Category Archives: Venezuela

Bonnat Chuao vs. Bonnat Chuao – Does Origin Matter for Dark Chocolate?

My French friend, Gilbert, arrived with a gift in hand of not one, but eight Bonnat dark chocolate bars!  You see, he lives a stone’s-throw from Bonnat Chocolatier’s shop and laboratory.  Set among the Douphiné mountains in Voiron France, Bonnat opened shop in 1884 only one year after Rodolphe Lindt invented the conching machine to refine chocolate.  In the more than 100 years since then, they’ve been making a prolific range of bars and confections in a classic style and now distribute globally.  Gilbert brought me two of Bonnant’s best bars – Chuao and the tighter appellation – Chuao Village.

Bonnat Chuao two bars_9005a

Is the Chuao Villages bar with its more specific single-origin beans really better than the more diffused Chuao origin?

In my last post on Chuao, among the most read ever, I compared Chuao chocolate bars from five different chocolatiers.  Each bar uses cacao beans from Chuao, a village in coastal Venezuela accessible only by boat. What I didn’t explain then was that Bonnat makes two such bars – one from a wider region around Chuao and the other made only from beans harvested from Chuao proper.  At least this is the common understanding between chocolate experts.

The true origin of the beans is not perfectly well understood and the Bonnat website only offers this description of the more specific origin and more expensive Chuao Village bar (translated from the French):

“Very homogeneous, this chocolate offers a tasting and olfactory symphony that can only satisfy lovers of delicate sensations.”

I’ll revisit “delicate sensations” at the end of this post; let’s just say they have a point.  In the meantime, I organized a double-blind tasting of the two Bonnat bars side by side. I wanted to see if there was much difference between the bars and if, in fact, the more expensive bar prevailed as the superior chocolate.  To add to the certainty, or perhaps confusion depending upon the results, I asked my Wife, Genevieve, to also do a blind tasting of the two bars.  To keep things fresh, I did not refer back to my previous post, now 5 years old.

MY TASTING NOTES

BONNAT CHUAO VILLAGE “VENEZUELA” 75% DARK CHOCOLATE

OVERALL RATING:  91

AROMA:  Light overall.  Butter, toast, apricot light floral notes.  You will need focus to find this aroma. It won’t jump out at you.

INITIAL IMPRESSIONS: Light and slow to start.  Apricot and dried fruits.

MIDDLE TASTE:  Butterscotch, crème brûlée, whipped cream.  Moves towards nuts and butter.

FINISH:  Tropical fruits, cherry, some nuts.  Incredibly well balanced and never unpleasant.  One of the longest finishes I’ve experienced in any chocolate. It’s as if the bar was made for the finish.  A long, delicate, serene and charming ride.

TEXTURE: At first it collapses into brittle crumbles before melting and releasing its flavors.

BONNAT CHUAO “VENEZUELA” 75% DARK CHOCOLATE

OVERALL RATING:  85.

AROMA: Like its sister above, this bar has a very delicate aroma.  Floral, honey, almost perfume-like.  This is the one area that I scored this bar higher than Chuao Villages due to a more pronounced nose.

INITIAL IMPRESSIONS: Cherry, butter.  Slow to develop perhaps due to the thick bar.

MIDDLE TASTE: Butter, roasted meat, honey ham, very ripe banana, cashews.

FINISH:  Grapes, wine with some metallic astringency at end mixed with olive oil.

TEXTURE: Very similar to Chuao Village.

GENEVIEVE’S TASTING NOTES (blind tasting)

Chuao Villages:  A lot of fruit in this one – like dates and figs.  “It’s nice (shrug).”

Chuao: Slow approach. A little more acidic. Coffee.  Less perception of sweet.  Very slow to start, then sets in suddenly.

In the end, she decidedly preferred the Chuao Villages more for its fruitiness.  Consensus!

Bonnat Chuao Bare bars_9017

The color of the bars is very similar with the Chuao bar (L) being slightly more red than the Chuao Village (R).  The flaky bits on the bars are due to my handling as I continued to enjoy these over a stretch of days.

Last Bite

When I had tasted Bonnat beside the other five in 2013, it wasn’t my favorite.  Awesome, incredible chocolate, but not number one among the greatest of Chuao.  But then I like bold, intense flavors and the Bonnat bars are more subtle and subdued.

I might dare say that Bonnat’s style is classically French with some similarity to patterns in the wine industry.   New world wine makers, such as those in California, while expressing a range of styles, have done very well with big, sometimes lively reds like Zinfandel and Syrah that are often drunk young. On the other hand, the French, stereotypically prefer to age their wines longer to develop more subtly and elegance.  Could it be the same with chocolate – not the aging part, but the elegance and delicacy?

This theory would hold water if it weren’t for other French chocolate makers like Francois Pralus and Valrhona making bolder bars.  Is there a classical European style embodied by producers like Bonnat, most Belgian and Swiss chocolatiers as compared to a contemporary style like that of Valrhona and the new world?  While I have an unfortunate tendency to look for patterns where there may be none, I have to admit that such geo-cultural generalization in chocolate are dangerous.  The good news is that there is something for everyone with each chocolate maker applying their own unique style.  If you prefer delicate, subtle and silky chocolate, this is the one for you.

We had fun savoring these chocolates and are feeling pretty smug that we could pick the best of the two of the best ever.

End Notes

[1] I was given these bars from a friend who has no connection to Bonnat Chocolatiers.

[2] I rated the Chuao Villages bar slightly higher at 92 in the previous tasting and called out somewhat different flavors.  I don’t feel that this is any contradiction.  Cacao is an agricultural product after all and we can expect variations in flavor from year to year not to mention changes in my own perceptions.

A Tale of One Village and Five Chocolates: Your Guide to the Chocolate of Chuao

Chuao Dark Chocolate

Chuao Bar Packages

Five of the best chocolates made from Chuao beans

There is perhaps no other cacao producing region of the world more famously extolled or more storied than Chuao Village, Venezuela [3].  Year after year, chocolate makers have fought over the precious few beans produced from a small group of growers who are proud to be part of making the world’s best chocolate.  What makes these beans so special is the Criollo lineage and a small cooperative of producers who are serious about maintaining tradition – centuries-old cultivation methods, strict fermentation procedures and beans dried in the sun on the square in front of the old village church.

For years, the highly respected French chocolate house, Valrhona had locked up most of the world’s supply of Chuao beans.  I supposed they deserved this honor since they were the pioneers of single-origin chocolate and were working hard to secure the best beans they could find.  But their fate would soon change as the world grew hungrier for exceptional chocolate.  Around 1991, Alessio Tessieri and his sister Cecilia paid a visit to Valrhona in an attempt to secure chocolate couverture for their Italian confections business, Amedei Tuscany.  After all, Valrhona operated a world-renown baking and confection school focused on chocolate and was known as a supplier to serious chefs world-wide.

The meeting didn’t last very long as Alessio and Cecilia were sent home empty-handed.  Mort Rosenblum retells the moment in his book, Chocolate, A Bittersweet Saga of Dark and Light [2]:

Cecilia…still bristles as she recalls the meeting thirteen years later.  “They told us that they did not think Italians were ready for their products, and they were not sure we could do them justice,” she said.  “Right then and there, it was war.”

From that point on, Alessio set out on a mission to source his own beans and win over the Chuao producers – working with them to solve technical problems and offering to pay higher prices for their beans.  After repeated trips over a period of months, Amedei had won.  Letters went out from the Chuao producers’ cooperative to Valrhona, Pralus and anyone else using their beans:  Chuao beans would go exclusively to Amedei [2].

Chuao Chocolate Stack

The thickness of the bar affects the melt on the tongue and skews the perception of texture. From the top: Domori, Amano, Amedei, Bonnat, and Pralus.

The tables turned and Amedei locked up Chuao for a several years, but I imagine at some point the Chuao elders said enough’s enough.  Now, they’ve started selling to anyone worthy of making chocolate from their cherished beans – a smart move given this can only support healthy prices.  Good for the people of Chuao and good for chocolate connoisseurs around the world since now we have more choice and more variety of styles to choose from.

THE BEST OF CHUAO CHOCOLATE

Today, there are at least six to eight chocolate makers offering Chuao bars.  Some may use beans strictly from the Chuao Village and others may use beans grown in the greater region close to the village.   I’m not interested in spending time researching or arguing about the purity of the beans, exact location of the trees, who harvested their beans by horseback or who went by canoe.  Instead, I can taste a handful of bars and get my answers to the question I care about most:  which taste best?  Yes, I do care about bean origin and species, but I’ve decided to spend my time tasting.

Chuao Chocolate Round Up

Clockwise from top: Amano, Bonnat, Pralus, Amedei, and Domori in the center.  The nicks, scrapes and cracks are from my marathon tasting session.

For this ambitious review, I tried five different bars, some of the best and most widely available.  You can see from the table below that the prices don’t vary too much, but be careful to understand the size of bar you are paying for.

CHOCOLATE % CACAO LOCATION OF CHOCOLATE MAKER PRICE PER 50g BAR SIZE
Amano Chuao Reserve Dark Chocolate 70% Utah, USA $10.00 50g
Amedei Chuao 70% Tuscany, Italy $14.50 50g
Bonnat Chuao Village 75% Voiron, France $11.00 100g
Domori Chuao Criollo 70% None, Italy $16.00 25g
Pralus Chuao 75% Roannes, France $10.00 50g

Amano Chuao Reserve Dark Chocolate

OVERALL RATING: 98. Where to buy.

AROMA: Floral, earthy, pepper, ginger, strawberry, apple and a bit of tobacco and leather.

INITIAL IMPRESSIONS: Floral and then fruit: grapefruit and pineapple.  This may be the only chocolate I have seen with not one, but two waves of flavor up front – this is complex stuff!

MIDDLE TASTE:  Swirling waves of fruit and florals from the middle to the finish: raspberry, lavender, tangy pineapple, strawberry, meringue and honey.  You don’t need to search around for flavor; it’s obvious.

FINISH:  Long on lavender and florals.  Orange blossom, lime, mint and ginger.  Some straw earth notes rather than butter that you might find at the end of some bars, but it’s all good.

TEXTURE: “Amano Smooth.”

Amedei Chuao Dark Chocolate

OVERALL RATING: 93.  Where to buy.

AROMA: Pretty closed to start.  Croissants, earth, malt, butter and light blueberry.

INITIAL IMPRESSIONS: Delicate, subtle fruit, cherry.  Amedei is feminine and elegant.

MIDDLE TASTE:  Caramel, café-au-lait, molasses, marshmallow.  There’s never any acid.  This bar evolves slowly allowing you to grasp the flavors one by one.

FINISH:  Banana, light nuts.  The finish goes on almost forever and then dissipates into thin air like a fog slowing rising from a field of grass.

TEXTURE: Perfectly smooth.

Bonnat Chuao Village Dark Chocolate

OVERALL RATING:  92.

AROMA: Cranberry, orange, grapes, and florals.  Very unique.

INITIAL IMPRESSIONS: Plums, candied fruit, apricot and a flash of orange.  The only fruit is up front – a flash and then it moves on to butter.

MIDDLE TASTE:  Nuts and  butter.  There is almost no distinction between the middle and finish.  Nuts slowly turn to buttery notes which go on forever.  There’s a persistent richness like a rich flourless cake.

FINISH:  All cashew and butter.  Luscious and opulent.

TEXTURE: A little chewy up front turning all smooth.  This perception is created, in part, by the thicker bar.

Domori Chuao DARK CHOCOLATE

OVERALL RATING: 99. Where to buy.

AROMA:  Bam! As you tear open the package, the aroma is exploding out of the foil. You’re hit with strong cacao fruit, oak, red wine, cedar and green apple.  Domori Chuao shows a very exciting forward nose.

INITIAL IMPRESSIONS: Pineapple and cedar.

MIDDLE TASTE:  Riesling wine, red fruit, roses.  The fruit acid note comes through in waves throughout, repeatedly rising and falling.  Macaroon and nutty notes evoke warmth.  They done a good job working out the bitter while preserving the fruit.

FINISH:  Chewy butter.  Really satisfying moderately complex finish.  Raspberry comes back on the finish.  There’s a unique coating buttery feel at the end that most people will really enjoy.

TEXTURE: Smooth and luscious with a very pleasing smooth melt.

Pralus Chuao Dark Chocolate

OVERALL RATING: 97. Where to buy.

AROMA: Toast, roast, grapes, plums, raisins, light roasted ham.  The aroma on the Pralus is potent and intoxicating.

INITIAL IMPRESSIONS: Citrus notes go into a nutty lull.  The citrus notes are short-lived.

MIDDLE TASTE:  More fruit than Amedei.  Pralus is doing a heavier roast for sure. More overtly sexy than elegant.

FINISH:  There’s a complex two-part finish.  Part 1:  red fruit, strawberry, grapes, watermelon, and plums.  Part 2:  green apple hangs in back while buttery cacao appears.  Sometimes I got some vegetable notes like mushrooms that I’m not fond of, but this is most likely due to a heavier cocoa butter content. The holy grail in wine is complexity a long unoffensive finish.  It should be the same for chocolate, so why would I want to “tame” a chocolate at the expense of losing all this.  Pralus keeps all the stuff I want.  This is a great finish.

TEXTURE: Not ultra-ultra smooth like Amedei, but still very nice and chewy in a satisfying way.  Again, the thicker bar causes the chocolate to melt slower on your tongue creating a perception of chewiness vs. smoothness. At the risk of being too simplistic, here’s a quick summary.  Don’t get too caught up in the numbers – anything in the 90’s is exceptional:

CHOCOLATE OVERALL RATING DISTINGUISHED FOR IN A WORD
Domori 99 Aroma, Complexity, & Finish Lucious
Amano 98 Complexity Fruity
Pralus 97 Finish Rich
Amedei 93 Texture & Length of finish Balanced
Bonnat 92 Opulence Ethereal

LAST BITE I found that there were two main dimensions of taste that distinguished the bars:

Assertive vs. Tame and More Buttery vs.  Less Buttery

An assertive bar is going to have more forward flavor – more obvious fruit, acidity, and masculine notes such as leather and coffee.   A tame bar is going to be more elegant, nuanced and feminine.  Both can have complexity of flavor, but the flavors are going to be deeper and obvious for chocolate on the assertive end of the scale.  Now this is a critical point: I prefer more assertive bars and this probably affects my ratings.  There are many of you that want to avoid any kind of acidity – you’re looking for perfect delicate smoothness in a bar that floats above your tongue.  If so, Amedei and Bonnat are for you.  My wife found the Bonnat  sublime.   The Bonnat is super-tame almost “Swiss-style” chocolate where there is virtually no acidity or bitterness left.

On the other hand, you might be the type that likes big red wines packed with fruit –  Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Red Zinfandel – or maybe a heavier roast on your coffee.   If so, I’ll bet you’d go for Amano or Pralus.  Domori is a sort of happy medium.  In fact, the wine analogy works exceptionally well for Chuao chocolate because the most common flavor note throughout all the bars was grapes.

Chuao chocolates compared for assertiveness and buttery notes

These chocolates can be compared on the Assertiveness and Buttery scales. There is no perfect sweet spot on this graph – it’s a matter of what you like.

What I call “Buttery” is not about the texture of the chocolate, but the sense of creaminess or lusciousness.  It can’t be explained simply by cocoa butter content since, for example, Pralus has the habit of going for higher cocoa butter, but his chocolate sits lower on my Buttery scale.  It’s more about your awareness of the cream / butter notes over other dimensions such as roast, nuts, coffee, etc.

Now for the obvious question – which is my favorite? This is a bit like asking what’s my favorite wine – it depends on which day you ask me. I don’t like to drink the same thing every day and I don’t feel like the same chocolate everyday (surprise – I don’t eat chocolate or drink wine everyday either).  In line with my love of really robust, assertive bars, I have to give a nod to Amano for the complexity they’ve achieved.  It’s near the top for me.  The Domori gave a unique and exciting ride with incredible aroma and enough complexity to show that it’s a world-class chocolate.

Still, my wife was so impressed by the tamer bars that I think that’s the way to go if you want something more elegant.  Most women I’ve asked have been enormously pleased with the Bonnat and Amedei’s reputation speaks for itself without my help.  Should you decide to try them all in one sitting, I recommend starting with Bonnat and working your way up the assertiveness scale to Pralus last.  Have fun and invite some help!

Notes:

[1] I paid for this the Amano, Amedei, Bonnat and Pralus bars myself.   The Domori bar was a sample provided by the distributor.

[2] Chocolate.  A Bittersweet Saga of Dark and Light. Mort Rosenblum, North Point Press, New York.  2005.

[3] Chuao is pronounced “Chew-WOW” [4] Why is this post so long?  Look, I ate five of the world’s most important chocolate bars.  I needed to say something about them, OK?