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Crafting Chocolate Pairings

Photo by Shutterstock/smallblackcat

You’ve probably never thought about how a chocolate bar got to be, well, a chocolate bar. And you’re not alone: Art Pollard, the owner of Amano Artisan Chocolate, thought “chocolate comes from chocolate” before he started making his own. Turns out, making chocolate is actually a pretty involved process. Before we get to tasting, let’s look at where the raw materials for your chocolate bar come from.

Cacao to Chocolate

Chocolate is a specialty food from its inception, growing only near the equator and needing careful harvesting and processing to produce its familiar flavors.

Illustration © by Amber Day

Cacao trees (Theobroma cacao) grow from about 20 degrees north of the equator to about 20 degrees south of it, and much of the cocoa that bean-to-bar makers use comes from Central and South America. Many makers actually visit the farms themselves and work with farmers to make sure that the cacao is fermented and dried in a way that creates the flavors they want.

The pods grow. Cacao flowers grow into pods when midges pollinate them. The pods ripen over five or six months, and typically mature at the end of the local rainy season.

Farmers harvest the beans. The pods are carefully removed from the trees, and then opened — sometimes with a machete! Each pod contains 20 to 60 cacao “beans,” which are technically seeds. The farmers scoop them out of the pods. The raw bean itself doesn’t taste much like chocolate; that flavor is developed in processing. Farmers in the Caribbean call the raw beans “jungle M&M’s,” and wherever cacao grows, people love to eat the tartly sweet pulp that surrounds the beans, which tastes similar to lychee.

Farmers ferment the beans. The beans and pulp are fermented for 3 to 7 days. The sweet pulp attracts microorganisms that launch fermentation. For high-quality chocolate, farmers rigorously monitor the process to ensure consistent, thorough fermentation. Some farmers cover the beans with banana or plantain leaves or plastic tents, while others ferment them in wood or plastic boxes. Fermenting the beans removes tannins and makes them less astringent. This stage is crucial for creating the best possible flavors. Unfermented beans would be bitter, without the signature chocolate flavor, and improperly fermented beans will have off flavors, such as smoked ham.

Illustration © by Amber Day

Farmers dry the fermented beans. In most cases, the wet beans are spread in a single layer on a concrete patio, on a road, or in a drying shed to be dried by the sun. After the beans are dried to approximately 7 percent moisture content, they’re stable and ready to be made into chocolate. Many of the flavors we find in chocolate are cemented during the fermenting and drying stages. When beans are fermented and dried correctly, the chocolate flavors come through; when they’re not, other flavors, such as acid or smoke, can overwhelm the chocolate flavor we’re familiar with. For example, beans from Papua New Guinea are notorious for their smoky flavor. But that’s not inherent in the bean. In Papua New Guinea, it rains almost every day, so farmers dry their beans over wood fires, where the smoke seeps into them and changes the flavor. Some makers and tasters call this a defect, but, more recently, a few makers have started celebrating that distinctive flavor note. Scott Moore Jr. of Tejas Chocolate + Barbecue makes smoky bars that do well in Texas, the land of barbecue. No matter their flavors, after drying, the beans are often shipped to bean-to-bar companies in other countries, where they’ll be further processed into the familiar forms of chocolate consumers see in grocery stores and specialty shops.

Finding the Perfect Pairing

It sometimes seems like chocolate pairs well with everything, but you’ll find some flavors that just don’t meld. Here are some tips to guide your pairing pursuit.

For starters, wine almost never pairs well with chocolate.

Photo by Getty Images/Natalia Van Doninck

Whew, I said it. I’m not the only one who thinks so, though. Talk to almost any chocolate or wine expert and they’ll wax scientific about why this pairing doesn’t work, mentioning tannins, polyphenols, and so on. Matt Caputo, president of A Priori Specialty Foods (which distributes a lot of bean-to-bar chocolate) and Caputo’s Market and Deli, says that pairing a big red with dark chocolate is like “shooting yourself in the tongue with Novocain.” It’s a strong sensation that’ll shock you into being awake, but it’ll also immediately give you palate fatigue and prevent you from tasting any of the nuances of the wine or the chocolate. Meanwhile, Michael Klug, a chocolatier at L.A. Burdick in New York City who’s been pairing chocolate with other foods for decades, is more mild-mannered about it. “Dark chocolate is so powerful that it covers the subtle flavors and finesse found in wine instead of highlighting it. The matching of fine, high-end dry red wines and also white wines and Champagne [with chocolate] is a very unfortunate combination.”

Unfortunate indeed, but there are two exceptions to the general rule: Fortified wines and sweet wines tend to pair better with chocolate. In general, I’m taking a step away from the classic wine-chocolate pairing and toward some more unusual pairings — think cheese, bread, and mezcal. I put together a panel of chocolatiers, cicerones, sommeliers, and other people with great palates to taste their way through the following combinations, and I’m excited to share the results with you.

Illustration © by Amber Day

I recommend overriding flavor notes instead of origins for the chocolate throughout, because one Madagascar bar, for example, might taste different from another, and because blends will work just as well as single origins for these pairings. We used 70 percent cocoa — that is, dark chocolate — as our go-to percentage in tastings, but we also tried milk chocolate (which is usually about 40 percent cocoa), dark milk chocolate (about 55 to 70 percent cocoa), 100 percent bars, and white chocolate. Keep in mind that the percentage, roast style (light or dark), and overall chocolate style (two-ingredient or added cocoa butter, for example) will change pairings significantly. In other words, trust your own taste buds!

Remember, these are just suggestions. At the end of the day, you’re your own best chocolate sommelier. Have fun with it, and don’t be afraid to mix and match to find a pairing you like. Here are some basic guidelines:

  • Pair foods with similar flavors. For example, a nutty chocolate can bring out the hazelnut taste in an already nutty cheese.
  • Alternatively, pair foods with opposite flavors. Where the above example was nuts paired with nuts, now think about peanut butter and jelly.
  • Use the aromatics of the chocolate or the food you’re pairing with it to guide you.
  • Consider whether the pairing makes each element taste better or worse. If better, awesome: You’ve found a winner. If worse, move on to the next one.
  • Trial and error is your best friend. The worst-case scenario is that you get to eat a lot of chocolate!

The best pairings will taste like a third food, not simply a mashup of, say, chocolate and cheese in your mouth. They’ll create another experience altogether that surprises and delights — and keeps you coming back for more.

Drinks and Dessert

For a classy cocktail-hour nibble, it’s hard to beat good chocolate — paired with the right drinks, of course.

For all beverage pairings, I recommend a modified version of what Murray’s Cheese in New York calls the “milkshake method.” Murray’s uses the method for tasting cheese with a second food or beverage, but it’s just as good for tasting chocolate with another food or beverage. Here’s how it works: Take a bite of the chocolate, chew it a couple of times, and then let it start to melt in your mouth. Then, take a sip of the beverage and let the flavors meld. For the next taste, try it in reverse: With just a hint of the liquid still in your mouth, take a bite of chocolate and see if the flavor changes.

Fortified Wines

Photo by Getty Images/SylviaJansen

This one is easy. Sweet wines, such as sherry, port, and Madeira, as well as digestifs, such as amaro, pair well with dark, milk, white, and 100 percent chocolate. The relatively high sugar and low alcohol content make these pairings work beautifully. You can even try regular old sweet wines, such as ice wines and some rieslings, as long as the wine is sweeter than the chocolate. I’m not going to divvy up wines and chocolates here, since most wines in this category pair so well with any type of chocolate.

Beer

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You’ve already forgotten about chocolate and red wine, right? Good, because chocolate and beer is a much better pairing. I know, it sounds crazy! But try it; it works. Something about the yeast and hops in the beer plays well with the flavors of chocolate, offering a sublime experience that you’ll want to create again and again. You’ll want to pair like with like here — in other words, chocolate with citrusy notes against beer with citrusy notes, and roasty notes against roasty notes. Though an ice-cold beer sometimes hits the spot, it won’t work when you’re pairing it with chocolate. Make sure your beer is slightly warmer than you’d usually serve it (above 50 degrees Fahrenheit); otherwise, the chocolate won’t melt in your mouth so luxuriously.

There are so many types of beer that I can’t keep track of them all, but a few work particularly well with chocolate: American IPAs; Belgian, English brown, and sour ales; and milk stouts, dry Irish stouts, and American porters.

In our tastings, Belgian ale reigned supreme. Belgian blondes, Belgian golden strong ales, Belgian dubbels, Belgian dark strong ales, and anything in the catchall Belgian Grand Cru category all made for delectable results. Stouts and porters, with their chocolaty, creamy consistencies, make a natural choice for chocolate. But don’t overlook such beers as citrusy IPAs, which can bring out similar flavors in an already fruity chocolate.

Spirits

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Look at you, with your sipping whiskey and your cigar, lounging in your vintage Eames leather chair, calling to your live-in chef to bring you a delicious dessert. Oh, wait, that was a daydream. But here’s a way to make your next sip of a spirit feel that sumptuous: Pair it with a piece (or two or three) of craft chocolate.

As with beer, you’ll want to pair like with like: floral spirits, such as gin, with floral chocolates, such as single-origin Ecuador, and so on. You’ll find some surprises when you try these together, as chocolate often brings out new flavors in the spirits, and sometimes even transposes its flavors onto a spirit.


Illustration © by Amber Day

Also, though you might usually order some of these spirits on the rocks, keep it neat when you’re pairing them with chocolate, as a cooler-temperature drink will change the way the chocolate melts in your mouth.

Many craft-chocolate-makers have started to age nibs in whiskey and bourbon barrels to infuse their bars with flavors. So it’s no surprise that chocolate goes so well with the strong stuff. But it’s not just whiskey, bourbon, and rye that work. Gin, dry curaçao, tequila, mezcal, and rum are ripe for the tasting. See “Chocolate & Spirits Pairings” for specific pairing ideas.

Chocolate-and-Cheese Board

Put sweet and salty chocolate and cheese together for over-the-top decadence. If you’re constructing an appetizer board, you can add fruits and bread or crackers to the mix for even more flavor experimentation.

When tasting foods and chocolate together, you can use the milkshake method again: First, put a small piece of the chocolate in your mouth, chew a couple of times, and let it start to melt. Then add the cheese, bread, or other food, and chew slowly.

In 19th-century Venezuela, it was common for people to eat something salty, such as cheese, with chocolate for an afternoon snack. In The New Taste of Chocolate, Maricel Presilla says that when she’s traveling in Colombia, she sees people eating chocolate with cheese arepas (thick cornmeal patties), and in the Colombian Andes, people still dunk Edam and Gouda in their drinking chocolate. It’s time for the rest of us to get in on that goodness.

Experts like to group cheeses into families, which I’ve listed below along with examples from each family. I’ve suggested some chocolate pairings in “Chocolate& Cheese Pairings” for a range of cheese families — pick your favorites from the suggested families, and go to town!

  • Fresh cheeses: Chèvre, mozzarella, and burrata.
  • Bloomy cheeses: Double-crème French brie and Fromager d’Affinois.
  • Washed-rind cheeses: Taleggio and Epoisses.
  • Pressed and cooked cheeses: Parmigiano-Reggiano and Challerhocker.
  • Pressed and uncooked cheeses: Aged Gouda, cheddar, and manchego.
  • Blue cheeses: Stilton and Roquefort.

I found a few common flavors in the best pairings: buttered toast, bacon burger, even ice cream. Because cheese is already a dairy product, it’s unusual to pair milk chocolate with it, but in my taste tests, I discovered that the combination turned into something like a candy bar (think Milky Way or Twix), which was almost irresistible.


Cleanse Your Palate

To taste pairings like an expert, you’ll need to choose something relatively flavorless to cleanse your palate between combinations — otherwise, you’ll taste an ever-more-complex blend of the pairing you want to try along with flavors from everything else you’ve consumed in the session. Plain water, whether still or sparkling, is a popular choice, as are plain soda crackers and thin slices of a mild-flavored bread. You can also use slices of a tart apple, or do as the jurors of the International Chocolate Awards board do and take a spoonful of thin, unseasoned polenta between pairings. The important part, no matter what you choose as a palate cleanser, is to stick to the same thing throughout your tasting session.

Megan Giller is a food writer and journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Slate, and Food & Wine. She judges chocolate competitions and teaches classes across the United States. Excerpted from Bean to Bar Chocolate © by Megan Giller. Used with permission from Storey Publishing.


Learn to Pair Chocolate

In Bean to Bar Chocolate, author Megan Giller teaches the nuanced art of pairing chocolate with beer, spirits, bread, cheese, and more. From harvesting cacao pods to transforming them into finished bars with distinctive and complex flavors, you’ll go behind the scenes to learn why artisanal chocolate from America’s hottest makers is so special. This title is available at www.MyFermentation.com/Store or by calling 800-978-7464.

Published on May 15, 2020

Fermentation

Inspiration for edible alchemy.