, sounds and tastes.
Brands like Pralus, Theo and Amedei ("The best in the world!" Hodie raves) may charge more, but you’re guaranteed that what you buy will be the exquisite product of some amazing workmanship. The bottom line is that it simply costs more if you want to produce quality goods. These types of chocolate producers go to great lengths to get perfect, unblemished beans, and then roast them according to their own secret formula. This means the working conditions and the skilled labour involved are also top notch.
Chocolate's Health Benefits – The Darker the Better
Hodie comes from a natural health background, so she’s excited and adamant about advocating the virtues of chocolate as a health food. "It has to be at least 70%,” she cautions.
When only lightly processed or even left raw, chocolate is full of antioxidants, flavonoids and other good-for-you elements; no longer exclusively consigned to the candy aisle, chocolate’s now considered a superfood.
Hodie is passionate about setting the record straight about chocolate's reputation. "Chocolate isn’t bad – it’s what’s in chocolate that makes it bad." Good chocolate doesn’t need much, but the stuff you typically find in supermarkets is filled with artificial, fattening and unhealthy additives. Cheaper chocolate can sometimes taste and feel oily because cocoa butter is an expensive product so some factories extract the cocoa butter out of the cocoa during processing to sell it off, replacing it with cheaper oils.
Pairing Chocolate - Everything but the Kitchen Sink
"Chocolate goes with everything,” Hodie insists. In fact, she mentions this many times throughout the evening. Proof is in the pudding, or in this case in the chocolate, and it doesn’t disappoint. In the final portion of the evening, Hodie introduced us to Zotter, an Austrian chocolate maker that produces flavoured chocolate bars with unbelievably creative flavour combinations.
We tried one bar with tortilla chips and lime. Sounds odd, but I loved it. I adored the crunchy texture and the salt contrasting against the creamy sweet chocolate. For the truly adventurous, Zotter has more challenging combinations such as celeriac, port wine and white truffle (yes, all together).
And perhaps the most bewildering flavour profile of the entire evening: smoked trout. There was only 0.04% fish content in the chocolate, and granted it wasn’t overtly fishy, but my simple palate wasn’t sophisticated enough to appreciate this whimsical combination. I’ll be honest, it was weird.
Luckily, the evening was capped off by a couple of chasers of Xoxolat’s drinking chocolate, which was essentially melted chocolate with a bit of hot water. By that point, it was actually a relief to taste something so simple and comforting, which really just reinforces the main message of the evening: when you have a quality product, you don’t need to do much to make it delicious.
Chocolate tastings take place at Xoxolat several times a week and cost $15/person. Check their online schedule for availability.
Catherine Tse is a freelance writer and editor based in Vancouver. From the Great Wall of China to Sydney’s Opera House to the Blue Lagoon in Iceland, Catherine loves an adventure and loves to share them with her readers.