Having traipsed through the tome The True History of Chocolate (Thames & Hudson), you’d think I would understand that chocolate is a complex subject. But all I smelled when I read the book was its plastic-coated cover, and all I heard was turning pages. It took a chocolate tasting class at ACKC to fill in the aromas, textures, sounds, sites, and of course tastes that really bring home the story.
ACKC stands for Artfully Chocolate|Kingsbury Confections, and the establishment has homes at 1529C 14th Street NW, AKA 14th and Q-ish, and on Mt. Vernon Ave. in Alexandria. Their main gig is not to let me taste their chocolates, but to serve as a coffee shop/art gallery/edible gift shop that sells a variety of confections, hot drinks (specializing in hot chocolates named after Hollywood divas), and some baked goods. They also give chocolate-making classes.
Here’s a quick pictorial overview of my adventures in a chocolate tasting at the D.C. location (courtesy of my BlackBerry, so not the best quality… sorry):
Our guiding chocolatier, historian, and scholar was Rob Kingsbury. He’s the KC to artist Eric Nelson’s AC. You’ll see a glimpse of one of Nelson’s handmade tables a few photos from now.
We started out with hot chocolate, which Kingsbury told us was the first way that people enjoyed the cacao bean. Indeed, The True History backs up this one. The one twist is that the Aztecs didn’t add sugar to their drinks. It was a bitter, savory drink, often spiked with chilies. Ours was sweet and rich and intricately flavored… kind of like every kid’s dream of downing straight chocolate syrup, but all growed up.
Next, we would try some white chocolate and get a look at where cacao comes from. This here is a dried cocoa pod. It makes a moraca-like sound when you shake it. The white chocolate made a barely audible snap as we bit into the creamy coins Kingsbury passed around. He explained as the buttery stuff melted on our tongues that he was starting us off with the light varieties, as one would do at a wine tasting, and working up from there. I was going to see a lot of similarities between the “swirl, sniff, sip” world of wine tasting and the “feel, sniff, bite” world of chocolate. The world of coffee roasts and labor struggles was also not far from my mind.
By the end of the hour-long journey through the flavors, history, and lore of chocolate, we had tried dried cocoa beans, cocoa nibs, Hershey’s milk chocolate, “real” milk chocolate, a fine dark Criollo chocolate (named for the type of tree it comes from, believed to be the best of the three main varieties), and a couple of really dead-on sugar-free chocolates. A sampling of the samples is shown here on one of Nelson’s tables.
All of the chocolate samples, with the exception of the Hershey’s, qualified as couverture because it was made with at least 32 percent cocoa butter. That meant they snapped when bitten into, and then dissolved in a puddle of lavish creaminess, while the Hershey’s, by contrast, had about as much snap and lushness as a piece of wax.
Kingsbury was sure to mention that he feels Hershey’s has its place. The chocolatier himself has been known to enjoy a Snicker’s bar now and then. But he certainly brought home the distinction between couverture and the common people’s stuff.
Given the judicious treatment of the less gourmet chocolates, I was surprised at Kingsbury’s take on fair trade cocoa products. It turns out nothing in the store qualifies as fair trade. He once ordered some of the fairly grown version of his couverture, but in the end he had to charge around $10 a bar and he decided it wasn’t worth it. Given all the chocolate marked with “fair trade” and “Equal Exchange” certifications in even regular old Giant, I was surprised to hear that. Maybe more on that later.
The talk ended on a light note, with some fun chocolate facts. Kingsbury related the percentage of people who hide chocolate from loved ones (higher than you’d think), and the true story about chocolate causing such conditions as acne and arousal (both are false).
Then came the really exciting part — taste testing a truffle of our choice! I thought, at first, that it was just a mouthful to say, and that all we’d get to nibble was one carefully selected truffle. It turned out we got to stuff ourselves with as many of these exquisite things as our pride would allow. I stopped after a triple-brie-and-black sesame, a passion fruit, and I think a dried strawberry combo.
I surely recommend the chocolate tasting class, which weighs in at only $35 for an informative hour and a half and quite a few bucks’ worth of samples.
If you’re not off running around on a virtual sugar high after all of this, here’s more info about chocolate:
The primary stimulant in chocolate is not caffeine, but the chemical theobromine. Eating an ounce of chocolate will only provide as much caffeine as a cup of decaf.
It takes 500 beans–the yield of about 12 cacao pods–to make 1 pound of chocolate.
There is no official designation for what is “dark” chocolate–just percentages of cocoa liquor and amounts of sugar and milk that qualify it as unsweetened, semisweet, bittersweet, milk, and white (from more than 35 percent cocoa liquor and zero sugar or milk to zero percent liquor and plenty of sugar, milk, and cocoa butter).
Pretty much all of the world’s chocolate originates within 20 degrees of the Equator.