I was delighted and a little nervous when Pam Williams of Ecole Chocolat, asked me to be a part of a chocolate testing panel, this week.
Yikes! I was sure I was not qualified, until Pam assured me that the chocolate was actually just “the vehicle” for the test.
This is all for the newly minted International Chocolate Awards 2012.
“The International Chocolate Awards is a new scheme set to recognize the best fine quality chocolate from around the world, at all stages from cacao farmers through to chocolatiers. The International Chocolate Awards will judge bars and filled chocolates (bonbons, pralines, ganaches) in national and regional rounds with a Grand Final judging the best of the best. The first year will include rounds in Italy, the UK, the USA, with the first year’s Grand Final in the UK in October, coinciding with Chocolate Week. Other country rounds are in development. The award winners will be publicized worldwide and winners can use the awards logo on products to advertise their win.”
This is to be a test run of the forms that the actual judges, who will be drawn from a highly respected group of people in the food industry (some Chocolate people, some not) will use. Fabulous. No pressure to select the real winners. At the same time, an opportunity to sample some terrific chocolate. Yes, please. Count me in.
According to Pam, they are in the phase of solidifying the judging process, and members of the advisory (of which she is one) have volunteered to conduct “mock” judging sessions to test the ease of use of the forms, on both bars and filled chocolates.
She has volunteered to conduct one on filled chocolates while others are taking place in Italy, UK, Sweden, US.
On the afternoon of the judging, I am a little nervous, and I brush my teeth three times, then follow up with several glasses of water. I do not want to have any contaminating flavours on my tongue, as I have visions of myself loudly declaring that one of the truffles tastes like the cheese sandwich I ate for lunch.
I arrive at Culinary Capers, one of Vancouver’s top catering companies, just off Granville Island, and I am welcomed in to a pretty room, where Pam is busy arranging thirteen chocolate samples, in one row of six and one of seven, in front of each chair.
There are eight of us, and when we all arrive, I am introduced to some of the women of Les Dames d’Escoffier:
“Les Dames d’Escoffier, British Columbia Chapter, is a society of professional woman. Our purpose is to promote the understanding, appreciation and knowledge of food, wine, hospitality, nutrition, food technology, the arts of the table and other fields as they relate to these disciplines; to promote improvement in supply, preparation and service in these areas and to promote the education and advancement of, and to supply advice and assistance to, women in careers related to food, wine, hospitality, nutrition, food technology, the arts of the table and other fields as they relate to these disciplines.”
We are also joined by Executive Chef, Margaret Chisolm, and two of the chefs from the Culinary Capers team. They have been good enough to pop around the corner and spare 90 minutes from their hectic cooking day.
We are given a set of forms, with a sample number and description on each one, which corresponds with the number on the bottom of the paper cup in which each sample is sitting.
The ones in front of us are cut, and there are also whole samples, in the middle of the table, as part of our judging criteria has to do with appearance and execution.
Pam explains that she has not been “too precious” with each of the samples as, in the real competition, the chocolates will be shipped to the judging location, and will probably be a few days old by the time they are judged. Hmm. So, nothing too fragile is going to make it to the finals!
We are scoring, from one to five, in the areas of:
- Award – does this entry deserve an award?
There is also a column of positive and one of negative feedback notes, such as: very original idea, visually beautiful, optimal balance of components and visually poor or crude looking, too bitter, broken emulsions (I know that one! I have had a few broken emulsions, while making ganache and having it separate while crystallizing – it’s awful!)
I am happy to see these lists, as it means I can just tick the boxes rather than trying to come up with a different description of merit or criticism for each one. This is especially important, as we are operating under a strictly observed time limit.
We agree on 20 minutes for the first round of six samples. The clock is set, pencils poised, and we’re off. I am most impressed as everyone is wholly concentrated, with only the occasional, “please pass number 3”, or judicious sip of water, to clear the palate. The chocolates are scrutinized, looked at from all angles, samples are sniffed, and finally, tasted.
We get through the first six, Pam clarifies a couple of things on the form, regarding how to total the scores, and we are on to the second group – seven samples, this time.
The first one is a very liquid caramel inside, and I end up downing the whole thing, because I don’t want to make a mess, of course!
I am much more judicious with the others, as even though I adore my chocolate, these are very rich, with a great variety of fillings, and my palate is reaching saturation point.
After twenty-five minutes, we are left gazing at a table full of bits and pieces. Everyone has a different style for tasting, and there is a lot of laughter as comparisons are made between the “scarcely a nibble” technique and the “eat the whole thing” preference.
Everyone is, of course, eager to discover where each piece came from. We total our marks for each piece, and they are read out and given a total score.
I am, once again, amazed at the difference in palates and I am laughing by the time we are halfway through the scoring, as it is clear that one of the chefs and I are diametrically opposed in our preferences.
I joke that we would be the ideal people to share a box of chocolates, as there seem to be no two we can agree on.
I am very surprised to learn that one of the strongest negative reactions I had to a particular chocolate, came from one of my favourite chocolatiers, as well as one of my strongest positive reactions.
However, since this session is to do with the forms, we concentrate on the specifics of how they work.
I am impressed by the articulate and specific notes given to Pam, to pass along to the advisory:
- There are suggestions made regarding word redundancy: In the awards category, the word is repeated too many times
- Syntax is discussed and suggestions made for tightening and standardizing, especially in the feedback notes, to make sure the same qualities are being talked about, whether positively or negatively
- Quite a bit of discussion around the interpretation of certain words – I find this really interesting, as a word can have different connotations for different people – the difference between “quality” and “superior” or “elegant” versus “noble” – I am interested to see how these are used in the grading system
I am glad to see that the bulk of the marks goes to Taste (40%) and recipe Formulation, involving ingredients (30%), with Execution and Interpretation responsible for 15% of the marks each, as for me, if it doesn’t taste good, nothing else really matters!
I am very impressed, as I look at the clock and realize we are in and out in slightly less than 90 minutes. The rest of the panel are off the a Les Dames d’Escoffier meeting, or back to work at Culinary Capers, and Pam packages up the remaining samples for me to take home to my ever-grateful Beta taster teenagers.
Wow. These women are professionals, through and through, and I feel, once again, as though I have learned a great deal, and eaten some wonderful chocolate!