Saturday, September 4, 2010

A Reflection on Changing Tastes

Blogging about chocolate week after week has changed my tastes in the stuff. It's less the eating than the self-reflection: determining what makes one bar different from another, noticing patterns in what I like and what I don't, and adjusting my preferences as new bars challenge my senses.

Some of the changes are ones I expected, like a tendency to prefer darker (say 85% cacao) or lighter (60-70%) chocolate depending on what I've been eating lately. The same goes for other flavor elements and textural variations, which I seem to like in different ways at different times. Sometimes a new sensation can be impressive in part because it is novel; if I try that chocolate again later, I might think it's bland, or too strong, or a bit off. I try to be mindful of this phenomenon when I declare that a bar's flavor is well-balanced or overly sweet or sour or whatnot, but no matter what, my tastes are as changeable as anyone else's.

I have discovered some constants. Occasionally I'm blown away by a small piece of a chocolate with a distinctive flavor—it's like taking a bite of good funky cheese—but by the same token, I don't usually want a large chunk of it. For standard size bars, I like something that isn't too sour or bitter but is complex enough that I want to keep eating. Texturally, I generally prefer a more waxy or creamy chocolate to a brittle or chalky one. I don't care much about sheen, though. A glossy bar can be creamy and smooth or unpalatably fatty tasting, and a dull one can be rich and deeply chocolatey or crumbly and bland, so while I note appearance, it doesn't mean much to me.

As far as inclusions and flavorings go, I like those that have a real presence. What I think of as good dark chocolate isn't a blank canvas, it's interesting and varied and perfumed; any extracts or pieces should complement the chocolate in intensity, neither overwhelming nor being overwhelmed. The few exceptions to this rule have been when I believed the chocolatier specifically wanted the additional flavor to bring out a new dimension of the chocolate. I've tasted this with spices and occasionally fruit, and of course there's the vanilla in many chocolate bars, which usually doesn't scream “vanilla” so much as quietly enhance the chocolate itself.

I feel similarly about texture. Inclusions might add interest or variation, crunch, chew, whatever, but they shouldn't cause me to ask “what are they trying to do with this?” I once ate a (never-reviewed) bar that was supposed to be fruit flavored but tasted like it had some sort of vaguely fruity candy dust embedded in it. The flavoring had neither the taste nor the texture of the fruit on the label and, seen from another angle, wasn't so counter to expectations that I would think it to be intentionally challenging—it was just gritty, bland candy. Bleh.

Finally, my reaction to certain brands has changed over time. I've always admired Theo's methods and goals, bold inclusions and flavorings, and sampling experience, but now that I've tried it many times over, I find its basic 70% chocolate to be too sour and not a good match for some of its pairings. (By contrast, I've been very impressed by many of the confections and some of the lighter bars, including but by no means limited to the super-creamy 45% cacao milk chocolate bar and the outstanding vanilla bar.) Once upon a time, my go-to dark bar was Endangered Species' 88%, but I now prefer Green & Black's 85% and have actually turned several friends onto that bar as well. My preferences may change yet again, as I'm trying more high-end chocolate and appreciating what it offers that cheaper bars cannot. But then, I suspect my financial constraints will keep my head out of the clouds.

Admittedly this post is pretty darned self-indulgent (okay, the whole blog is self-indulgent), but I think it's important. Even if they come across as the final word on a product, reviews are inherently subjective, and it's nice to remind myself of that once in a while.

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