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5 Things You Need to Know About Chocolate
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Want to dine like a pro? Each month, we ask local experts to share the inside scoop about a particular food or beverage. Use their tips to eat and drink better, whether you’re indulging at home or in a restaurant.
When you ask Alexandra Whisnant about the name of her shop—Gâté Comme des Filles— she’s happy to translate. “It means ‘spoiled like the girls,’” says the chocolatier. “I loved it when it came to me. It evoked a feeling of being spoiled and indulged.” At her boutique, located in Somerville’s Bow Market, the glossy treats—adorned with eye-catching ingredients like candied citrus peel and crinkles of edible gold leaf—change with the seasons.
1. Chocolate is both ancient and modern.
Whisnant begins with the basics: Chocolate is made from cocoa beans that come from Theobroma cacao, a tree that grows in tropical regions like Latin America and West Africa. Mayans and Aztecs sipped it as an elixir for a thousand years before Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés introduced it to Europe in the 1500s.
Fast forward to the present and the ancients would scarcely recognize the foodstuff. “Solid chocolate, as we call it now, is a pretty modern invention,” explains Whisnant. Technological advances like conching, a method of machine-kneading that results in smooth textures that people now expect, was developed in the late 19th century. And attention to truly high-quality beans and their origins only began in the 1980s.
2. A chocolate maker is different than a chocolatier.
A chocolate maker, Whisnant explains, oversees the sourcing, fermentation, drying, roasting, and grinding of cocoa beans, ultimately transforming that raw material into pieces of chocolate, cocoa powder, and nibs. As a chocolatier, Whisnant chooses from a variety of couverture (chocolate sold in bulk to confectioners), carefully heats and cools the product, then blends that tempered mixture with ingredients like cream, fruit, coffee, tea, and spices.
3. Freshness matters.
Ultra-freshness sets Gâté Comme des Filles apart from the rest. “[Chocolates] are tastier in the first week,” insists Whisnant. Over time, flavors fade as moisture and fragile aromatic compounds dissipate. That’s why every box in her store is hand-stamped with “made on” and “enjoy by” dates.
4. A high percentage of cocoa doesn’t indicate the quality of the chocolate.
“People think a high percentage means quality,” observes the chocolatier, referring to how much a chocolate bar, by weight, is made of cocoa beans. She acknowledges that while “70 percent or higher” certainly looks cool on a label, there’s more to the story than that. “It doesn’t tell you about the country of origin, quality, or taste—or whether you’re going to like it,” she asserts. “It’s similar to judging a bottle of wine by its alcohol content.”
So, how can you find quality chocolate? Since product labels can be confusing and opaque to the average consumer, trust a professional like Whisnant. Not only does she source couverture from reputable companies; she’s also adept at selecting types of chocolate offering the most nuanced aromas and flavors.
5. What’s outside is as important as what’s inside.
To craft her confections’ fillings, Whisnant searches out ingredients like peak-season berries and local honey to blend with ganache, an emulsion of cream and chocolate. She enrobes each kind of bonbon with a customized coating, crafted from chocolate offering different flavors than the one in the filling. “The outside matters as much as the inside,” she declares. “We make the outside thicker so you really get a synergy of flavors.”