Category Archives: Valrhona

And the Winner is…Valrhona Gran Couva

I’ve been teaching a chocolate appreciation class here in Boston in order to raise awareness on the virtues of fine chocolate and have some fun tasting the good stuff.  The most recent class was held last week for an enthusiastic bunch.  After starting with a warm-up tasting, I asked the class to do something somewhat unfair – taste, compare and rate a number of premium dark chocolate bars.  Unfair because this was, by definition,  not a group of experienced connoisseurs since they had come to learn.

Valrhona Gran Couva Single-Estate Chocolate

Valrhona Gran Couva Single-Estate Chocolate

So for mostly entertainment purposes, I’d like to share the results with you.  For the first round, the class went on a chocolate tour of the world as we tasted five single-origin chocolate bars – each made with cacao grown in a different country.  This was a great opportunity to see if the terroir of the beans is actually expressed in the flavor and aroma of the final chocolate bars.  Here’s the line up:

To rate each one, we used a 1 to 100 scale  composed of individual scores for Aroma, Initial Impressions, Middle Taste and Finish, with most weight on the middle taste.  Surprisingly all scores fell in a tight range of 35 – 39 and technically, there was no statistical difference between them [1].   What does it mean? When it comes to chocolate, people have widely differing tastes, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that there was no consensus.  But it also means that they were still navigating their way through how to rate chocolate and this was surely most difficult for the 2 or 3 milk chocolate lovers in the room.  Still some were able to clearly pick out the citrus – floral character of typical of Arriba in the Pacari Manabi and the earthy, nutty character of the Amano Jembrana.  Plums and raisins came to mind for the Amedei Venezula.

I know you want to believe there must be winner, so I will tell you that Pacari had the highest score of this first round at 39, but the Amano won both the highest single score from any individual (76) and the lowest (18) telling me that people just couldn’t agree on this chocolate.  Some thought it was too earthy and others really loved the nutty, buttery smoothness.

So, I gave them a second chance with four more bars that couldn’t be different from each other.  These were chosen to represent greatly diverse styles of chocolate making:

  • Smooth and refined – Valrhona Gran Couva single-estate chocolate from Trinidad (limited edition).
  • Rustic, Stone GroundTaza 70% Stone Ground Organic Chocolate.
  • Raw, minimally processed – Pacari Raw 70%.
  • Belgian Chocolate with inclusions – Chocolove Crystallized Ginger in Dark Chocolate.

This time, the opinions were more pronounced with Valrhona Gran Couva taking the highest score, but statically speaking it tied with Taza and, yes..sorry, Chocolove Ginger.  I think after having eight pure dark chocolates, the lively ginger blended in with the unobtrusive Belgian dark chocolate was a welcome change of pace [2].  Taza was the most hotly disputed of the bunch [3].  I find that people who like Taza LOVE Taza and those that don’t just don’t go there.  Tasting Taza as a group is a great way to gain insight in to the chocolate making process — how minimal processing and lack of conching results in vibrant fruit-forward flavors.  Finally, you can’t argue with the verdict on Valrhona – smooth and luscious with herbal, date and citrus notes.  An exquisitely well made bar.

In the end, it was not really about which chocolate was inherently better; it was about experiencing the differences.  So another group left with increased enthusiasm and newfound appreciation for fine dark chocolate.

[1] The standard deviations ranged from 13 (Grenada) to 22 (Amano).

[2] Yes, a purist wouldn’t put Chocolove and Valrhona together in the same tasting and try to compare them, but the purpose was to demonstrate the basics of what can be done with a humble chocolate bar.  I find the people really like this ginger bar even if it isn’t bean-to-bar or in the ultra-premium category.

[3] Taza had the highest standard deviation of 25 – more than 50% of the average of the data.

[4] The cost of the bars was included in a materials fee for the class.

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Valrhona Palmira Chocolat Noir de Domain

Valrhona Palmira Single Estate Bar Label

Valrhona Palmira Single Estate Bar Label

I’ve been reviewing a lot of unconventional chocolate lately – nib-filled bars and coated cacao beans to name just some, so I thought it was about time to get back to a simple, pure chocolate bar and talk about the essence of cocoa origin.  Cocoa origin is primarily about place.  Where the cacao is grown imparts a certain character to the chocolate that cannot be reproduced exactly the same way elsewhere.

The venerable Valrhona makes such a wide range of chocolate that many people are not aware of some of their more obscure limited edition bars.  Akin to how some of the world’s finest wines are made, the Chocolat de Domain bars use cacao from only one estate where Valrhona can more closely control and monitor the quality of the beans produced year after year.  In keeping with the wine analogy, Valrhona declares a vintage for each harvest, in this case 2009.  The Palmira Plantation is situated in the fertile  lands of west Venezuela close to lake Maracaibo.  It’s here that they grow the world’s most rare major cacao variety – Criollo, a flavor bean that’s used to make less than 5% of all the world’s chocolate [3], a bean known for it’s subtle nuanced flavors.   By getting very specific about location – down to one individual estate, Valrhona takes single origin to the extreme.

Put it all together and you’ve got something truly unique – a chocolate made from single-estate cacao from a specific harvest year representing the characteristics of that growing season, location and, most importantly, bean variety – Criollo.  Now that’s just half the battle because after harvest, there are nine more steps involved in making a fine chocolate bar all of which can be fouled up in some way.  But, I wasn’t too worried going into this tasting since I’ve been told that the French know a little something about food and Valrhona about chocolate.   No, I went into this with great expectations.  So let’s taste.

 

Valrhona Palmira Single Estate Bar

Valrhona Palmira Single Estate Bar. This square is only about 2 cm wide and reveals the fine mold design and care taken to achieve a beautiful finish on the bar.

WHAT:  Valrhona Palmira Chocolat Noir de Domain (single estate).  64% cacao.  75g bar.  Ingredients: cocoa beans from Venezuela, sugar, cocoa butter, soya lecithin, vanilla.  Where to buy.

WHEN:  August 14, 2010

OVERALL RATING: 90

AROMA:  Honey, caramel, lavender, vanilla, banana, orange blossom, faint almonds.

INITIAL IMPRESSIONS:  Banana, floral – lavender, light coffee and buttered toast.

MIDDLE TASTE:  A long, slow release of fruit – blueberry, cantaloupe, apricot and orange.  The fruit notes are less intense, yet not as short-lived as some less refined bars.  They are slow, steady and elegant.  Very gratifying.

FINISH:  Orange, citrus, creme and angel food cake slowly dissolves into vanilla ice cream.  A wonderful, long-lived finish leaves no unpleasant tastes.  Fades into an almost imperceptible straw note.

TEXTURE:  What is remarkable about the mouth feel was that the bar didn’t just melt away, it was more of a sensation of dissolving slowly into liquid.  This is velvet.

LAST BITE:   Most likely the result of long refining and conching, this bar gives up its fruit in a slow, steady stream that you can savor.  Unlike some of the minimally processed bars like Taza [2] where you get a sudden blast of bright fruit, Palmira is elegant, refined and sensual.  This bar is all feminine , not necessarily voluptuous like Scarlett Johansson, but more elegant and mature like Cate Blanchett.

The most rewarding part of the experience is the middle taste with its long and remarkably well-balanced fruit.   Valrhona seems to have worked hard to remove any off-notes at the expense of some intensity in the middle.  The result is well worth the trade-off with satisfying well-balanced fruit that you don’t need to search for.  What a fine criollo bar should be.

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NOTES:

[1]  I paid for all of the chocolate myself.

[2] To compare Taza to Valrhona is absurd, but that’s the point – these are completely different styles.

[3] Estimates of world-wide Criollo production vary greatly with some estimates at less than 1%.