A couple of weeks ago I received an invite to take part as a judge in the International Chocolate Awards, needless to say that this isn't the kind of thing you turn down!
"Oh hey, so you want me to come and taste some of the finest chocolates in the land? You know what, that really isn't for me I'm afraid." said nobody ever.
The awards were actually founded quite recently, in 2012, with the following intent and ethos:
"The International Chocolate Awards is an independent competition recognising excellence in fine chocolate making and in the products made with fine chocolate. As the World’s only fully independent international fine chocolate competition, we aim to support companies producing fine chocolate and chocolatiers, small companies and artisans working with fine chocolate. By helping these markets to grow and develop, we also aim to support the farmers that grow fine cacao."
So on a fair Friday morning, I set off to the Grand Hotel in York and took my place in the judging panel, which consisted of amateur enthusiasts such as myself and more seasoned chocolate professionals!
Once settled into our judging room, it was explained that we were to judge the UK entries and help shortlist the chocolates for the final round of judging, which was to take place on the Sunday.
Each round was divided up into categories, which meant that chocolates were judged against those of the same category e.g. "Dark chocolate bars with an infusion or flavoring".
After a good 5 hours of judging, I came away with a pretty big sugar rush, a lot more chocolate knowledge, and a new found appreciation for the world of fine chocolate!
Here are a few things that I learnt during the process:
1. It is possible to eat too much chocolate
I know, I know, it sounds crazy, but I promise I'm telling the truth!
After two long sessions of judging, which equated to around 20 samples, I came away with a serious sugar migraine. I actually had to walk home rather gingerly and then lie down for 20 minutes in the pitch black.
I also came away with a serious salt craving and ended up having to buy a good old Yorkshire pie to balance myself out again. (It's a hard life, I know).
2. My palette needs serious work
Whilst each round was conducted in absolute silence, we were allowed to confer and discuss our thoughts after all results had been inputted and judging had ended, ensuring the competition remained unbiased and fair to all entrants.
It quickly became clear that whilst I was reasonably adept at picking out the dominant flavours in most of the samples, I was not always picking up the full spectrum that others were able to detect. This was especially apparent in the plain dark chocolate round, where the flavours were much more subtle, compared with the filled chocolates.
This may also be down to the fact that everyone experiences flavour differently and has a disposition towards certain flavour categories. e.g. someone might be more sensitive to bitterness rather than sweetness.
This is probably why there are several judges, to ensure that personal taste doesn't bias the results to heavily.
It did however make me wonder whether I could work on developing my palette through exposing myself to a wider variety of flavours, much like you would exercise you muscles at the gym through doing different exercises.
Something to work on for next year, in the hope I'm invited back!
3. Cocoa percentage is not a simple indicator of quality
Most of us are used to looking out for the 70-80% cocoa chocolates when generally shopping for chocolate, however this isn't apparently always an indicator of quality.
Chocolate is a lot like coffee, in that the origins of the beans and roasting methods are all important factors when creating a well balanced flavour profile.
Coca butter is also a very important ingredient when it comes to creating fine chocolate.
Couverture chocolate is a very high-quality chocolate that contains a high percentage of cocoa butter (32–39%). This additional cocoa butter, when combined with proper tempering, gives the chocolate sheen and a firmer snap.
The butter is an extremely stable fat which melts at around 37C, or body temperature, which is why the best chocolate literally melts in your mouth.
In cheaper, mass produced chocolate, manufacturers often replace cocoa butter with more inexpensive ingredients such as palm oil (which also has ethical implications).
4. The world of fine chocolate is full of passionate and committed people
The very fact that such an awards process is able to take place is testament to this fact. It was extremely apparent that all of the grand jury (the professional judges) and the organizers were experts in their field and committed to upholding the highest standards!
The quality of the chocolates we tasted were also clearly products of pure craftsmanship and dedication. Some of the ingredients were extremely rare and a fair few flavour combinations can only be described as inspired!
I wish I could actually tell you a bit more about the ones which really stood out as masterpieces, but you will have to wait until the results are announced to find out...
5. Plain polenta is the best palette cleanser
This seemingly unappetizing dish was served in between each round to help re calibrate our taste buds and provide a level playing field, or tongue, for the next round!
It's not exactly something I would go out of my way to eat normally, however the unseasoned polenta was a marvelous antidote to the sweetness! You actually almost found yourself craving it by the end of the day...