Tag Archives: Science

Savour: Chocolate Tasting

“Never say savor when you only mean taste – one is a holding on the tongue and an intoxication and the other is cursory, a sampling, connoting reluctance to bask. Never say a thing you don’t mean.” 

Bryana Johnson (Poet)

Tasting chocolate is different from chocolate tasting.  If it seems as if I’m quibbling, I promise I am not.  What’s the difference you say?  One is a quick, almost involuntary, response to something you put in your mouth.  The other is a slow and purposeful exploration of the senses and the mind.  You can actually test this statement using chocolate.

In Chocolate: Indulge Your Inner Chocoholic there is a challenge to taste two pieces of the same dark chocolate at different speeds.  You are instructed to eat the first piece quickly.  Put it in your mouth, chew a few times and swallow.  Between the first and second tasting you should cleanse your palate with water.  The second piece of chocolate should be approached with slowness.  Hold it cupped in your hand and hold it close to your face.  Breathe in deeply and then put the chocolate in your mouth.  Let the piece of chocolate begin to melt in your mouth before you begin chewing.  You should be able to taste a difference between the slow and the fast.  For some people it will register as more sweetness when you go slowly, for other’s there will be hints of other flavors.  There is no right or wrong taste.  It is an individual experience.

 Where, When, What, Why and How

Before we talk chocolate tasting, there are some basic considerations and preparations.  I’ll begin with the setting.  Setting is important for many reasons.  Smells, sounds, and external stimuli all impact the process of tasting.  Choosing your location lets you control potential distractions like TV, computers or music.  Certain sounds and pitches can literally change the way you taste things.  Take a look at the article, “How Does Sound Affect The Ways We Experience Food and Drink?”

Choosing your setting also allows you to control smells like colognes, perfumes, lotions, hair products or even pleasant household smells!   Heavy smells of any kind can interfere with the olfactory portions of tasting.

Timing is everything, or in this case can make a big difference.  There is no set hour or day of the week, but you should pick a time that allows you to feel relaxed.  Feeling like you have to hurry is a distraction and will take some of the fun out of it.

After where and when, comes what.  What type of chocolate are you going to taste?  Are you sticking to one variety from different vendors?  Are you comparing and contrasting types of chocolate?  Or are you sampling different flavor varieties of one type of chocolate?  Think about why you want to do a tasting and choose accordingly.  Whichever you choose, try to limit yourself to 6 chocolates.  If you try to taste more than 6 per setting, your pleasant tasting may become a chore.  For a complete beginner I’d even suggest sticking to 3 or 4.

In addition to your chocolates of choice, you will need a palate cleanser.  This can be as simple as water, or it can include things like crackers and apple slices.  If you buy a block of chocolate, you might need a knife and cutting board.  If you are a lone taster, make sure you’ve gathered something in which to store your left over chocolate, presuming you have the self-control required to resist eating it all in one setting.  If you’re like me and may not remember details about each chocolate, you may want to have a pen and some paper handy to take notes.

This brings me to engaging your mind, as well as senses.  As you’ve read, there is already a bit of thought that goes into a chocolate tasting.  But beyond the questions of what, where, when, and why is how you approach chocolate tasting.  Although it is not inherently necessary to know anything about the chocolate chosen for a tasting, learning a little bit about your chocolate can enhance the experience.

For instance, if you’ve chosen to sample 3-4 dark chocolate varieties with 86% cacao, you might want to know a little bit about the origins, growing conditions and processing of your chocolate.  In this particular instance, many of these chocolates will have distinct overtones based on all three of those factors.  If you are comparing and contrasting dark (bittersweet and semi-sweet), milk, and white chocolate, you might want to know what traits define each type of chocolate.  The types of chocolate are determined by the amount of cacao, milk solids, and sugars they contain.  If you are a traveler, arm chair or frequent flier, you might be intrigued by the varieties of cacao and the regions in which they are grown.  There is no right or wrong way to approach what you want to learn about chocolate.  Like sense of taste, delving into the informational world of chocolate is an individual quest.

Now it’s time for the nitty-gritty.  Your five senses and your mind are all you need from here on out.

Sight:  This stage is known as presentation.  Upon unwrapping, your chocolate should have a smooth, glossy surface.  If dull, waxy or showing snowflake like marks it has either been the victim of poor tempering and/or bad storage habits.  Ideal storage places chocolate between 59 and 68 degrees in an airtight container.

Sound:  I like what Sandra Boyton wrote, “Good chocolate should have a lively, decisive break.  If it splinters, it is too dry.  If it breaks reluctantly, it is too waxy.  If it folds, something is definitely wrong.”  The snap good chocolate should make is part of the crystal structure formed during tempering.  Chocolate is a six-phase polymorphic crystal, which means it can take on 6 different crystalline structures, and how those little chocolate molecules group together is determined by the temperature of the chocolate when you pour it. Who knew science could be so tasty!

Smell:  Time for some orthonasal olfaction!  Place your piece of chocolate in the palm of your cupped hand, lean in and take a sniff.  Now put your other hand over it and make a chocolate cave.  I’m totally serious.  Okay, maybe not serious, but it is a real instruction.  Once you’ve created your chocolate cave, inhale deeply through your nose.  If you’re mind starts racing, that’s okay.  Thoughts, impressions and memories are the process of the brain trying to identify what it smells.  Is the scent ephemeral or pungent?  Is it here then gone, or does it stick around?  Is there more than one aroma?

Touch: This one involves your hands and you mouth.  During the process of breaking the piece of chocolate and sniffing it, what does it feel like and what is happening to it?  Is it melting?  If not, put it between your forefingers and thumb and hold it there for a few seconds.  Quality chocolate, with high cocoa content, will melt differently than the normal sticky mess that milk chocolate or inferior chocolate will make.  The secret is the combination of high cocoa and cocoa butter.  Many chocolates, milk and dark, will have fillers and/or emulsifiers instead of cocoa butter.  Cocoa butter not only slows the melty mess, but gives your chocolate a fantastic texture.  This brings me around to mouthfeel.  As Boynton says, “This somewhat upoetic expression means texture.  A good piece of chocolate should feel smooth and moist.  And the dark, which may not melt on your hand at all, should begin to melt once it’s setting on your tongue and your mouth closes around it.

A personal aside is, be mindful of what you eat in the hours before you do your tasting.  Anything too acidic or spicy may throw off your tasting groove.  Everyone is a little different, but I have discovered that my palate is deeply affected by the chemistry of my food.  Sticking with bland foods (think pasta with summer veggies), at least a couple hours before your tasting, will put you in the safe zone.

Taste: This last sense is both simple and complex.  Place the piece of chocolate in your mouth, but let it rest on your tongue.  Don’t chew it yet.  Try to let it begin melting on your tongue.  A flavor of some sort should become distinct as it begins to melt.  What descriptors come to mind?  Is it sweet, nutty or bitter?  Does it make you think of flowers?  How about spices?

If the chocolate isn’t melting and/or you’re not getting a distinct flavor, there are a few things you can try.  First bite into the chocolate, try not to chew.  And/or you can pinch your nose while it is melting and/or you are biting gently.  Once you perceive a sensation of some melting, release your nose and inhale through your nose.  This should deliver a flavor burst of some sort.  Your sense of smell is linked to your sense of taste in creating what we describe as flavor.  Without retronasal olfaction, you will not get a true sense of any flavor.

In Tasty:  The Art and Science of What We Eat, John McQuaid uses the metaphor of marriage to describe the relationship between taste and smell.  “Each partner has complementary strengths and weaknesses.  Their paths through the brain unite.”  And later in the same chapter, “Taste and smell blend so seamlessly in flavors that the different senses merge, becoming indistinguishable.  The brain even mixes them up.”

When we think about the “smell” of chocolate, we will often default to the idea of sweet, but that is actually the taste.  When we describe a taste we might say something is sharp or tangy, but those are actually descriptors derived from olfaction. Chocolate tasting should help convince you that taste and smell are an old married couple.

For more information on the marriage between your sense of smell and taste click on the picture below from the Monell Center Blog.

 

Parting  Thoughts

If you, like me, obsess over giving something the perfect description, you might want to consider the use of tasting wheels.  The two primary types are texture wheels and flavor/aroma wheels. Both of these are found in the book Chocolate: Indulge Your Inner Chocoholic; but they can also be found online.  Just make sure you specify chocolate before the terms TEXTURE WHEEL OR TASTING WHEEL.  There are so many things to taste and different wheels for each of them.

However and what ever you choose to taste, the experience will likely impact all your future flavor perceptions.  Our sense of smell, McQuaid explains, is hardwired to parts of the brain that “link the past and present.”  This connector is a part of the brain known as the insula, which ultimately helps translate the “body’s internal state and external circumstances.”  So have fun, make some memories, and build your flavor library.

Angel’s Reading List

In the last Savour post, Chocolate, En garde!,  I wrote about the learning process involved in preparing for a chocolate tasting program.  I challenged readers with a quiz; and promised answers.  Here are the answers:

CCN-51; Hawaii; Paso de la Amada, home to the Mokaya; cheese; fresh pears and oranges; clean palate; symbolized the human heart, torn from chest at the moment of sacrifice; money;  an agreement to certify cocoa’s “child labor free” status; froth hot chocolate.

“The secret of food lies in memory – of thinking and then knowing what the taste of cinnamon or steak is.”  Jerry Saltz

Article by Angel, Bon Air Branch

Wicked Plants, Wicked Bugs

Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln’s Mother and Other Botanical Atrocitieswickedplantssm

To be honest, I don’t do very well with adult nonfiction.  I just can’t seem to get as engrossed with it as I do fiction.  However, I am hooked on Amy Stewart’s books.  Her books are strange and wonderful and riveting.

Wicked Plants is a fascinating collection of nature’s most dangerous and toxic plants.  Mother Nature does not play y’all.  I am pretty much allergic to everything on Earth so this just confirmed my healthy fear of plants.

Bet you didn’t know most common house plants are surprisingly noxious.  That peace lily in your house could cause nausea and skin irritation and the ficus tree can incite severe allergic reactions.  Kudzu has caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage in the United States and even battle tanks couldn’t penetrate their rampant growth on a military base in Virginia.  Oleander, mandrake, killer algae and the stinging tree of Australia were a few of my favorite chapters as well.  The nightshade family is a very interesting genus.   I did not know tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and eggplant belong in the nightshade family along with belladonna and the poisonous jimsonweed.  Crazy sauce!

The illustrated etchings of the plants by Briony Morrow-Cribbs are an enchanting and lovely addition. If you love gardening, camping, being outdoors or you’re just like me and are captivated by the plant kingdom’s criminal element check out Amy Stewart.  She also has a book called The Drunken Botanist  I plan on starting soon.  Or keep going with Wicked Bugs!

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Wicked Bugs: The Louse That Conquered Napoleon’s Army & Other Diabolical Insects

Now this one freaked me out.  You may be aware but humans are seriously outnumbered.  It is estimated that there are ten quintillion insects alive on the planet right now.  I didn’t even know quintillion was a word.  If insects decided to take over we would not stand a chance.

As much as they freak me out I can’t stand to squish a bug, I always feel so guilty.  They are pretty amazing creatures.  Except silverfish….I can’t stand silverfish.  ICK.

Amy Stewart explores the creepy crawly world of devilish and destructive bugs.  Bookworms were of particular interest to me as I am a librarian.  But the bullet ant (causes excruciating pain), the rat flea (did you know flea vomit is the true culprit in a plague epidemic?), Japanese beetles (deeply feared and loathed in the eastern U.S.) and the death watch beetle (Edgar Allan Poe refers to this one in his story “The Tell-Tale Heart”) were particularly intriguing.

Don’t get me started on the bed bug chapter…I just can’t…

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Also, it’s quite remarkable how many insects there are where the female eats the male after or during mating. The insect world is a bizarre and fantastical place to read about and Amy Stewart does a wonderful job in exploring their dark side.

Formats Available: Book, e-Book, Downloadable Audiobook, Playaway

Reviewed by Heather, St. Matthews

The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs

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I confess a deep, lifelong love of dinosaurs. I had a stuffed Tyrannosaurus rex as a kid, instead of a bear, and it still sits on my dresser. I read just about everything I can find on them, from bird identification guides, to blog posts and papers by paleontologists. I am very, very picky about dinosaur books. There’s a system, you see.

Katherine’s Guide to Evaluating Dinosaur Books:

1.  Accuracy. If it’s a non-fiction book, it had better be well researched by people who know what they’re doing. No excuses for using shoddy or old research or perpetuating outright falsehoods. For dinosaur books, there is one special consideration:  

It should at least know what a dinosaur is. This might seem obvious, but, when I hit the shelves, I’m always surprised at the number of “dinosaur” books that call the wrong things dinosaurs.

What is a dinosaur? Dinosaurs are all of the descendants of the single common ancestor of modern birds and Triceratops. They are archosaurs (all the relatives of themselves and crocodiles) with hips that fit upright legs. A chicken’s legs don’t sprawl like an alligator’s. Dimetrodon, Pteranodon, Icthyosaurus, Plesiosaurus – these are not dinosaurs.

A Black-Capped Chickadee is a dinosaur:

blackcappedchickadee

“Black-capped Chickadee” by Brendan Lally – Own work.  Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Black-capped_Chickadee_1.jpg

(It’s all in those scaly little legs: they fall straight from the hip socket. Note also adorably teensy claws.)

2.  Illustrations. There is no substitute for a scientific illustrator. Shoddy computer graphics abound in dinosaur books for children and adults, yet good, clear, hand-drawn illustrations do the job far better, and bring out details that are easily botched by cheap computer graphics, such as feathers. This is definitely one case in which a picture is worth a thousand words.

3.  Focus. A clear, tight focus can really help a book, especially one that covers a topic as expansive as dinosaurs. Dinosaurs were around for a really, incredibly long time. To put the Mesozoic – the “Age of Dinosaurs” – in perspective, it ended 65 million years ago. The Cretaceous alone, the last of the three periods of the Mesozoic, lasted 80 million years, longer than everything that has happened since. It’s easy for a book to lose sense of this perspective, or for information to get muddled without a well-defined focus.

The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs definitely knows what a dinosaur is. The book knows what several hundred dinosaur species are. It is exactly as it says in the title – a field guide – with detailed, accurate, informative illustrations on every page, thorough introductions to each group, and information for every species introduced, including size, estimated weight, characteristics, distribution and habitat, and notes.

Even better, it’s by a scientific illustrator who is also a dinosaur researcher. Every page is crammed with line drawings and silhouettes of skeletons, beautiful muscle studies, and sensitive life restorations. The author – Gregory S. Paul – helped lead the charge for changing the visual interpretation of dinosaurs, from tail-dragging, cold-blooded, saggy-skinned mega-lizards, to the warm-blooded, and much more alert and dynamic creatures that populate today’s research and even motion pictures, in accord with advances in scientific knowledge. Especially striking in The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs is the restoration given for the chicken-sized Anchiornis huxleyi – the coloration of which has been determined: it was gray, with black and white banded arm and leg feathers, and a reddish crest on its head. On the other side of the coin, Gregory S. Paul uses a robust, informed imagination in the life restorations to suggest possibilities for dinosaurs that dry bones cannot. The zebra-striped feather crest and cassowary-like wattles on Dryosaurus altus bring the animal to vibrant life.

Organized by phylogeny, with species notes that indicate possible relationships, or insufficient data, The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs is easy to browse or use for reference – never losing its clear focus as a reference for the general public. Keeping an eye to context, the book opens with an introductory section that details the history or dinosaur research, changes in the field, dinosaur natural history, and even an overview of details such as diseases or injuries known from dinosaur fossils.

Whether your six-year-old has dinosaur fever, or the six-year-old in you does, a great dinosaur book like this one is indispensable.

Formats Available:  Book

Reviewed by Katherine, Highlands-Shelby Park Branch