Back to beginnings (Valrhona Guanaja)

My first encounter with fine chocolate was back in 1993.

On one foodie wandering day, I was in Harrod’s food halls and was, unsurprisingly, lingering in the confectionery room. There I found myself face to face with a small display of products by a company called ‘Valrhona’. At the end of an aisle and no more than half a meter wide, there was a stand of discreetly packaged chocolate bars and brochures. The all black packaging with red flashes captured my interest, and I was soon reading the blurb.

A short time later I was outside the store trying my first ever bar of Guanaja and my fine chocolate journey had begun.

I must confess that before that encounter, my chocolate leanings were rather typically British – I was brought up on Cadbury’s and other candy, and in early adulthood I did think that Thornton’s was the height of chocolate achievement. I’ve had several epiphanal moments in my fine chocolate path that have radically changed this point of view, but that day with Guanaja was the first and perhaps most important.

So Guanaja, of course, is an old friend. A classic, a stand-by, a reliable chocolate to return to, and a great introduction for new initiates. Its percentage is also a bench-mark 70%, which had no small influence on the name of this website.

Once I was hooked on Valrhona, it didn’t take me long to start buying larger quantities. Back then, Valrhona produced kilo blocks individually wrapped for retail sale. Of course I had to have one, even though at the time 1kg cost the better part a week’s living allowance!

There’s a real indulgent and secret pleasure in breaking off chunks to eat from a kilo of good chocolate. (A small fish-knife and earthenware bowl comes in handy here. Cut a large chunk and then break off bite size pieces in the bowl – this prevents chocolate crumbs from going everywhere!)

An old friend revisited

I recently returned to this habit when a 3kg pack of Guanaja came my direction, by way of a mis-order of stock. There’s been a lot of talk lately about whether Valrhona are keeping up their quality standards. So it was with interest I returned to this old friend.

The first thing I noticed was that the chocolate seemed a lot softer than I remember. My knife now cuts easily through the slab, more easily than through cheese. Fourteen years ago I felt more like a geologist chipping away at a rock to obtain a delicate slither of precious flint. And the odds of pushing too hard and spraying chocolate crumbs across the room where much higher back then as well.

This suggest a higher proportion of cocoa butter has been introduced. This tweaking of the recipe might be for the benefit of chefs, helping the chocolate to flow more easily. I suspect though, it’s to hide a more bitter blend of beans, which possibly have been roasted longer to hide bean defects.

Valrhona may be the victim of their own success here. As fine chocolate becomes more popular, and so Valrhona more famous, it’s going to be very hard to keep up quality as production scales up. Add to this the worldwide demand for fine and flavour beans, political problems in Venezuela and rumours of Japanese importers buying up all the spare Venezuelan beans they can, there are bound to be problems. (Guanaja is a vague South American and Caribbean blend, but we’ve always assumed there’s a high proportion of Venezuelan in there.)

Then there’s batch variability. This is inevitable with fine chocolate, indeed it can be seen as a virtue and part of the fun. I have heard reports though of really excellent Guanaja being offered as samples in the Valrhona factory, but by the time it reaches us in the UK, something just seems lacking. The flavour I’m experiencing here is still good, but maybe it’s just not as outstanding as it once was. I’m left with a vaguely sour after-taste as well.

There’s not doubt Guanaja is still a good chocolate, but maybe it’s like a first kiss, it’s never going to taste quite so good as that first time.

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