I’m not one of those people who constantly crave chocolate. You know the type – they just can’t live a day without it. That’s not me, but I do occasionally hanker after a piece of brilliantly crafted artisan dark chocolate. Is the craving real or imagined? Well, apparently, there are mood-altering compounds in chocolate that affect your serotonin levels and create dopamine, producing a mild-euphoric state. It also contains phenylalanine which is a mild anti-depressant. So, there is some science behind our love of chocolate. If you haven’t already tried some artisan chocolate, you should give it a go, but you need to follow a few guidelines first…
Well-made chocolate should be slightly bitter as well as sweet, with a delicate taste of butter, vanilla and a little sugar. Bad chocolate has a low cocoa solid content and will have a less rich flavour, so that more sugar needs to be added. Such products are overly sweet, can also be over roasted and contain unnecessary artificial ingredients. It gives a sugar hit and not a chocolate hit – not the same thing at all.
Look for a chocolate that has between 50% and 75% cocoa. The 50% range will be more your style if you’re not too keen on dark chocolate and remember that 100% cocoa doesn’t mean it’s better chocolate, just that it will be incredibly bitter. That’s fine if that’s to your taste, but around 75% is just right for me.
Chocolate shouldn’t be refrigerated or its flavour will be hidden. Keep it in a reasonably cold cupboard but don’t let it get above 20ºC. If it’s a little cold to start with, like wine and cheese, slowly bring it up to room temperature just before eating. That way you can rely on it to melt in your mouth and explode with reassuring natural sweetness at exactly the right time.
If you want to buy a really good bar of chocolate look for those with either a high cocoa solid content, or even better with cocoa butter, and with vanilla, not vanillin. Plain dark chocolate should have a shininess that shows it’s been cooked at the right temperature for the right amount of time and a balance of sweetness and bitterness with a creamy cocoa-butter finish. The smooth texture should linger in your mouth and be invigoratingly bitter to begin with, but sweet and slightly fatty in the finish.
If you really get into good chocolate you can start to look for artisan producers who use very specific cocoa beans. Some of these can give distinctive red fruit notes, citrus or tobacco, caramel or figs. Yes, they really are that pronounced in flavour. There are only two producers who create chocolate in the UK straight from the raw bean. One is Willie’s Cacao, but my favourite is Duffy’s. They source their own cocoa beans and have total control of the roasting process, making hand-crafted chocolate in their factory in Lincolnshire. Two bars are to die for – the Honduras Indio Rojo 72% which has complex but very obvious currant notes. The second is their Venezuela Ocumare 72% with delicate natural nut and raspberry flavours.
The art of the artisan chocolate maker is to understand the cocoa beans they import and to embrace and celebrate their variety. They recognise that every harvest or estate, even from the same region, will produce something different and they have to alter their processes accordingly. They may have to ‘dial up’ the vanilla content or tone down the roasting process and that’s their skill. It’s this opportunity that artisan chocolate makers give us to explore an unprecedented variety of chocolate that I love. Real chocolate makers take risks, big chocolate makers produce chocolate for the masses using cheaper ingredients and strive for consistency.
Having just finished writing this article, I’m now going to have to get a small chunk of Duffy’s along with a nice cup of tea, draw the curtains, sit on the settee and make sure I eat it all myself, this is not a time for friends or family!
Sue Nelson presenter of the The FoodTalk Show