A Taste of Spring
Chocolate, olive oil, and sake inspire three delicious new party plans
March 2, 2019
How to Host a Transcendent Chocolate Tasting
Picture a roomful of friends, eyes closed, faces smiling, a chorus of "umms" in the air. Meditation class? Spiritual retreat? Orgy? Actually, it's a chocolate tasting, and it may be your ticket to earning the title of host of the year. The Guittard Chocolate Company's fifth generation chocolate maker, Amy Guittard, shares her secrets for an evening that will go down in history.
1 Get the numbers right
Guittard likes a tasting with two different milks and three to four darks. "You'll get a fine array of tastes, the result of everything from the genetics of the bean to post-harvest practices on the farm to how it's crafted into chocolate, but you won't get palate fatigue. That said, the more the merrier if your taste buds can handle it."
2 Span the globe
"Tasting chocolate from different origins is always enlightening. You really pick up on the flavor nuances and profiles that come from the beans themselves." But Guittard says it's not necessary to stick with strict parameters: "I also encourage people to taste blends. They're an often-overlooked category that opens a world of flavor and allows you to taste the diversity of flavors that occur when different origins come together in the same chocolate. I like to think of it almost like a symphony: As you taste, you experience different flavor notes. You may start off with a base note of chocolate that peaks into some cherry and then mellows off into a nuttiness."
3 Study the color
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Guittard says that "Color is an important thing to observe and can provide some excellent clues as to what you're about to get yourself into." Start by placing the bars on a white background. "Different beans from different origins can have different color hues. For instance, Madagascar beans tend to be a bit redder in color than beans from Ecuador." But color alone doesn't tell you everything. "A darker color doesn't mean it will be more 'bitter,' as different origins have different flavor notes." Also, "The higher percentage of cocoa mass, the more concentrated the cocoa solids, and potentially the darker the bar. However that's not always the case."
4 Listen to the snap
Break off a small piece of chocolate and listen for a snap. "A good snap is one that's crisp and solid, which tells you that the chocolate was tempered. A proper temper will ensure the chocolate has a glossy finish and melts smoothly."
5 Give it a sniff
Can you recognize any specific aromas? Fruity, nutty, or sweet?
Finally, payoff time. Melt the chocolate between your tongue and the roof of your mouth and pay attention to its smoothness. Besides tasting the chocolate itself, Guittard likes experimenting with pairings. "Take a bite of chocolate and taste it with a banana; then taste it with some cherries or lemon or rhubarb; then try it with almonds or hazelnuts. It's fun to experiment, as some origins or blends will pair better with some ingredients over others. Some things will taste horrible; others will taste great. It's all about experimenting." The point is to dive in: "The world of chocolate is so diverse; it's just a matter of beginning to taste and having an appreciation for the rainbow."
How to Host a Decadent Olive Oil Tasting
Any cook worth her salt knows that extra-virgin olive oil is the not-so-secret ingredient in everything from superior vinaigrette to a silky gazpacho. To figure out which EVOO belongs in your pantry, we asked Salvatore Russo-Tiesi to help us plan a tasting. Olive oil runs in his blood: He's the manager of award-winning Sicilian olive oil Bono's U.S. operation. Your foodie friends will drink it up.
1 Look at the bottles
When choosing olive oils for a tasting, the first thing to look for is the date of bottling. "Olive oil doesn't get better with age — it starts to diminish in quality the day it's bottled," says Russo-Tiesi. "Even 30 days out you see chemical changes; after 60 days, there's less olive or fruit flavor. And the health benefits start to diminish." He says that unless you're shopping right at the olive grove, the freshest harvest you can find right now is 2018 — and that's fine. If there's no harvest date on the bottle, put it back on the shelf.
2 Check the place of origin
Russo-Tiesi is a firm believer that "what grows together, goes together." That means choosing oil that comes from a specific region, not an anonymous blend. "You don't want a Mediterranean blend, with olives from Spain, Tunisia, and Greece. In fact, if you want to take it a step further, look for regionally certified products in which the whole process is controlled, beginning to end."
3 Ignore the color
"The biggest myth is color. It doesn't correlate to quality. Extra virgin olive oil has one ingredient: a pressed olive. The color will tell you the olive varietal, but doesn't signify higher or lower quality." There is one exception, says Russo-Tiesi. "When you see a burnt orange color, it's a sign of an old oil that's caught air, light, or heat. Those three things are the devil to olive oil."
Having said that, even people who know better let color impact their judgment. That's why, says Russo-Tiesi, "When professionals do tastings, they sip from dark blue glass. Your brain automatically associates color with quality, and it's a way to get around that."
4 Span the globe
Think about a tasting from a variety of countries. "I suggest including an oil from Spain, Greece, even Tunisia, as well as perhaps two from Italy, since it has so many growing regions," says Russo-Tiesi. "Each area has its own climate and weather, even its own winds, which, together with varietals, create different flavor profiles. You're almost stepping into the history of each region." Just be sure you're comparing apples with apples: all organic or all conventional olive oils.
5 Keep it to a handful
To prevent your nose and taste buds from succumbing to olive oil fatigue, limit your tasting to five or six bottles. And cleanse your palate as the pros do, with water and sliced apples.
6 Follow the Four S's
SWIRL: Pour a tablespoon of olive oil into a small glass; cup the glass with one hand and cover it with the other, then swirl.
SMELL: Bring the glass to your nose and smell the aromas. High-quality extra-virgin often has a grassy scent.
SLURP: As you do so, touch your tongue to the back of your top teeth and inhale. This spreads the oil in your mouth and helps release the flavors.
SWALLOW: Finally, swallow the oil and take note of the flavors. High-quality oils will present a peppery, spicy burn on the finish.
7 Plan the right menu
Russo-Tiese suggests turning a tasting into a meal by getting a chef to use your oils in a recipe for chicken or pasta. Or go the DIY route and put together a charcuterie and cheese board with a French baguette. And don't skip dessert. "Take a scoop of vanilla ice cream and pour on a tablespoon of Sicilian olive oil. It's very grassy, smooth, and sweet; you might taste tomato or artichoke. It just goes together."
How to Host an Intoxicating Sake Tasting
For most of us, the only decision we've made regarding sake was whether to order it hot or cold. So it's a safe bet that inviting folks to a sake tasting will be an eye-opening evening. For guidance, we turned to Joto Sake, a U.S. brokerage that imports Japan's national beverage from eight artisanal breweries (sakagura). Regional manager Ryan Mellinger pours on her expert advice.
1 Know the varieties
Sake is made from fermented rice, and how much this rice is processed (or "polished") determines final taste. Mellinger says there are three basic grades: Daiginjo, which tends to be "the most expensive and time consuming to make. The goal is a super delicate, soft, floral, and fruity sake—it might have a luxurious texture like heavy cream, that coats your mouth in its delicate flavors." Next up: Ginjo. "The intention is to soften the texture of the sake while still retaining some bold flavors." Finally, Junmai. "The brewer is looking for a fuller, higher acidity; rice-forward and sometimes even earthy. It stands up to bold flavors in food pairings."
2 Recognize the grades
Mellinger recommends newbies focus on those three different grades, perhaps supplemented with a Nigori (unfiltered) sake. "You'll understand the broad differences between them all and find the style that best fits your palate. The next time you're in a store or restaurant facing multiple sake options, you'll know where to direct your attention."
3 Focus on a brewery
For a more experienced sake drinker, she recommends tasting three to five sakes from a single brewery. "Because sake is a brewed beverage and doesn't have terroir in the sense that wine does, think of it more like a craft brewery. A brewer selects yeast, rice, and water to create the flavor, just like a craft brewery in Florida can make a 'New England Style IPA' and a brewery in New York can make a beer with California hops." Not all breweries have more than one option available in the U.S., and options vary state to state. One to look for is the esteemed Yuki No Bosha brand made by Saiya Brewery. In the U.S you can find their Yamahai Junmai, Junmai Ginjo, and Junmai Daiginjo.
4 Vary the temperatures
Cold, warm, hot — Mellinger says you should try sake at all temperatures. While more delicate sakes are made to be drunk cold, "You won't know what you like until you try it! I recommend starting with a bottle cold (50˚F), then letting it come to room temperature (65˚F) at your table and seeing how it opens up. If you can get a ceramic sake carafe you can create a warm water bath on your kitchen stove and try warming some sakes at a range of temperatures, all the way to 122˚F."
5 Gather your glassware
Although there's no need to invest in a set of special sake cups, Mellinger says you'll want clear glasses with enough room for moving the liquid around so you can see how it changes and moves. "A lot of modern sakes have very high aromas that are wonderful in a white wine glass. I actually collect small water and fruit juice glasses from American antique stores that I find make wonderful sake vessels. For warm sake, ceramic cups are best to absorb the heat."
6 Swirl and sniff
While sake is not affected by oxygen in the same way wine is ("some types can last as long as four weeks after opening and still be fresh for drinking"), Mellinger says you should use your nose. "There are esters created by sake yeast in the fermentation process that create wonderful aromas of banana, apple, or melon and swirling will allow you to smell them fully." If you detect signs of "hine-ka" — molasses, pickled vegetables, or compost — it's past its prime.
7 Taste for balance
"A well-made sake should have an aroma that balances with the flavor and texture. In flavor I look for acidity, umami, fruitiness, and earthiness. In texture I ask myself is it light like skim milk or dense like heavy cream?" She also notes if the sake is tight or open, referring to the feeling when it flows across your tongue to the back of your mouth. "Is it expansive and loose, with aromas wafting up towards the back of your nasal cavity, or is it lean and straight, with low aroma that doesn't affect the flavor?"
8 Bring on the food
You can keep it simple with just rice crackers or bread for palate cleansers, but Mellinger likes to turn sake tastings into a party. "For a sake tasting at my home I put out charcuterie, cheese, cured fish in tins, assorted pickles, olives, and fruit. The range of flavors from salty to fatty to sweet will allow you to fully understand the beauty of sake's versatility, and have fun while doing it." Kanpai! (Bottoms up!)
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