Scientists have discovered a molecule that some believe may lead to the destruction of fine chocolate. The molecule (left), known as 4-Hydroxy-3-methoxybenzaldehyde, and with the empirical formula C8H8O3 is white and needle-like in appearance, and has been found, often in large quantities, in cheap chocolate, though it is also to be found in fine chocolate in varying quantities. When this molecule is present in small numbers it poses little risk to the destruction of fine chocolate, but in much larger quantities can lead to the constriction of muscles in the throat and nausea in some individuals.
Alright, enough kidding around, the molecule above is simply vanillin, the major constituent of vanilla, which, as most people know, is quite common in chocolate. What spurred this satire was a combination of a few conversations that I have recently had that have gotten me thinking about vanilla in relation to chocolate even more than I had in the past. So, I decided to explicitly state my position on vanilla, which is as follows:
I don’t put vanilla in Patric Chocolate. My philosophy is to choose cacao that is of such quality that it tastes delicious with only small amounts of pure cane sugar. Sugar, while certainly adding a component of sweetness to chocolate that is not present in the source cacao, is not aromatic, and therefore does not interfere with the aroma of the cacao as do aromatic substances. Aroma, as we know from the post about chocolate appreciation a few weeks ago, is the largest component of the perception of flavor of any food, and so makes quite an impact on the overall flavor of chocolate. With this in mind, small quantities of sugar, by helping to balance bitter and acid tastes in the cacao, actually allow the full bouquet of the cacao to shine in all of its delicious glory. Vanilla, on the other hand, which adds its own set of aromatic notes to the mix, based mostly on vanillin, but also upon a number of other compounds–some of which can seem minty or citrusy– muddies the waters of the chocolate as the aroma of the cacao itself becomes confused and hard to decipher.
Of course, this is the opinion of only one chocolate maker in a field of many who do use vanilla. So it is fair to wonder if I have wandered too far off the beaten track in my rejection of vanilla. All that I can say is to trust your own mouth and your own nose. Next time you taste a fine chocolate bar without vanilla (they are rare, but do exist), pay attention to the clarity of the tastes and aromas. Note the beauty of the experience. Then, taste some chocolate with vanilla in it and ask yourself if the experience of the chocolate has been helped or hampered by the addition of the vanilla. You might just surprise yourself with your own answer.
Fine chocolate lovers of the world unite; In cacao we trust!
Note: I realize that there will always be chocolate makers and chocolate lovers who prefer vanilla in their chocolate, that this is a subjective preference, and that quantity of vanilla certainly does matter; I respect all of this. My goal in this post is really to make the case that though historically we have added vanilla to our chocolate in the West, making it normal and accepted, it is not necessarily the case that it actually enhances the flavor of fine chocolate made with excellent quality cacao, and that its addition to such products may, to some extent, be a cultural holdover.