As the only person to have earned a PhD by studying chocolate, I get asked a lot of questions about chocolate this-or-that. And I am always happy to answer. But one question in particular – the one I get asked the most – always leaves me miffed:
'What’s your favorite chocolate?'
Quite frankly, when someone asks me this, the response I most want to give is, Who cares?
So many things run through my mind while I stand there coming up with an answer: Why do they want to know? Am I required to have a favorite? What if I said my favorite chocolate tasted like seaweed? Would that lessen their opinion of my scholarship? Will they run out and buy whatever I say?
Honestly, I don’t have a favorite. My preferences change by the day, hour, minute: sometimes my ‘favorite’ is whatever chocolate is lying around the house. When I tell people this truth, they inevitably look disappointed; they want a definitive answer.
I follow no chocolate guiding light. For example, this morning I stopped in the Safeway on my way home from the gym. As I walked down the candy aisle a bar caught my eye: Lindt Excellence, Chili.
I had never seen it before. I normally like Lindt; the Swiss creamy texture is one that I find appealing. The box looked cool: they did a great job photographing the chili pepper. It was slightly chilly out; maybe I wanted a spicy food? There was no cocoa percentage, which annoyed me. I bought it. I haven’t eaten it yet. Maybe I will like it, maybe I won’t.
But I don’t really care what happens. For me, chocolate is a mainstay of life. If someone were to put me on an alien planet and tell me there would be no more chocolate for me, ever, I suppose I could still live happily. But while I am here and it’s available, I will eat as much of it as I can.
Any consumption of chocolate – a luxury food that costs a great deal in human commitment and energy, farmland and fuel, if not also actual dollars – should be driven by compassion for the people who grew and transported it, and by an understanding of its origins. As someone who has devoted years to studying chocolate, I will always argue for the importance of knowledge about it.
But as someone who takes great pleasure in chocolate, I will also always argue that chocolate consumption should equally be driven by enjoyment. No one has ever asked me what chocolate I enjoy. That question I would answer so differently than the one about my favorite.
I think the reason people phrase their query using ‘favorite’ is because these days, in the US, we have become increasingly absorbed with, if not dependent upon, the role of experts in telling us how to eat. Asking me to name a favorite asks me for a definitive judgment and carves my preference in stone; my answer can then be debated for correctness.
Asking me what I enjoy implies a personal interest in what I find pleasing. Then I am no longer an expert making a proclamation. As someone who does know a lot about chocolate, I am happy to tell you where it comes from or how it is made; I much less rather declare what chocolate we should eat, or how to do it.
Google chocolate tasting and you will find a plethora of guides, most of which have appeared in the past few years. Directions for tasting are available on artisan websites (Amano has a great example); they are passed down from on high through elegant classes (as at La Maison du Chocolat); and even laid out on wrappers (as on every bar of Vosges Haut-Chocolat).
These impart strict rules about tasting chocolate in the correct order, hand down restrictions on quantity, outline proper palate cleansing, warn against the dangers of eating cold chocolate, and in general tell us that we are not really appreciating our chocolate unless we spend at least fifteen minutes with each 10 gram piece, gazing at it, listening to it, caressing it, holding it on our tongues, and inscribing its flavor ‘notes’ on a special card. If we cannot after all that discriminate the tang of umami in our miniscule serving, then we have done it all wrong.
To all this I say, what nonsense. I am all for eating slowly and appreciating flavor. But to transform the pleasurable act of eating chocolate into an event regulated by guidelines as strict as those for an audience with the Queen of England seem to rob us of all its fun.
This morning I read an article about a new trend pairing chocolate with tea (Chocolate and tea: the perfect match? by Elizabeth Urbach). I read the article with interest, because it said that such events were not just the province of professionals, and that even ‘a regular person’ could conduct a successful tea-chocolate pairing.
I found this encouraging. But just a few sentences later, the professionals were back in full force: a list, compiled by ‘experts’, gave the correct pairings to make. I’d never heard of some of the teas (Chinese Dragonwell, Japanese Gyokuro) and wasn’t sure I wanted to after reading the flavor descriptions (‘savory vegetal’, ‘bright muscatel’); I had to Google one of the suggested chocolates (‘chocolate madeline’) to find out what it was. If I were to throw a chocolate-tea soirée using this list as my guide, it would take me days if not weeks to get it all organized correctly.
The list reminded me of an exam study sheet, from which I was supposed to memorize the answers. In truth, it looked a lot like a bunch of somebody else’s ‘favorites’. Somehow, as soon as you become an expert, your own favorite way of doing things gets codified into law that everyone else must then follow. I think that’s rubbish. Everyone can choose a good chocolate to go with their tea. You don’t need to follow rules to do it. Eating chocolate is not about learning how to do it ‘right’.
A while back I threw a little chocolate and beer pairing for a group of writers. I went to the store and picked three bars that I knew and that represented a decent range of flavor, all made by Lindt (for no reason except that I wanted them all to be made by the same manufacturer): 85% Dark, which is mildly bitter; Extra Creamy Milk, which tastes like sweet caramel; and White Coconut, which makes me feel like I am sitting on the beach with a coconut margarita in hand.
For the beer, I simply picked my favorite, Pyramid Hefeweisen (notice that I have no problem telling you that this is my favorite beer – since I am not a beer expert, this doesn’t carry the same weight as a statement on chocolate, and I don’t feel the need to write a whole blog entry explaining it). It’s clean, refreshing, and mild. Though I had never paired it before, the Hef went remarkably well with all three chocolates: it cut the bitterness of the dark, cleansed the palate after the sweet milk, and enlivened the coconut flavor of the white. It was lovely.
Everyone learned something. Everyone enjoyed themselves. We had a really good time.
Choosing the chocolates took about a minute of thinking, breaking up bars into random size pieces and opening the bottles of beer, about three. I chose based on what I personally liked, some intuition on flavor, and knowing that chocolate comes in milk, white, and dark. Anyone who has a neighborhood drug store with a decent chocolate aisle and a beer cooler could do this. You don’t have to take a class. You can just have fun.
I wish that this was the kind of encouragement we got from our chocolate makers, instead of arduous guidelines suggesting that ‘experts’ (of which I am clearly one) are the only people who can tell us what and how to eat. Instead, I would like to think that we all already know how to eat, and that simply by learning a little bit more about our food, we can go forth with the freedom to enjoy it as we wish.
The nice thing about writing a blog, as opposed to an academic article or a book for sale, is that there are no constraints. I can tell you exactly what I think. I don’t even know that anyone will ever read this apart from my mother, which is very freeing. Will I write many things about cocoa and chocolate here, based on what I have learned? Yes. Will I occasionally make strong, definitive statements? Yes, again. But mostly I will write for the love of a food, and for anyone who shares a desire to learn about a fascinating fruit, and to eat it with pleasure.
Till next time,