A few biases to declare here before I get going. I’m fond of the Amano style of chocolate and also their general philosophy – that if a particular cacao tastes good, it will make good tasting chocolate.
Chocolate making should be about bringing out the flavour of good cacao, not a transformative process that starts with one flavour and ends with another. (I also confess that I know Amano fairly well. Mostly because I like what they do, and also because Art Pollard is a funny guy!)
Another bias for me is the bean source. My palate is really towards acid/citrus, and this is one of the typical notes of Madagascan cacao (along with a darker note base, eg tobacco). This can be especially present where there’s a high proportion of criollo genetics involved, which often comes with the better cacao from the plantations in the north of the island, around the Sambirano valley. In a good year, for example, Valrhona’s Ampamakia can have an intensely full lime/cream burst, which is a flavour I love.
I’d also like to add in a more general note about reviewing. Almost all chocolate has flaws. I don’t think any of our reviewers or any others have ever tried a chocolate and concluded that it is perfect. Even the very best chocolate, though it might have a fantastic flavour profile or be supremely balanced, usually has something that we could identify as ‘could be better’. Often these are small, small points that don’t detract from the overall quality, but nonetheless should be identified in a detailed review.
I’m pre-empting my review because, Amano Madagscar for me comes close, very close to being my perfect chocolate. As a chocolate, I find it a huge move on and step up from Amano’s previous batch of Madagascar – which in itself was an award winning chocolate.
Aroma - Pleasant tobacco, balanced cinnamon and light herbs, delicate strawberry and blueberries, raisins. Like a beautiful strawberry cream pudding has just been placed on your table after a great meal.
Look/snap – Light, milk chocolate colour with an ochre tinge, almost translucent. Near perfect moulding with the odd bubble. The surface has a half sheen rather than being shiny, which is perhaps a slight flaw. Very high-pitched clicky snap.
Taste - This is where the bar starts to amaze. After a few seconds on the tongue, a high, tangy citrus starts do develop, followed by tobacco, strawberries in cream, vanilla, spices. At the end it’s as if you’ve had a finely spiced but not too sweet pudding with a dollop of cream with mashed up fresh strawberries mixed in. And chocolate of course. And this just lingers and hangs tantalisingly on the tongue afterwards.
Well, that’s what usually happens.
A characteristic of Amano chocolate, some might say flaw – seems to be its sensitivity in different environments and conditions. Time of day, relation to other food, the weather or perhaps even mood can at times produce radically different flavour profiles. This is true of all chocolate, but seems even more so of Amano – and this bar in particular.
I’ve tried the same exact bar at different times and had startlingly different results. And this is not just me being crazy, I’ve had this experience in the companies of others too. (Collective insanity, perhaps?) On one occasion the bar tasted as above, but about three hours later in a different location (and not long after coffee), tasted of lemon pie!
Other times I’ve enthusiastically given this chocolate to a friend, expecting strawberry citrus fireworks, but all that’s come out is a rather flat liquorice – good, but not stunning.
I suspect that this is a risk that comes from trying to preserve bean flavour, rather than a more traditional approach of roasting higher and perhaps producing something more stable. Its part of the mystery and complexity of good, small batch chocolate, and also part of its delight.
Melt - The Amano melt typically seems ‘cool’ on the tongue – perhaps a combination of the processing and cocoa butter used (most chocolate makers add some extra into their recipe).
We can have almost no complaint here, as the flavour is delivered to so well. Possibly the feel is a little grainy, and at the end it’s a little glutinous, but there’s not the slightest hint of waxiness at the end, the chocolate disappears very correctly and leaves the mouth very clean.
Occasionally though, there is a particle of unrefined cacao or shell, which is something to be worked on, though perhaps inevitable with small scale batch chocolate making.
Length – Full, full flavour carries on, a little warmer, a little more towards chocolate. There are slight tannins, but so in balance with the fruit they are almost enjoyable. I can well see that some people might find this sour at the very end. It is, but only in the way that strawberries can be without added sugar, and personally it’s an experience I enjoy.
Opinion – I think that by now my opinion of this chocolate will be fairly clear. To saythere are niggles would be nitpicking. For me it’s almost perfect, and I could easily eat it every day, save for the disappointment of having none left. (And well, I’m not always in the mood for such a tart chocolate, I’m often asked what my favourite chocolate is – the truth is I like variation.)
I think after that it comes down to taste. If you like the citrus side of Madagascan, moved a little towards strawberry, then this is for you. If your palate is more into darker notes like spice or treacle, then the appeal might not be there.
For me so far this is the pinnacle of the Amano range, and the point at which they’ve really come of age in the fine chocolate world.
Oh, on an added note, this matches divinely with Berry Bros & Rudd’s own 35 year old Demerara rum. The notes that appear in that combination deserver a whole review of their own, but let’s just say that for a for a couple of moments there, I was transported to pure chocolate rum heaven. Now, how do I get back?