Following on from our last blog post on judging in chocolate competitions, we thought it would be good to share with you how we evaluate different types of chocolate products, starting with filled chocolates (or bonbons).
As we make filled chocolates ourselves, this is probably the easiest and most enjoyable category for us to judge in competitions. At the Academy of Chocolate competition, there are broadly 5 aspects to consider, and an overall score would be based on a combination of these. It’s similar to how we would evaluate our own chocolates when we develop new chocolates and also assess our chocolates on an ongoing basis:
Firstly when we look at the outer appearance, we would look for any obvious defects such as air bubbles on molded chocolates , and we have to be careful to distinguish whether it’s a defect in molding or superficial damage as a result of the not-so-caring courier/postman. Holes on the chocolates is never a good sign, as this would mean that the filling will be in constant contact with air and this would shorten the shelf life of the chocolate. If colour is used on the chocolate, some judges would want to see the colour matches with the flavour (e.g. green for herbs, red for berries etc). For us, we tend to not worry about that because using colours not expected with the flavour can just be the creative style of the chocolatier. Instead we concentrate more on the techniques - e.g. is the coloured cocoa butter too thick on the chocolate? Is the chocolate free from air bubbles when a more challenging chocolate mold is used?
Now that's see if you can identify the problems with the appearance of this chocolate below?
There are several issues with the appearance of this chocolate. First of all, you will notice 2 large "holes" on the chocolate shell - these are air bubbles when making the chocolate shells rather than damage caused by transportation. While chocolate molds with more defined / sharper edges are more prone to air bubbles, these are unacceptably large. In addition, there are "streaks" on one side of the chocolate which would suggest an issue with the tempering of the chocolate - it doesn't affect the taste of the chocolate. It just does not look appealing. (This one is an extreme example. And just in case you are curious, this is a quick prototype we made for our internal product development, without doing a proper tempering and molding.)
The chocolate is then cut in half (or if we haven't got a knife handy, we would just bite the chocolate in half) and we would assess the inside – for example, is there an even coating of the chocolate? Does the filling bind well to the chocolate or does it come apart very easily?
The smell of the chocolate shell and then the filling usually gives a good indication on the quality of the ingredients used. If the chocolate has a burnt smell or the filling has a synthetic smell or artificial smell, that is usually not a good sign. Sometimes people take shortcuts when they use flavouring oils or essence completely in the filling rather than just using a tiny amount to lift the flavour of the actual fresh ingredient – we usually don’t like the smell of the oil/essence as it can never substitute the real thing when it comes to flavour.
Is the coating smooth and has a nice melt? Does the filling taste fresh and does it have a nice texture? For a caramel-filled chocolate, while we normally prefer softer caramels, some chocolatiers would make harder caramels – this is fine as long as the texture works with the chocolate. For layered fillings such as jelly/pate de fruits and ganache, we would usually look for the contrast in texture as well as the ratio of jelly vs ganache. If the jelly is too hard, it doesn’t usually work well with the ganache - it all comes down to the mouth-feel.
The filling should have a balanced flavour with the chocolate, whether it’s a simple single ingredient or a complex combination of flavours involving several ngredients. The important thing is that your mouth should not feel like a battleground for flavours. Some chocolatiers go for bolder flavours while others go for the more mellow flavour profile - it all boils down to the style of the chocolatiers. The way we'd like to describe the balance of flavour is like an orchestra - the different musical instruments (i.e. ingredients) should work together in harmony, and shouldn't be drowned by heavy drum beats. Last year at a talk organised by International Chocolate Awards during the Chocolate Show London, Russell brought in a batch of our Cape Town (Curry & Raisins) chocolates with twice the amount of curry infused into the ganache for the audience to try, and everyone agreed that while it was still nice enough to eat, the milk chocolate used was lost due to this stronger curry flavour and so the balance was far from optimal.
The quality of the ingredients is crucial. This applies to both the chocolate and to the filling. For example, for nut-based filling, the quality of the nuts used is key, as some lower quality nuts can taste stale or rancid.
Sometimes we may come across flavours that we would usually avoid, as a matter of personal preference. When it comes to judging, we put aside what we like and don't like, and judge each chocolate based on its merit. Having an open mind is helpful - Sometimes this can lead to some pleasant surprises.
The aftertaste is just as important as the flavour - Does the flavour linger for the right amount of time, and does it feel balanced and harmonious in the mouth? Also is there a chocolate taste in the mouth at the end? After all, you are eating chocolates and if the finish is not on the star of the show (i.e. the chocolate), that's not ideal.
Other people have different techniques to evaluate filled chocolates - the above is a simple guide on how we assess chocolates internally and also as judges at chocolate competitions.