And the Oscar goes to…

When I moved to France for a few years in the early 90s, it was a startling new experience to eat and drink with a people that savor and analyze every mouthful. I developed an amateur winedar that enabled me to distinguish a Bordeaux from a Côtes du Rhone, but when I moved to the U.S. my limited wine knowledge was blown out of context. In France, I hadn’t distinguished grape varieties, just regions, so I had to develop a new navigation system.

Although I can distinguish wines at a basic level, I don’t have a wine palate. I can’t spontaneously invoke the cornucopia of fruit or flower or minerals that are used to describe wine. At a certain point, I just like it.

However, my tastebuds are tuned to that other life-sustaining food that goes remarkably well with any red wine…chocolate. And I don’t mean candy bars. I mean serious, intentional bars of dark chocolate. Chocolate that feeds the soul and nourishes the body. I have every confidence that, with a little extra study, I could be working for van Houten or Lindt, traveling the world to talk with cocoa farmers and evaluating chocolate recipes.

That’s not going to happen any time soon, but I thought it would be useful for me, if not you, to identify some readily available pleasures in the world of dark chocolate. I enlisted the help of a certain SoHo family, which brought in a diversity of chocolate tastes. Personally, I was looking for a dark chocolate with limited sweetness, but which manages a good texture in spite of a high cocoa content.

Our group decided that there were five criteria for evaluation:

Look—everything from packaging to the actual bar
Richness—chocolate flavor and content
Sweetness—can be both good and bad
Texture—which varies outside of Hershey land
Ethics—so many of these bars tout PC credentials

For the purposes of focus, I excluded any flavored bars or those with added ingredients such as nuts. I selected brands that are readily available at Whole Foods or independent grocery stores.

Chocolove with 77% cocoa content
Chocolove has whimsical packaging aiming to invoke a love letter with a poem printed inside, which we thought was cheesy. We liked the look of the chocolate – the bar has a shiny, undulating surface with a heart printed on each chunk. However, the flavor underperformed. Yes, it had a detectably high cocoa content; it was even a little sweet, but somehow bland. Also, the texture was dry – and if you’re going to live with dryness, it has to be compensated by exceptional flavor, which this wasn’t. This bar is fine, but nothing more.

Chocolove with 70% cocoa content
Surprisingly, this bar with less cocoa performs better on flavor. There was a much improved balance with the sugar content and the texture benefited from less cocoa to the point where it was called “smooth and creamy” by Ms. SSW, who ended up naming this her favorite of the evening. Although neither bar was organic, Chocolove does have a couple of organic products and has lengthy statements on their website about using suppliers that do not use child labor in Africa.

Lindt Excellence 85% cocoa
This Swiss chocolate has an opulent cardboard box and a shiny silver wrapper. The bar is in large chunks, which are inconvenient. The flavor is very rich cocoa with a definite bitterness due to only only 5 grams of sugar. This is the Greta Garbo of the group. The one to consume when you are alone, disaffected, and ready to be challenged. The texture is dry and powdery making it somewhat chewy. We assumed that Lindt’s PC credentials are limited. This is one to keep for the right moment, but not consume in large quantities.

Perugina
This Italian firm, now owned by Nestlé, produces what is undoubtedly a populist dark chocolate. It was a nice shiny bar with an incredible sugar dominance. And that’s how it got rated #1 with Miss MW. I should point out that Miss MW was extremely patient throughout this process. She is a declared advocate of Hershey’s and Nestlé, and would have preferred to judge a KitKat against a Reese’s cup. She was a sharp monitor of sugar content, with more being more in all cases.

Guylian
We tried a bar of “dark” chocolate from Guylian—a famous Belgian brand—as it promised that there was no sugar added. However, the use of sweeteners made this taste incredibly sweet and generally bizarre. Even Miss MW rejected it. Pass it by.

Green & Black’s 85% dark chocolate
This British firm wins lots of points for being 100% organic in all its products and having a good number of fair trade stamps. This is the company that first introduced me to the concept of a truly dark chocolate many years ago. The packaging is clean and bold and the bar is in appropriate bite-size pieces with an imprint. This scored super well on flavor and propelled the group into wine-tasting mode with flavors of cherry and other comparisons being thrown out. The beauty of this product is that it retains the highest level of intense cocoa flavor while balancing it with just enough sweetness to make it easy on the palate. In addition, the texture is excellent—it can still be called smooth and creamy, while having an earthiness that is lacking from many. This rated tops with Stella, Miss AW and Mr. BW.

365 Organic Swiss Dark Chocolate
I was interested to try this one. This is the Whole Foods house brand, so we knew it would score high on ethics. The flavor, however, is desperately disappointing. No doubt the 19 grams of sugar have something to do with it. It’s sweet and bland and it’s impossible to detect the mere 52% cocoa content. Frankly, at 52%, can you really call yourself dark?

Dagoba Organic Chocolate Conacado 73%
Dagoba won a lot of PC points—it’s organic, we know where the beans are grown, and they support fair trade practices. Surprise: they’re based in Oregon. The chocolate looks good and the bar is divided into thin KitKat style chunks, which thrilled Miss MW. It broke off cleanly. It has a pleasurably earthy flavor and a substantial texture; it is not too sweet but is dryish.

Endangered Species Premium Organic 70% cocoa
10% of profits support endangered species that are displayed on the packaging, in this case the Karner Butterfly. Apparently butterflies are terribly at risk and I for one was happy to help them by eating chocolate. This small bar was alarmingly divided into three large chunks. Manufacturers need to understand that when it comes to dark chocolate we all want the opportunity to take small satisfying bites. We had a fascinating conversation about whether or not the bar tasted like dirt, and that strangely enough (for the adults) this was an appealing quandary. Its earthy taste was balanced by a wonderful creamy texture, which is hard to achieve with a strong chocolate.

So, the academy voted loud and clear for Green & Black’s, with serious consideration being given to Endangered Species and Chocolove 70%. Honorable mentions go to Dagoba, and, for daring occasions, Lindt 85%.

Thank you to my tasters—it would not have been as fun or as rich an experience without you. And what better way to fill the ad breaks during the Oscars?

15 responses to “And the Oscar goes to…”

  1. Scotty says:

    What I wouldn’t give to have been part of this event.

    I’ve noticed that when certain products are marked as organic there is a noticeable taste difference. Tomatoes, for example, tend to taste juicier and sweeter when organic; my theory for this is that only superior fruit will survive without the help of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Other products seem to benefit less from being certifiably organic; with bananas, for example, I can’t taste a darn difference.

    Other than the ethical, feel-good aspect, which I totally understand, did you notice any particular flavor improvements due to the moniker?

  2. bryan says:

    yes, the chocolate fest made for a particularly fine oscars night. but i have to complain, stella. you have given me a serious sweet tooth — and an overwhelming curiosity about every variety of chocolate bar that confronts me every time i check out of the deli. i’ve had more chocolate in the last couple weeks than in the last year combined!

  3. Rachel says:

    Stella,

    What’s your take on exotically flavored chocolate? I’m not talking about boring old raisins/hazelnuts/caramel. Do you enjoy chocolate with chili pepper, crystallized ginger, sea salt, curry power, etc.? Or are you a purist?

    Vosges candy bars are carried at many Whole Foods markets, and they have the full line of Green & Black’s doozies, as well.

  4. Rachel says:

    P.S. It’s a bit off-topic, but I have to recommend this to all chocolate lovers.

  5. Jeremy says:

    sweet fancy moses! i checked out that link, rachel, and the haagen-daz mayan chocolate ice cream topped with “warm ginger bananas”… oh my! that sounds so glorious… mmmm, i wonder if it’s good for breakfast.

    and stella: yum yum!

  6. lisa t. says:

    i l.o.v.e. chocolate, therefore i l.o.v.e. this post.

  7. LP says:

    I l.o.v.e. the fact that Stella had to break out her stash of chocolates, normally hidden from the voracious freelancer who consumes more than her share during the workday, to finish this post last night. I am now enjoying the remnants of Dagoba Organic Chocolate Conacado 73%. Mmm.

  8. G-Lock says:

    Dagoba? Isn’t that the name of the planet on which Yoda lived??

  9. Stephanie Wells says:

    No, I think that was “sweet fancy moses.”

    alas, my tastes in chocolate run much closer to Molly’s . . .

  10. Tim Wager says:

    Compared to imported chocolate, it sounds pedestrian, but Trader Joe’s 73% Super Dark Organic is some righteous goodness, very good for an everyday chocolate fix. For when company comes, try Scharrfen Berger; their 70% Bittersweet is truly amazing. They also have an 82% Extra Dark, but that’s too much for me. Tour their factory next time you’re in Berkeley.

  11. Marleyfan says:

    Marketing Works! A co-worker has had a box of See’s Milk Chocolate bars, with almonds, for sale (actually her daughter was supposed to be selling them). The chocolate had been there for days, and I resisted, until I read your post, and then had chocolate on my mind until I gave in. Do you have stock in cocoa beans???

  12. Stella says:

    Scotty – it’s hard to say what the flavor difference was for the organic chocolate — 3 of the top 5 were organic, but that could be because the organically-inclined produce a better all-round product. I think it merits further research.

    Bryan — the chocomania had the opposite affect on me. I just can’t consume that much rich, sweet stuff. I’m looking forward to my one chunk of chocolate a day with a glass of wine after dinner routine. I felt nauseous after the oscars, and yes, it was the chocolate.

    Rachel — excellent question. When it comes to dark chocolate I’m an absolute purist. Having said that, I tried a dark chocolate with chili a few weeks ago and it was exquisite. I think it was Dagoba. It gave a fabulous kick to the richness. Outside of that, I am firmly against ornamentation, which usually means sweeter ingredients.

    Tim — thanks for the suggestions. I will purchase and tour.

    Marleyfan — excellent idea. I’m investing today.

  13. PB says:

    OK, do not judge me, but up until very recently, I would have said I did not prefer chocolate, defaulting to nut rolls and paydays every time. Then a friend brought me back a chocolate bar from Slovakia, out of obligation I ate a bite in front of her. “sweet fancy moses” is right, it was beyond dreamy, I was transported. Subsequent American attepts have failed. I shall try some of the above suggestions, until then I am like Charlie Bucket, savoring and rationing my Euro-chocolate. Your Oscar party sounds better than ours, we had fried chicken and sushi (“sunshine” and “Flags”), AND you got that SoHo family.

  14. Beth W. says:

    I’m literally putting on my shoes to go buy chocolate. Fortunately, it doesn’t break my still-standing New Year’s resolution to not buy packages of cookies (single cookies, free cookies and cookies encased in ice cream are all permitted). yay chocolate!

  15. Comic Book Store Guy says:

    # 8-Re: Yoda, it’s Dagobah