“I don’t have a big sweet tooth but I do like all kinds of chocolate” -Gabriel Kreuther, The Modern, NYC
Humans discovered cacao and, by extension, chocolate, over five thousand years ago.
Since then, both have been enjoyed in a huge variety of ways from savoury to sweet to spicy, from coarse to smooth, as a food or as a beverage.
Smooth, sweet chocolate is only the most recent iteration and it is tempting to believe that that is all it can be.
As far as we know, the Aztecs, Olmecs, and Mayans believed cacao provided strength and even euphoria. This belief was probably derived from the sensation caused by theobromine (a compound that has a similar but lesser effect than caffeine) and other compounds found in chocolate. They consumed it crushed up with water, chilli and spices as a drink. A similar tradition carries through to this day in South America, where cacao is ground using a Metate, mixed with corn, chillies, and spices and enjoyed in a ceremonial setting.
Cacao was brought to Europe by the Spanish, and besides being enjoyed for its “intoxicating” properties, it was incorporated into the royalty’s tea drinking habits.
The Swiss added condensed milk, the English made chocolate a solid, and today “dark chocolate” is almost an umbrella term for minimum 40% cacao products with creative inclusions from dairy to smoothly ground nuts, fruit, herbs, and even candy.
Understanding the historical context of cacao encourages us to disconnect the mental link we tend to draw between chocolate and the supermarket candy aisle. This is only one example of cacao’s incredible range and hardly among the best.
“It is hard to think of a fruit or nut that is not improved by combining it with chocolate” -Michel Richard, Citronelle, Washington DC.
Moreover, cacao’s boundless flavour potential starts long before the kitchen. When cacao beans are fermented post-harvest, various microbes grow and help enhance the cacao’s natural notes and broaden its range.
When blending other flavours with cacao, or telling a story using the flavour and texture of cacao or chocolate, one must consider two properties of any natural food - for simplicity I will use wine as a comparison:
First - the “base” flavours associated with chocolate. These make the “generic” expected flavours you may imagine off the top of your head, and they exist across every genuine chocolate product in existence. You can compare this with the taste of wine, or of fermented grapes, which ties together both luxury reserve wine and boxed wine.
Second - the deeper notes which exist inside a particular chocolate creation. These are generated by a set of volatile compounds and expressed via other food items which we intuitively associate with this experience - they are not actual additions to the chocolate. These notes exist only in the eye (well, tongue) of the individual, and we each perceive them slightly differently based on our different palates. Think of wine with notes of apple, citrus and sandalwood, for example.
This means the two questions you must ask are:
“Does this taste good with chocolate?” And,
“Does this taste good with THIS particular chocolate?”
As with wine, these notes are mostly determined by the terroir of the cacao. They are also determined by the processing of the cacao: fermentation technique, roast profile, refining and conching tools and goals, and even storage and packaging.
Most self respecting chocolate bars pronounce their tasting notes on the packaging, but I invite you to open the packaging and taste for yourself for more intimate familiarity.
Without going down a huge rabbit hole, it is worth mentioning that most large commercial chocolate brands blend low quality cacao of multiple origins in order to regulate/stabilise flavour (in a natural product - which misses the point by an insane distance in my opinion) back to generic, then roast the cacao until it’s burnt and disappointingly bitter - but at least consistent batch by batch. When working with these types of chocolate, you can forgo the second question of the two as it will likely not be unique but just unpleasantly bitter.
To make this cheaper bitter chocolate product palatable, they add other ingredients that make it more pleasant, further erasing the cacao terroir’s uniqueness. As the generations that grew up at the tail end of the industrial revolution, this is the reason we are most familiar with milk chocolate and vanilla chocolate, and largely consider dark chocolate to be unpleasant and bitter.
With small variation depending on the variety, 50% of every cacao bean IS cacao butter. An incredible plant fat (PACKED with micronutrients) that beside its own, creamy, unmistakable (and dare I say, sexy) flavour and aroma, is also an insane vehicle for conducting and harbouring other flavours and aromas. Cacao butter can handle high heat and therefore intense infusions. Even at room temperature, or inside your fridge, cacao butter is so sensitive that it can be infused by anything in its vicinity.
For example, at Conspiracy Chocolate we cold-infuse coffee beans’ taste into chocolate simply by leaving them together. We even “age” chocolate together with a water soluble flavour such as tea over a long period of time. This imparts flavour first onto the starches, which make up roughly 30% of the cacao bean (the remaining 20% is protein), and then over time, some compounds even make their way onto the fat.
“Cocoa butter can take a lot of heat, so spread melted cocoa butter on the salmon skin, then press the cocoa nibs on; flip it over and they’ll hold, then sprinkle the flesh with salt. Heat some more cocoa butter in a pan and then slide the fish in crust-side down. Once the crust forms, flip it over and finish it in the oven.” – Chef Jacques Torres
So what kind of flavours work with chocolate? Depending on the chocolate and preparation, almost all of them. Meaning - if your goal is to combine ingredient XYZ with chocolate, most likely there is a way you can make this happen!
I recommend beginning the design of your dish from its end goal, the story it’s looking to tell, and its place in the meal. Granted, often it will be dessert. But even if you choose to make it a sweet dish, feel free to completely liberate yourself from flavour conventions. Should you seek to really surprise the palate, you can even consider using chocolate to link with savoury elements in a dessert plate.
“My chocolate-corn dessert was inspired by freeze-dried corn” - Michael Laiskonis, Le Bernardin