Thursday 27 February 2020

How to judge a chocolate?

The Academy of Chocolate was established to promote the concept of ‘good chocolate’ – chocolate that is ethical, sustainable, creative and delicious.  They hold an Awards competition every year, and their Bronze, Silver and Gold awards are coveted and adorn very fine chocolates from all over the world.

I saw a call out for judges for this year’s competition, and as I was not entering anything myself, approached the organisers to see if I would be eligible; I am not a member of the Association, I hold no formal qualitifications in Patisserie or chocolate making – but it seems all I needed was a passion for good chocolate, and that along with a reasonable good understanding of working with chocolate – would qualify me.

As I looked forward to the experience, and told people the reason for my trip to London, I was tickled by their amusement of the concept of spending three days judging chocolate (was it going to be a Britains’ got Talent style affair, with Chocolatiers vying for the top award, me and other judges sitting like Simon Cowell pooring derision and scorn on entries?).  I also realised that I had a number of anxieties about putting myself forward for this; do I know enough?  Are my tastes in chocolate too narrow, or at worst at odds with what is ‘popular’?  are my taste buds discerning enough?

I was put at ease very quickly by both AoC organisers and other volunteer judges as soon as I arrived.  It was wonderfully relaxed, and as I chatted with others I found that I was not the only newby, and not the only chocolate maker.  Participants ranged from food journalists, chefs, chocolate makers, interested foodies, a coffee taster.  We were mainly but not all from the UK – but we covered a range of professions and a range of food cultures.

The judging room is large, with three tables situated as far apart from each other as possible!  At each end there are tables with entries waiting to be judged;  small plates of 5 or 6 samples of each entry, nervously waiting their turn to be scrutinised (Ok, they are just chocolates sitting on a plate – but out of their sumptuous packaging they do look vulnerable, exposed and out of place – and hence, a little nervous).  There are glossy brightly coloured and decorated ones, plain ones with no décor, simple, elegant ones – all sorts.  The plain ones seem more anxious, maybe wishing they had a little colour to them – or maybe quietly confident as they felt they would star when it comes to flavour. This isn’t as fanciful as it sounds – the makers are not in the room and so these small confections are their representatives and embody the nerves of their makers, just as much as they embody their creativity and ambition.

In a separate room, busy people organise the entries.  Table tops, trolleys and benches are piled high with all manner of boxes – all the entries having been sent from all over the world – carefully packaged to ensure that they arrive in the best possible state.

I am allocated a table number and join my other four group colleagues.  Introductions, some guiding wisdom from Silvija Davidson of AoC,and we start – presented with three entries to assess.  As we finish those, more are randomly delivered to the table – some enrobed or panned, some white chocolate, some nut categories – constant variety to keep our senses busy.  We set about dissecting and scrutinising people’s hard worked creations; inspecting the product visually first – is it well presented, does it look pleasing?  Then cut through the middle to see how well it is constructed and put together.  Smell, look and then taste.  We are scrutinising people’s livelihoods and it feels deeply uncomfortable; to respect that responsibility, we have to stay true to a critical line; is this well made? Is it balanced? Does it give joy?  Even a chocolate I personally don’t like can give joy – in texture, look and ambition – and it is heartening that we as a group are really respectful of that.  We are not judging on just ‘do I like it or not’.

C, and we start – presented with three

By the end of the first session, I am sugared out; my mouth is complaining.  I stop at a café on my way home thinking a coffee will sort me out, but it just seems to be another assault on my overworked taste buds!  I have read that people crave salad after a session of judging – clean, crisp, cool brightness and I fully get that.  A cool swim after frenzied overindulgence

Judges are volunteers and so some do one or two sessions, others do more; for me, this goes on for two more days. We taste on; each session I find myself with a different group and the table has a slightly different dynamic about it.  I learn to refresh my palette more often with water, plain bread and thin sliced apples.  I gain confidence in putting forward my thoughts and observations to the group.  In my last session I am asked to be the scribe – and have to note and summarise the group’s feedback and thoughts on each entry – this will be the feedback that makers receive – so it needs to be clear and constructive, helpful to the maker to further improve their product – another level of seriousness and respect for the entries.

In 3 days I think I might have tasted about 120 or more chocolates; chocolates from all over the world with flavours ranging from the familiar – hazelnuts, raspberries, to fruits I have never heard of before (longans), through peppers and teas, liqueurs that spill out of their chocolate shells, to algae and fish!  Each one a discrete package that represents its makers creativity, expertise and ambition.  Some with stories attached (the descriptions of the chocolates that entrants are asked to give range from a straightforward overview of the chocolate, to stories of local traditions that lie behind the flavours used).  This all helps in the judging.

I come to the end of my three days – the judging goes on for another couple of days for this part of the competition (the filled chocolates) and will go on for the next month or more with judging of bars.  Those entries that we identified as silver or gold will go to the grand jury for confirmation of award.  Once in a while, we completely disagreed on a chocolate as a table, and when opinion varied wildly, it felt fairer to ask another table to give a second opinion.

I really enjoyed the experience – and home again and making chocolates, it has made me conscious of my own practice and challenged my own approach to chocolate making.  I had volunteered to learn, meet other people within the sector, see what other people are doing – and achieved all that.  I am looking forward to when the awards are announced, knowing that I was involved in a small way.

Thanks so much to AoC for involving me – and to all their hard work in bringing all this together.  And maybe next year, I might enter the competition!