When I was a child, I really didn't get excited about chocolate. I didn't hate it, but when it came to candy I preferred caramel/butterscotch and when it came to ice cream I'd typically grab something odd. (Let's hear it for the authentic banana ice cream at the Freeze-Way in Whitehaven, circa 1984! They also made a great Purple Cow.) Sampler trays of chocolates did nothing for me, and I remember one brand that was described as "containing enough paraffin that you could insert a wick and use it as a candle".
A chocophile girlfriend in the mid-90s introduced me to Godiva, and I learned to appreciate different types of chocolate and a wide assortment of truffles. A trip to the Netherlands introduced me to the sublime, buttery joy of Belgian chocolates like Leonidas. For the next decade, I went back to ignoring chocolate except occasionally using cocoa powder in a South American recipe or making a dessert for a friend.
I lucked out with losing my sweet tooth around the same time that artisanal, high percentage cacao chocolates became widely available, and I discovered a wide range of delightful bitter and savory flavors that aren't present in your standard Hershey bar. Even better, such dark chocolates could be enjoyed aside great cheeses, dessert/fortified wines, and even regular wines like high-powered California Zinfandel.
I'm far from a chocolate expert or connoisseur, but I've tried enough varieties to have an idea about what's going on. So I jumped at the opportunity to try a set of chocolates made from specific plantations around the world. The parent company is Michel Cluizel, based out of France.
I had 9 samples here, but I'm going to focus on five from specific countries. After all, this collection is referred to as the 1ers Crus de Plantation, a name that piqued my wine lover interest.
The chocolate from Sao Tome (an island off the west coast of Africa right on the Equator) was 67% cacao and had a tangy flavor without any noticeable bitterness. A solid dark chocolate.
The chocolate from New Guinea was a lighter milk chocolate formulation, 47% cacao. Very creamy, rich, and smooth, with an earthy undertone that you wouldn't get from a cheap mass production milk chocolate.
Venezuela's submission was by far the favorite of the tasters, at 66% cacao and an enchanting spice profile. The only one not from an island, by the way. A honey-like muskiness combined with cinnamon and allspice. This was really fascinating.
The sample from the Dominican Republic was brittle but had a tangy, molasses-like character. 67% cacao, sharp and bold.
Finally, Madagascar produced the second favorite chocolate, with a very ripe fruity flavor similar to apricots or dried fruit. 65% cacao yet more bitter than the other selections.
The remaining four samples included various milk and dark chocolates made from blends. Tasty, but I was mostly interested in the difference in terroir among the various countries.
If you're interested in trying the chocolates of Michel Cluizel, you can contact Noble Ingredients. In addition to the tasting squares shown above, there are a number of bars, bonbons, and other chocolate products to order.
* * *
A quick note on luxury products and geography. I've drawn a simplified map here, in very broad strokes, to illustrate a point I don't think many people get. The angle at which the sun strikes the earth, and with that the changes in seasons and length of day and everything else, determines which kind of plants thrive in which environment. Roughly speaking, the north and south purple belts are where you can grow grapes and the brown belt in the middle is where you grow coffee, tobacco, and chocolate. Yes, there are exceptions based on ocean currents, deserts, mountains, etc., but understanding the general principle will explain a lot about world trade, imperialism, and agriculture over the past 500 years.
Note: These chocolates were received as a sample from Noble Ingredients.