Friday, April 03, 2009

Lucky me managed to wrangle an invite to Chocs Away, a chocolate tasting event organised by Susie Smilie, editor of Word of Mouth, The Observer's food blog. This was no ordinary tasting event. It not only involved participants being asked to taste many, many Easter eggs, ranging from supermarket brands (Tesco, Lidl, Asda, etc.) to mid-range (Green & Black, Divine, Daylesford Organic) to more designer brands (Hotel Chocolat, Chococo, etc.), but included drinks pairings (Cocksburn Port and Courvoisier Cognac) and other assorted chocolate goodies as well, such as brownies.

First off, Paul from Paul A. Young came up to deliver a five minute briefing on what we should look out for. Being the dutiful student that I am, I scribbled down his pointers:

  1. Look - examine the finish of the chocolate. Does it shine? Apparently, shine is an indicator of good quality chocolate.
  2. Smell - smell the chocolate. Smell is just as important when it comes to enjoying the whole chocolate experience.
  3. Taste - DO NOT CHEW. Allow the chocolate to melt on your tongue. Is the chocolate sweet or bitter? The more bitter it is, the higher the cocoa content. As many Easter eggs are made up of different kinds of chocolate, try all the individual pieces to see how they blend.
  4. Refresh the palate between tastings, with water or any other beverage one has to hand.
  5. Don't be greedy. It is entirely possible to suffer from palate fatigue.

I would have shown a photo of my notes, but I got chocolate on them.

With that in mind, it was time to let the tasting begin. Lest you think we were all just slacking off, I'll let you know that we had work to do. We had to give our comments on all of the chocolates we tasted. I didn't count, but there must have been around 40 different chocolates we were asked to comment on, though, luckily, we didn't have to fill them all in.

Chocolate critics hard at work

I made my rounds around the entire table, filling in about two thirds of the sheet while attempting to follow Paul's directions, with comments such as "Dull finish, no smell, tasted far too sweet". I noted, with some amusement, that some people around me had given up on the conoisseur-esque comments and had simply opted for "Yummy!" and "Awful!". Of all of the chocolates on offer, I rated Daylesford Organic's dark chocolate, Sainsbury's Taste the Difference Easter egg range and Waitrose's dark chocolate the highest. Port went surprisingly well with the dark chocolate, but the taste of the cognac was so sharp, it almost made me sick on the spot.

I must confess to having skipped certain brands; I don't like Lindt or Thorton's as I think they're far too sweet, and I hate white chocolate (it shouldn't even be called chocolate), so those were no-gos for me.

After the smell of chocolate (milk and white, to be specific) started making me feel slightly ill, I went to the next room to catch a chocolate making demonstration by Kieran of Chocolution. He showed us how to make chocolate using the ingredients found in the Mayan Magic chocolate making kit, which will be making its debut in Selfridges next week.

Mayan Magic chocolate making kit

The finished product, raw chocolate without any dairy or sugar, was an incredibly intense experience. It was definitely one of my favourite tastes of the entire event. The chocolate could also be used as a dip for assorted fruit (pineapples, grapes and oranges, as can be seen in the photo), or mixed with other ingredients. Apparently, Kieran's oddest chocolate combination was chocolate and garlic! Look, I may have loved chocolate and bacon, but I think even that's going too far for me.

Having let my taste buds recover somewhat, it was time to try Paul A. Young's chocolate selection: chocolate with fennel, chocolate with stem ginger, basil chocolate truffles, Guinness chocolate truffles, sticky chocolate brownies and two others which I can't remember. And they were all incredibly delicious. It was amazing to be able to detect each of the different ingredients without any one overpowering the other. That's truly the mark of a good chocolatier.

It was at this stall where I turned slightly fan-girl-like and said to Paul and James, "I read about you on Boing Boing! I loved your hot chocolate!!" Luckily for me, they're lovely people and didn't think I was some kind of weird person with a chocolate fetish (which is not far from the truth, come to think of it).

After all of this came the prize giving, with the lucky draw conducted by The Guardian's wonderfully ascerbic food critic, Jay Rayner, who thanked us all for giving so selflessly of ourselves. Heh.

And guess what? I won myself one of the Mayan Magic chocolate making kits! Yay me! I went up to Kieran later to tell him how much I was looking forward to trying out the kit (I'd promised some friends I'd make them chocolate-covered coffee beans) but sheepishly admitted that this would have to wait until after Easter as I'd given up chocolate for Lent. *cough*

I also got the opportunity to speak with Petra of Choc Star. I first heard about her over a year ago through a friend of mine whom she had met, but she had just started on her UK tour so I kept missing out on seeing her. She had made some (delicious) brownies for the event, and directed me to them so that I could try them out. She will also be at the chocolate festival this weekend, and the Slow Food festival the weekend after (both at the South Bank) but she said to come down this weekend for the full chocolate experience, though she also said that I should let myself recover first before going down!

The fun didn't end there; The Guardian thoughtfully provided us with paper cups so that we could take the 'leftovers' home if we so wished. Paul A. Young's table was almost instantly swamped. They were incredibly generous with their chocolate, especially given that one truffle is usually priced at £1.75.

These are my spoils.

Surprisingly delicious premium chocolate squares from Lidl. I even heard James from Paul A. Young telling Paul how good they were.

Chocolate brownies from Paul A. Young and Chocstar, chocolates from Sainsbury's Taste the Difference range and assorted wrapped eggs.

Chocolate truffles from Paul A. Young (basil (green flecked) and Guinness)

The Mayan Magic chocolate-making kit I won

Related links:
Word of Mouth: A first bite of the chocolate WoM tasting event
License to Roam's post on this event


Anonymous said...

Very good account of the evening, well done.

That's me in the 'critics hard at work' pic, staring intently at my tasting notes.

Sorry I missed the tips on tasting by Paul A Young at the beginning and also sorry I didn't try the Lidl wrapped choccies. mea culpa. there was just so much choccy to try, I cherry-picked. But my faves were the Paul A Young milk chocolate with caramelised bits and the Green and Black's dark chocolate easter egg.

Also missed the chocolate making workshop. doh! looks like it was a highlight. silly me.

they'll just have to run another one!

Anonymous said...

I agree with you on your faves! Although I have to say I like good quality white chocolate - the Waitrose and the Hotel Chocolat whites were both very good. Thorntons was rubbish though!

Big Jim said...

Apart from the cardomom & fennel (?) Paul A young easter egg, which was bloody gorgeous, I thought the Lidl one wasn't too bad at all.

One of the Word of Mouth team had inside info that the Lidl one was made by a good German chocolatier, & Paul A Young's partner/assistant was impressed with it, so it can't have been too bad!

Little Miss Random said...

@Anonymous: I'd forgotten that I rated Green & Black's as well. I just tasted so many chocolates! I am in complete agreement with their having to run another one... hopefully much sooner than next Easter!

@fingersandtoes: I'm not a big fan of milk (I grew up hating the stuff), so that may be why I dislike white chocolate so much.

@Big Jim: Yes, I overheard James telling Paul how impressed he was with Lidl's chocolates, which led to my picking up the squares when it was time to get the leftovers. I just Googled them and it turns out that Lidl won a Quality Food Award for these same chocolates!

Thanks for your comments, everyone!