Chocolate: Taste, Learn, Love

By Erin Hartigan
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 17, 2008

As the chocolate market has filled with such high-end selections as Italy's Amedei and France's Valrhona, local stores have started to give chocolate the tasting honors previously reserved for wine. Customers are coached to discover new brands and to understand the taste nuances that result from different percentages of cocoa and countries of origin.

"Like wine, chocolate is impacted by its terroir," says Eric Nelson, co-owner of ACKC Cocoa Gallery. "Each country or even region of the country can impact the flavor of the chocolate."

For those who want to branch out from the grocery store selection of brightly wrapped bars, these tastings are an affordable way to please your palate as well as your wallet. After all, while the finest wines can sell at auction for tens of thousands of dollars, a prized bar of chocolate is a relative steal at $40.

ACKC Cocoa Gallery

1529C 14th St. NW, 202-387-2626,http://www.thecocoagallery.com

Types of tastings: This spacious, art-filled chocolate shop and coffee bar with vivid red walls hosts tastings to introduce people to the nuances of chocolate. ACKC is a joint venture between Eric Nelson of Artfully Chocolate and Rob Kingsbury of Kingsbury Chocolates.

What to expect: The tastings are an education in chocolate. "We let customers hold actual cocoa pods and crack open beans to see how nibs are made," Kingsbury says. Participants begin with white chocolate and then try milk, Belgian dark and sugar-free varieties, plus a piece with 99 percent cocoa. "With that one, I tell them that it's like the time you broke into mom's cupboard to find the cooking chocolate and immediately spit it out," Kingsbury says.

Best for: Anyone who wants a crash course on chocolate from pod to bar.

What you might taste: Kingsbury's Plain Milk Chocolate Bar ($6), smooth with nutty undertones.

Next up: On Monday, a two-hour tasting class ($25) will touch on the history of chocolate and the characteristics of different cocoa trees. Participants receive a chocolate gift box. Beginning March 3, the store will host two-hour chocolate-making classes for $25.

Biagio Fine Chocolate

1904 18th St. NW, 202-328-1506, http://www.biagiochocolate.com

Types of tastings: The tiny shop -- decorated with tribal masks from different chocolate-producing regions -- always has samples for nibbling, and its tastings generally are centered on a specific region, cocoa percentage or common flavor. "Experience the taste of Madagascar or fruity chocolates, for example," says store co-owner William Knight. Biagio hosts occasional events to present confections from such local chocolate makers as Artisan Confections and J. Chocolatier.

What to expect: Knight's aim is to teach customers the four types of cocoa beans and how to eat chocolate to heighten the tasting experience. "The proper way to eat chocolate is to note the color and the sheen. It is an experience that impacts all of your senses," he says.

Best for: Anyone who wants to discover little-known chocolatiers and explore the subtle differences in chocolates of varying cocoa percentages.

What you might taste: Malagasy's Mora Mora 73 percent cocoa bar ($8), a creamy dark chocolate with red fruit notes.

Next up: In conjunction with the Embassy of Madagascar, the store March 4-8 will host a string of seminars and tastings on chocolate from the African nation ($20 per person; reservations required).

The Curious Grape

4056 S. Campbell Ave., Arlington, 703-671-8700, http://www.curiousgrape.com

Types of tastings: Though most of its shelves stock wine, the store hosts free casual chocolate tastings along with seminars, which are free but require reservations. The seminars usually feature four to eight chocolates paired with wines.

What to expect: The most popular seminar, World of Chocolate, describes the history of chocolate, including its use as currency. The store's samplings begin with cocoa nibs and include white chocolate, milk chocolate, untempered and dark chocolate, and a flavored bar. "We like to have people taste the same percent to compare and contrast the different flavors," says Katie Park, the specialty food and gift manager. "When tasting, you must look for flavors like fruit with berry, red fruit and citrus characters, [and] earth, which gives you leather, sandalwood and smoke or the spiciness."

Best for: Wine lovers and those intrigued by the early uses of chocolate.

What you might taste: Vosges Barcelona Bar ($6.49), milk chocolate studded with salty almonds and fleur de sel.

Next up: On Wednesday, the store will showcase such French chocolates as Chocolat Bonnat, Valrhona and Bernard Castelain paired with champagne, white Bordeaux and a blend from Corbieres (free). On Feb. 28, brands including Recchiuti Confections, Dagoba and Scharffen Berger will be featured in a free seminar sampling of U.S. chocolates paired with such wines as a California sparkling rosé, a Washington merlot and a California pinot noir.

Domasoteca

1121 19th St. N., Arlington, 703-894-5104

Types of tastings: Domasoteca opened last month in Rosslyn's Hotel Palomar. The Italian-centric store, which stocks fresh bread, gourmet cheese and wine, also offers chocolate tastings with wine. The tastings are free, but you must call to reserve a spot.

What to expect: The store carries Italian brands Amedei and Domori, as well as France's Michel Cluizel. "We are very proud of our chocolate collection," says wine director Christianna Sargent. "Like the store's wines, we follow the terroir of chocolate."

What you might taste: Domori's Sambirano 100% ($9.50), the darkest of dark chocolate with a mouth-filling tartness.

Best for: Italophiles and anyone curious about the country's chocolate.

Next up: On March 15, the store will host a tasting class of three bars with 64 percent cocoa. The free event (reservations required) will focus on terroir, comparing flavors of Venezuela, Trinidad and Madagascar. The chocolates will be sampled with sparkling and red wines and port.

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