Exploring roasts, percentages and identifying flavours… Varsha Naik got an education in the art of chocolate tasting
At a wine tasting, you look, swirl, smell and sip; the vibe is often poised, elegant and chic. But at this event, I confess I was not elegant at all; I licked my fingers, laughed and marvelled at the flavours that cascaded over me. And this behaviour was all kosher at the Bean to Bar Tasting & Dialogue at the Serendipity Arts Festival 2017, where I was guided through the nuances and art of dark chocolate tasting, and learnt to appreciate the complexities of this bitter delight.
This unique workshop was hosted by Mason and Co, a vegan chocolate business based in Auroville. Founders Jane Mason and her partner, Fabian Bontems, are India’s first organic chocolate craftsmen. Fabien has lived in India for most of his life and is a trained sound engineer, but being French, fine food and fine chocolate are in his genes. Jane, a raw food chef from Australia, came to Auroville just to explore and enjoyed the place so much she ended up staying. “I used to make chocolate before – vegan with no preservatives with minimal to no sugar. Not finding any chocolate I could eat here, I started making my own as a hobby at home and quite organically the business grew from there,” she says.
Barring Fabian, the company has an all-female workforce of 11. “We don’t live in the city, and the women in the village around us have troubled and difficult home lives. We made a decision to work with those women and give them skills in chocolate-making, and we ended up with a fantastic work family, and a safe work environment,” Jane explains.
A ‘bean to bar’ movement means these chocolate artisans source beans directly from farmers in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka to highlight the unique characteristics of the cacao and the particular farm the cacao comes from. They have control over the whole process from bean to product, and are able to maintain quality in its entirety. The result is ‘single origin’ chocolate, every cacao bean in a bar of chocolate comes from the same region or even the same farm, which is called ‘Single Estate’, ensuring purity in flavour dedicated to a specific region.
“We only import small quantities of beans for limited edition bars and for tastings like these to offer variety and comparison, but our standard range of bars is all from Indian beans,” Jane says. They’ve been selling for about three-and- a-half years in India, but spent two years before that doing the ground work, research and training with farmers to improve the existent low bean quality. “We brought in mentors from the US, France and Venezuela and conducted training with our farmers in India. From time to time, we still talk to them discussing what’s happening in the industry as we strive for continual education.”
All things chocolate (Chocolate tasting)
The tasting was an interactive session, discussing the origins of chocolate and tasting raw cacao beans, cacao nibs, made by lightly roasting the whole bean, and cracking into smaller pieces to remove the shell, cacao butter and cacao powder, as a starting point to understand one of world’s most popular desserts.
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1) Look – check if shiny or dull – shiny chocolate is higher quality
2) Snap – a crisp snapping sound indicates better quality
3) Melt between fingers – rub the chocolate between your fingers, the faster it melts, the higher the cacao butter content
4) Smell – see which aromas hit you, bitter, sweet, fruity notes
5) Taste – place the chocolate on your tongue and stick it to the roof of your mouth, as it melts different flavours come forth
6) Palette cleaner – between chocolate samples use a palette cleanser – a piece of bread or water
The real fun began once chocolate met tongue. After checking for immediacy of chocolate taste, and the mouthfeel of the sample, (smooth, gritty, creamy) we focused on identifying the bursts of flavours that followed. Sweetness was akin to caramel, buttery or malt, while the chocolate could be described as rich, dutched or bitter. Hints of walnut or hazelnut, or roasted notes like coffee, leather or tobacco took prominence sometimes.
Some of the more complex pieces had a spicy tinge or cinnamon, pepper or anise and fruity bouquets of berries, citrus and a winey tartness exploded forth as well. A presence of earthy notes like soil, mould or yeast indicated a fault in the making process – certainly a useful tip to remember. Chocolate can be classified acidic if it makes the mouth water, astringent if it results in dryness or spicy if a sensation of prickles is felt on the tongue. Finally the finish of the chocolate would either be long or short depending on how long the taste lingers in the mouth.
A delicious future (Jane tasting chocolate)
There’s a hike in the number of people around the world and in India who are looking for dark, organic, fair trade chocolate. “We want to focus on providing fine quality dark chocolate to the Indian market – that’s our love. So developing the factory, increasing our staff and number of bars we produce, widening our distribution circles will be our priorities,” says Jane. Education in chocolate is a natural progression; workshops and tastings do not reach out to market, but slowly make an impact to influence people. “Meeting with consumers face to face is something we love. Our preference is do it at a small-scale, which gives everyone the opportunity to share their experience and adds a personal touch,” she adds.
In addition to the tastings, the duo conducts Bean to Bar chocolate workshops where participants follow the steps to making chocolate – roasting, cracking and winnowing, grinding, tempering and moulding and packaging their bars to take home, and Pod to Plate – a cacao-inspired dinner with each course featuring different interpretations of the versatile plant. Pairings are another way to experience chocolate, and we ended the afternoon with a blue cheese pairings, one of Jane’s favourites. She’s also partial to chocolate pairings with whisky, rum and coffee, which sound like delightfully enticing combinations to dabble with.
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Three varieties of beans