Now, For Something We Can All Sink Our Teeth Into ...
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.I'm in the 37% who will stick with the complex red wine (dark chocolate).
In New York, the proof is in the real estate: at least a dozen new boutique chocolatiers have opened here since 2000.
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."
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.
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.A crème brûlée truffle? Oooo - I'm shivering.
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.
"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.A truffle with Bud inside; must be marketing to those Dean voters with that one...okay, okay, can't take a joke?
...I'm braced, how 'bout you?
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.