I'm the kind of person who considers chocolate a food group of its own. If I had my way, the USDA food pyramid would look like a giant chocolate iceberg, with a little section at the top for cheese, pasta and extra-virgin olive oil.
I grew up on Hershey bars and graduated to Godiva. By my late 20s I was buying Callebaut bittersweet in 10-pound blocks, wholesale. For a few years, I sold handmade chocolate truffles at the downtown Farmers' Market, where I got used to explaining to puzzled shoppers that the truffles I sold were made of chocolate, not tubers.
Then I had kids and disappeared into baby fog. And sometime during those years when I was busy changing diapers and mashing carrots for baby food, chocolate grew up. The corner drugstore doesn't sell Whitman's Samplers anymore -- instead, it has an aisle full of single-origin, 70% or 80% cacao, artisanal chocolate with descriptions that sound like they were ghostwritten by Robert Parker.
For Valentine's Day today, a hip chocophile might give his sweetheart a bar of Michel Cluizel's Premier Cru, Single Estate chocolate from the "Maralumi" plantation on the island of Papua-New Guinea, which the wrapper describes as a "mellow chocolate with slightly roasted and spicy flavors, fresh notes of green bananas and red currants, with charming aromas of Havana tobacco leaves."
If he's lucky, she might express her love with a box of Vosges Haut-Chocolat's Italian Collection truffles, which come flavored with Taleggio cheese, Tuscan wild fennel pollen, aged balsamic vinegar and dried kalamata olives -- and she might pair it with a carefully selected bottle of, say, an Italian Barbaresco.
Overnight, it seems, chocolate has become the new wine. And on the theory that the only thing that could possibly be better than tasting one mood-altering substance of intensely layered flavors and aromas would be tasting two together, the new game is to pair them. Chocolate and wine tastings are so popular that when I googled "chocolate and wine" recently, I got a whopping 749,000 entries.
The traditional advice about pairing chocolate and wine is to make sure the wine has the same or greater sweetness -- unless you want to taste your wine turn to dust in your mouth or feel as though you've been sucking tea bags. That means sticking to dessert wines -- port and chocolate, for instance, is a time-honored combination.
A lot of people in the blogosphere are excited about matching drier reds with the new dark (70% or 80% cacao) chocolates. This is trickier -- you have to know both your wine and your chocolate pretty well. In theory, a big, fruity, not too tannic Zinfandel or Shiraz or Cabernet -- especially something with cocoa notes -- will work with chocolate.
In practice -- well, my guess is that everyone's palate is different, and that some people like the combination. I turn out not to be one of them.
On the advice of Clotilde Dusoulier, a Parisian who writes the sparkling, utterly charming food blog chocolateandzucchini.com, I opted to make the little black dress of desserts -- a simple, classic, (almost) flourless chocolate cake. Clotilde supplied the recipe, and suggested her favorite wine pairing: Mas Amiel, a sweet French vin doux naturel made from black grenache grapes.
I found a bottle of Mas Amiel's 1990 Millésime ($20) at Steve's Wine Market, where I also picked up, at their suggestion, a 2004 White Oak Cabernet Sauvignon ($28) -- a wine the folks there thought would have plenty of fruit, some dark chocolatey notes, enough acidity to cut through the butter in the cake, and a long finish.
I invited some friends for dinner, told them what I planned and warned them that they'd have to pay attention and that I might take notes (as Clotilde says, I like to put people at ease).
We all loved the Cabernet by itself -- it's a mellow, beautifully balanced wine with some complexity, and it was a pleasure to drink. Then, while my dog lay at our feet, blissfully ripping the insides out of his favorite stuffed animal, I brought out the cake. It didn't look like much, but it tasted fabulous -- dark, almost raisiny chocolate, with an unctuously smooth texture and a little crispy crackle of a crust.
Next we tried the wine with cake -- and recoiled, as the cake did to that lovely Cab exactly what the dog was doing to his toy: massacred it. The fruit disappeared, the flavor and aroma vanished, and we were left with -- yup, dust.
With some trepidation, we poured ourselves glasses of the Mas Amiel. There are very few dessert wines I really care for, but this was pleasant enough -- a light, mahogany brown syrup of prunes and caramel.
Then we tried it with the chocolate, and something amazing happened: It got much, much better. Suddenly, there were swirls of honey in a long, warm finish -- a magical alchemy that we instantly wanted to taste again. And again. We kept shaving off another sliver of cake, pouring just one more drop of wine, until sadly, the evening was over.
And the moral of this story? Forget the proverbial 50 million Frenchmen who can't be wrong. When it comes to chocolate and wine, and arranging l'amour between the two -- ask a French woman.