As I walked in through the door of the mechanical engineering room I was a little worried. I don't know if any of you have ever had the amazing experience of entering this particular building on the University of Washington campus but is, shall we say, a little less glamorous than the law building. It is an building made to look extra industrial chic for the 1970's but ends up looking like a sketchy meat packing plant from something out of a horror movie. But this was a chocolate class we are talking about so I gathered my strength and headed up the stairs to the second floor.
I could smell the sent of chocolate as I walked in, piles of cocoa beans on burlap sacks and cocoa powder samples lay in the front of the room, the place was already full of around 10 other students looking pleased and excited, and then there was the chocolate. Seemingly endless rows of tantalizing samples glistened in full glory.
I wrote out my little name tag grinning in anticipation as a thin, excited, science-type man wanders over to me to ask my name and check me off his list. Bill Fredricks tells me he has taught these chocolate classes for nearly 18 years, he also works in the oceanography department and has his hands in the chocolate industry. We sat down and went over where chocolate comes from, the history of it, and how it goes from tree to pod to fermentation to roasting to processing and blending and finally the product. I wont go into details because the real joy of the class is from watching his animation, his joy from teaching what he is passionate about. That kind of enthusiasm is infectious (not that I need a lot of convincing). As a scientist he knew about the chemical processes at work behind the food, and chocolate really is a techical, and as Bill says, an engineered food. It is all about the percent of fat, the times of roasting beans, the emulsion of milk powders and the wonders of melting temperatures. These things tend to go over my head, but I try my best to at least get to the whys, the types of fat producing which types of flavor (trust me it makes a difference).
Finally we got to the tastings, we worked are way from nearly pure nib chocolate (that is nearly no sugar added) which can be amazing. It is the cocoa butter content and the types of roasting that seemed to make a huge difference in flavor. Coffee and chocolate roasting is similar, the lighter the roast the more floral the notes and the darker the more robust and heavy it is going to be- obviously taking into account the region the bean is produced, just like a fine wine.
I always thought I hated really dark chocolate until tonight, but no, the truth is I just hated crappy dark chocolate. Oh I am such a snob. In the end my favorites were a Scharffen Berger 70% chocolate that Bill describes as a 'symphony of flavors' and I have to agree, it has a light floral note almost akin to blueberry which melts into a deeper, earthier, full-bodied flavor. My other fav was a Coucher du Soleil by Guittard, a 72% (the percent just means the base chocolate, or liqueur which is the cocoa butter and chocolate solids, so a 70% would have 30% sugar and not more than 3% emulsifier in the mix). On the milk side of things Bill liked the Des Alpes by Carma, which was creamy and strangely comforting like a memory I couldn't quite place, the chocolate is swiss. All milk chocolate is made with powdered milk, but the swiss use a different process which helps the fat of the milk from being mixed into the chocolate in the same way, all very complicated and tasty. But my favorite on that end was the Highland from Guittard, I have no idea if this is an appropriate choice as I have a very limited palette in terms of these things but it is what I liked. The star of the night was Maracaibo by Felchlin a 65%, which has won all kinds of awards and things and I must say was very very good, but didn't make it onto my list of favorites until they told me it was fabulous, then after a re-taste it was great.... the taste seems to be improved by peer pressure. (The BBC has an interesting article on this- the taste/price idea when talking about wine and I am sure it works with chocolate as well).
Honestly I have to say it was one of the best Friday nights I have spent in a while, absolutely worth while, and I will certainly be signing up for some of his other classes (he also teaches a day long class on truffles). I was maybe even a little disappointed when the class was over and stayed to help tidy up. Besides the chocolate tips I have also learned than in addition to being a food snob, and a food nerd, I also seem to be a food groupie, I wonder where the road leads from here...