Deep dark secrets

In honor of Bright‘s recent discovery of dark chocolate’s many virtues, we decided to throw a chocolate-tasting party. A “Midnight” Dark Chocolate (Non-Snooty) Tasting Party, if you want to know its precise title. In great glee I tripped around town buying dark chocolate bars from three different stores, and last night we all showed up at Ying and Ståle’s apartment to try the goods. Erik was brilliant enough to suggest a blind taste testing, so we divided all the bars into separate numbered bowls. We also had pens and paper so we could record our thoughts as we sampled. Around ten, the tasting began.

As I had hoped, tasting fifteen different varieties of chocolate was an interesting experience. They were noticeably different from one another in taste, texture, and character. But even more interesting was how much everyone’s responses differed from each other’s. Though both the top-ranked and lowest-ranked chocolate were unanimous choices, we didn’t always agree on the others. After we’d all tasted each chocolate at least once, we went around the table and shared our thoughts on each. Some of us wrote brief comments, ranging from a series of adjectives to a simple “boo,” often supplementing these remarks with symbols like happy faces or hearts. Others were more taciturn. Mauricio, a man of few words, wrote no more than single word for each chocolate: “bland,” “citrusy,” or “mild.” Others forewent words altogether. Erik ranked each sample out of ten, the lowest receiving a 2 and the highest, a 7. Ying simply wrote down the numbers of the chocolates she liked. But everyone agreed that Margaret had the best comments. She evaluated each chocolate based on a number of criteria, so that her often lyrical feedback went something like this: “Sweet and well-balanced, with a hint of cherries. Tastes like comfort chocolate. Very fine texture. Bitterness: 3 out of 10.”

After we talked about each chocolate, I would consult our master list and reveal what it was we’d eaten. There was some surprises — I liked Ghirardelli best?! — and our preferences didn’t always correlate to price or reputation. Here’s the breakdown:

Sample #1. Godiva Chocoiste Solid Dark Chocolate, $3 from Bristol Farms.
Well-liked by most of us, though we felt its texture didn’t compare to other brands. It was sweet with a hazelnutty flavor.

#2. Joseph Schmidt Belgian Dark Chocolate, $2 from Bristol Farms.
Also well-received and the runner-up for favorite bar, possibly the sweetest of the bunch, though Stale found it “boring” and wanted to know, “is this a Hershey bar?”

#3. Dagoba Organic Chocolate Dark 59%, $3 from Whole Foods.
This brand often ranks high in taste tests, and most of us agreed it was all right. It was another sweet choice, with a nutty taste that Ed compared to pistachios.

(These descriptions have prompted me to get out the leftover chocolate and nibble as I write. I can’t believe I’m eating chocolate again, after all we consumed last night!)

#4. Santander Dark Chocolate 70% Cacao, Colombian Single Origin, $2 from Bristol Farms (Whole Foods carries it too).
This was a new brand for all of us, and most of us weren’t sure how to react to its taste. Bright thought it was “beery,” Eurie wrote, succinctly, “weird,” while Ed and Ståle just had question marks.

#5. Lake Champlain Chocolates Dark Chocolate, $3.50 from Whole Foods.
The winner!! Just about everyone liked this one. Ed was its early champion, urging the rest of us to give it a try. It was sweet (“like cookies,” I wrote) with a pleasant texture. Lake Champlain is a Vermont brand, which may explain why it’s not well-known here, but after this I think we will all be seeking it out more often.

#6. Bristol Farms Dark Chocolate 70% Cacao, Single Origin Sao Thome, $5 from (duh) Bristol Farms.
Some thought this bar was bland, others simply didn’t know how to describe it. Out of all the chocolates it may have been the most innocuous, which was why I chose to call it “classic” — it wasn’t remarkable, it wasn’t terrible, but it was acceptable to everyone and was even Erik’s favorite of the bunch.

#7. Chocolove 70% Strong Dark Chocolate, $3 from Whole Foods.
Chocolove is so named because there is a love letter printed on the inside of each wrapper, but not everyone wanted to write a love note to this bar. I wrote that it was “not bad, kind of dusky,” but others found it bland or unpleasant and two people said it was their least favorite. Bright prefers the Chocolove bars embellished with dried fruit, and I also have enjoyed their dried-cherry bar.

#8. Valrhona Le Noir Amer 71% Cacao, $5 from Bristol Farms (also at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s).
We had three Valrhona bars in our tasting, the most of any brand, and Valrhona is well-reputed as a sophisticated dark chocolate. We liked this bar better than the other two Valrhonas we tried, and it was one person’s favorite (Margaret’s?).

#9. Green and Black’s Organic Dark 70%, $3 from Whole Foods.
Green and Black’s is the leading organic brand and usually does very well in taste tests, though very few of us liked this bar (it was one person’s favorite, however). We felt its flavor was dark and fermented, “like black bean paste,” “acidic” (Huy), or as Margaret wrote, “beef jerky with a woody aftertaste.” Those of us who’ve had their flavored varieties preferred those, like their Maya Gold, which contains orange, cinnamon, and vanilla.

#10. Chocovic Bitter Dark Chocolate Unique Origin Ocumare 71%, $2 from Trader Joe’s.
The loser!! This bar was universally hated, with descriptions like “uck!”, “tastes like dirt!,” and “moldy.” Ståle wrote, “Tastes like my mouth after too much beer.” Ed actually spit it out, while others refused to finish their pieces. Afterwards, Eurie checked the description on the wrapper and exclaimed, “Of course no one liked it! It says ‘notes of cedar, tobacco, and prune.’ Who wants that in their chocolate?!” I wouldn’t even take the leftovers home… though I have tasted a different variety of Chocovic chocolate and liked that, so we can’t condemn the brand altogether.

#11. Ghirardelli Dark Chocolate 60% Cacao, $2.50 from Bristol Farms (or the airport!).
This sweetish, slightly coconutty bar wasn’t a big favorite, though I liked it best (to my real surprise). “It’s your Bay Area roots showing,” someone (I think Bright) said.

#12. Valrhona Nature & Chocolat Organic Dark Chocolate 70% Cocoa, $5 from Bristol Farms.
We liked this least of the three Valrhona bars, with descriptions like “powdery” and “diluted.” It wasn’t one we really disliked, but no one really liked it either. Eurie’s conclusion on the whole Valrhona line was, “Now [after this tasting] I know that Valrhona makes really really good quality dark chocolate, I just don’t like it.”

#13. Trader Joe’s Organic Dark Chocolate 73% Super Dark, $2 from (of course) Trader Joe’s.
With so many of us relying on TJ’s for our groceries, how could we not include a representative of their brand? (I wanted to buy one more bar of one of their different varieties, but Erik said we had enough chocolate. He was definitely right, as we decided in the end.) Many of us thought bars #12-15 all sort of blended together and were rather “eh.” (And we didn’t try them in order, so it’s not because our energy was flagging.) This was another one that tasted mildly fermented. Ståle wrote “boring.”

#14. Scharffen Berger Extra Dark, $3.50 from Bristol Farms (or Whole Foods).
Most of the time I am Scharffen Berger’s biggest fan, for eating and especially for baking, but I have to admit my favorite among their eating bars is the Semisweet. The rather bitter Extra Dark got a range of reactions; it was Ståle’s favorite but someone else’s least-liked bar. I should have brought in the Semisweet for comparison purposes. 😦

#15. Valrhona Le Noir Extra Amer 85% Cacao, $5 from Bristol Farms (and WF and TJ’s).
The last of the Valrhona bars, the last of the samples! This bar had the highest cacao concentration of any of the ones we tried, which came as no surprise to anyone after we tasted it: “very strong,” “lots of cacao,” and “very very dusky, but rather nice” were some of the comments. Those of us more accustomed to eating bitter chocolate liked this one more, but the sweet-chocolate fans couldn’t stomach it — it ranked as two people’s least favorite.

All in all, we all really enjoyed the tasting. It’s amazing how differently one tastes when one is eating fifteen variations on the same food! — sampling the leftovers this morning, they all taste pretty good, because now I’m not concentrating as hard. None of us had ever done anything like this before, and we were surprised at how much the different bars varied (and how controversial some of them were, with people ranking them as both favorite and least favorite). My guess is we all ate about a bar’s worth of chocolate apiece. Our original plan was to throw the leftovers in a pot with some heavy cream and make fondue, but after all that tasting no one could handle even another bite of chocolate. (Ying brought out salt and vinegar potato chips instead, which went down excellently.) I think the favorite part for most of us, besides just sitting down to do nothing but eat chocolate, was learning which brands or concentrations work best for us, similar to Eurie’s realization about Valrhona.

Also, dear friends: you were a particularly good group to eat chocolate with. 🙂 Several of you were strangers to each other, but I think the group had really good chemistry (and that’s not just the chocolate talking). Thank you for making our first tasting party a success. 🙂

Perhaps the most exciting thing that came out of this event was that we had so much fun doing it, we can’t wait to have another tasting party! Next in line is a cheese party, in which we’ll try different kinds of cheese with different accompaniments, and a vanilla ice cream/gelato party, which I’m looking forward to even more than the cheese. We also have an entire page of other ideas which we’ll surely draw upon at some point: sausage, ramen, hummus, donuts, and so on, though we seem agreed that chocolate was not only the most feasible option, but the best.

[This post was imported on 4/10/14 from my old blog at]