Two products about which I have been historically less than convinced are chocolate and coffee - I know there is good stuff and less good stuff, and I'd like to think I can tell the difference between the two - but once the beans for each have been roasted, ground and made into their finished products, is it really possible to discern minute differences between them as you can with wines from a handful of villages on the Côte-d'Or ?
Actually, as Raffaella Baruzzo explained in her Master Class talk at the Fine Wine Fair, it is - you just need a bit of guidance. Rafaela is originally from Italy, but first came to the UK 12 years ago, spending a few years in South America in between becoming an expert in all things chocolate.
With her lilting Italian accent and engaging manner, Raffaella could talk about the phone book and make it captivating; however, she has perhaps one of the most universally interesting subjects to talk about as she explained the differences between types of cocoa plant, how the beans are fermented, dried, roasted and finally ground ready to make chocolate.
The cocoa plant started life in Mexico and through natural processes made its way to central America. From there, it was shipped first to Africa and later on to Asia, especially Indonesia.
Raffaella explained that in the cocoa world hierarchy, South America comes tops, Africa somewhere in the middle whilst Indonesia is generally for mass-market, greasy and heavily-sugared junk.
We started our tasting by first smelling the aroma of some coarse-ground beans - they were rich and aromatic, but hard, bitter and seemingly tasteless when chewed.
The first of the chocolates was a 70% Ecuador, rich and darkly aromatic on the nose. Raffaella drew our attention to the texture which was moderately smooth due to a naturally-lower cocoa butter content.
Next came a 71% Vista Allegre from the Dominican Republic which was smoother and had aromas of liquorice, spice and mushrooms. We then tried a mystery chocolate which was also from the Dominican Republic and which Raffaella asked us to guess the cocoa content. It was rich, toasty and tannic - but not bitter - and guesses ranged from around 80% to 85%, whilst the answer proved to be 88%.
We followed this with a 76% Ghana chocolate which I immediately noticed as smelling quite different - the nose was less rich and earthy and instead had less pronounced aromas of cigar box, mushrooms and, for me, wood shavings. The texture was smoother than the Dominican chocolates but the flavour much less intense.
Here we are talking about noticeable differences between continents and so I have to question whether we will ever get to the stage of narrowly defining sub-regions of chocolate origin as we have done with wine.
However, Raffaella's next point was well-made - don't just look at the cocoa percentage, but at the origin of the beans. Certainly the people whose job it is to market quality chocolate seem to want us to focus on the former and are rather coy about the latter and some indication of origin would be helpful here, I think.
The tasting was not all serious, however, and our last chocolate was a pistachio praline infused with rosemary - it is one of my favourite herbs and tasted superb.
Baruzzo website - http://www.baruzzo.co.uk/
Fine Wine Fair website - http://www.finewinefair.org/index.php
Baruzzo profile at the Fine Wine Fair - http://www.finewinefair.org/baruzzo.php