Some time ago I spent the better part of two years of my young life working in a fancy imported chocolate shop, a period during which the approach of chocolate-themed holidays like Valentine's and Easter was frankly terrifying. After spending so much time enlightening customers about the virtues of fine chocolate, I've gained quite a bit of knowledge that I'm willing to share with you, whether you're starting your journey into chocolate snobbery or just making sure you buy the right chocolates for your significant other.
What Kind Of Chocolate Is Best?
Let's start with the basics: what goes into that delicious, delicious chocolate? When it comes to fine chocolate you'll mostly be looking at the imported stuff - Australian Cadbury is delicious, but it's more of a cheap snack kind of chocolate than a fancy gift.
Most of the good imported chocolate in Australia will be European. Belgian chocolate is usually the easiest to find, with high profile brands like Godiva and Guylian some of the most prominent examples. Belgian chocolate is characterised by a high cocoa content, creating a rich, decadent taste. You'll often find Belgian chocolate filled with praline and cremes, but more on filled chocolates later.
Note that a lot of Australian places selling Belgian chocolate will actually be making their own products here in Australia, simply using said Belgian chocolate as a base. Koko Black is one of my favourite of these, mixing in local Australian ingredients with its premium Belgian chocolate.
While some people assume that the original European stuff must be better, these chocolates can suffer a little on the journey over. Godiva in particular has issues with many of its Australian distributors holding stale stock, as the super-premium product doesn't sell fast (you'll still pay a premium for old stock, though!)
Lindt is the main rep for Swiss chocolate in Australia, offering a lighter, sweeter counterpart to its rich Belgian cousins. Lindt is decently tasty but it's also fairly prolific in Australia, and can even come across as lazy if you're gifting it. Chances are you've had Lindt chocolate many times already, so let's move on.
Other European chocolate-makers aren't all that well-represented in Australia, but offerings from France and Italy can be as good as, if not better than, the Belgian stuff if you can find it. One of my favourite French brands is Michele Cluizel, with a lot of delicious pralines and its signature tin of chocolate 'sardines', which always makes for a cute gift.
Although chocolate originated in Central America, you'll be hard pressed to find Mesoamerican chocolate in Australia. If you do find it, it's actually quite different to the European take on chocolate, tending to be less sweet and more spicy, including everything from cinnamon to oregano.
White, Dark Or Milk?
Which type of chocolate is best? For some reason, it's a question we got asked a lot. The answer is whichever one you prefer. Even when I worked in the shop and ate fantastic chocolate all day, I never settled on one chocolate being superior to the others, cycling through dark, milk and even white chocolate equally. Oh, and don't let anyone tell you white chocolate "isn't real chocolate". It's still delicious.
The reason white chocolate is supposedly not really chocolate is because it doesn't contain any cocoa solids, instead being made up of cocoa butter, milk solids and sugar. Because of the lack of cocoa richness it tends to be higher in sugar and thus sweeter, but it's still a perfectly valid option for chocolate lovers. White chocolate goes well with fruity fillings that elevate that sweetness, as well as nut-based ones that balance it.
Milk chocolate is probably the most common type of chocolate, even though it's younger than its elegant predecessor in dark chocolate. Milk chocolate typically contains around 30 per cent cocoa for good quality European chocolate - where heathenistic US 'milk' chocolate can have as little as 10 per cent cocoa. Don't buy American chocolate. Milk chocolate tends to go well with most fillings and inclusions, straddling the line between super sweet white choc and super rich dark chocolate.
Dark chocolate has seen an increase in popularity lately after claims it's a superfood (or at least more healthy than other types of chocolate). Honestly though, if you're buying chocolate because you think it's healthy, you're doing it wrong.
Dark chocolate spans from around 60 per cent cocoa to the ultra-dark ultra-bitter 90 per cent types. Most of the dark chocolate used in individual or filled chocolates will be closer to the 60 per cent mark. Lindt makes a 99 per cent dark chocolate bar, but I can't recommend it unless you really hate sweet things.
What Are All These Fillings?
Filled chocolates are some of the most interesting options when it comes to premium chocolate, and also make fantastic gifts for the ability to mix and match. There are so many kinds out there, though, you need to know what you're getting yourself into.
Praline is the most common filling you'll find in Belgian filled chocolates. It's a smooth, nutty paste made from almonds or hazelnuts and goes well with the richness of Belgian chocolates. You'll most likely know the taste of praline from the filling inside Guylian's shells, as a high-profile example.
While this is the most common form of praline, some chocolates can contain pieces of crunchy praline. This is usually a confection of caramelised sugar and nuts, whether included as whole nuts or tiny pieces to add texture.
Gianduja is very similar to praline, but is often listed differently in chocolate shops so is worth a mention. Gianduja is a nutty paste mixed with chocolate, and is usually creamier and a bit softer than praline, especially when it melts a little. Gianduja is actually the predecessor to Nutella, which was originally known as Pasta Gianduja. The stuff you'll find in fine chocolates is a little better quality than a jar of Nutella, though.
Ganache is one of the next most common fillings in chocolates, and comes in all sorts of styles. At its core ganache is a mixture of chocolate and cream, but this base can then be mixed with liqueurs and other flavourings to suit all styles of chocolate. The most common ganaches are likely to be a rich dark chocolate, the addition of the cream giving the inside of the chocolate a soft, smooth texture.
Caramels come in all different kinds, from hard to creamy to chewy to soft. Many chocolates are now filled with salted caramels, which tend to be a gooey, flowy type of caramel most of the time. Chewy caramel is fairly self-explanatory (and delicious), while creamy caramels are more unique to fine chocolate, being a more fudge-textured caramel paste. If you're lucky you can even find chocolates with fillings based off a dulce de leche or Latin American styles of creamy caramel.
Crèmes are a little maligned due to their association with cheap chocolates and awful artificial flavours, but you can still get some delicious premium crèmes. Popular flavours like mint and strawberry abound, but some chocolatiers may get even more creative with their cremes. These tend to be more pure sweetness and less richness than other fillings, and make a good pairing with dark chocolate, but still might be too much of a sweet hit for those who prefer less sugar in their chocolates.
Liqueurs are in part exactly what they sound like, but often not. Generally speaking chocolate liqueurs are chocolate shells filled with liquid alcohol, but not always. Sometimes a liqueur is only used to refer to something chocolate flavoured, say with a creamy centre made with Baileys. If you're after one or the other, it's best to clarify with whoever you're buying the chocolates. And if you give liquid liqueurs as a gift, please warn the recipient of the liquid bounty inside!
Marzipan is still a fairly common filling for chocolate, despite its recent fall from favour. As a fairly bland paste made from almonds, it's probably best to skip the marzipan chocolates unless you or the person you're buying a gift for has a particular fondness for it.
Truffles are one of those things that no one can quite agree what it means. Some people use 'truffle' to refer to any filled chocolate, while others seem to expect truffle chocolates to contain actual chocolate. The most common usage refers to a chocolate that looks like a truffle. They're often formed in rough spheres, and dusted in cocoa or something else to create that truffle look. The most traditional truffles are usually dark chocolate with a chocolate ganache inside.
Of course this list isn't definitive chocolatiers will shove all sorts of things into chocolate casings if they think it'll taste good. These are some of the most common terms you'll come upon in your search for delicious chocolate, however.
How To Pick The Best, Freshest Chocolates
If there's one thing I learned from my years in the chocolate business it's that people suck at picking the best chocolates. So many people would come in and demand the 'fresh ones', then proceed to point to the oldest stock of chocolates we had.
This was most pronounced with white chocolates, and I'll tell you why. The freshest white chocolates actually have a warm yellow tone, which then blanches to pure white as they get older. People then tend to assume that the whitest white chocolates are the freshest, while it's actually the opposite.
On dark and milk chocolates this is more obvious to the untrained eye. Older chocolates tend to develop a bloom, like a white filmy appearance on the surface. While bloomed chocolate is still fine to eat, fresher chocolates will generally taste better - especially those with fillings.
In general you want to look for a nice smooth, glossy surface on chocolates. A bloom can mean they've been sitting in the cabinet for a while, while little chips and scratches indicate they've been moved around the display a little.
Storing (And Eating) Your Chocolates
Even when buying fine chocolates, you don't have to worry too much about storing them or eating them straight away. While chocolates do eventually go stale, it takes a matter of months rather than days. You don't have to treat them like fresh produce
In fact the one place you definitely shouldn't store your chocolates is in the refrigerator. Temperatures this cold will cause your chocolates to bloom, ruining the perfect pieces you picked not long ago. If you do have to store chocolates for some time, find a cool dry place in the pantry instead and they'll keep for a good few months.
You shouldn't need any tips on enjoying your delicious chocolates, but I will make a few notes on what you should eat them with. Though the idea of wine and chocolate sounds very romantic as a pairing, it's actually a bad one. The sweetness of the chocolate will make the wine taste very bitter, and the tannins in the wine will make the chocolate taste odd.
If you still really really want some wine and chocolate together, try either picking a sweet dessert wine or a light floral like a gewürztraminer, or pairing a rich red wine with a dark chocolate that tends towards the bitter side.
Otherwise, better pairings for chocolates are aperitif-style cocktails to cleanse the palate with drier, crisp flavours, or the eternal classic pairing of indulgent, milky drinks served hot or cold. Enjoy your chocolate!
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