Nothing compares to the pure joy and excitement of unwrapping a bar of chocolate, the foil crinkling as you peel back the layers. The scent is irresistible, and, of course, there’s that burst of bittersweet flavor when you take the first bite. While the next logical step may seem to be chewing and swallowing, don’t—otherwise, you’ll miss out on all of the complex flavors. Aaron Lindstrom, who’s been working as a Chocolate Ambassador for Theo Chocolate over the past five years and regularly hosts pairing classes—think chocolate and tea, and chocolate and cheese—told Food & Wine that the best way to really taste chocolate is to let it melt on your tongue. This method is key when tasting dark single-origin chocolate and chocolate without added flavors, which can have notes ranging from nutty and fruity to caramel-y and spicy.
“I kind of think of tasting chocolate like tasting wine—there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end,” he explains. “When a person bites into chocolate and they chew it, they just get that initial front flavor, which is the bitter part. Which is why I think most people don’t like dark chocolate, because all they get are bitter tones.”
Lindstrom says the process is similar to a whiskey tasting, where the instructor will tell guests to hold the whiskey on their palates for a little while in order to burn away the alcohol. Once that initial sharpness is gone, the true flavor of the whiskey emerges—chocolate works the same way. First, you warm it in your hands for a little while and smell it, familiarizing yourself with the flavor. Then you taste a piece, moving it all around your palate—the front, the back, the left side, and the right side—to reveal the unique tasting notes from the cocoa beans underneath the bitterness. At Theo, Lindstrom says they source from Congo, Peru, and more, and once you get to the middle arc of the tasting process, you can really identify the specific chocolate.
“Even with the darkest of chocolates, when you take your time with it, it can finish off with creamy, caramel-y tones,” he says.
The middle arc tasting notes are also what you should be thinking of when you’re looking to pair chocolate, according to Lindstrom. As for the pairing themselves? You can either do “like and like”—such as pairing raspberry chocolate with a coffee that has raspberry tones—or, play with things that seem like opposites but align perfectly. He cited a cheese and chocolate paring they've served at Theo as an example—they take Beecher’s Marco Polo Cheese, which has peppercorns in it, and pair it with Theo's sea salt chocolate to create the ultimate “salt and pepper” combination. Blue cheese and ginger chocolate are also an unexpected combination he loves (surprisingly, as he’s not a fan of blue cheese), since the chocolate mutes a lot of the stronger cheese flavor to create “almost a sweet marriage between the two.”
In these tastings, the chocolate should be eaten first, allowing five seconds for it to coat your palate, before trying the paired food. Then, you finish up with a second piece of chocolate. Scent can also have a huge impact on the tasting experience—at Theo’s tea pairing class, Lindstrom will take a super smoky brewed tea that “smells like you’re in a campfire,” and serve it with Theo’s Ghost Chili Caramels, which involve caramels swathed in dark chocolate and sprinkled with dried chilis and Hawaiian red sea salt. Smelling the smoke and tasting the spice at the same time is an incredible sensory experience, he says.
In the end, however, the most important part of eating chocolate is to slow down and enjoy it, he explains.
“Chocolate is a very patient food,” Lindstrom says. “If you slow down with it, you’ll allow yourself to get all the subtle flavors.”