This post is part three of three of my interview with Carla D. Martin, “Professor of Chocolate” and Lecturer in the Department of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. Part one discussed the meaning of “craft chocolate” in North America, and part two questioned the idea of terroir and craft chocolate’s cost. Today’s post looks at North American craft chocolate’s dark side — so much of it is dark chocolate! What’s a milk chocolate lover to do?
(Rob) So lastly, most of the North American craft chocolate we carry at the store is dark chocolate. For those milk chocolate lovers out there who are approaching all these dark chocolates as a skeptic – any advice?
(Carla) This is one of my favorite questions to be asked. As I keep learning about tasting chocolate, I love talking with people about what they like – textures, flavors – and basically trying to prescribe chocolate that they might enjoy trying. You have to think about what kind of chocolate experience you want. Do you want to snack on it and finish it quickly, or do you want to really take your time and think about it as you eat?
Regarding dark chocolate, one of the most common misconceptions among consumers is that a percentage listed on a bar tells you all you need to know about that bar. The quality of the cacao and the making of the bar affect the experience of eating dark chocolate immeasurably. Furthermore, many people believe that 75%, for instance, indicates how much chocolate liquor there is in a bar, and expect that a bar like that will be very dark and bitter. In fact, that percentage most often refers to the combined amount of chocolate liquor and cocoa butter in the bar, allowing for a wide range of flavors and textures.
Formaggio Kitchen carries a couple of dark milk bars, and milk chocolate lovers are in luck because these can be especially delicious. I have a lot of students who are die hard milk chocolate lovers, and I’ll often introduce them to a dark milk bar and they’ll say “Oh wow, this is the best milk chocolate I’ve ever had,” not realizing that it’s got maybe 30-40% more cocoa content than the usual chocolate they eat. So that’s a really fun way to experience the difference varying chocolate content and quality can make.
I also have a lot of students who love milk chocolate with nuts, and of course a lot of dark chocolate bars have a roasted nut kind of quality to them, so if you want to explore dark chocolate, you can ask about bars with those tasting notes, such as Dick Taylor’s Ecuador bar. Others who love berries and citrus fruits might seek out dark chocolate with a similar flavor profile, such as Patric Chocolate’s Madagascar bar. I also think tasting chocolate more slowly can help people to better identify what they like. We are socialized to crunch and munch – just think of kids racing to eat their Halloween candy. But scarfing down dark chocolate can often cause you to miss most of the enjoyable flavors and highlight other things like acidity or astringency that people tend to like less.
In teaching about chocolate, I have the good fortune to observe how students’ tastes change over the course of a semester. We start off with the familiar – Hershey’s Kisses, Snickers bars, etc. – and gradually work our way toward the unknown. Many of the milk chocolate lovers routinely report “I just don’t like this” or “it’s much too bitter” when trying industrially produced dark chocolate. We don’t taste the finest craft chocolate bars until the last weeks of class, and when we get to the big reveal and they have their first taste of a dark craft chocolate bar they more often say “I didn’t know it could taste like this!” or at least “You know what, I didn’t hate that.” It might be that they don’t ever prefer dark chocolate to milk chocolate, like a lot of people don’t care for black coffee, and that’s totally fine. One student charmingly realized at the end of last semester that she probably doesn’t actually like chocolate that much, but definitely loves milk and sugar. Regardless, it’s important not to make the mistake of assuming that what we’ve always tasted is how things are supposed to taste forever, unchanging. And I guess that’s what this whole chocolate thing is really about for me – cultivating an open palate and mind, seeking to learn more, and thinking critically about food and culture.
Check out the rest of my interview with Carla D. Martin in parts one and two, and stay up-to-date on the latest chocolate-world happenings by checking out her blog. You can also follow updates on our chocolate selection through our newsletters.
Rob Campbell is a culinary adventurer, world traveler, science geek, and also the blog manager at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge.