The Chocolate Life

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It's Thursday morning here on London, barely 48 hours after I arrived at Heathrow for the start of my Euro2013 Road Trip.

This year's trip will see me traveling to Amsterdam, Milan, and Paris after I leave London. It's chocolate festival season here in Europe. It is true, however, that I am missing some events in the US - the festivals in Chicago for example, as well as Dallas. While I would enjoy being able to attend either or both those events, the lure of being back here in Europe was just too great to ignore.

It's Chocolate Week in the UK which means that there are all sorts of activities going on and people in town from all over.

Shortly after arriving in London on Tuesday morning I made my way to the judging room for the 2013 World Finals judging of the International Chocolate Awards. 6 sessions over the course of two days judging the winners of the various regional competitions in order to arrive at the top picks, which will be announced during the inaugural London Salon du Chocolat (formerly Chocolate Unwrapped) over the weekend.

I arrived in time for the second judging session of the day and to lots of familiar faces and new. 

Also at table 1: Maricel Presilla.

The judging process at the ICA is will thought out and quite detailed. The process and all of the forms and instructions used are posted online for anyone to see, and, more importantly, they are subject to regular review based on the feedback of entrants and judges. The judging process is designed to tackle managing subjectivity - the fact that every judge has different tasting abilities, experiences, and biases. 

This turns out to be a very good thing because during the first judging session I took part it, something went haywire with my mouth and everything (we were judging plain dark/origin bars) and I mean everything, tasted over-roasted and astringent. I mentioned this to the organizer of the judging (Martin Christy) because I know that there are statistical checks that can be done to identify consistent outliers (like my giving everything a 3 or 4 when the average scores of all the other judges was much higher) that will enable them to take that into account when doing the final tallies.

Over the course of two days I participated in four judging sessions. On Wednesday, that amounted to 8 flights (plates) of between 3 and 6 pieces. Judges are never asked to taste more than 6 entries before returning to a "palate check" chocolate that helps judges know when their palates start to get fatigued.

The overall judging process is very different from the one I encountered at the Good Food Awards, which makes sense as the Good Food Awards is looking to award different things and has only one general chocolate category (not separate ones for dark, milk, white, and flavored/filled) and one general confectionery category.

While one may quibble with the results, given the huge number of entries, the process is better managed than any other I have encountered and been involved with. I've organized and managed judging and it's tough to do well. What's very cool is that I have no idea who the winners are going to be, I just have my impressions of what I tasted.

After finishing the judging what did I do? Go to a chocolate tasting, of course. This was a presentation I was asked to do for the Guild of Food Writers, co-organized with the Academy of Chocolate. The title of the presentation was What Is Fine Flavor Cocoa? This is a topic that's getting a lot of interest these days with organizations as diverse as ICCO and FCIA trying to figure it out. I am giving the presentation again at the Salon du Chocolat over the weekend, as well as another presentation, How Chocolate Gets Its Taste. After the presentation last night I sampled five different chocolate, four of which were award winners either in previous ICA competitions or Good Food Awards, and/or were entrants in this year's competitions. Three were from Fruition Chocolate (Hudson Valley, NY) - 66% Peruvian Dark, Peruvian Dark Milk, and Toasted White Chocolate. The fourth was from Dick Taylor Craft Chocolate; not the fig bar which was an ICA winner, but the Dominican (Elvesia) bar. That's because the fifth bar, Chuao Chocolatier's Salty Crunch bar, had inclusions and I didn't want two of the five bars in the tasting having inclusions. Both Dick Taylor and Chuao are represented in this year's ICA world finals judging, as is Fruition.

Today is an "off" day to relax and enjoy. There is a reception to attend in the evening, but nothing planned until then. Time to wander, sightsee, and enjoy London. (Because it's not raining.) And no, I did not see Hugh Grant, Julia Roberts, Rhys Ifans, or anyone. I am staying near Earl's Court tube station at a flat I found through AirBnB and it's turning out to be an incredibly convenient location. I had to connect through Notting Hill Gate station to get to the ICA judging location.

The next update will probably be on Saturday morning, after my first full day at the Salon du Chocolat. On Sunday I leave London for Harwich en route to Amsterdam via the overnight ferry. Next Wednesday is the Origin Chocolate conference where I am co-presenting with chef-chocolatier Kees Raat.

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