My first encounter with Michel Cluizel chocolates took place a few years back when I happened across the entire line of estate plantation bars in a shop in St. Lawrence Market. I ended up buying the whole line, setting me back about $50, and the experience completely changed how I think about chocolate.
Like coffee and wine, chocolate from different regions offers distinctive flavours and characteristics that denote the specific terroir in which the cacao is grown, making each chocolate unique.
This past week, I was fortunate enough to be invited to a chocolate tasting event at Cava where the various chocolates from Michel Cluizel were paired with spirits.
The tasting was led by Yves Farges, CEO of Qualifirst Foods Ltd, a family-owned company that has been importing specialty foods since 1957. The line of Michel Cluizel chocolates is their most well-known product, but with a philosophy of offering the best quality products as the guiding concept of the company, Qualifirst offers everything from truffles and foie gras to tea, coffee, preserves and vinegars, and the evening began with a selection of canapés prepared by Chef Chris McDonald of Cava, and featuring products from the Qualifirst selection that ranged from smoked sea salt to a vegan caviar.
Farges started us out with the Maralumi chocolate from a plantation in Papua New Guinea. One of two milk chocolates produced by Michel Cluizel, this chocolate has notes of bananas, red berries and blueberries, and at 64% cacao is the lowest cacao level of all the chocolates the company offers. Farges explained to the congregation of food writers present that while most chocolates are rated at a standard percentage (usually 70% for dark chocolate), Michel Cluizel tests their new products at various percentages to pick the one that best brings out the flavours and nuances of the chocolate.
He also explained the difference between quality chocolate and lesser brands which tend to feel gritty in the mouth. This occurs because the particles of cacao are too big and don’t fully emulsify with the cocoa butter. The use of cane sugar as opposed to beet sugar also helps create a smother product. Michel Cluizel also uses no soy lecithin (often sourced from genetically modified soybeans) in their chocolates, preferring pure cocoa butter instead. Better quality chocolate should literally melt in the mouth with no waxy feel and no aftertaste.
Farges taught us how to break the pieces of chocolate, listening for the snap indicative of a quality bar, and encouraged us to smell each variety, while explaining that chocolate is one of the most complex food items on earth with over 400 distinct flavour notes.
We began the official pairings with the Mangaro dark chocolate from Madagascar. The notes of caramel in this chocolate are enhanced by the pairing of Maker’s Mark Single Barrel Bourbon and the combination of the two offers a lot of smooth toffee flavour.
Moving up in cacao content, Farges paired the 66% Conception chocolate from Venezuela with Taylor Fladgate 20-year-old tawny port. The notes of dried fruit and berries, tobacco and gingerbread in the chocolate paired perfectly with the sweetness of the port and offered up flavours of warm apricots.
Licorice is the main note in the Los Ancones from St. Domingo, and paired with The Macallan Fine Oak 15-year-old Highland Single Malt Whiskey, the combination is slightly floral with notes of fresh green olives.
Vila Gracinda, from Sao Tome off the coast of Central Africa is a 67% cacao chocolate, and is earthy, slightly spicy with notes of toast and licorice. It’s an aggressive chocolate that is tamed by the accompaniment of Les Clos de Paulilles 1998 Banyuls.
We ended the evening with a warning. “This is not going to be pleasant experience,” Farges told us as we unwrapped the bars of Noir Infini, a 99% cacao chocolate which I’ve had before.
Farges had mentioned earlier the sub-set of chocolate lovers for whom “bitter is good”, where anything under 70% cacao isn’t worth trying. He pointed out that while Cluizel offers an 85% bar as well as the Noir Infini, they tend to shy away from the higher percentage chocolates, as it’s too difficult to pair with other foods or beverages.
The lack of cocoa butter in the Noir Infini tends to make it exceedingly bitter – the first time I ever tried it I had no lovely glass of cognac with which to pair it, and Farges is correct – it was unpleasant. However, after taking a bite of chocolate and chewing slightly, we all sipped some Hine Antique XO Fine Champagne Cognac and the Noir Infini took on a whole different personality. The cognac brought out notes of vanilla and caramel in the chocolate that we could not recognize when eating the product alone.
Michel Cluizel chocolates are available at a number of fine food retailers in the Toronto area including Whole Foods and Scheffler’s Deli in St. Lawrence Market. The company also offers an expanded line of filled chocolates and gift items such as chocolate mushrooms, and a can of chocolates shaped like sardines. These items, as well as the whole range of products offered by Qualifirst, can be found on their retail website, Epicureal.
As well, fans of Michel Cluizel chocolate should stop by McDonald’s chocolate shop Xococava, located next door to his restaurant, where chocolatier Laura White has been working on a line of offerings made with the Michel Cluizel single origin chocolates. These will likely be available for the holidays, and if the samples we got to try are any indication, they are quite wonderful indeed.
When it comes to food, quality is always of utmost importance. Qualifirst/Epicureal and Michel Cluizel share a philosophy of offering the best quality products available, with a mandate to remove or replace anything that doesn’t meet their high standards. As consumers, the experience of trying a premium product, whether it’s chocolate, salt or olive oil, can make all the difference in terms of the pleasure we experience from the food we eat.