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Stimulate All Your Senses

Tasting chocolate is as complex and sensual as sampling wines.

Whether it's a chewy caramel from See's, a ganache-filled dark chocolate from Godiva, a unique fruit-and-spice concoction from Recchiuti or a bar of Sharffen Berger, chocolate is one of life's most delicious foods.

Will chocolate-tasting parties become common? photo: Rae Huo

Tasting chocolate is a process that involves all the senses. First, observe the colors of chocolate, the many shades of brown. It might be light brown because of the addition of milk, or nearly black because the ingredients are almost pure chocolate. Smell the chocolate to see if there's any aroma, perhaps flowery or fruity nuances, spicy, bright or dull. Bite into the chocolate and listen for a snappy sound, a clean break that doesn't crumble into bits and pieces. Allow the chocolate to melt on your tongue and feel the chocolate as it fills your mouth: it should be smooth and silky, not grainy or chalky.

Then taste the chocolate, searching for flavor characteristics: spicy, acidic, tangy, tobacco-like, smoky, bitter and, of course, sweet, a result of how much sugar has been added. Some flavors are subtle and mellow, others are sharp and assertive. Some flavors hit you instantly, others linger on the palate.

Like wine, tasting chocolate can also be an intellectual process, as you can learn about its origins and understand the human factors involved in achieving the final product. Cacao trees grow in places such as Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Madagascar, Malaysia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Venezuela and in Hawai'i, all located within a 20-degree band north and south of the equator. The genetics of the cacao tree and the climate and geography of the growing area provide a basic flavor profile. Chocolate might be acidic and citrusy from Venezuela; caramel-like, with toasted coconut notes from the Ivory Coast or tobacco- and berry-like from Ecuador. Or, chocolate can be very bland. The farmer's and processor's techniques and practices, as well as the fermentation, drying and roasting processes, alter the flavor profile, as chocolate is transformed from bitter bean to finished product.

Almost all of the chocolate we eat is a blend of cacao from different origins. By blending, the chocolate maker achieves a chocolate product that is consistent in flavor and texture.

There is a growing trend in chocolate making to produce chocolate morsels from cacao beans from a specific geographic area or even a single cacao plantation. Single-origin chocolates offer the unadulterated flavor of the cacao bean, with little additives, and are meant to be eaten as is, rather than used in cooking and baking. Noka is one such confection: little, bite-size square tablets of four, single-origin dark chocolates that are 75-percent cacao. (Noka is available at Neiman Marcus.) The Big Island's Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory offers a single-origin, dark-chocolate bar with cacao butter, sugar, vanilla and lecithin added (available at The Compleat Kitchen and at Honolulu Chocolate Co.).

Whether you eat chocolate in its purest form, or prefer chocolate confections, consider its character and relish its complexity, just as you would a glass of wine. The experience is more than just delicious.

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,December

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