DSC_9124With  the last of the Halloween chocolate is on the wane, let me ask  a simple question—are you ready for something better?

From food carts to fine dining, fine wines to micro-brews, coffee to cacao, the bar has on food and drink has been raised from farm to table and from source to street.

While the Foodnetwork is perpetually credited with the transformation of our culinary consciousness over the past 15 years since its inception, the true source of that transformation has always rested with the talent—the fishers and the farmers, the cooks and the chefs, the vintners and masters of brew and spirit.

Even the ubiquitous morning cup has undergone a renaissance of consumer curiosity and appreciation, with savvy sourcing and the art of the barista celebrating a more humane bean with worldwide impact.

Enter the Chocolatier—A Sweet Ascent

And so enters the chocolatier, and a new frontier for the final course and most ubiquitous sweet in Western confectionary culture—chocolate re-imagined, well-tempered and wildly creative, with a keen attention to source, cocoa content, technique, and above all else, taste.

Deliciously, such chocolate already exists nearly the world over, and is richly celebrated by select retailers and savvy restaurateurs alike. If life really is like a box of chocolates, what they bring to the palate will get you outside the box in no time. (Two quick cases in point: Xoxolat in Vancouver boasts a breadth of such single source and artisan chocolates, while Chef David Mincey’s Chocolate Project in Victoria rotates between 250 to 300 single source bars at any time.)

As surely as the words chef, vintner and brewmaster now spill from the lips of those who would have never previously considered themselves foodies, chocolatiers are on the rise in the prominence—as is knowledge of the health-benefits of eating darker chocolates of 70 per cent cocoa mass or greater.

(l to r) Pam Williams, Anya Keese, Martin Christy and David Mincey ready for another round of judging.

(l to r) Pam Williams, Anya Keese, Martin Christy and David Mincey ready for another round of judging.

A Grand Jury For Chocolate?

Yes, as I discovered over four days on the grand jury for Canadian National Competition for the International Chocolate Awards, even the sweetest things in life can get better.

For starters, who knew jury duty could be so delicious—or educational?

In its third year, the International Chocolate Awards (ICA) competitions continue to break and remake the mould on the world of ‘mainstream’ chocolate—by bringing a spotlight onto some of the world’s most talented, and thus far unsung, chocolatiers.  Moreover, the ICA is an independent competition recognizing excellence in fine chocolate making—think dark, milk and white—across nearly 20 categories of bars, ganaches, caramels, pralines and fills.

With the Canadian National Competition in Vancouver rounding out the global semi-finals in Florence, Italy and New York, along with regional competitions in Austria, Germany, Scandanavia and Switzerland, chocolate is undergoing a renaissance on a global level.

Think chocolate, but better. Now imagine a whole new world beyond the lowest common denominators that have defined our corner store cultures for decades to reveal and revel in a confectionary cosmology that reaches well beyond Mars, Milky Way and Mr. Big. Herein, classics chocolates carry greater depth and the creativity of top chocolatiers continue to evolve public palates and the art of chocolate making alike.

Such is the higher calling of the International Chocolate Awards, and it is a sweet one.

Well Seasoned's Angie Quaale and Canada's ICA organizer Eagranie Yuh taste and tabulate.

Well Seasoned’s Angie Quaale and Canada’s ICA organizer Eagranie Yuh taste and tabulate.

ICA Targets Top Tasters and Talents

Founded in 2012, the ICA is run by a group of equally passionate international partners—including the UK’s Martin Christy of 70% who guided the grand jury in Vancouver together with Eagranie Yuh, author of The Chocolate Tasting Kit who organized the four days of competition.  Rounding out the six person grand jury for the Canadian National Competition were Victoria’s bean to bar champion David Mincey, ecole chocolate founder Pam Williams, the esteemed palate and insights of uber-culinarian Sid Cross—and myself.

Once again the Vancouver Community College downtown campus played host to the four days of intense tasting and deliberation. Having sat in on one of the ‘main’ judging rounds the year prior, together with a top-tasting crew of sommeliers, pastry chefs and media, I knew in large part what to expect—to look for fresh delight in the previously unimaginable and classics alike.  That, and plenty of cold, unsalted polenta between entrant samples to cleanse the palate.

And so we did. What follows is a quick sampling of some of the most sensational things we tasted, but first a quick summary of some of the winners.

Top Awards Triumph Creativity

VCC students ready the judging samples behind closed doors.

VCC students ready the judging samples behind closed doors.

With entries from across the country, the competition saw strong repeat performances from Vancouver’s Beta5 Chocolates, Montreal’s Christophe Morel— with Edmonton’s The Violet Chocolate Company dominating the flavoured bar categories and Sweet Lollapalooza showing that their success last year was no fluke either, with both companies winning medals in several categories.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, and despite the silent of the judging process and anonymity of each submission, certain champions rose through the ranks once more to taste gold—the second year running for the Clover Honey and Rosemary bar from The Violet Chocolate Company and the third for Christophe Morel’s Palet Or pure Chuao ganache topped with gold flake.

For those who prefer more than a hint of mint, you owe it to yourself to become acquainted with coolest of cool—eucalyptus and menthol—in Beta5 Chocolates’ Fisherman’s Friend—a gold medal winner at the 2013 World Finals, and a gold again going forth to the 2014 international finals in London.

The competition also welcomed new companies to the awards podium, including Vancouver’s Temper Chocolate & Pastry and Edmonton’s Cococo Chocolatiers, as well as Gusto Chocolate (Maple Ridge, BC), Miss Chocolat (Hull, QC), and Hummingbird Chocolate (Mississippi Mills, ON).

For a full list of winners guaranteed to satisfy in ways Snickers might only dream of, here is a link to the full Monty on the winners of the Canadian National Competition whose creations captured the imagination and favour with their textures and flavours.

Going Cocoa for Quality

Now as for those best of bon bons that thrilled my palate.

Without a doubt, The Violet Chocolate Company left their mark on me with simple audacity of their flavour concepts. From a white chocolate lemon dill to a more milky take on carrot cake to the honest alchemy behind their honey and rosemary creation, it was only after the judging was complete and the sample batches revealed that I appreciated how many singular tasting experiences one company alone had created. (That they test and indulge the market for their creations by indulging their most creative thinking in 100-bar small batch offerings is award-winning thinking to begin with for creators and consumers alike.)

That celebratory wedding of savoury and sweet laid at the heart of of a great many of most memorable morsels, including:

  • the divine texture and flavour of Cococo Chocolatiers’ sea salt caramel in milk chocolate;
  • the shock in the mouth magic of The Violet Chocolate Company’s caramelized onion and balsamic vinegar milk chocolate ganache;
  • the elegant three twist of chrysanthemum, jasmine and lychee in Sweet Lollapolooza’s Teaism;
  • Beta5 Chocolates brilliant captures of honey roasted carrots, rhubarb crumble, yuzu curd and passionfruit, albeit spread across as many award-winning chocolates;
  • the beer ganache goodness and barley praline crunch of Christophe Morel’s “Le Bilboquet”’?the brilliant blend of pineapple and avocado within the ganache of Chez Christophe Chocolatierie Patisserie’s Bonbons Ananas Avocat;
  • the berry nice melding of white chocolate, blueberries and Saskatoon berries in the Good Clean Fun Bar from Cococo Chocolates; as well as,
  • the blissful raspberry and toasted almond studded white chocolate Artisan Bark from Gusto Chocolates.

The Canadian winners were invited to enter the ICA world finals held November 4–6 in London, UK, where they competed against the best from the European and Americas Semi-final rounds, held in Florence, Italy and New York, and regional competitions held in Scandinavia and Germany/Austria/Switzerland.

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