Last week, I had the pleasure of attending a chocolate seminar set up by Valrhona chocolatiers. We had the opportunity to hear from their cocoa sourcer Pierre Costet about the company’s work in the Dominican Republic and a chance to marvel at the pastry craftsmanship of master chocolatier, Oriol Balaguer. We were treated to a tasting of several of their blends, the highlight of which was a taste of the new Bahibe 46% Pure Origin Milk Chocolate, the first time this has been available to sample in the U.S. To round out the afternoon, two pastry chefs worked with the chocolates to create a fabulous, sweet spread for us to eat as we all networked after the seminar.
To set the stage for our trying some of their chocolate blends, Pierre Costet led us on a journey to the Dominican Republic, where Valrhona has been working with local farmers to grow cocoa trees and to produce cocoa beans using sustainable and environmentally-responsible methods, while incorporating the local traditions. “A good cocoa comes from a good terroir [like wine]”, he explained to us.
As he walked us through each of the stages of harvesting and production, from planting the trees, making sure that the right shade trees are planted to protect the young cocoa seedlings, to the cutting of the pods from the trees, to the fermentation process (which is specific to the Dominican Republic), to the drying racks, it was extremely evident that Mr. Costet is passionate not just about the quality and taste of the final product but also about ensuring the care of the cocoa at every step along the way as well as of the people with whom he works. The process is very highly monitored, he assured us: “This traditional cocoa will be traditional but of a good quality.” As we were treated to samples of the Bahibe, Tainori, and Otucan chocolates, each with its own tasting notes, we could appreciate this attention to detail in the end product.
After the chocolate tasting, we had a chance to listen to Master Chocolatier Oriol Balaguer talk about his exquisite pastry work. We watched a slideshow of some of his creations and then had the chance to ask him some questions about his work. For him what is important is to: a. find the best product; b. produce the best flavor; and c. work with the aesthetic to bring this out. “The most important thing is this. The mouth is the boss,” he told us. “I am an addict – pastry, bread, chocolate, this whole world.” Listening to him and seeing photos of his creations, made me want to hop on the next departing plane for Barcelona so that I could try them for myself.
Fortunately, I did not have to travel that far to enjoy some delicious pastries and sweet treats. Two chefs had made trays of gorgeous desserts, using Valrhona’s various chocolate blends, for us to try. These delectable creations showcased the variety of flavors of the chocolates themselves as well as the combinations, tastes, and textures for which they could be used. One of my favorite items by Alison Eighteen (our host location for the event) pastry chef Sarah Sutherland was the Opalys Strawberry Trifle (second one down on the right), featuring local tri-star strawberries and using Valrhona’s Opalys white chocolate. The dish reminded me of a more refined version of that English classic teatime treat – Strawberries and Cream.
It would be difficult to select a favorite among all the dishes that Shelly Acuna, pastry chef for Valrhona, set out for us to try. She used the Bahibe, Tainori, and Otucan chocolates that we’d tried earlier to create her selections. I might, however, have to go with her Otucan Translucence (second one down on the left) as the winner for me. A Gran Cru Venezuelan chocolate, Otucan contains 69% cocoa and has a strong, slightly bitter flavor that blends well with other ingredients, mellowing a bit to leave a long, silken finish. As I scraped my serving cup dry, my only regret was that I didn’t have enough room to eat one of every item. I look forward to having a chance to taste more of these chocolates at another event.
Thank you to Ruskin International for inviting me to participate in Valrhona this Cercle V event. I look forward to being able to attend another one of these fascinating programmes in the future.