Inside the International Chocolate Awards

Things you turn down: the bInternational Chocolate Awards 2012ed covers, Elvis’s “Suspicious Eyes” playing at 4 am, the lights down low. Things you don’t turn down: an invitation to join the Grand Jury in judging the Canadian entrants of the International Chocolate Awards.

…And that’s how I found myself spending three days surrounded by chocolate and polenta (I’ll explain, I promise), in the company of some of the world’s experts in chocolate: SeventyPercent’s Martin Christy, Italian chocolate expert Monica Meschini and Pam Williams, founder of Ecole Chocolat (and fellow Vancouverite). Our job: to whittle down the 80-plus entries to the best in Canada.

In short, the International Chocolate Awards is a multi-city event to find the best chocolate in the world. Regional events are held in Italy, Europe, the United States and Canada. The winners and finalists from each regional round advance to the world event, where the world’s best chocolate will be decided.

It’s a tall order, and while I won’t deny the surrealness of the task (wait, you want me to taste how much chocolate?!?!), it was also a serious responsibility. These are prestigious awards, with the potential to change people’s careers. This was not something to be taken lightly.

The selection round

In any form of tasting, whether chocolate, wine or cheeseburgers, palate fatigue is a serious concern. To ensure that all entrants are given as fair a chance as possible, the competition begins with a selection round to narrow down the submissions to the ones that have a reasonable chance of winning an award.

During the selection round, we sampled every single submission–all 80-plus of them–and voted to accept or reject each one.  All four judges’ scores were tallied, and about half of the submissions proceeded to the formal judging process.

the judging round

The remaining submissions were divided into three separate rounds of judging, with approximately 15 samples per round. Each round of judges included the Grand Jury, plus guest judges with a variety of backgrounds: chefs, pastry chefs and media.

Each round of judging began with a palate calibration, where we tasted three different samples. For new judges or chocolate newbies, this was an opportunity to warm up the taste buds; for seasoned judges, it served as a palate check to see how our perception changed throughout the day. After every five or six samples, we would check our palates against one of the initial samples, noting any changes in the perceived flavour. Over the course of the day, my palate definitely changed, especially after tasting the sweeter entries of the milk chocolate and caramel categories.

In addition, after every sample, we cleansed our palate with soupy polenta. I’ve read plenty of books and experimented with palate cleansers, but this was the first I’d heard of polenta. This wasn’t buttery, salty, rich polenta (maybe seared to get a crisp edge, dusted with salt and pepper and draped with sweetbreads?) Nope. This was plain, unseasoned, slightly gritty polenta. It worked surprisingly well, getting into the corners of our mouths and cleaning out any residual chocolate from the previous sample. However, having eaten polenta by the spoonful for 30 hours over 3 days, it’s safe to say that I won’t be ordering it the next time I’m out.

Each submission is judged on a series of criteria that separates execution, recipe formulation, presentation and flavour. While bars are evaluated differently from confections, the overall idea is the same. For example, one submission might look beautiful and be perfectly executed, but it might not taste very good or use high-quality chocolate. Similarly, something might taste amazing but have technical flaws.

I’ve judged several competitions, both in the chocolate and cookbook worlds, and one of the main criticisms is often that entrants don’t know how they’ll be evaluated. To address this, the International Chocolate Awards have an in-depth explanation of how submissions are judged, as well as copies of the evaluation forms.

the final review

On the third day, after all the results were tallied, the Grand Jury members looked at the finalists. At this point, and only at this point, are the actual entrants revealed. This is a final quality control step–for example, at one of the other competitions, a chocolate shop submitted a bar made from chocolate that they buy and remelt. The chocolate was from a very reputable source and scored highly in the competition, but the entry was disqualified when the Grand Jury realized that the submitter didn’t actually make the chocolate. (In principle, cases like this should be disqualified before they even make it to the judging round, but depending on the number of entries in a region, a few things might slip through the cracks.)

After the Grand Jury reviews the overall judging results, each judge submits their votes for whether the entries should receive a gold or silver medal, or a nomination to the world final. We looked at things like the quality of chocolate used, the technique and execution, and of course, flavour. We also consider things like finesse and refinement; in some cases, items scored highly because they were “yummy” but when placed against more nuanced products, were pedestrian and uninspired (and in several cases, used low-quality chocolate).

the results

The Canadian results were posted yesterday, along with the American results (which include the coveted bean-to-bar categories). Check them out, along with the international results:

Congratulations to all the winners, and best of luck on the world stage!

CHOCOLATE 201: Chocolate-tasting classes in Vancouver (Spring 2012 edition)

EDIT: Due to scheduling issues, these classes have been postponed to Fall 2012. If you’re interested in a private or corporate chocolate tasting, please contact me.

CHOCOLATE 201 is a series of classes that dig a little deeper into the world of chocolate. If you’ve taken a chocolate-tasting class before, then here’s an opportunity for you to dig a little deeper into topics of interest. If you’re a newbie to chocolate, don’t fear—you’ll do just fine in these sessions.

Classes are small to encourage discussion…and to make sure everyone gets plenty of chocolate. All classes will take place at Xoxolat (2391 Burrard Street, at West 8th Avenue).

Train Your Palate: Guided and Blind Chocolate Tasting
There are two parts to having a good palate: one is being able to taste, the other is finding the vocabulary to describe it. In this two-part class, you’ll learn how to do both. First, we’ll do a guided tasting to demonstrate some common flavours in chocolate. Then, see how you do in a blind tasting.

The Good, The Bad and the Ugly: Can You Taste the Difference in Chocolate?
Most people understand that there’s a difference between handcrafted chocolate, made in small batches and free of junk; and a mass-produced candy bar stuffed full of preservatives, wax and unpronounceable ingredients. But can you taste the difference? In this class, we’ll do a blind tasting of chocolates of different quality and price tags. See what your tastebuds tell you.

Viva Venezuela!
Since the 1600s, Venezuela has been home to some of the world’s best cacao. Today, there’s remarkable diversity in the cacao that comes from this country. In this class, we’ll taste a smattering of chocolate from different growing regions in Venezuela.

Chocolate Matters: Beyond Fair Trade and Organic
Many people buy Fair Trade-certified chocolate because they believe that it’s better, more sustainable or more ethically produced. But is it enough? In this class, we’ll talk about Fair Trade, Direct Trade and organic chocolate and what they mean for the producer, the chocolate maker and the consumer. And, of course, how does it relate to flavour?

Chocolate-tasting classes in the news

For the first time in about 15 years, I’m somewhat prepared for the holidays. Christmas shopping: done. Edible treats: done. Cards: sent. I’m not saying this to gloat, because no one likes that, but to celebrate the fact that I might just be on my way to being a grown up. Whatever that means.

If you’re less prepared and are still scrambling for a gift, I’d like to take this moment for some shameless self-promotion and suggest that a chocolate-tasting class would make a lovely gift for the chocolate lover in your life.

And don’t just take my word for it. My chocolate tastings are listed in not one, but two seasonal gift lists! (Cue happy dancing.)

Says Edible Vancouver in their Winter 2011 issue: “For the curious chocolate aficionado…Eagranie Yuh’s chocolate-tasting classes will appeal to beginners and connoisseurs alike.” And The Globe and Mail’s Alexandra Gill included my chocolate tastings in her list of “lip-smacking treats for seasonal giving.”

So here’s to chocolate, and to you for your support. It’s been a great year, and I couldn’t have done it without you. Here’s wishing you and yours a safe and happy holiday. See you in 2012.

Chocolate-tasting classes in Vancouver

REGISTER for chocolate-tasting classes in Vancouver

WHEN:
Friday, January 27, 2012 | 7:30-8:30 p.m.
Monday, February 3, 2012 | 7:30-8:30 p.m.
Friday, February 10, 2012 | 7:30-8:30 p.m.

WHERE:
Elysian Coffee | 590 West Broadway (at Ash), Vancouver

COST:
$20 + HST and service charges

Chocolate-tasting classes in Vancouver – Elysian Coffee

Cacao pods and cacao beans

REGISTER for chocolate-tasting classes in Vancouver

**Update, December 12, 2012: Due to popular demand, I’ve added an additional class on Friday, February 10, 2012. Huzzah!

Chocolate and coffee make a great pairing, as any good cafe mocha will demonstrate. But there’s more to it than that—coffee and chocolate begin as tropical fruit, a far cry from the morning beverage or afternoon treat that we think of. They’re both fermented to initiate flavour development, both roasted to develop that flavour, and both have the potential to offer incredible flavour profiles.

What’s more, coffee and chocolate can be as fine as you want, or as crappy and mass-market as you want. Which is why my next round of chocolate-tasting classes will be at Elysian Coffee.

If you’ve taken my classes before, you’re in for a new kind of experience. Here’s the twist: we’ll be doing a blind tasting. It’s an opportunity to find out what you really like, rather than what you think you should like. After the tasting, there will be plenty of time for discussion, questions and stories (and of course, you’ll find out what you tasted).

And for those who haven’t taken a chocolate-tasting class before, this is an excellent way to dive in. If you have taste buds, you’ll do just fine.

WHEN:
Friday, January 27, 2012 | 7:30-8:30 p.m.
Monday, February 3, 2012 | 7:30-8:30 p.m.
Friday, February 10, 2012 | 7:30-8:30 p.m. **NEW**

WHERE:
Elysian Coffee | 590 West Broadway (at Ash), Vancouver

COST:
$20 + HST and service charges

REGISTER for chocolate-tasting classes in Vancouver. Classes are limited to 12 people, so don’t dawdle.

Chocolate 201: Chocolate-tasting classes in Vancouver

Once again, I’m teaming up with the lovely folks at Xoxolat to teach some chocolate-tasting classes. We’ll go into more detail than you’d get in an introductory class, but don’t let that scare you; beginners are more than welcome, and I promise that the classes will be fun, not snooty. Nobody likes a critic—but everyone likes chocolate.

Each class features plenty of samples—and in true Xoxolat style, there will be a few surprises at the end of the night.

Participants receive an $8 store credit (must be used that evening) plus 10% of all purchases the night of the class.

WHERE: Xoxolat (2391 Burrard Street, at 8th Avenue)
WHEN: All classes run from 6:30–7:45 p.m.
COST: $20 per class, or register for all four classes for $75. (Note: due to the higher cost of samples, Chuao! costs $25.) Prices do not include HST.
REGISTER: You must register in advance. Indicate which class you’d like and someone from Xoxolat will confirm your registration. Register now.

About Chocolate 201

Chocolate 201 is a series of chocolate workshops that share the stories behind the chocolate wrapper. They’re intended for people who have some knowledge of chocolate and are familiar with how it’s transformed from bean to bar, but keen beginners are more than welcome. Expect engaging stories, interactive dialogue and the opportunity ask lots of questions.

Chocolate 201: The Science of Chocolate

Thursday, September 29, 6:30–7:45 p.m.
Cost: $20 + HST

Chocolate makers work diligently to coax the very best from their fine flavour beans. Learn how two critical steps, roasting and conching, affect the final product. We’ll also explore how playing with cacao percentage and sugar content affects flavour. Hint: higher cacao content does not automatically mean more bitterness in the bar.

REGISTER for Chocolate 201: The Science of Chocolate. Be sure to mention the name of the class when you register.

Chocolate 201: Smackdown! Old World vs New World

Thursday, October 6, 6:30–7:45 p.m.
Cost: $20 + HST

In Europe, making chocolate is a traditional that’s mostly passed through family generations. In North America, people abandon other, often lucrative, careers to make chocolate. In this old world/new world smackdown, you’ll hear stories of how people choose to make chocolate, and taste for yourself how each chocolate maker has created his own distinct style.

REGISTER for Chocolate 201: Smackdown! Old World vs New World. Be sure to mention the name of the class when you register.

Chocolate 201: In Defense of Milk Chocolate

Friday, October 21, 6:30–7:45 p.m.
Cost: $20 + HST

Chocolate snobs may dismiss milk chocolate as cloying, sweet and childish, but it’s still the chocolate of choice for most people. While regular milk chocolate clocks in at about 45% cacao content, dark milk chocolate can contain nearly 65% cacao. In this class, you’ll learn about and taste dark milk chocolate. It’s an ideal class for someone who loves milk chocolate and wants baby steps toward the dark (chocolate) side, or for someone who simply wants to learn more.

REGISTER for Chocolate 201: In Defense of Milk Chocolate. Be sure to mention the name of the class when you register.

Chocolate 201: Chuao!

Friday, October 28, 6:30–7:45 p.m.
Cost: $25 + HST

Mention the word Chuao in chocolate circles and people sit up straighter. This small region in Venezuela is known for the high quality of its beans. In 2005, Italian chocolate company Amedei won accolades from chocolate critics around the world for their single-origin Chuao bar. Learn how this small chocolate company took a snub from a well-known French chocolate maker and turned it into an award-winning chocolate bar. We’ll taste several bars made from Chuao beans, and you can see for yourself what all the fuss is about. (Due to the higher cost of Chuao samples, this class costs $25. Trust me, it’s worth it.)

REGISTER for Chocolate 201: Chuao!. Be sure to mention the name of the class when you register.

Summer, strawberries, pie and ice cream (oh my)

You know what I love about summer? It’s not the endless days, the sun, the vegetables growing in my garden—though those are all wonderful things. No, what I love most about summer is the smell of it. It comes in my bedroom window in the morning, a round warmth that smells vaguely like hot concrete. It’s a city smell, but I’ll take it.

Summer heralds the beginning of berry season, and as if on cue, the first BC strawberries made their appearance this week. I picked up two flats of them at the Main Street farmers market, along with some scandalously red rhubarb, and ta-da! we have pie. And by we, I mean me. And all of my best friends who have suddenly crawled out of the woodwork, pleading for pieces of pie.

If I could somehow manage to stop eating strawberries (seriously now, my fingers and kitchen are stained irrevocably scarlet), I would make strawberry ice cream.

What’s that, you say? You’d like a recipe for strawberry ice cream?

Conveniently, you can find my recipe for egg-free strawberry ice cream in the Summer 2011 issue of Edible Vancouver. Furthermore, it runs alongside a recipe for kick-ass chocolate wafer cookies, and then, if you’re feeling really ambitious, you can put the two together and make ice cream sandwiches. And, because I’m pedantic that way, I’d like to point out that said ice cream sandwiches appear on the cover of said magazine. You can pick up a copy at various points in Vancouver, but if the magazine goblins have stolen them all away—or you’re not in Vancouver—here’s the electronic edition.

Edible Vancouver Summer 2011

Photo and styling by Bambi Edlund