Chocolate Vision

It was the summer of 1980. I was an exchange student in St. Gallen, Switzerland. It was my first trip to Europe, and I was 14 with a mouthful of braces, earnestly trying to like being away from home.

Whenever a bout of homesickness would set in, I'd board a bus and go into the center of town, where I'd roam and study faces and houses that were so different from those at home. I always ended up at the train station, a center of activity, and an important pit stop. It was at the station newsstand where I'd buy a copy of the International Herald Tribune to catch up on anything familiar, and to wash down the news with a bar of chocolate.


A small sampler of the choc-choices on the market. (Kim O'Donnel)

Even at the newsstand, the chocolate choices were far more varied than at the pharmacy in my hometown outside Philadelphia. There were lots of candy bars, with funny names I had never heard of, but there was also lots of shelf space designated for chocolate. Lots and lots of chocolate.

Even on the surface, the Swiss chocolate bar was by far prettier than the boring brown-wrapped Hershey's bar I had grown up with. The wrapping was colorful, the label written in more than one language and the chocolate was further protected by a lining of gold or silver foil. How exotic!

I'll never forget that first bite. I don't know what came over me. It was creamy, it was nutty, it was melting slowly on my tongue, lingering like a reverie. From that moment, my life was different. Not only had I found the antidote to my homesickness (I would polish off a big bar every few days), but I embarked upon what would become a life of culinary curiosity.

Much has happened in the chocolate world since then, when the good stuff could only be found in Europe. I remember when brands like Lindt began to appear on this side of the Atlantic, marketed as an exclusive commodity, and we all remember the arrival of Godiva shops and the craze for a gold box of European-style bon bons.

In the 1990s, chocolate lovers began to have even more choices from smaller companies making premium chocolates. Names such as Scharffen Berger, Joseph Schmidt and Green & Black's began to hit the shelves as the latest, greatest choc to rock your socks.

Now, the choices include organic, fair trade and country of cacao origin. And bittersweet chocolate, once considered strange and exotic fare eaten by misfits, is now a member of the American chocolate club, particularly since the discovery of its link to cancer-fighting antioxidants.

I rounded up a few of my favorite chocoholics and asked them to join me in a blind taste test of some of the current offerings on the market. We looked at aroma, initial bite, depth of flavor and texture.

Below, notes from our experiences and relevant tidbits that may be of interest to other chocolate lovers, followed by the winning entry, which was a big surprise. Note: Price is approximate, as it varies depending on point of purchase. Availability of brands as listed is not comprehensive, but based on where chocolate was purchased for the taste test. If you know of additional availability of certain brands, please share your sightings in the comments area below.

Brand: Cacao Reserve by Hershey's
Also on Label: 65 percent cacao, extra dark chocolate
Background: The latest product to launch from Artisan Confections Co., a Hershey's subsidiary, joining recently acquired Dagoba Organic Chocolates, Scharffen Berger and Joseph Schmidt Confections.
Price: $2.29
Availability: Target
Tasting Notes: Well-balanced ratio of bitter and sweet, deep and layered flavor, crisp but not tough bite, notes of cinnamon, maybe coconut.
Details: http://www.hersheys.com/cacaoreserve

Brand: Chocolove
Also on Label: Dark chocolate, 61 percent
Background: USDA certified organic Belgian chocolate, manufactured in Boulder, Colo.
Price: $2.69
Availability: Target, Whole Foods
Tasting Notes: Chalky bite, waxy texture. Fruit undertone that seems out of place. More sweet than bitter. One-note flavor that feels flat.
Details: http://www.chocolove.com

Brand: Equal Exchange
Also on Label: Organic very dark chocolate, 71 percent cocoa
Background: Fair trade, certified organic chocolate manufactured in Switzerland for Equal Exchange, a fair trade organization working with small farmer cooperatives specializing in coffee, tea and chocolate.
Price: $3.39
Availability: My Organic Market (MOM's)
Tasting Notes: Coffee aroma, hints of green apple. More sweet than bitter. Smooth texture, medium-hard bite, well rounded.
Details: http://www.equalexchange.com

Brand: Ghirardelli
Also on Label: Intense Dark, Twilight Delight, 72 percent cacao
Background: Got its start in San Francisco in 1852 by Italian immigrant Domingo Ghirardelli. Has had a long history of acquisition, including Quaker Oats and Swiss chocolate conglomerate Lindt and Sprungli in 1998 (see below). Intense Dark line launched in March, 2006.
Price: $2.49
Availability: Target, Eckerd Drugs, Giant
Tasting Notes: Cigar store smell. Thin bite, delicate, but creamy on the tongue. Well balanced between bitter and sweet but not very complex in flavor.
Details: http://www.ghirardelli.com

Brand: El Rey
Also on Label: Gran Saman dark chocolate 70 percent cacao,
Background: Venezuelan single-bean origin; company in operation since 1929. Gran Saman is one of the trees that have traditionally shaded cacao.
Price: $3.39
Tasting Notes: Woody aroma. Crisp bite that softens to a powdery finish on tongue. Hardly sweet, almost smoky. Nose more interesting than its bite. Is there mold or mushroom undertones? Wonder if this would be better suited for baking.
Availability: Whole Foods, Dean & Deluca
Details: http://www.chocolates-elrey.com

Brand: Green & Black's
Also on Label: Organic, dark 70 percent,
Background: Certified organic, company got its started in London in the early 1990s, its Maya Gold chocolate bar and cocoa powder is certified fair trade. Chocolate bars are manufactured in Italy. Acquired in 2005 by Cadbury Schweppes.
Price: $2.79
Availability: Target, Whole Foods
Tasting Notes: Coffee undertones, all flavor at front of mouth, a bit muddy, but full and rich. More bitter than sweet. Smooth melt on tongue.
Details: www.greenandblacks.com

Brand: Lindt
Also on Label: Excellence, 85 percent cocoa, dark extra fine
Background: Started in 1845 as a Sprungli father-son confection venture, and over the next 160 years, would become a global chocolate conglomerate.
Price: $1.99
Availability: Target, Eckerd Drug, Giant
Tasting Notes: Thin bite yet chalky texture. Cloudy, almost sour flavor. Cocoa powdery and grainy. Smells of chocolate pudding. Unpleasant.
Details: http://www.lindt.com

The winner of this batch of seven? Much to our surprise, it was Cacao Reserve by Hershey's, which offered the best sweet-bitter balance coupled with a firm yet delicate bite and depth of flavor. Following close behind are Equal Exchange and Green & Black's, with a fair amount of complexity and more bitter notes than sweet, which is a good thing in our book.

Now, it's your turn! Got any thoughts on the chocolate bars listed above? Or maybe we missed one that always makes your list of faves. By all means, share with the class.

By Kim ODonnel |  December 6, 2006; 9:39 AM ET Candy , Chocolate , Taste Tests
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Comments

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Hi Kim, I had asked about this in your chat yesterday, but you might have run out of time before you got to it. I'm making your biscotti for Christmas gifts, but wanted to check to see how long they would keep. (Can I make them this weekend and give them at a party on the 17th?) I just don't want anyone to get sick. Thanks!

Posted by: Washington, DC | December 6, 2006 10:48 AM

Hey Kim, another follow up to yesterday's chat. When you get a chance, could you reprint your candy making post? (The one with marshmellows etc etc). It sounded so good I can't wait to try. On the chocolate taste test...I LOVE Cadbury's chocolate. I was so surprised when a British friend informed me that the company made so much more than those overly sweet easter treats. My first Cadbury's bar helped me realize how amazing chocolate could really be.

Posted by: Omaha | December 6, 2006 11:00 AM

I've tried the El Rey Gran Saman dark chocolate 70 percent cacao listed above and agree that it's flavor can be a bit too bitter. I highly recommend, though, the El Rey Apamate 73.5% cacao, also available at Whole Foods. It is less bitter, despite its higher cacao content, and has a much smoother flavor overall. Delicious!!!

Posted by: Silver Spring, MD | December 6, 2006 11:05 AM

What, Hershey won over Ghirardelli? I would never have guessed that one. I'm glad to see my opinion of the 85% Lindt confirmed though.

Speaking of chocolate, though, I'm going to be making peppermint bark for Christmas gifts. It's a layer of dark chocolate, topped with a layer of white chocolate mixed with crushed peppermint. Do I need to temper the dark chocolate before spreading it? What about white chocolate? Thanks!

Posted by: WMA | December 6, 2006 11:23 AM

The traditional Lindt bar -- the bitersweet bar in plain white wrapping with gold and silver writing (and no percentage listed) is MUCH better than the bars listed by percentage.

My favorite? Scharffen Berger Bittersweet.

PS. I made hard candy. But how do I keep the pieces from sticking to one another? Superfine sugar coating?

Posted by: Rita | December 6, 2006 11:29 AM

I tried The Cacao Tree chocolate truffles at Cafe Atlantico and they were VERY good. www.thecacaotree.com

Posted by: DCDireWolf | December 6, 2006 11:52 AM

I grew up in germany and my favorite candy bar was always Kinder. It is made from milk and white chocolate. For darker chocolates I'll stick with Ritter Sport. Yummy!

Posted by: German Chocolate | December 6, 2006 12:00 PM

For my money, it's Valrhona all the way. The 71% bar is complex, balanced and totally satisfying. The Valrhona dark chocolate with crushed hazelnuts is amazing also. BTW: Trader Joe's Pound-and-a-Half dark chocolate with almonds is very, very good. What I like about each of the above is that the flavors are so full and rich, they satisfy my chocolate cravings with just a square or two. (In a pinch, don't forget Hershey's Special Dark!)

Posted by: Chocoletta | December 6, 2006 12:10 PM

I would strongly recommend Code d'or chocolates: pistachios, milk and dark. They are all full, complex in flavor but smooth textured. It's pure satisfaction. I have always liked the honey-nougaty Toblerones. A good crunch along with the fine after-taste. Rittersport with hazelnuts is another favorite. Uh, I love chocolate!

Posted by: zeynep | December 6, 2006 1:34 PM

Regarding the post on hard candy, i've always found that a light dusting of powdered sugar prevents sticking

Posted by: Annapolis | December 6, 2006 1:42 PM

And the best thing about Cadbury is that if I eat a whole bar, I'll make myself ill because it's just so rich and creamy. Two bites of a Cadbury bar have to be better for you than an entire anything else.

(damn, now I want chocolate. Preferably a Time Out, which I can't get in this stupid country. You know, for a country that eats so much sugar, we do terrible in the quality of the mass market sweets that are available. There's very little in terms of sweets that one picks up in the grocery store check out lanes, or in terms of American mass-branded cookies, for that matter, that is as satisfying as what one gets anywhere else.)

Posted by: MB | December 6, 2006 2:28 PM

Best chocolate ever - Dagoba Organic chocolate bars from Ashland Oregon. I buy them at First Alternative Food Coop and Fred Meyer's in Corvallis, OR, but I've seen Dagoba on Food Network, I think Unwrapped, so I'm pretty sure they've gone national. My favorite is the Conacado 73% cacao, but there's also the Eclipse 87%, and others, including flavors like Latte (yummy!)
see www.dagobachocolate.com for more info

Posted by: Sheila | December 6, 2006 3:04 PM

What? No Leonidas?

Woefully incomplete survey ...

Posted by: jazzyndn | December 6, 2006 3:17 PM

Agree with Sheila about the Dagoba Chocolate. Saw them on Food Network and ordered over the internet. Wonderful!

Posted by: Paula | December 6, 2006 3:49 PM

For a great selection of Eurpoean chocolate bars visit World Market -- they have it all! Time Out, Bounty, Lindt, Cadbury, Flake, Aero, etc. And I agree that the Lidt dark chocolate is just unpleasant!

Posted by: Wash DC | December 6, 2006 3:56 PM

I agree with Annapolis about Cadbury. I'm off to London tonight and will definitely be bringing some back with me. I was in New Zealand a long time ago and there is a Cadbury plant there. I was a college student and Cadbury bars were about 3 for $0.50 at the time. I can't possibly tell you how many I ate... : )

I'm surprised that you didn't review Scharffen Burger. The 70% Bittersweet is really yummy...

Posted by: healthyg | December 7, 2006 1:53 PM

Huuuuh!! You DISSED Lindt!!

Have you ever tried their White Chocolate? To die for!!!

Actually, Nestle's also makes a VERY good white chocolate bar -- tried that one?

Want a recipe to die for, made with 9 Tobler Bittersweet Chocolate bars, whipping cream, amaretto, almond paste with a chocolate-amaretto pinwheel undercrust???

Contact Ace. <:-)

Posted by: Ace from Columbia Pike | December 7, 2006 2:29 PM

Forgot something -- you MUST saunter over to the Walter Reed branch of the Library ( coupla blocks from the Col Pike Farmer's market) and check-out their book "The Emperors of Chocolate". What a great book! What a surprising book!! I see (still-beloved) M&M's in a differnt light now. Great book! In fact the book was so good, that while I was reading I noticed some chocolate stains on the pages of this (almost brand-new) book. I wondered why they were there, until I was 1/4 thru the book, then I HAD to reluncantly put it down and run upstairs to Snack bar and get the first of about 3 Hershey Bars. Yum

Posted by: Ace from Columbia Pike (P.S.) | December 7, 2006 2:32 PM

I'll second the Apatame from El Rey. Simply delish. I'll also give some props to the dark chocolate pound plus bar from Trader Joe's. I wouldn't call it the best dang chocolate in the world, but the price can't be beat making it very economical for truffle making.

Posted by: Mike | December 7, 2006 3:38 PM

Cote d'Or bars from Belgium. Delicious. If you can find it in the DC area, let me know. This summer in France we measured the chocolate display in one supermarket--70' apx--and the chocolate bars were displayed on end, so there may have been 140 types.

Posted by: Biglerville | December 7, 2006 7:34 PM

Biglerville, I think I've seen the Cote D'or bars at Lebanese Taverna Market in Arlington and possibly at Dean & Deluca in Georgetown. Online the best source I've found for obscure chocolate bars is Bittersweet, a chocolate cafe in San Francisco that I found this summer. They sell more than 100 bars from around the world if I remember correctly.
http://www.bittersweetchocolatecafe.com/

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | December 8, 2006 9:08 AM

Glad you liked the Equal Exchange. That is truly one of our favorites, too!

Posted by: Eliz | December 8, 2006 1:02 PM

Comparing Lindt 85% to the Hershey's 65% is rather like comparing apples to oranges. I have not tasted the Hershey's, but I eat a lot of Lindt of various varieties. The 85% is indeed hard to eat, but I think it's simply too high a cacao percentage, even for dark chocolate lovers like me. Dark chocolate (unless for baking) needs a greater proportion of cacao butter and liquor to cacao solids. The Lindt Excellence 70% cacao is far better and would have been a more suitable comparison to the other chocolates tested.

Posted by: Raleigh NC | December 8, 2006 2:43 PM

If you are into serious, down-to-the-bone chocolate addiction, go to www.chocosphere.com to look at a variety of chocolate madness from around the world. It's expensive, and it's for people who consider chocolate not just a food group, but a sacrament. I am intrigued by the NewTree Chocolates currently in the Clearance section, and this led me to their website where more temptations abound.

Posted by: Loam | December 8, 2006 2:53 PM

There's one company called Sweetriot. Chocolate covered cacao nibs. I had the chance to meet the entrepreneur, and she's passionate about her product. the company's still very young, but it's gotten quite a bit of distribution.

Posted by: Bethesda | December 8, 2006 3:12 PM

For my money, nothing beats Suchard. Not considered the elite of Swiss chocolate by gourmands, but boy is their milk chocolate (in all sorts of flavors) yummy to me! A big selection available at Cafe Mozart, on New York Avenue in the District. Have only seen the dark chocolate at, of all places, an I-95 highway rest stop in either Maryland or Delaware

Posted by: Michael | December 8, 2006 3:38 PM

OK, I get it. You limited this discussion to chocolate bars.

None the less I can't help myself - the best chocolate confections are made by Leonidas of Belgium.

End of story.

In addition their praline bon bon, made with fresh dairy cream, is unbeatable.

Posted by: Stuart | December 8, 2006 4:13 PM

I had crepes (4) with the famous french Verona chocolate (sp?) in Morocco at a wonderful patisserie, bakery, restaurant place called Chez Paul. It cost under 10 dollars including freshly pressed moroccan cafe latte. I have never been able to top this experience here in the states.

Posted by: mamra | December 13, 2006 11:31 AM

Vahlrona not Verona

Posted by: mamra | December 13, 2006 11:32 AM

I have become somewhat addicted to Neuhaus dark chocolate recently. They have some bars but usually I buy the little squares. They have several selections of different levels of cacao but my current favorites are West Africa 72% and Sao Tome 74%. You can find them at Union Station.

Posted by: Macy | December 14, 2006 10:59 AM

I like chocolate, but only good chocolate. My 8-year-old daughter is chocolate-obsessed. She has never been interested in other sweets. If she gets non-chocolate treats (gifts, trick-or-treating, etc.), she gives them away. She has several books about the history and varieties of chocolate, and educates me on the subject. She treats chocolate like a necessary food group. My husband and I both like tart flavors, like berries. After reading these comments, I realize that my sweet little girl is not alone in her chocolate-obsessing!

Posted by: RSB | December 14, 2006 11:47 AM

The best chocolate, hands down for quality and price, is the belgium chocolate bars at Trader Joes. Over a pound of chocolate for 4$. Bittersweet is great for baking and eating.

Posted by: Lisa | December 14, 2006 1:11 PM

The best chocolate, hands down for quality and price, is the belgium chocolate bars at Trader Joes. Over a pound of chocolate for 4$. Bittersweet is great for baking and eating.

Posted by: Lisa | December 14, 2006 1:11 PM

The poster that mentioned Cote d'Or is right on. In retrospect, I would have left the wine I lugged back from France in my suitcase and filled it with chocolate bars. If anyone has an Aldi near them, they sell a large European chocolate bar that is very similar to these in several flavors for about $1.69. The dark chocolate with hazelnuts is excellent. Great bargain and quality for the price.

Posted by: Dana | December 15, 2006 7:35 AM

The best chocolate for my money is Swiss and the varieties without salt. The saltier the chocolate, the less it appeals to me. I particularly recommend Viellars which Trader Joes sometimes carries. It's just right and priced right for everyday eating. Eidelweiss molds create just the right aesthetic experience, too.

Posted by: colleen | December 21, 2006 3:20 PM

I use Lindt Excellence 70% for desert dishes. I recently used it for Fudgy Chocolate Brownies from "Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook" and the results were excellent.

Posted by: JohnJ | December 22, 2006 1:42 PM

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