Tuesday, November 25, 2003

The Terroir of Chocolate

I had my first taste of a "Unique Origin Varietal Chocolate" this afternoon -- the 71% minimum total cocoa Guaranda from Cocovic SA. The Forastero variety of cocoa trees, according to the Cocovic website, is generally only used as a base for mixing with better chocolates, but the Arriba Superior Summer Selected (ASSS) grown alongside the Río Guayas near the Río Arriba in Ecuador defies the Forastero reputation. The tasting notes from the package read:
Perfumed aroma with fruity, acid notes and floral tones of acacia honey, with milky and exotic wood nuances. Typical personality of cocoa bean. Smooth bitter taste with notes of sweetened citric fruits and with floral tones of honeyed character.
And that's pretty accurate. It is very mild with nice underlying flavors and a pleasant bitterness that lingers well in the mouth.

This idea of single-source chocolate appeals to my inner wine/whisky/apple/cheese snob. I do believe the terroir — the soil, water, sun, etc. — where something is grown/made infuses the food with a certain je ne sais quoi. It's part of what makes certain pinot noirs taste silky and others watery, makes certain blue cheeses have just the right tang, and gives some single malts from the islands that perfect blend of iodine, salt, peat and floral notes.

Now, if they someone can market single-source chocolate successfully, can anyone import raw cocoa pods? A few years ago, I went on a press junket to the Centre Spatial Guyanais in Kourou, French Guiana, and we took a side trip into the rainforest via pirogue, stopping at a small native village in the forest and a Hmong restaurant somewhere off the river. (I think we were on Rivière de Cayenne, but I don't remember, and looking at a map isn't helping.) In the village, we got to see a bit of local agriculture, including some cocoa trees. Our guide chopped a ripe cocoa pod off the tree for us and cracked it open so that we could have a taste. The gelatinous sections that hold the cocoa seed are milky and sweet with just a faint hint of chocolate taste, but it was so refreshing and nice. Every time we go to the U.S. Botanic Garden, I keep looking around the cocoa tree in the garden court, hoping to see a ripe pod ready to fall, but I've never been lucky enough and I think it is probably not allowed for one to pluck a fruit from one of the trees in the collection.

I mentioned the possibility of trying to sell cocoa pods to a U.S. Department of Agriculture official at a Beltsville Agricultural Research Service public field day, and he said he though it would make an interesting novelty, but I didn't get the feeling that I would be seeing cocoa pods at the grocery store anytime soon.

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