By JULIA MOSKIN
Hints of Wine? Chocolate Enters the Tasting Room
CHOCOLATE is the next coffee," confided one importer.
"Chocolate is the new olive oil," said a chocolatier."Chocolate now is where cheese was 10 years ago," a pastry chef asserted. In the beginning, there was wine. And there were wine tastings and wine snobs and wine-of-the-month clubs. Then olive oil, vinegar, cheese, coffee and butter followed into the American culinary consciousness. Now the appreciation of fine chocolate seems poised to become the next gastronomic parlor game.
In New York, the proof is in the real estate: at least a dozen new boutique chocolatiers have opened here since 2000.
Whether bars or bonbons, chocolate that is carefully created for flavor without regard to shelf stability or even popular appeal is hitting the radar of food-alert New Yorkers.
At Bierkraft in Park Slope, you can buy "flights" of chocolate for tastings that illustrate the different nuances of Ecuadorean, Ivoirian and Venezuelan cocoa beans.
At Dean & DeLuca, chocolates made by Michael Recchiuti come with instructions: "We suggest a pairing with still spring water." Dean & DeLuca also stocks the world's first chocolate identified by a "vintage" year: the Valrhona Chuao, made with cocoa beans grown in a single region of Venezuela.
Chocolate connoisseurship is indulged nationally on Web sites like chocophile.com, whose owner, Clay Gordon, can't keep up with the demand for Italian-made Amedei Porcelana, perhaps the world's most expensive chocolate at $90 a pound.
"Chocolate is a relatively affordable obsession," Mr. Gordon said. "The most expensive bottle of wine is way out of most people's reach; the most expensive bottle of balsamic vinegar costs more than a thousand dollars. But the most expensive chocolate bar costs only $9."
At Chocolate Bar, a Greenwich Village storefront that calls itself a candy store for grown-ups, New Yorkers have the luxury of choosing among bars of perfectly plain chocolate containing 60 percent, 72 percent or 85 percent cocoa mass, the pure, unsweetened content of the cocoa bean. Fanatics are devoted to Michel Cluizel's super-bitter Noir Infini, which is 99 percent pure cocoa mass, even though 85 percent is considered the upper limit of palatability for most mortals.
Matt Lewis, an owner of Chocolate Bar, said, "We've been amazed by how many people come in off the street asking about cocoa mass and couverture," the fine baking chocolate used by chocolatiers and pastry chefs. "People are really paying attention."
In the United States, the use of top-quality European chocolate has been steadily trickling down from pastry chefs and chocolatiers to home cooks. In New York, Jean-Georges Vongerichten put the French manufacturer Valrhona on the map in the early 1990's by listing its chocolate on the menu as the base for his molten chocolate cake. Bernard Duclos, chief operating officer of Valrhona USA, said sales of Valrhona in this country have doubled in the last five years, though Valrhona costs two to four times more than American-made baking chocolate. Other European manufacturers, notably Michel Cluizel and Callebaut, are elbowing their way into the market, while American makers like Scharffen Berger and Guittard are trying to hold on to their small home-court advantage.
So is using Valrhona instead of Baker's in your brownie recipe an expensive affectation, or a stroke of genius? What is the real difference between the $9.95 Belgian truffles stacked up on pallets at Costco, and the $58 Swiss truffles that the haughty salesclerks at Teuscher may deign to sell you?
Each manufacturer's couverture has its own distinct flavor profile. "Once you've been tasting chocolate for 20 years, you can identify it blindfolded," said Andrew Shotts, the owner of Garrison Confections of Providence, R.I., and a veteran New York pastry chef. "Valrhona is higher in acid, with a taste of red fruit like cherries. Cluizel is more earthy and raw. Guittard is very smooth. They all have their uses in the kitchen."
Finding this kind of nuance in the flavor of chocolate is irresistible entertainment for food lovers. Chocolate connoisseurship now seems as logical as the rise of dark-roast coffee and extra virgin olive oil.
Chantal Coady, a leading chocolatier in England, is the founder of the Campaign for Real Chocolate, which aims to enlighten British and American consumers about the differences between industrial chocolates like Cadbury, Hershey's and Mars, and what she calls "real" chocolate, like Valrhona, Callebaut and Scharffen Berger.
The differences are apparent. All-natural chocolate is rich, smooth and complex; industrial chocolate contains additives that make it waxy, gritty and super-sweet.
And then there is the age-old question: milk or dark? Americans traditionally prefer milk chocolate, which is used in virtually all candy bars. But according to annual studies conducted by the Chocolate Manufacturers Association, the percentage of Americans who prefer dark chocolate to milk has risen steadily, from 15 percent in 1991 to 27 percent in 2002. And among Americans 35 and over, the preference for dark chocolate has now risen to 37 percent.
Dark chocolate is by any measure a purer product than milk chocolate, which is mixed with dry or condensed milk and, often, more sugar. "It's like the difference between a complex red wine and a light, sweet rosé," Ms. Coady said.
"Milk chocolate is excellent with caramel, with vanilla, with nuts, but on its own it is not as interesting," said Eric Girerd, a fourth-generation chocolatier who makes bonbons in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, using Cluizel couverture and cocoa.
Milk and dark chocolates still coexist comfortably at the shops of most local chocolatiers, from the twin French demigods Jacques Torres and François Payard, to the natives who run venerable mom-and-pop shops like Mondel's in Morningside Heights and Li-Lac in Greenwich Village.
To make chocolates, or bonbons, chocolatiers start by choosing their couverture, or inventing their own blends. (Although making chocolate from cocoa beans is prohibitively expensive for individual chocolatiers, both Mr. Torres and Mr. Girerd have begun to assemble the arsenal of machinery the process requires.)
Most bonbons, whether a lemon-infused dark chocolate ganache robed in milk chocolate from Mr. Torres, or a chocolate-covered marshmallow from JoMart in Marine Park, Brooklyn, consist of a flavored center dipped in plain chocolate. The trend is toward making centers with ganache, a thick paste of chocolate and cream, which can be infused with flavor. According to all sources, traditional fruit centers like liquored-up cherries and fruit creams are falling by the wayside, but the demand for nuts, caramels and crunchy centers is holding strong. (Mr. Torres's salted caramel has become a virtual cult item.)
For chocolatiers, the art of covering or enrobing bonbons in a perfectly glossy, smooth coating of couverture is a major source of pride and prestige. Instead of simply melting their chocolate, which can leave it dull-looking, chocolatiers use a process called tempering. Repeatedly heating and cooling the chocolate changes its molecular structure, which makes it shiny and gives it the snap that is a hallmark of good chocolate.
Kee Ling Tong, the owner of Chocolate Garden in SoHo, is most famous for her crème brûlée truffle: a single mouthful of soft vanilla custard encased in a crisp chocolate shell (her tempered chocolate is so strong that she can inject liquid into it). At The Art of Chocolate, Patrick Coston, an ex-pastry chef with the air of a biochemist, has developed a tempering process that puts a positively mirror-like finish on his pieces.
Once the chocolate is tempered, there seems to be no limit to what it can be flavored or filled with.
"Chocolates are always used as test balloons for new flavors," said Daphne Scholz, an owner of Bierkraft, as she inspected the rows of rose-, wasabi- and thyme-flavored confections in her cases. Ms. Scholz commissioned Mr. Girerd to create a line of chocolates infused with American artisanal beers, sold exclusively at Bierkraft. They are, in a word, interesting.
But a single unlikely flavor is no longer enough: the most sophisticated confectioners, like Fritz Knipschildt, are raising the bar with combinations of two or three, like lavender-caramel, chili-tangerine, and almond-jasmine-praline. Echoing a trend from the wine world, Richart Design et Chocolat has recently discarded the whole traditional language of chocolates — nuts, caramels, pralines — in favor of flavor families like Roasted, Balsamic, Floral and Spiced.
Like many of her colleagues, Maribel Lieberman, owner of MarieBelle in SoHo, is selling the South American origins of chocolate by blending it with chili heat, an invigorating combination. In the same vein, the Sicilian chocolatier Antica Dolceria Bonajuto claims that its Xocoatl bars, available at Dean & DeLuca, are made by non-European methods descended from the Aztecs (indeed, their texture is crumbly and crunchy, totally different from the smooth chocolate most Americans are used to).
For some chocolatiers, even wild flavor experiments aren't enough. Vosges Haut-Chocolat, which pioneered the use of flavors like curry and wasabi, opened in New York in August; at the SoHo store customers can buy a snappy $900 leather jacket or a handbag in Vosges' signature deep purple or sign up for a weeklong chocolate-and-yoga retreat in Oaxaca. Fortunately, lurking behind all of this gimmickry is a great deal of excellent chocolate. The best way to find it is to taste. Teuscher may boast that its truffles are flown in from Zurich every week; that will not make any difference if you do not like their particular recipe for truffles (the traditional style of Belgian and many Swiss chocolatiers, including Teuscher, is to mix butter with the chocolate in their bonbons), or if the truffles spent some hours at the airport before making it to the store.
Although it is almost never mentioned, freshness is a tremendous factor in the taste of chocolates. Leah Rosenthal, the chocolate buyer for Dean & DeLuca, does not import bonbons from Europe, despite the enduring cachet of Belgian, Swiss and French truffles. (Solid chocolate, which is imported and sold around the city, has a much longer shelf life than bonbons.)
"I'd rather have a fresh chocolate from Brooklyn than a week-old one from Brussels any day," Ms. Rosenthal said. Chocolates from Martine's chocolate shop at Bloomingdale's come with instructions: certain bonbons must be eaten within days.
Although they are not especially fancy, the freshly made dark-chocolate truffles at La Bergamote, like the homemade milk chocolate rice crunch at Varsano's and the almond bark at Li-Lac, have clear chocolate flavor, and creamy, not greasy, texture that puts Godiva to shame. At Bierkraft, Ms. Scholz said, "You know, anyone who buys a block of Callebaut can say that they are making fine Belgian chocolates." She continued, "That doesn't tell you anything. If you know it was made yesterday, that tells you something."
Ms. Scholz also stocks a single bar that may hold the future of chocolate within its wrappers: Italian lattenero, or dark milk chocolate, from Andrea Slitti. It is a creamy milk chocolate that includes 62 percent cocoa mass, a level previously undreamed of for milk chocolate. Brace yourself.
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