Lauren Friel | 2.4.2015 | Issue #10
Chocolate is everywhere. The corner bodega. 7-11. Whole Foods. Starbucks. That place in the mall with the impossibly-huge dipped strawberries. That super-fancy specialty shop that just opened in your of-the-moment neighborhood. Odds are, no matter where you are, chocolate is there, in high-or-lowbrow form. We eat it, we drink it, we paint it on our naked partners. It’s ubiquitous with holidays and casual snacking alike.
So, how do we talk about talk about something we take for granted?
I spent an afternoon unraveling this idea with two of the chocolate world’s most interesting people: Carla Martin, a post-doc Fellow at Harvard in the Department of African and African American Studies, where she teaches about the politics of cacao and chocolate; and Colin Gasko, the founder and chocolate maker at Rogue Chocolatier, an award-winning, bean-to-bar chocolate company in Three Rivers, Massachusetts. He's been on the artisan chocolate scene since he was 21, and was the only person Martin suggested join us.
Lauren Friel: The goal I have is to talk about the way we talk about flavor. I think with wine, maybe people are a little more open to hearing that something is going to smell like “roasted cherry and bergamot” than necessarily chocolate, which is something that – from a very young age – we all have a relationship with. Maybe there's an assumption of understanding that you don't have with other industries?
Carla Martin: We're in this very fraught situation with chocolate – and all things flavor – for exactly the reason you say. People grow up eating what's basically fat and sugar that's chocolate flavored, so there's this really problematic assumption of what chocolate is. When we're confronted with a chocolate that somehow challenges that, it can be off-putting for a whole bunch of different reasons. I find if I get in front of a group of people and I say, “Talk to me about your experience eating this,” you can't get them to say what it is that they're tasting because usually the first thing they want to say is, “It smells like chocolate and it tastes like chocolate." If you're trying to get them to give you any other kind of language about it, they really are slow to do so. I think it goes back to the fact that, in general in our society we're bad at using language to describe flavors.
Lauren Friel: Chocolate has something like over 400 aromatic and flavor compounds, right?
Colin Gasko: I think it's more than that, it think it's closer to 800.
Way more than we could sit down and talk about.
When you roast something, you're creating a broader array of compounds. It's the same thing with coffee.
OK, so I read that, and then I was looking at Tcho Chocolate's flavor wheel. I had just read that there are hundreds of flavor compounds in chocolate, and then I looked at their wheel, and…
... it's like primary colors.
Fruity, nutty, citrusy, chocolatey...
Well, they just changed citrusy to bright.
OK, but “chocolatey”?
Well, you need to use “chocolately,” because it's a particular type of roast aroma. There's some cacao that you can roast quite dark but it won't taste very cocoa-y, whereas a certain cacao, from West Africa in particular, has an intensely cocoa-y quality. It seems really dumb, but “chocolatey” is fair.
What's the difference between “citrusy” and “bright” as far as you're concerned?
Originally Tcho listed “citrusy” because citrusy flavors are the profile of certain cacao from a certain farm in Madagascar that they were using. It's one of the only distinctive fruit flavors. A lot of cacao fruit flavors end up being a little muddled – maybe it's plums, maybe it's raisins, it's a lot of red fruit.
But that cacao has a very acidic quality when you taste it, and I think some people automatically hear “acidic” or “citrusy” and they're like, "Hmmm, I don't know if I'll like that."
Right, they don't want to say “sour” or “tart.” Tart and chocolate don't usually mix well.
So “bright” is a much more attractive word for chocolate.
Yeah, that’s Tcho’s thing, you know, trying to simplify it down to something that's very comfortable. I don't know why they do it, really. I guess that's really the goal of industrialization in general is you want to create continuity.
What's really interesting to me about flavor wheels in general is that there's a lot of fascinating research on how experts taste versus how novices taste. Experts very quickly over a period of time taste the same kinds of things. They all prefer the same kinds of things, whereas, if you have novices taste, it's totally random. They're way more open to different kinds of flavor. Their questions about what's going on psychologically, physiologically... are experts moving toward tasting these things because these things are superior, or is it a trend they're all following? World Coffee Research is doing a taste lab at Kansas City University and having teams of novices sit down to taste and figure out – what does this coffee actually taste like? Because we need to keep trying to consistently identify those tastes and aromas over a period of time, and experts seem in many ways to be unable to do that consistently.
When you have your students taste, is there a pattern in which they start interacting with chocolate at first when they're asked to do it in a more academic way?
First you have to get over that hump of not wanting to say anything. What I find helpful is to break it down so they can parse what they're doing. Smell it, break it, taste it, describe the texture experience. Often, I don't think we think about that level of breakdown. If they just taste one chocolate, they may not have that many interesting things to say, but if they do three chocolates compared to one another, there's context. They can say this one is grittier, or this one has a burnt aftertaste, they get more words to describe what's happening. Once they start thinking about chocolate that way, they do start to pick out chocolates that I would say are objectively considered to be better chocolates.
So, I'm going to this other flavor wheel in the Chocolate Connoisseur. These are some of the categories: Fruity, nutty, spicy, earthy… Then it has “miscellaneous” that includes things like dairy, butter, and toast.
A good tasting wheel should be bound by chemical similarities. A lot of those miscellaneous flavors should be tucked in other places. It's difficult to really grasp unless you have some understanding of the way in which flavors shade each other, or how flavors combine to create something totally different that you wouldn't necessarily think would correlate. More often than not, I have some taste memory that's not directly related to chocolate. If you want to talk about communicating flavor think of a food association that would be still accurate.
Like an experiential association?
Yeah, for example, the Madagascar has a little bit of a Cheez-its quality about it.
In my experience in the dining room when I have thirty seconds to get this person to understand what I’m talking about, is it more valuable to say "geraniums and lemongrass” or "It smells like a spring morning in the Alps," or "Cheez-its" or "warm cherry pie?"
I think part of a flavor is an experience. How you experience the flavor – the context of that product – is an important piece in communicating. That’s the difficulty with using really standardized terminology when communicating between two people the experience; things that have the context of a common memory tend to be more useful. There are a lot of things that are “fruity,” but is it like strawberry jam on toast, or is it like a fresh plum, or is it like a dried apricot? There are certain things that are tricky to get across.
I did a little experiment with the staff at the restaurant -- I made a list of what I started calling “dynamic” words. Instead of talking about fruit and herbs and spices and tangible things, let's start talking about what we're experiencing in terms of the wine's dynamics. Is it “fresh, bright and lively?” Is it “deep, rich and sultry?” Is it opulent, is it lean, is it angular, is it structured? What does that all mean?
[holding up a bar of Patric PBJ OMG chocolate] This is opulent, for sure. It's rich and fatty and indulgent, and you just want to eat it all in one sitting.
Because it's this full sensory overload and has so much going on. So, you can pick whatever words you want, but I just thought it was interesting that – to go back to Tcho’s flavor wheel – they changed part of it from “citrusy” to “bright.” Even though in some way it is technically less definitive because you're not naming something tangible, is it more definitive in some way because it's an experiential description of the flavor?
We try to do that with the way we do tasting notes for our chocolates. We usually write all of our tasting notes before we make the chocolate, so the idea is that customers should be tasting the products and deciding what they taste like. They shouldn't be taking my word for it. I think the best approach is for people to taste and say, "What do I think it tastes like?" It's not even really about the specific notes, it's about the general sense of the product. What you're really trying to express is an experience.