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.
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.
Tasting Notes: Well-balanced ratio of bitter and sweet, deep and layered flavor, crisp but not tough bite, notes of cinnamon, maybe coconut.
Also on Label: Dark chocolate, 61 percent
Background: USDA certified organic Belgian chocolate, manufactured in Boulder, Colo.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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