February being the month of chocolate, let's do a little taste-testing in the name of responsible journalism.
Like so much else in cuisine, chocolate has undergone examination, comparison and elevation, as companies extol the percentages of pure cocoa in their recipes and nutritionists soothe us with the knowledge that a little dark chocolate is good for a body.
Chocolate is historically the food of kings and mythologically the nectar of gods. Mixed with chilis and cinnamon, it deepens a dark sauce; mixed with milk and sugar, it becomes dessert.
Basically, it's a bean that is broken into its elements, then recombined. First the bean, the product of the cacao tree, is fermented. At this point, it produces a bitter brew. But then, the beans are dried, cleaned, roasted and ground to become a product known as chocolate mass. The meltingly rich cocoa butter may be removed and the cocoa powder processed, then the two recombined. Lesser quality chocolate replaces cocoa butter with vegetable oils to give the product greater shelf life. The smoothness of chocolate depends on a process called conching, in which the liquid chocolate is processed in deep containers of metal beads, which grind the chocolate mass and sugar into particles too tiny to be detected in the mouth.
Europeans decry American chocolate as being "sour," most probably because the process developed in the 1800s by Milton Hershey to stabilize and mass-produce chocolate involved culturing milk before combining it with chocolate mass. The result is milk chocolate with a sour edge. Belgian, British and French chocolates are all known to be sweeter. Let a Hershey Kiss melt in your mouth (don't chew!), and you can detect the sour afternotes.
Around here, it's easy to get German chocolates at Aldi, the European-based supermarket that somehow marries frugality with imported goods. A big bag of Choceur milk chocolates won't set you back much, and they're delicious. Let one of these melt on your tongue without chewing, and there will be no sour notes at all.
In Manhattan, there is a place called City Bakery, that is not really a bakery at all, but is instead famous for its hot chocolate. Yes, one can get a scone or muffin to go with the dark brew, but the chocolate is the reason to brave the bustle on a Saturday morning. Served in what is essentially a shallow bowl for sipping, it comes with a house-made marshmallow that melts strategically, causing the chocolate to become even creamier as it disappears.
According to City Bakery, the chocolate isn't a typical mug of cocoa, but actual melted chocolate bars. In February, the cafe hosts a chocolate festival, involving additives including banana, ginger, bourbon and beer.
In the store, in a nook about the size of a linen closet, is a retail space with ridiculously priced bars of chocolate for sale. In the name of research, I paid $10 for a bar of Roaka "handmade virgin chocolate" imported all the way from Brooklyn. It came in an "eco-luxe" wrapper made by a Pennsylvania design company, which bore logos certifying the chocolate by the Rainforest Alliance and Fair Trade association. The dark, organic cacao was said to be flavored with blueberries and lavender.
Unlike a nicely portioned Hershey bar, the unscored Roaka bar was difficult to split into bite-size bits, and crumbled when broken. There were about four dried blueberries visible in the bar, and try as I might, with eyes closed and all of my olfactory and taste receptors turned on, I couldn't find the lavender. But it was a nice idea.
Really, I have nothing against a nice Whitman's sampler from the pharmacy, or the occasional Kit-Kat bar, snagged from the candy display at the supermarket check-out.
Chocolate doesn't have to be fine art. Ask any kid with a smeared mouth and sticky fingers.