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The Great Taste Awards and the “Art” of Tasting

By Cocoa Runners  ·  27th September 2020  ·  The Science of Chocolate

Great Taste Awards 2016

This week we’d like to congratulate a number of chocolate makers who have entered, and won, multiple awards at the Great Taste Awards — in particular Fjak and Tosier (ladies first), Standout, Firetree and Solkiki swept the boards.

To celebrate we’ve pulled together an award winning box (see below) and highlighted a few other awesome award-winning bars. 

We’ve also used this occasion to ruminate more on the extraordinary labour intensity of judging food and why they are (arguably) more “art” than “science”.

HOW TO SAVOUR

Just as how you are often advised to swill your wine in a glass, sniff it and then sip it, chocolate has a similar protocol.  When you open a bar the classic advice goes along the lines of “admire the shininess of the chocolate, then break off a piece (it should have a clean snap), then ‘sniff’ it and finally move on to savouring the bar”.

In the process of tasting literally thousands of craft chocolate bars, we believe that there are a few other best practices to make savouring more fun and memorable. These include:

  1. Try to have a few chocolates on the go at the same time (easier than with wine or coffee…).  It really highlights the differences
  2. Try to share and discuss with friends.  It’s more fun and articulating the notes you detect helps you discover and remember
  3.  Try to have some “crib sheets”; most of the time tastes, flavours and textures are “on the tip of our tongues” but hard for most to articulate.  Hence why we always hand out our “Craft Chocolate Savouring Wave”
  4.  Give it time.  Lots of time.  Revisit and repeat

TASTE — “ART” OR “SCIENCE”?

For most of our senses and experiences we’ve developed standardised criteria and scientific measurements.  Time has minutes, hours, years, etc.  Distance has miles (or kilometres).  Weight has kilos (or pounds). Sound has decibels (and pitch, rhythm, frequency, tone, etc.)  Temperature has Celsius (or Fahrenheit or Kelvin).  Colour, since Newton and his prisms, has wavelengths to describe red, yellow and even stuff we can’t see.

Food and drink are different.  They are about flavour, taste and texture.  Measurements and judgements are a lot more subjective. 

Awarding prizes and awards in food and drink is all done by hand (or rather mouth and nose) and by teams of people.   The Great Taste Awards is all about lots of people tasting lots of products.  The same is true for wine with the likes of Decanter, the IWC, IWSC etc. tasting tens of thousands of wines each vintage.  And the Academy of Chocolate and International Chocolate Awards do a similar job for chocolate, each now tasting thousands of bars every year. 

No one really has found a way to speed up or “automate” the process of tasting.

This is in large part because we are a long way from having standardised criteria and measurements for “taste” (or more specifically for flavour — see below).  We don’t have Newton’s light-refracting prism to help us describe and define aromas and flavours.  

And disentangling what we enjoy when we drink and eat is incredibly complicated.  To quote Professor Barry Smith, “…what we ordinarily call ‘taste’ involves input not just from the tongue, but from touch and smell. …  The experience often described in unisensory terms as ‘taste’ depends on the multi-modal combining of inputs”. By this he means that when we delight (or not) in food it is all about our sense of taste, smell, texture and a few other senses (e.g., spiciness). Untangling these is part of the problem.

Another part of the challenge is that we only have defined measurements for some of these senses. For spiciness we have the Scoville scale.  And we do have criteria to measure all the “tastes” (saltiness, sweetness, sourness, bitterness, umami, etc.).

But flavour (olfaction, our sense of smell and flavours) is particularly problematic.  It wasn’t until 1991 that Linda Buck and Richard Axel identified where, and how, the brain’s olfactory process “works” (they won the Nobel Prize for their work here in 2004).  But we are still a long way from having anything like Newton’s prism to define colour via light waves.  Olfaction is hugely complicated.  For example, just for starters we detect flavour in two very different ways; orthonasally (through our nose) and retronasally (through our mouth). 

For those of us who are fans of “real” food (and drinks) there is some good news here: it’s really, really hard to recreate flavours that occur in nature.  Scientists have some tools – for example, Mass Gas Spectometry.  But if you read how long and laborious it was to make artificial vanilla, you’ll see how far they are from cracking fake flavours (the work behind synthesizing artificial vanilla has been compare to “trying to figure out what was inside a mysterious piece of luggage by heaving it off a hotel balcony”). And even then, artificial and synthetic flavours are  approximations which seek out some key characteristics of the desired fruit or suns. Nootkatone was identified in the 1960s as giving grapefruit part of their distinctive flavours and, when distilled, it made a great addition to create Fresca.  But it’s not the real thing.

And to return to the Great Wave of Savouring Chocolate we use in our Virtual Tastings (see here), it is in the “after taste” that these artificial additives fall flat.  To quote Tim Spector from our “Craft Chocolate Conversation” on Thursday night:  “Real food like craft chocolate really lingers and evolves …. mass-produced chocolate is all about the upfront flavour … and is often designed to give you more “hits” to get you coming back for more (and more and more)”.

CELEBRATING THE GREAT TASTE AWARDS WINNERS

So anyhow, let’s celebrate all the hard work of our makers, and the tasters, of the Great Taste Awards.  We’ve assembled a box of Milk and Dark Award winning bars.  And as we could only fit four in this box, we’ve included a few more wonderful winners too.  See below and here.

And if you want to know more about the science of taste, flavour and indeed the amazing career of Professor Barry Smith, please do sign up for his next “Craft Chocolate Conversation” with us (he is in the process of choosing his “Desert Island Chocolates”,  but you can sign up for the free Zoom details here and we’ll send you details on how to buy the kit soon).

As ever, thanks for your support,

Spencer, Simon, Lizzie and Harmony