’Tis the season to be sweet: What makes a good chocolate bar?

Pat Fitzpatrick gets under the wrapping to see what makes a good bar of chocolate and asks an expert if it is actually better than sex.

’Tis the season to be sweet: What makes a good chocolate bar?

Pat Fitzpatrick gets under the wrapping to see what makes a good bar of chocolate and asks an expert if it is actually better than sex.

WELCOME to the chocolate season. If you’re anything like me, you’re furiously working your way through the stash of fun-sized Bounty bars left over from Halloween, so there is room for your incoming Christmas stash, three boxes of Roses, per week, all the way to mid-January.

Chocolate scoffing is the vice that keeps on giving. Booze and crisps and fried food are a sign of moral weakness, but the “Stop Eating That!” brigade haven’t got around to demonising chocolate just yet, so we should fill our boots while the going is good.

But what are we getting into here? The only thing most of us know about chocolate is how to open the wrapper. What’s inside the wrapper and how can we tell the good stuff from something they scooped up off the chocolate factory floor?

Ian Graham is the Bandon-based chocolatier behind Milseán — whose Chocolate Caramel Hearts recently took gold at the Blas na hÉireann Awards — so who better to tell us the key ingredient in a great bar of chocolate?

“It’s not just the ingredients, it’s the sourcing,” he told me when I visited to see if he’d give me some free chocolate (he did, but I’m not sure if he does it for everybody, so don’t just turn up with your tongue hanging out). “You can’t beat single-origin chocolate, sourced from one producer. The percentage of cocoa solids is also vital. We use 44% chocolate, which is way above the average 32 to 34% you’d find in a standard bar.”

In some cases it can be lower. In fact, a chocolate war ran from 1973 to 2000, when some EU members (led by Belgium and France) refused to sell certain British chocolate bars because they contained too little cocoa and too much vegetable fat and milk for their liking. This was resolved when British (and Irish) manufacturers agreed to label their product as “family milk chocolate”, and suddenly you could get a Flake on your holidays.

I reckon this choco-snobbery left a permanent scar on some people across the Irish Sea. My guess is it motivated a lot of people to vote Leave in the Brexit referendum — people get very funny about their chocolate and it’s hard to stay with someone who looks down at you for loving a Yorkie.

So, where does all this chocolate come from? It begins with the Theobroma cacao tree, which yields raw cocoa beans and grows in areas close to the equator. These are fermented for a week or two and dry roasted, after which the inner piece of the bean is extracted and separated into two parts, cocoa mass and cocoa butter. The mass is the essence of the chocolate, an addictive aphrodisiac depending on who you ask, while the butter is a largely flavourless liquid that lends the ridiculously satisfying smoothness in your finished product.

What happens next depends on what kind of chocolate you want. Dark has a higher proportion of cocoa mass and butter, with sugar added, but no milk, so it has a robust, chocolate flavour, which can be bitter and chalky, depending on the percentage.

Milk chocolate has milk solids in the mix and can have a low cocoa content, which tends to upset your Belgians and your French. White chocolate has no cocoa mass, just cocoa butter, milk solids and sugar. (Cocoa butter is often used in the cosmetic industry for its moisturising quality, so if you go out without your make-up bag, maybe try rubbing a Milky Bar to your face. Or maybe don’t.) Where you stand on this spectrum marks you out as a person. My twin sister loves Green and Black’s 70% dark chocolate, which makes me wonder if she was swapped at birth, because I’m a fool for the Dairy Milk end of the scale.

Whatever the proportion, why do we crave chocolate? Some say it’s a substitute for sex. When I ask Ian if this is true, himself, myself and the photographer burst out laughing, and not just because we’re three middle-aged Irish men and someone just said the word sex. Let’s just say anyone who doesn’t laugh at this statement must be indulging in some outrageously bad sex. There is only so much pleasure to be had from a Bounty bar.

There is also no shortage of health claims for cocoa and chocolate, with some touting them as a good way to reduce the risk of heart flutters and stroke. A small bit of chocolate daily is also supposed to be good for your bowel regularity. You must admit, it has the edge on stewed prunes.

It’s worth noting that the European Food Safety Authority recognises just one chocolate-related health claim: That cocoa flavanols (natural nutrients) maintain the elasticity of blood vessels and contribute to normal blood flow. They also recommend the flavanols be taken in capsule form as part of a balanced diet, before you your start ramming 30 bags of Chocolate Buttons down your throat. A side-note for bad sleepers: According to Britain’s NHS, a 50g bar of milk chocolate contains less than 10mg of caffeine, rising to 25mg for plain, or darker, chocolate. This is a lot less than the 75mg of caffeine in a mug of tea, so a bar of chocolate at night shouldn’t do you any harm, but only if you are one of those weird people who can stop after one bar.

I’m not. It can be hard to put the brakes on once I get going. Before I left his small factory in Bandon, Ian gave me a spoon of heated chocolate from some kind of mixer on the production line. I seriously contemplated barricading him out of the room and eating the whole lot of it myself. The quality, the texture, the flavour, the temperature, it was genuinely the best moment of my life since Manchester United won the treble, not to mention my wedding and the birth of my kids.

I like my chocolate simple, but there is a growing interest in the variety of things you can do with chocolate, which will be on show at the Cork Chocolate Weekend in the Cork International Airport Hotel, starting on November 23. Ian, who will be there, tells me the latest trend is for rosewater blended into the chocolate, giving it a Turkish Delight flavour, without the jelly texture. There is also a bit of buzz around cupuacu, an Amazon basin fruit from the same family as cacao, which produces a type of “chocolate” with a distinctly sweet and sour taste. I doubt I’ll be trying any of these. Chocolate is more than just a bunch of delicious, probably addictive, compounds. It’s also about emotions. When Christmas comes around, I’ll still dig into a selection box along with everyone else. OK, they’re getting smaller, but size isn’t everything and these delicious bars have been giving me a chocolate hug every year since I was three. No wonder the Aztecs called it the food of the gods.

- Weekend packages are available on www.corkinternationalhotel.com or for the day events are €15 per person and include access to the fair, cookery demonstrations and workshops for the three-hour period. There will also be children’s tickets, featuring workshops, on sale for €5.

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