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Sampling Chocolate Mindfully

Essay by Mark Johnson

My theory about most Americans is that they don't become food connoisseurs until high-quality; somewhat obscure versions of products are made or promoted here in the US . Wine for instance didn't become a subject of intense discussion until California had a vast array of vineyards and vintners whose work could be tasted, dissected, compared and judged. We can thank artisanal cheesemakers for their products which can stir up a conversation with friends about mold, aging and sheep's milk.

Chocolate has recently become a source of connoisseurship as more chocolatiers explore ways to uniquely highlight the origin of their cocoa bean. They are also pairing their chocolate with fruit, creating an especially tasty treat.

Many of us had our first experience with a chocolate bar made by Hershey. Maybe you share a common memory of unwrapping the bar from its brown paper wrapper printed in bold white letters, then eagerly opening the silver foil envelope to find a perfectly scored and imprinted chocolate bar. It's not that there is anything wrong with a Hershey bar, its been available in most grocery and corner stores for decades, which makes it.well, good enough. There was never any reason to discuss the contents of the wrapper, as it was, and always will be, a predictable bar of milk chocolate. An American classic in its own right!

I never considered myself a chocolate connoisseur. While traveling I have enjoyed some chocolates that were memorable-knowing the difference between the good stuff and the merely okay (As well as the truly awful stuff that I sold when I was a Boy Scout). I've cooked with chocolate, not just desserts but mole sauce as well. I also enjoy cocktails that incorporate creme de cacao-drinks with a hint of chocolate flavor amidst the fruit and liquor (avoiding, however, the sacrilegious chocolate "Martini).

I have yet to acquire the knowledge or vocabulary to be, or pretend to be, a bona fide chocolate connoisseur. However recently, to my surprise and delight, I learned that I have the palate of a connoisseur.

As thanks for writing a story for isimmer.com, the proprietress was kind enough to send me a sampler from Sharffenberger Chocolate, a well-known, high-end chocolatier. She also included a large bar of their milk chocolate. I decided to begin with that kind since it has always been my favorite.

The milk chocolate was really good. So good in fact that I disciplined myself to eat it slowly rather than wolfing it down much like a kid just back from trick-or-treating. I ate it over the course of four days, indulging in bits of it at a slow pace. My goal was partly hedonistic-I wanted to enjoy the experience of eating that chocolate bar for as long as possible. It was also partly puritanical-I didn't want to be a pig, eating it in four or five bites.

Eventually I reached the end of the bar, but as I picked up the last remaining piece I was reminded of a meditation exercise called "eating one raisin." The exercise is just that: you eat a single raisin. When the raisin is in your mouth you are to focus completely on the texture of the raisin as you chew it, experiencing every detail. The result is to reach a heightened state of awareness. Eating one raisin teaches mindfulness, the practice of being aware. Reflecting on that exercise; I broke the last piece of chocolate into four pieces (raisin-sized, appropriately enough). I was going to eat each of those with as much awareness as I could muster.

Texture was going to be the first thing I focused on. I chewed the chocolate very slowly, paying attention to the way it crunched between my teeth and the silky, semi-liquid feel of it as melted against my tongue. I also became aware of the distinct flavors, each one like an individual note being played on a piano.

The next piece didn't have any "plan" attached to it. I consciously decided not to focus on any one thing. I was even more surprised by the range of flavors I experienced. I did the same with the next to last piece, which reinforced both the sensation of taste and the value of being mindful during this experience. The last piece taught me something particularly notable. Instead of chewing it I let it melt on my tongue. Doing so turned the experience into one of almost pure taste, which compared to the prior notes played on a garage sale, spinet piano. Only NOW, the notes were being played by Alfred Brendel on a piano in Orchestra Hall.

When I started eating the one-ounce bars in the six-piece variety pack I did the same thing. I broke each one into four small pieces and really focused on their flavors as I let the pieces melt on my tongue, being sure to also chew some of every bar. I was not at all prepared for the awakening I experienced. The first of which was the range of flavors. I knew how different kinds of chocolate tasted, but I had never been so aware while tasting chocolate. I had never truly experienced the complex essences of chocolate. I could have described the subtle differences in words, but I was simply being mindful of taste, not of my reactions to the flavors.

I discovered my ability to focus on the subtle differences in flavors with each specialty bar I sampled. I didn't have to take a course in chocolate tasting to be able to tell anyone that the extra dark has a much more intense, earthy flavor than that of the bittersweet. The ability, that connoisseurship, was just something I needed to pay attention to. This is something that I will remind myself of as I take a sip of a good wine, or a bite of a fine cheese, or even while eating a ballpark hot dog. That ability to truly taste is one that I wabt to focus on in the future.

Of course it is more difficult to be mindful while in certain circumstances. Eating in social situations may be a time when it is difficult to focus. It's not easy to be fully aware of all the nuances of flavor in a dish while eating and talking with someone about work. We all have the ability to be mindful and to spend some time with the flavors of what we eat and drink. This should remind us all to tune into our palates and savor our food and drink. With mindful tasting, the pleasure is not in claiming to be a connoisseur; rather the ability to taste our food as one.

Photos by Susan Beach

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