I was recently having dinner with indefatigable double James Beard Award winner¹ Maricel Presilla, her husband, my wife and our son at her wonderful Hoboken Cuban-Latino restaurant Zafra when Maricel started talking about The International Chocolate Awards and invited me to be on the judging panel for the Americas round which covers chocolate makers from all over the Americas. Since they don’t as yet have specific competitions in Asia, entries from Japan and India were included as well. I jumped at the chance and after re-arranging my schedule with the help of one of my Anesthesia colleagues, I made it to NYC to participate in the judging.
This is a serious program trying to provide objective, unbiased feedback to the industry from experts and aficionados doing blind tastings of chocolate with rigorous judging criteria. Over the course of three judging sessions spanning a day and a half of the four day event, I tasted and judged over 60 different samples of chocolate along with approximately 30-40 other judges per session including pastry bigwigs like Michael Laiskonis and others Chocolate experts Presilla, Martin Christy², Alex Rast, Monica Meschini and others did all the ground work and constituted the Grand Jury that whittled down the 400 entries received to more manageable numbers. Outside of the small Grand Jury, tasters mixed and matched the sessions they attended. I was there to taste Single Origin Dark Chocolate Bars, Flavored Dark Chocolate Bars and Filled Dark Chocolates, tasting twenty samples in each category over different sessions.
The process was fascinating. Before tasting any submitted samples, we would calibrate our palates with three different varieties of dark chocolate. After each round of five samples we would recalibrate our palates with one of the chocolates, the bright and fruity Manjari from Valrhona. In between tasting each sample, we would clean our palates with some plain, soupy polenta from Mulino Marino, one of the sponsors of the competition.
The way to eat chocolate to appreciate its various properties is not to munch it, but to let it melt in the mouth. Some of the criteria we evaluated for judging including the texture of the melt, the flavors of the chocolate, how well the chocolate adhered to characteristics of origin, noting specific sensory flaws, technical flaws and of course the complexity of flavor and the length of that flavor.
With flavored bars, we looked for balance, skill and the presence of stated flavors in the descriptors that were provided by the makers. The same was true for the filled chocolates. Visual appeal was also a factor, albeit a relatively small one. We were never told or aware of who made the samples that we tried. The forms were very thorough in objectifying the process from reviewer to reviewer. It was quite an educational process.
The Grand Jury finalists of this particular round were announced yesterday. These awardees will go on to face other awardees from other parts of the world this fall to select the World Champion Chocolates of the year!
¹ Best Chef Mid-Atlantic 2012 and Cookbook of the Year 2013 for Gran Cocina Latina.
² Martin Christy is the co-founder of the International Chocolate Awards and is the Founder and editor of the fine chocolate review website Seventy %. He is the Judging Director of The International Chocolate Awards.