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Taste Kitchen

The best of the dark, bar none

Sweet victory for Lake Champlain in chocolate taste test

(Debra Samuels for The Boston Globe)
By Debra Samuels
Globe Correspondent / July 13, 2011

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Dark chocolate is all the rage. So much so that supermarkets are putting out their own house labels, Trader Joe’s packages a brand, and companies like Hershey’s are in on the act. We decided to taste. Twelve students in a gastronomy class at Boston University had the enviable (and somewhat messy) task of tasting 11 brands of plain dark chocolate.

All the chocolates on offer had a cacao (cocoa) content of between 60-72 percent (Hershey’s and Ghirardelli, respectively), which means the bulk of each is predominantly cocoa and naturally occurring cocoa butter. Seventy percent cacao is on the cusp of bittersweet (75 percent cacao), and some manufacturers like Scharffen Berger and Valrhona use that term.

To create a bar, each manufacturer adds its own proportion of additional cocoa butter, sugar, vanilla, and lecithin, an emulsifier. The cocoa butter and lecithin provide a smooth mouth feel. Somerville-based Taza’s Stone Ground Chocolate was the only entry with no lecithin; the result was that it felt “gritty’’ and “bitter’’ to some and was voted least favorite.

The quality of the bar depends on the quality of the cacao beans and how they are processed. Beans come from around the world, even from unfamiliar places such as Säo Thomé and Príncipe, an island country off West Africa, to be used in Lake Champlain chocolates. Lake Champlain was the favorite.

The language used to describe chocolate is similar to that for wine and coffee. “Complex and fruity with hints of raspberry,’’ wrote one student. “Smoky, robust and bitter,’’ said another. The tasters also noted texture when biting into the chocolate. Some had a “good snap,’’ while others were “waxy and molded to the tongue.’’ All agreed that a daily dose of dark chocolate would be a welcome addition to a healthy diet. But probably not 11 doses at once.

Ghirardelli Intense Dark Chocolate Twilight Delight

72 percent cacao

$2 for 3.5 ounces

Established in 1852, the California company is named for its Italian founder, Domingo Ghirardelli. Tasters found the flavor ordinary. “If you close your eyes, it has no flavor. Smells like chocolate on a Mars bar.’’ “Shaped like Nestle squares; dull appearance.’’ On the texture: “Yields easily to the teeth. It has a pleasant snap, like burnt caramel.’’ “Smells like tobacco, with a musky, sweet taste.’’ “Too sweet, uneven mouthfeel.’’

Godiva Chocolatier Dark Chocolate

72 percent cacao

$3.99 for 3.5 ounces

Godiva garnered the most varied comments for its aroma (or lack of one): “Faint sour smell.’’ “Smells earthy.’’ “Bland, slightly fruity, almost perfumed.’’ On flavor: “Intense nuttiness.’’ “Coffee flavor, almost smoky.’’ “Too sweet with cherry undertones.’’ Texture: “Weirdly fleshy.’’

Green & Black’s Organic Dark Chocolate

70 percent cocoa

$2.50 for 3.5 ounces

The label states that this chocolate is made with the Trinitario cocoa bean (likely from the Dominican Republic) for an intense taste. One described the taste as being “a little acidic, with a smooth texture.’’ Another: “Very soft; reminds me of a sour cheese.’’ “Fruity tones linger on the tongue, but the texture is chalky with a sour aftertaste.’’ One found the texture “nice with a smooth finish.’’ “Velvety texture, lingers in the mouth.’’ “Nice snap, bitter with hint of smokiness.’’ “Cherry flavors with a smooth creamy texture.’’

Hershey’s Extra Dark Chocolate

60 percent cacao

$1.89 for 3.5 ounces

Too sweet and doesn’t taste enough like chocolate. “No flavor and dull sheen.’’ “Artificial tasting. Soft texture.’’ “Cloying sweetness, Would be good for s’mores.’’ “Doesn’t taste much like chocolate.’’ More on the texture: “Grainy dry, grassy, and unpleasant.’’ “ It’s melting all over me.’’ “Smells of gingerbread and Christmas, but is cloyingly sweet.’’ “Reminds me of Easter bunny chocolate. Too sweet.’’

Lake Champlain Chocolates

All Natural Dark Chocolate Sao Thome

70 percent cocoa

$3.99 for 3 ounces

Cocoa beans from the island off West Africa go into this bar, which is made in Vermont. By a small majority, this chocolate was voted favorite. Most liked the bitter flavor. “Rich and decadent. True melt-in-your-mouth experience.’’ “The taste stops mid-tongue because it is so bitter, but in the most interesting way. It has a dark and shiny appearance with a coffee aroma.’’ “Slightly smoky with bitter taste.’’ “Tastes a bit dusty (best) but after-bite turns fruity.’’ “Burnt coffee.’’ “Very complex. Reminds me of unsweetened Baker’s squares.’’ “Slightly buttery in a good way.’’ One person said: “Melts like plastic.’’

Lindt Excellence Smooth Dark

70 percent cocoa

$3.50 for 3.5 ounces

“Probably not Hershey’s, but nothing spectacular.’’ Many comments on the texture. “Dull in flavor and scent. Dense feeling on tongue.’’ “Slippery mouthful.’’ “Perfect contrast of bitter and milky creaminess that seems luxurious.’’ “Creamy texture, like the chocolate coating on vanilla ice cream at the beach.’’ “Kind of gummy.’’ The flavor didn’t quite captivate. “Smells rich and decadent. Falls flat on flavor. It’s one dimensional.’’ “Easter bunny chocolate!’’ “Creamy but otherwise unremarkable.’’

Market Basket Premium Dark Chocolate

70 percent cacao

$.99 for 3.5 ounces

The least expensive of the bars. To many, overly sweet. “Has five-and-dime quality taste.’’ “There are lots of air bubbles; creamy and sweet.’’ “Honey-like. Rich sweetness.’’ “Too sweet.’’ On texture: “Smooth thick bite. Velvety mouthfeel.’’ “Creamy, delicate, feminine.’’ “Fudgy, easy to eat.’’ “Almost sickeningly sweet. Coats my throat.’’ Two disliked the smell, calling it “mothballs’’ with “strong odor and taste of coconut.’’

Scharffen Berger

Bittersweet Fine Artisan Dark Chocolate

70 percent cacao

$3.99 for 3 ounces

“Waxy smell. Not much flavor.’’ “Tangy and waxy texture.’’ “Fruity and acidic.’’ “Well balanced astringency.’’ Aroma: “Smells a little nutty, tastes a bit rancid.’’ Appearance and taste: “Almost reddish tinge. Tastes like raspberry liqueur.’’ “Delicate flowery scent, doesn’t match chemical flavor.’’ “Would make a nice sauce.’’ “Not much finesse. Meh.’’ A favorite for one. “Aromatic with a gorgeous mouthfeel. A beautiful balance.’’

Taza Stone Ground Organic Chocolate

70 percent dark chocolate

$6.99 for 3 ounces

The darling of locavores and the most expensive of the lot was the least liked. Overwhelmingly, comments focused on the texture. “Little crunch. Almost fruity taste. High percentage of cocoa but fake tasting.’’ “Edges feel like sandpaper.’’ “Quite rough with an almost medicinal boozy quality; tastes like a Flintstone’s vitamin.’’ “Tastes like a vitamin chocolate.’’ One guessed correctly: “Definitely Taza with the signature stone ground texture. I prefer creamy.’’ “Crumbly, gritty texture, earthy quality. Almost mineral.’’ And one lone voice: “This is my favorite, it has a granular texture and nice snap. It’s deep and mysterious.’’

Trader Joe’s Swiss Dark Chocolate

72 percent cacao

$1.99 for 3.5 ounces

“Uniquely sweet with herby aftertaste.’’ “Tastes like graham crackers.’’ “Funky smell.’’ “Chalky feel between teeth. Smells slightly burnt.’’ “Smells like my vacuum filter.’’ Two tasters weren’t interested: “Boring. One note. Artificial taste.’’ “Dull, lacks complexity.’’ One wrote, “The flavor is very nutty, then bright and citrusy.’’

Valrhona Le Noir Amer

71 percent cacao

$2.99 for 3.5 ounces

“Bitter aftertaste.’’ “Tastes faintly like dirt.’’ “Gross aftertaste.’’ “The aftertaste is almost unbearable. It sucks the moisture out of your mouth.’’ “This has a hint of a green plant. I taste cough medicine.’’ “Complex fruity flavor.’’ “Pleasant taste, but very commercial. Smells cheap.’’

Debra Samuels can be reached at debrasamuels@yahoo.com.