Is it bitter or is it astringent?

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Often times, I notice people struggling to describe the tastes found both in cocoa beans and chocolate. This is understandable: after all, cocoa beans taste nothing like chocolate and fine chocolate exposes you to many more flavor notes than grocery store chocolate. As such, it can be tricky to come up with the right terms to describe the novel experience.

When I pass Peruvian Tumbes beans roasted by Acalli Chocolate, people will refer to them as bitter. However, I find  astringent to be more accurate. But when I mention the term, most tasters admit they don’t know what it means.  I hope the following explanation can shed some light.

Like sweet and sour, bitter is considered a taste. You may experience bitterness while drinking a cup of dark roast coffee, chewing the leaves of bolted lettuce, or biting in the edges of burned toast. In a lot of cultures, bitter isn’t associated with deliciousness.

Astringency, on the other hand, isn’t a taste, but a sensation. For instance, the flesh of an unripe fruit is astringent (if you ever bit into a raw quince, you definitely know what astringent is like.) If you’ve steeped a bag of black tea in hot water for a few minutes long or sipped a very tannic red wine, you’ve also experienced astringency.

The beans I pass at my tastings aren’t really bitter, and neither is the chocolate I share (yes, even the 100% ones.) Are they astringent? Yes, sometimes. They may not taste pleasant but they don’t leave a bad taste in the mouth. So, next time you bite into a cocoa bean or a fine chocolate bar, ask yourself: is it bitter or is it astringent? When I share a cocoa bean with you, the odds are you’ll find it astringent.

{ As for the photo, I took it last spring at Rrraw cacao, I was curious to know how the beans were packaged and stored as to avoid moths, so a kind employee brought the bag for me to see. Rrraw cacao makes chocolate from unroasted beans in the heart of Paris. Their vegan drinking chocolate is quite delicious.}

My Top 5 Books for New Chocolate Enthusiasts

** This post contains affiliate links.**

For years, it felt like the world of chocolate books was divided in two: on one side, baking books with beautiful photos and super indulgent recipes — triple chocolate mousse cake, anyone? — on the other, serious books with in-depth information cacao genetics and the Mesoamerican roots of chocolate — too ambitious reads for a sleep-deprived mom.

As a new chocolate enthusiast in 2015, I longed for books I could read after putting the kids to bed, i.e. entertaining enough to keep me turn the pages, but with enough informative to deepen my chocolate knowledge.

Thankfully, the past couple of years have brought an abundance of books that fit that niche. With the holidays on the horizon, I thought I’d share my top 5 chocolate books for chocolate enthusiasts of all ages.

From Cocoa Beans to Chocolate, written by Bridget Heos, illustated by Stephanie Fizer Coleman

58693D16-C1F1-4BEB-8EAA-A8BBCA6367FBWritten for a junior audience, From Cocoa Beans to Chocolate by Bridget Heos covers all aspects of chocolate production, from the cacao growing on a fair trade plantation in the equator “where it’s warm all year” to chocolate-making in a “small chocolate factory.” With lively illustrations by Stefanie Fizer Coleman, this kids book provides a simplified yet accurate overview of the chocolate making process.

Bean-to-Bar Chocolate, America’s Craft Chocolate Revolution by Megan Giller

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To the non-initiated, the world of bean-to-bar chocolate can be nebulous. Three years ago, I didn’t know most makers, didn’t understand chocolate labels, nor could I place cacao-growing countries on a map. The only way to make sense of that world, it seemed, was to eat my way through it — that’s how the 37 Chocolates challenge came to be.

Since then, Megan Giller released Bean-to-Bar Chocolate, giving chocolate enthusiasts a much-needed bean-to-bar primer. In this abundantly illustrated book, you’ll learn how chocolate is made, where it’s coming from, and how to taste it. You’ll meet the pioneers of the American bean-to-bar movement and discover trusted, established chocolate-makers. I personally loved the pairing ideas (bread! beer! cheese!) and the conversational, sometimes self-depreciating tone of the book (you’ll love the story of Megan trying to make chocolate.) Peppered with maker profiles and recipes, it is the book I wish had existed when I started my chocolate journey.

The Chocolate Tasting Kit by Eagranie Yuh

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**This kit was gifted to me by Chronicle Books ** 

The Chocolate Tasting Kit by Eagranie Yuh is a great gift for the food-lover who likes to entertain. The kit contains everything you need to throw a chocolate party, from tasting sheets and flavor flash cards to an introductory booklet for the host or hostess. I like how the latter provides very specific guidance on how to select chocolate by naming actual company names (hello Pralus and Askinosie.) In fact, I wish you could actually buy it on its own, as it provides much needed guidance to those new to the world of craft chocolate. The kit would make a lovely gift alongside a selection of fine chocolate bars.

Making Chocolate, From Bean-to-Bar to S’more by Todd Masonis, Greg d’Alesandre, Lisa Vega, and Molly Gore

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First, a disclaimer: I have no interest in becoming a chocolate-maker. However, as a chocolate lover and educator, there comes a time when you want to know more. Why are some bars grittier than other? How exactly is life on plantations? And how do you bake with a two-ingredient bar?

Written by the team at Dandelion Chocolate, Making Chocolate touches on all of these topics and then some, in a engaging, approachable way. This beautifully illustrated volume is for anyone who loves chocolate, from the gourmand looking for a single origin chocolate mousse recipe to the the budding professional who wants to start making chocolate at home.

As a chocolate educator, I rely on its show-stopping picture of cacao pods, drying beds, and plantations to bring context to my tastings. It’s also the only mainstream book I found that makes the less glamorous aspects of chocolate-making look fun: the reports of chocolate sourcerer Greg d’Alesandre are funny and the tech-inspired approach to roasting beans is fascinating. There’s a way the authors talk about machines that make you feel giddy about a roll mill. This is must-have if you ever dream of making chocolate at home.

Les secrets du chocolat by Franckie Alarcon

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Somewhere between a chocolate connoisseur manual (the author shares details about a cacao sourcing trip with Stéphane Bonnat) and a baking book (you’ll find a few recipes in there), this French graphic novel is the most entertaining chocolate book I’ve read to date. Playful yet informative, it is light enough to read after a long day at work, but serious enough to deepen your appreciation of chocolate.

Written through the lens of its author, French graphic novelist Franckie Alarcon, Les secrets du chocolat provides incredible insight on the philosophy behind the work of a great French chocolatier, Jacques Genin. If you can’t intern with Genin but read French, do yourself a favor and get this book! And if you don’t, you’ll enjoy this anecdote: Jacques Genin never tasted chocolate as a kid. As an adult, he worked as a pastry chef and, when becoming a dad, decided to work with chocolate so he’d make the best looking birthday cakes for his daughter. This is one of the many, many touching moments of the book.

Now, tell me, what are your favorite books about chocolate?

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