Friday, January 20, 2012

A Fine Time

Where have I been?  What have I been doing?  Yes, it has to do with chocolate. You guessed correctly.

I went to SF for the Fine Chocolate Industry Association's semi-annual meeting. I'm going to say more about the content of the event, especially what really got my attention, in the near future, for some magazines and newsletters that have asked me to report. (Notice how important I make myself sound there?  It's a knack.) In the meantime, a few impressions about going to an industry-oriented rather than consumer-oriented chocolate show.

I'm learning terms-of-art fast. "Fine chocolate" is not when you say "oh, wow -- this chocolate is fine, man!" Not quite. The FCIA defines fine chocolate as having certain elements including origin, production practices, ingredient quality, and final presentation. In some ways, the only way to be sure what fine chocolate is is to taste it and decide for yourself.

Oh, drat.

You can tell you're on the road to nerd-dom on a subject when you not only realize that there are people who know far more than you do but you can name them. Want to dive into a passionate and convention-challenging view of chocolate? Visit and take a look around. I learned a lot there.

FCIA was held in a downtown San Francisco hotel with big blue windows and no free wifi. (I notice these things). There were at least a dozen tables of chocolate-related displays including equipment, molds and of course chocolate, made by both big suppliers and artisans. I did my best not to get sick from too much of a fine thing, mostly succeeding, but in large part by squirreling samples away for later, which turned out to be a really good idea.

If I've had 10 samples, I'm unlikely to be able to distinguish the same details with the 11th. But if I taste it later, after I've had a chance to recover, I might well detect nuances that I missed before. Takeaway? If you do chocolate tasting, do it again and again (oh, drat) to see if you have the same impressions of those bars later.

I was surprised that only water was offered to cleanse palates between tastings. Chocolate melts at body temperature due to the wonderful properties of cocoa butter, chocolate's fat content.  When I'm tasting at home I drink weak green tea because warmth helps clear things up and the tea flavor doesn't seem to me to interfere. Cold water doesn't work for me. Maybe I just need more sophistication.

Speaking of which, I felt very sophisticated when I sampled nibs and the chocolate made from them to see how the tastes connected. I wasn't sure, so I had some more -- a habit I am trying hard to break.  Taste, not gobble. Because you can have too much fine chocolate. Yes, you can. Chocolate contains theobromine, phenylethylamine, seritonin and lots of other compounds that interact with the body in ways we don't quite understand. I like my theobromine high as much as the next chocolate-gal but but too much gives me a buzzing feeling that is not exactly pleasant.  It's not caffeine, but it's a stimulant, and too much is -- too much.

But I found it delightful to be surrounded by people who know too much about chocolate. I got to ask all the questions I've wanted to ask about genetics and processing and the industry, all while tasting some of the best chocolate around.

It was a fine time.

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