That moment we take our first bite of a fine chocolate bar, letting it melt onto our tongue, we are tasting happiness. But there’s no reason to limit our experiences! Why eat fine chocolate on its own, when we can combine it with other specialty foods and drinks for a whole new flavor experience?
Enter the universe of chocolate pairings. I was lucky enough to have a conversation with Megan Giller, author of Bean to Bar Chocolate – America’s Craft Chocolate Revolution, to learn more about the different foods and beverages that pair well with it. Read on to discover what she had to say.
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Cacao pods at a farm in Tabasco, Mexico. Credit: Héctor Frappé for Ruta Origen
An Introduction to Chocolate Pairing
Pairing can have a bad reputation among specialty food and beverage lovers. “When you’re eating good chocolate, why would you want to dilute it with other flavours and aromas?” they ask.
But pairing fine chocolate with coffee, tea, cheese, pastries, and more can accentuate certain flavors in both foods, help you appreciate their nuances, and – of course – be delicious.
So, how should you pair chocolate? Megan tells me, “I think that people should do it however they want to do it.”
However, she has a series of recommendations – ones based on years of experience as a “professional chocolate eater,” as she describes herself in her Twitter bio.
“I think it could be fun to start out trying it separately and then see how it changes the flavor of whatever you’re tasting in your mouth,” she says. “But, what I use is the ‘milkshake method.’ I take a bite of chocolate and, once it starts to melt on the tongue, take a piece of whatever the other food is or a sip of the coffee, and then kind of mingle them in your mouth. This really gives you the chance to taste what I call a third flavour that’s not only those two ingredients put together in your mouth. It really tastes like something different.”
Dried cacao beans in a basket. Credit: Héctor Frappé for Ruta Origen
What Makes a Food & Chocolate Pairing Work?
When choosing foods and beverages to pair, the key word is balance. As Megan says, “One important thing that I came to note is that the chocolate you are pairing has to be sweeter than what you’ll be pairing your chocolate with. For example, tea and chocolate are a really great pairing, but if you have a really sweet tea you’ll not be able to taste the same experience.”
While we use chocolate in many desserts, Megan is wary about doing this for a tasting. “If you try to taste chocolate with other sweet stuff it might get overwhelming pretty fast…” she explains. “And I’m not saying it wouldn’t be good. I’m just saying it would be pretty decadent.”
In fact, she prefers savory pairings. “I really wanted to do a vegetable pairing,” she recalls, “and everybody was looking at me like I was crazy, except for a pastry chef based in San Francisco, Michael Recutee, who’s amazing. He said to me, ‘that makes perfect sense to me.’ So, he came up with a honey carrot puree and we paired it with a single origin Ecuador. The puree was almost like a dipping sauce.”
But balance isn’t just about what you’re pairing. It’s also about the quantity. “It’s all about balance,” Megan says, “and when you are pairing chocolate with different ingredients, you will need to kind of trial it, by taking a big sip of tea or a tiny sip of tea. With blue cheese, for example, you need a very tiny piece of blue cheese when pairing it with your chocolate, otherwise, you can overwhelm the chocolate.”
Chocolate, cheese and coffee at Coffee Lab in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Credit: Ana Valencia
Chocolate and Coffee
Chocolate and coffee have a lot in common, from their indulgent nature to the complex flavors you can taste. Whether it’s an 80% Nicaraguan or a 60% Ecuadorian milk chocolate, a fruity Guatemalan coffee or a high-acidity Kenyan, you know you’ll taste the impact of origin, processing, roasting, and more.
Learn more! Read How Is Fine Chocolate Made?
But what happens when you put them together?
Megan is a fan of this, telling me that they work really well together – especially when you adopt her milkshake method. But, as always, you want to pay attention to the kind of chocolate and kind of coffee you’re using.
“We have tried our chocolate pairings with Counter Culture Coffee,” she says, “and would say [that you should use] black coffee, since milk and sugar could really dilute the pairing. It could taste good but I’m not sure if you could have that elevated pairing experience because there is so much going on in the coffee already.”
For the purposes of these pairings, she puts coffee into four loose categories: nutty coffees (think Colombians and other South American origins), fruity and earthy (Central America), fruity and bright coffees (Ethiopians, Rwandans, Kenyans, and so on) and, last but not least, espresso.
Want to understand more about coffee? Check out How to Cup Coffee & Improve Your Palate!
Her one caveat? While milk chocolate can go well with black coffee, you should skip the milkshake method when pairing it with espresso. As she writes in her book, “You’ll want to drink the straight-up espresso shots first, swallow, then taste the chocolate. Otherwise, the espresso could overwhelm the flavors of the chocolate.”
Chocolate and coffee. Credit: Michael Liedtke
Chocolate and Tea
Coffee’s not the only beverage that goes well with chocolate! Tea, delicious, aromatic, complex, and flavorful, is also an excellent option for pairing.
As Megan writes in her book, “the aromatics in tea tend to intensify the taste of the chocolate, highlighting flavors that are similar in both or contrasting opposing flavors, so you can taste each even better… I found that the chocolate often intensified the tea, bringing out its natural sweetness, nuttiness or toastiness in particular.”
You might also like An Introduction to Specialty Tea Cupping!
Don’t forget Megan’s advice to try different size sips. But that’s not the only way you can experiment: there are many types of tea and many origins. Try a Chinese Oolong/Wulong, a Japanese matcha, or an Argentinian black tea. Pour yourself three different Pu’er teas, all from different years, and see how the aging of this fermented tea affects the flavors.
Learn more about tea! Read Do You Know The 6 Different Kinds of Tea?
Chocolate and liquor pairing. Credit: Project Chocolat
Chocolate and Cheese
Cheese has so many delicious flavors: salty, creamy, nutty, sharp, sweet, caramelized… So, why not swap out the fruit on your cheeseboard for chocolate?
Oh, and be prepared for some surprising combinations. Blue cheese and chocolate is one of Megan’s favorites. She tells me that it “works pretty universally,” even though she’s not usually that keen on blue cheese. “It really creates this interesting flavor where it’s not cheese and it’s not chocolate. There’s something else going on,” she emphasizes. “They really match each other perfectly.
“It works with every type of chocolate. In terms of milk chocolate, dark chocolate, pretty much every single origin chocolate we tried it with, it worked well.”
Her sole exception is 100% chocolate, simply because “the flavors are too strong.” But with anything else, you’re due for a delicious experience.
Have you tried cheese with coffee? Check out The Best Coffee-Food Pairings – According to The Experts!
Pairing beer and chocolate. Credit: André
Chocolate and Bread
“I loved doing the chocolate and bread pairing,” Megan confesses. “There’re so many pastries with chocolate in them but I had never taken a piece of bread and combined it with a piece of chocolate. And, in France, that’s like a snack that people have. It’s normal! They take a baguette, stick a piece of chocolate in it, and walk down the street eating it.”
Pairing bread and chocolate can bring out the flavors in both foods, although Megan says that some combinations will work better than others.
“There was one that really surprised me,” she says. “It was this single origin Madagascar with a baguette, and even though baguettes are pretty plain, these toasty, roasty notes started coming out from the baguette.”
And for the chocolate? “Single origin Madagascan cocoa is very fruity, almost like raspberry. Some people even talk about lemon or something like that and it’s actually very acidic because fruit tends to have that type of acidity in it. When you combine that chocolate and a baguette, it ends up tasting like a peanut butter jelly sandwich.”
Pairing chocolate with a Franconian Helles beer. Credit: André
Aren’t you craving one of these pairings? Because I sure am! With all the wonderful flavors and aromas that a fine cacao bar has, with all the different origins and chocolate-making techniques, there’s a world of taste for us to explore.
So, what are you waiting for?
Enjoyed this? Check out A Beginner’s Guide to Cacao & Chocolate Flavour Profiles!
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