By the Bar: How to Conduct a Chocolate Tasting

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It's my least favorite Hallmark holiday coming up, also known as Valentine's Day. It is, however, a fantastic excuse for decadence of all forms, particularly chocolate and booze.

We'll start with chocolate, for which we'll turn to Chloe Doutre-Roussel, one of the world's chocolate experts and author of The Chocolate Connoisseur. She informs us that we egalitarian Americans and other English-speaking countries prefer milk chocolate, while France is a dark-chocolate nation. Dark chocolate must contain more than 43 percent cocoa solids.

Whether it's dark or light chocolate that we crave, she suggests brands: Cadbury,

Michel Cluizel, Valrhona, and Scharffen Berger among them. Mars Bars,

Kit Kats, white chocolate, and anything filled doesn't count.

Her instructions for tasting chocolate bars to suss out quality are an excuse to indulge in chocolate without any other foods or

drinks during the tasting. And keep in mind: The higher the percentage of

cocoa beans, the less sugar it will have. The steps:

1) Look for a smooth, shiny bar that indicates the cocoa butter is properly crystallized.

2) Feel for a smooth texture to indicate fine particles and big aroma.

3) Break for a dry, clean, snap, which illustrates a balance between cocoa and butter. Dark snaps more easily than milk.

4) Smell for woody, spicy, and floral aromas, not vanilla and sugar, the

latter of which is the scent of lesser quality chocolate.

5) Taste to identify it in one of the families, above, whether it's

fruity or flowery, for example. Then identify how it evolves. Is there

bitterness or acidity? Can you identify a fruit or coffee as a secondary

flavor? Check out the wheel to lead you.

Sure this is ridiculous, especially if, like us, you have a candy vending

machine full of mass-produced chocolate. That said, if you're looking

for a moment's indulgence, learning how to taste artisan

stuff is as lovely a diversion as sipping wines: a bonus when it's good.

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