Food #11: Valrhona chocolate
“What is he doing?” the fat old lady probably thought as she past the scruffy bearded bloke for the third time. He’d been stood in the same spot in the confectionary aisle for well over ten minutes, forcing her to turn sideways and squeeze her ample frame through as she waddled around the shop filling her basket.
She wasn’t alone in noticing – or scowling at – the man, who kept picking things up, staring at them, then putting them back again. The Harvey Nichols staff were peering over too, undoubtedly trying to make sure that nothing fishy was going on, and wondering whether he was ever going to buy anything.
After a while one of them decided enough was enough; let’s see what this fella’s up to, said the steely look in her eye.
“Is there anything I can help you with, sir?”
“No, I’m fine thank you,” was the reply. “I’m just really struggling to make up my mind!”
Satisfied that he was neither loony nor thief, the assistant went back to her till and the scruff’s gaze returned to the rows and rows of Valrhona chocolate that had him so entranced.
It was another five minutes before a decision was made.
Founded in 1922 in a district to the south of Lyon, Valrhona’s generally considered to be one of the best chocolate manufacturers on the planet. Its products are used in some of the finest restaurants in the world to create some of the finest puddings in the world, including the legendary chocolate croustillant at Le Louis XV in Monaco.
Plenty of Michelin-starred places wield the Valrhona name as if it’s the ultimate in quality. Make a dessert using chocolate from another manufacturer and it will simply appear on the menu as a ‘chocolate dessert’; make it with Valrhona and all of a sudden it becomes a ‘Valrhona chocolate dessert’.
More than any other, it seems, Valrhona’s a brand that chefs are proud to show off.*
I’ve mentioned before that I’m not the biggest chocolate fan, but given the widespread veneration for Valrhona, I couldn’t help but place it on my list of Foods To Try Before You Die. Annoyingly, what I hadn’t really thought about until I stood there agonising over a shelf in Harvey Nichols was whether a standard chocolate bar could be a true representation of what’s so good about this company’s products.** And, if it could be, which one should I choose?
I eventually decided the best I could do was just buy a range of bars and rate the lot.
I’ve had a couple of underwhelming experiences as I’ve worked my way through The List over the last year or so, but the Guanaja, 70% really dropped the bar to a new low. It looked and smelled the part, even had a texture that wouldn’t be amiss in chocolate of real quality. But the flavour was virtually non-existent; in depth terms, flatter than a witch’s tit. All I could make out amid the dry, nothing taste of cardboard was a single bitter tone – cheap and unpleasant.
“Don’t worry, you’re not missing anything,” I told my dairy sensitive wife, who’d been very jealous about me conducting a taste test in which she couldn’t partake. “Fucking Bournville’s better than this.”
With a sense of dread starting to set in, I moved on to the Manjari, 64% – a significant improvement in the taste department, although still remarkably unimpressive. If it was Taste the Difference, you’d think Sainsbury’s had lowered their standards – that’s about the level we’re talking here.
Finally I turned to the Albinao, 85%, praying that it’d be the chocolate bar to make all that agonising worth it; to make the £12 or so I’d spent worth it. This was even better still – about as good as a bog standard bar from Green and Black’s.
Oh god what a waste of time. What a waste of money! How little I’m describing each bar is testament to their quality. They were just immensely bland and forgettable; overpriced and an embarrassment to the supposedly prestigious Valrhona name.
I started writing up a blog post to lament the experience; to express my disappointment at Valrhona’s rubbish offering. I got about half way through my vitriolic rant before deciding something wasn’t quite right.
I figured that even if chocolate bars aren’t their main strength, a company as well-regarded as Valrhona can’t be all crap. Perhaps I just got unlucky with the bars I chose? Maybe my palate just wasn’t in the mood that week?
After some thought, I decided I’d give Valrhona chocolate one last chance at redemption. I’d go back to Harvey Nichols, buy another bar and see if it couldn’t change my mind.
The El Pedregal 2011 Vintage, 64% was picked as the company’s final champion.
TO BE CONTINUED…
Click here to read Part 2 of this Valrhona chocolate post.
*I had to laugh when a few days after writing this paragraph I received the menu for a friend’s wedding which listed this as a dessert option:
Deluxe chocolate dessert with brownie, Valrhona chocolate mousse, vanilla bean ice cream and chocolate coated strawberry.
I picked a fresh berry pudding instead.
**I have very loose rules about trying to be fair which you can read in my FAQ.