Growing up on a beekeeping farm in the south of Switzerland, flavour played a leading role in Valentina’s life from a young age. A beekeeper must determine, beyond a reasonable doubt, if her harvest is from Wild Cherry flowers or Linden trees. By sight alone, it’s impossible to tell, they are very similar in colour. “As you might have guessed, it is done by tasting.”
“One of my childhood memories”, Valentina tells us, “is of my mother placing her coffee spoon under the spilling tap of the centrifuge, gathering some freshly extracted honey. She would taste it, carefully considering her evaluation, her gaze lost in her own sensory experience. Before long, she would confidently declare, ‘At least 80% Linden. I can taste almonds, so some Wild Cherry must be in here too’. Looking at my daily activities here at Cacao Latitudes, I find so many similarities in our experience.”
Time at University
During her time at (?) University studying (?), Valentina was introduced to the discipline required for sensory analysis. Afternoons were well spent in the sensory lab, sniffing anything from Barolo wine to Parmigiano Reggiano, under the careful supervision of professor Luisa Torri. “She had the habit of gently scolding smokers, reminding them of the tragic sensory loss their vice was costing them. She built a solid methodological foundation for her students, myself included: a tool that many of us apply regularly to this day.”
After university, Valentina began working as a bean-to-bar chocolate maker, where sensory analysis was always on the go. Each day would involve an ever-changing multitude of activities that chocolate production demands. Sensory analysis, as a discipline, had to be squeezed between tasks. Tastings were quick. Sensory decisions were made mid roasting cycles, deliveries of a fresh cacao, early in the morning and late at night, always balancing available time and energy. “Yet tasting the difference that a slight tweak of the roasting program made, or noting the difference that a prolonged refining time would have on the final product remained my favourite element of the craft.”
“There is something exhilarating in revealing the aromatic potential of cacao. When it arrives here in Europe, it isn’t a raw, untouched material, but the result of much work and dedication. Many expert hands have nurtured this beloved crop. Fostering the development of those crowd- pleasing aromatic precursors we value and try to elevate.”
As our quality expert here at Cacao Latitudes, Valentina is usually the first to receive a new sample. While performing quality evaluations, an ever-improving protocol continues to develop to ensure only the finest results inform decisions.
“We test for physical qualities (appearance, cleanliness of sample, cut test, humidity, etc.) and as well as sensory ones (smell, taste, flavour, defects).”
Every sample is tasted following the “pop-corn” method:
50g of beans are roasted in a small popcorn popper for 45 seconds.
The beans are then peeled, ground in a coffee grinder, and evaluated for taste and flavour.
Everything is documented, creating a record of all received and evaluated samples. As the dataset grows, we are able to identify positive patterns and isolate anomalies. With this information, we can offer our clients informed guidance on flavour, in a dynamic back and forth.”
At Cacao Latitudes, we also recognise the need for more coherence in sensory analysis throughout the sector. As specialty cacao and artisanal chocolate expand and prosper, the need for a shared language and methodology becomes ever more important.
Are toffee and caramel the same flavour? Should the intensity scale be from 1-10 or 1-4?
What are the differences between tasting cacao, liquor, or chocolate?
If you’ve ever asked yourself at least one of these questions, then don’t worry, you’re in good company.