Originally published in Meat For Tea magazine (Dec 2012)
Two years ago when I discovered this room for the first time, I wondered who were the lucky people that the store staff was setting up for. Today, it’s us.
We follow the woman through the narrow long store to the magic room, my magic room for the next hour and a half, passing by the side of the store that displays chocolate penne and vinegar. I know this from memory because today I pay no attention to the walls that stopped me in admiration of colors and shapes before. Finally the glass door opens and we step into wonderland. My eyes twinkle. Everything outside the door disappears once it closes behind us.
I have visited this shop so often, I know the woman who receives us in the room, by name. Evens so, she introduces herself in her charming accent. “Hello, I am Rossana (rolling the R).” On a shelf, she has a line up of chocolate bars, about nine or ten of them. I realize that they actually ask your taste preference in advance and choose the samples accordingly. “Come in. Have a seat.” She extends her hand to present the bench. We take our seats. In front of us on the long rustic wooden table rest two white square plates, two glasses of ice water, plus two bowls of warm water with lemon for washing our fingers. She also has small porcelain bowls of: coffee beans, hazelnut, jalapenos, cinnamon, vanilla, dried figs, and pepper flowers. These are meant to evoke the subtle layers of flavor waiting to be discovered as you develop your palate.
She starts by giving us a little background information on Hotel Chocolat along with a blurb about the history as well as types of chocolate. I nod my head so we can skip the details and get to the good part. Still, she meticulously covers the information session. As part of the process, she opens the large glass barrel in the corner of the room so we can feel the texture of those almond-shape coco beans inside. Their brown shawls rub off under the fingers to expose a smooth white interior.
At last, the tasting begins with their signature chocolate, gold star winner of the Great Taste Award in England. We each take a piece. She instructs us to smell it. The experience reminds me of wine tasting except so much better. “Ok, now take your index finger and rub the broken side of the chocolate to release its aroma.” “Smell it again.” When I remove my finger, a kaleidoscope of butterflies lifts up from my chocolate, fluttering rainbow wings all around me.
“I like to wait until my mouth starts to water before taking a bite,” she says. My mouth has been watering since I walked in. I take a bite. Saliva and cocoa intersperse in imperceptible sorority. Through the seventy percent cacao, the taste susurrate elegance. I close my eyes to really feel it, because one sensory deprivation is known to amplify the rest. Ah, magnificent.
Next up is milk chocolate for the sake of comparison, but also, to indulge my schizophrenic taste in chocolate. We dip our fingers in the hot water bowls, wipe them on our napkins and pick a piece of milk chocolate. Smell, rub, smell, bite and chew slowly. In this one a child comes alive, lilting playful delight. It makes you smile the way you would when a little one cheerfully runs around with genuine laughter.
The subsequent three bars all have sixty-six percent cacao. The first one comes from Saint Lucia. Rosana doesn’t love this one. Here we go. Smell, rub the side, smell again and bite. It boasts power befitting of the chieftain of a tribe. As I chew the morsel into small pieces, its taste pinches the inside of my cheeks as if to say, don’t forget who is in charge here.
Softness of fruit peers through the other two bars, one claiming hints of honey. Their tranquil flavors conjure up nude women languidly reclining in a 17th century painting, perhaps by Titian or Rubens, when rotundity indicated wealth.
All in all, the sixty-six percent chocolates feel like they come from a long lineage of nobility. They have roots, ancestry, depth.
Slowly, we graduate to the higher percentages of cacao: seventy-five, eighty-five, 100. I am waiting for an absinthian kick when she presents the 100 percent bar. But surprisingly, as it deliquesces (this is the only chocolate we don’t chew), it gently laces my palate with a polite declaration of the purity of unadulterated cacao.
During the event, every piece merely whispers its taste. Never cacophonous, always melodious.
She ends the tasting with crunchy cocoa nibs, evocative of flecks that remain on the sieve after sifting for gold.
We stop there. Now each of us chooses three bars to take home. Throughout the tasting, I kept moving the pieces around for my top three. I settle on their signature bar, Madagascar for its glints of honey, and the seventy-five percent bar for its earthy flavor. She kindly adds a tube of the nibs too.
I walk out wondering how long it takes to become a true chocolate connoisseur, able to discern those hushed melodies to the taste buds one note at a time.
“Let’s skip dinner.” I tell him. “Let’s just sit with these flavors for a while.”