No one needed shushing in the study room of the Turlock library on Saturday afternoon. Normally a quiet place anyway, you could have heard a Kiss drop as a half-dozen people received a crash course in the fine art of chocolate tasting.
Participants took their time with small samples of seven different chocolates, from milks to a 72 percent cocoa dark. Melting pieces against the roofs of their mouths. Taking little bites to release flavors. Cleaning their palates with crackers and water between samples. No Hershey’s here. The chocolatiers were for the most part termed “premium” – Ghirardelli, Scharfen Berger, Lindt – and one of them “high end,” Valrhona.
Library branch Manager Diane Bartlett, who said she’s no expert on chocolate but read up quite a bit in preparation for the program, let the tasters know a bit about each chocolate and its maker before it was sampled.
Proffering squares of Valrhona Lait Jivara, a 40 percent cocoa milk chocolate from the Rhône Valley in France, Bartlett noted that the maker touted “creamy chocolatey notes, combined with the ultimate notes of vanilla and malt.”
She asked if anyone could discern those vanilla and malt flavors, but none of the tasters said they could.
From devouring books such as “The Chocolate Connoisseur,” Bartlett shared what’s she’s learned about tasting. “Like a fine wine, you need to taste with all your senses ... even listen to it. Is it shiny or dull? Rub it between your finger and thumb – is it smooth, is it greasy or waxy? ... Smell it, see what you might pick up there. Break it, because it’s supposed to have a firm snap. If it doesn’t, it’s been sitting around too long or is not a good-quality chocolate.
“Put it on the roof of your mouth and let it melt a bit. Some experts say to bite it three times, and no more than three times, to see what flavors you get.”
She talked a bit about how flavors are achieved by roasting cocoa beans, grinding them, extracting cocoa butter, mixing ingredients. “The more you mix it, the more the acids come out of the cocoa and the smoother it gets.”
Though it was a perfect match for Valentine’s Day, the tasting really was a blind date of sorts. “I work every other Saturday and I was looking for a February program,” Bartlett said. “It just happened to be Valentine’s Day.”
And of the six tasters, only two – Ed and Tess Freidberg of Turlock – attended with the holiday in mind. “He said, ‘I have a surprise for you,’” Tess said. “So we came.”
Sandy Peltier of Hilmar said she went mostly because she was curious. But she also joked, “Chocolate is one of the four basic food groups, right?” and admitted, “I like all chocolates. I eat milk chocolate mainly, but dark is supposed to be better for you.”
Bliss Kane of Turlock said she signed up for the tasting because “I’d like to be a little more a part of my community” and participate in more events like it. She came with friends and fellow Turlockers Martha Trimble and Charity Bott.
Though all said they enjoyed the tasting – if not each of the chocolates – the experience didn’t appear to change any minds, or mouths.
Kane said she still prefers milk over dark. “I use milk chocolate in my cookies and in my fudge,” she said, and her favorite chocolates remain Lindor truffles by Lindt. “I could almost live on those,” she said, then quickly added, “No, I’d get sick.”
Bott said, “I’m not a dark chocolate fan, I knew that already. But I thought I’d try it anyway. My taste buds haven’t changed.”
And the Ghirardelli milk chocolate the group tasted first remained Ed Freidberg’s favorite all the way through.
Saturday’s tasters were her “guinea pigs,” Bartlett told them, because the Stanislaus County Library hopes to take the chocolate program to other branches and this was the test to see how it was received.
Eating free gourmet chocolates – not a bad deal as guinea pig work goes.
Bee City Editor Deke Farrow can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2327.