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Chocolate Percentages

Since I wrote the book on chocolate I realize that I should be blogging more about chocolate, but all the answers to many of your chocolate questions can easily be found in The Great Book of Chocolate. This book is the ultimate guidebook to the world of chocolate and a wealth of information with delicious recipes. If you’re like me and can never have enough chocolate, this is the book for you.

Want to know the difference between bittersweet and semisweet chocolate? What’s the difference between Venezuelan and Ecuadorian cocoa beans? Which country produces the best chocolate? Which chocolatiers worldwide produce the most interesting and scrumptious chocolates? All the answers, and everything else you’ve ever wanted to know about chocolate, can be found in The Great Book of Chocolate.

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One of the most common misconceptions about appreciating chocolate is that you should base your opinion on the percentage of cacao in the bar. The was reinforced this week when a close friend came to visit, and brought me a tablet of the fantastic chocolate from Cacao Sampaka in Barcelona, which I profiled for Saveur magazine last year in their 100 Best issue. Like everyone that I bring into chocolate shops, he was raving because the chocolate tablet that he graciously brought me (albeit half-eaten) was 71%! (…insert his enthusiasm here.) Like lots of people, everyone seems to expound upon the theory that the higher the better. (…insert everyone’s question here… “But what about anti-oxidants?…)

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I like my friend very much and he may be reading this and if he is, I want him to continue to bring me care packages from Target and Trader Joe’s on his return visits so I don’t want to make him feel cuplable (well, maybe a little.) But I feel compelled to get folks to understand that the exact percentage of cacao in the bar is truly unimportant to the taste or even the bitterness. I’ve had chocolate bars that are 99% cacao that were palatable and other bars that were 80% cacao that were bitter and inedible (and I like very bitter chocolate.) I’ve had 90% bars that were amazingly good and smooth, while others were 60% and were crumbly and mushy.

So quit throwing your nose up in the air and saying, “I only eat chocolate that’s at least 75%.” To me, the numbers are, um, interesting, but not what I look for when evaluating chocolate, since by muddy chocolate-colored logic, that argument means that the 75% chocolate is inherently better than a 70% chocolate. It’s amazing with this analytical mind that I didn’t make my mother proud and become the lawyer (or better yet, the doctor) that she always wanted in the family.

Look what I have. Two Italian chocolates from Baratti & Milano in Torino:

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One is 65% and the other is 80%. Does that mean the 60% is the worse of the two and should be avoided at all costs? You’ll also notice one is made from beans from Ghana and other from beans from Grenada. Quick: which one is better?

It means little to judge a chocolate based simply on a number (or origin, but that’s information that can be found in the book.)
Why?
The percentage doesn’t take into account…

The variety of beans,
or…
The quality of the beans,
or…
The careful roasting of the beans,
or…
The blending of the beans by the chocolate-maker,
or…
The sweetness of the beans themselves,
or…
The acidity of the beans themselves.

I think part of the reason many of us Americans are hung up on high numbers (which is why we never adopted the metric system) because It sounds so much better to say, “Oh my gosh! It was 105 degrees today!” rather than, “Mon dieu, it was an unbelievable 40 degrees today!”

John Scharffenberger of ScharffenBerger chocolate says to pretend you’re Helen Keller when tasting chocolate; Don’t read the label and don’t listen to what others tell you. Taste the chocolate and judge for yourself. If you like it, it’s good chocolate!

Domori Chocolate

Gianluca Franzoni is the master chocolatier at Domori. He’s the person who is responsible for selecting the beans and roasting them to perfection. Cacao beans, like coffee, need to be roasted to bring out their flavor. Domori uses no vanilla in their chocolate, unlike other chocolate companies, since Gianluca believes that vanilla masks some of the flavors he coaxes out of the beans to make his chocolate. I immediately liked him because of his dedication to making truly fine chocolate….(and perhaps because his shirt would match the colors of my web site.) Aside from making great chocolate, the Italians really know how to dress.

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As you can imagine, Domori is a chocolate company that is rather revolutionary…and in a country that’s no stranger to revolutions. If you’ve been to Italy, you know the Italians are lively, creative, wonderful people. And they’re not afraid to do things a bit differently.

When Gianluca told me that Domori chocolates were so smooth that even the 100% bar of unsweetened chocolate, called Puro, was not the least bit bitter, (even without the sugar,) I frankly didn’t believe him. But Puro was indeed great. It’s made from 100% Sur Del Lago beans, which is used in some of the best chocolates I’ve tasted. For the hard-core chocolophiles, crunchy dark Ocumare cacao beans, known as Kashaya, are roasted whole and meant to be eaten just as they are. I mean, what kind of people pack up whole roasted cocoa beans and for hard-core chocolate-lovers to eat? The same people who brought us gelato, gianduiotti, and panna cotta.

As you can probably tell by now, I love Italians!

Domori is one of the few chocolate companies that actually owns their own plantations in Venezuela. Most of their beans are criollo hybrids, which is considered the best cacao available today. (The term ‘cacao’ refers to the beans used to make chocolate, and ‘cocoa’ usually refers to the powder made from the beans after they’re roasted and pulverized.)

We tried a sample of all of their chocolates, guided by Gianluca….

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Esmereladas is their chocolate made from Ecuadorian cacao, that had a surprising tropical banana-like aroma and flavor. Rio Caribe, from their Venezuelan plantation, had an earthy, musky character while the Sambirano from the island of Madagascar (where a lot of vanilla is grown) had a raisin-sweet taste and a gorgeous red hue. Perhaps the most intriguing was the Puertofino, which was made from a rare, pure Ocumare cacao, which we all agreed had a delightful creamy taste, even though it was pure bittersweet chocolate with no dairy added.

If this is making you crave Domori chocolate, you can order their chocolate (as well as Tuscan chocolates from Slitti and Amadei) online at Chocosphere.

So onward in my pursuit of more great chocolate here in Tuscany.
Next I’ll visit Slitti, which aside from blending their superb chocolates, they roast amazing coffee…which says a lot, since each time I sip an espresso in Italy, I fall into a deep trance-like state.
In the walled city of Lucca, where we’re staying, I’ve had a chance to stock up on Amadei chocolate as well. Amedei specializes in very rare cacaos, such as Chuao and Porcelana and is another of the world’s great chocolates.

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Eating in Tuscany includes focaccia flatbread permeated with olive oil and sprinkled generously with coarse salt, soup made with the Lucchese wholegrain known as farro, and I’m stockpiling delightfully bitter chestnut honey that I drizzle over toasted and buttered (salted butter, of course) levain bread. If you should ever visit Lucca, the best place to buy Tuscan foodstuffs is Antica Bodega at 31, via Santa Lucia. The wine, of course, is excellent, inexpensive, and generously poured in restaurants and enotecas.

Tomorrow I’m taking my group to a villa in the mountains for a wine and olive oil tasting before we return to Lucca to shop for local specialties at Antica Bodega, including sharp, sheeps-milk Pecorino cheese and well-aged, syrupy Balsamic vinegar, Parmesano-Reggiano and olive oil.

And of course, lots more chocolate.

Related Chocolate Links

Chocolatiers and Chocolate Makers

Theo Chocolate

Valrhona Chocolate

Chocolate FAQs

John-Charles Rochoux

Regis Chocolate

Patrick Roger

La Maison du Chocolat

Gianduja and Gelato

Here I am in Torino, or Turin, if you’re familiar with the shroud.
Being on the road means that I’m in unfamiliar hotels with less-than-ideal access. When I attempted to change the thermostat in my hotel room, the digital display read ‘PARTY’. I don’t know what the ‘party’ mode is, but when I pressed the switch again nothing exciting happened.

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I’m leading a fabulous chocolate tour as I write. Torino is not on the tourist route. But it should be if you’re into chocolate. Gianduja is the star chocolate attraction here, a blend of milk chocolate and hazelnuts ground until smooth then formed into a paste. Hazelnuts are a specialty of the Piedmonte region and during wartime, cocoa beans were scarce so someone had the great idea to blend them with chocolate, and gianduja was born. (If you’ve had Nutella, you know what a terrific alliance chocolate and hazelnuts can be.)

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Once the gianduja paste is made, it’s formed into mounds that are molded into a flat peak, then wrapped in gold foil. I’m not much of a fan of milk chocolate, but when mixed with hazelnuts, it’s dreamy and truly delicious. The best gianduja that I’ve had was at A. Giordano (Piazza Carol Felice, 69.)

The other chocolate treats of Torino are Bicerin and gelato. Bicerin is great, and something that deserves to be better known outside of Torino. It’s a hot drink made with espresso, chocolate, and just enough whipped cream to make is smooth and creamy. It’s a fabulous combination, and each afternoon residents of Torino line up at bars for a warm Bicerin.

The gelato here is thick, gooey, and delicious. Like nothing you’ve had in your life. Flavors include caffe, gianduja (my favorite, of course), pistacio, tangy yogurt, and torrone loaded with almonds and sweetened with honey. Here’s my favorite gelato maker at the Caffe San Carlo (Piazza San Carlo, 156). He is perhaps my new favorite person in the world.
At least in Italy.

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Italians in Torino walks down the street eating gelato all hours of the day. Businessmen at lunchtime slurp cones while avoiding dripping on their Armani suits. Afternoons, swarms of teenagers with low-slung jeans send text-messages in between licks, and elderly women wander through the passages and window shop savoring gelato.

So I’m off tomorrow with my group for the mountains of Biella, where we’ll dine at an Agriturismo, a farm that serves meals made from ingredients only grown on the land. Then onward to Genoa, where we’ll stop along the way at Domori chocolate, one of the world’s great chocolate manufacturers.