Lucky girl I was to encounter Fresco Chocolate via Rob Anderson’s lecture at the Northwest Chocolate Festival earlier this year. Rob, Fresco’s chocolate-making mad scientist, demonstrated precisely how the key variables of roasting and conching help create craft chocolate magic with his four playful iterations of Papua New Guinea cacao.
Rob’s teaching methods definitely supported a beloved theory that chocolate boosts comprehension: we munched on revelatory samples that reinforced his lesson on the varying effects of roasting and conching. Much like coffee, the lighter the roast, the more acidic and vibrant the flavors. Conching is a bit more complex; while the process is critical in refining texture, it also releases aromatics and volatiles which develop the flavor of the chocolate in ways nothing short of alchemy. A chocolate maker’s approach to these variables in particular shapes his signature style.
Rob’s style is sweet, revelatory fun. I snapped up the four Papua New Guinea variations we’d sampled to take home for my own tasting and admired the information-packed wrappers, which detail everything from tasting instructions to thorough notes on the cacao, perfect Cliff Notes for our lesson. I also cornered Rob about my pet project, Mission: Craft Chocolate LA, my effort to bring craft chocolate to Los Angeles, and asked if he were interested in participating.
“Sure, that’ll be fun!” I concur: while I’ve certainly enjoyed comparing different chocolate makers’ takes on, say, Chuao cacao, rolling through Fresco’s four versions of a single varietal has been one of the more entertaining and educational tastings I’ve done. The experience sheds bright light on the specific nature of a particular cacao by reducing the variables to just the two of roasting and conching; I reveled in discovering the common threads of flavor that ran through Fresco’s four Papua New Guinea bars and the interesting variations that resulted from manipulating the process.
Three of the four 69% cacao bars, numbered 219, 220 and 221, vary in roast only, from light to dark, respectively, each with a medium conche. The fourth bar, 222, is the naked version: light roast and no conche. All express Papua New Guinea cacao, which transports me not to that exotic locale but to one just as distant, my childhood candy store.
Appearance: Each bar is comprised of ten 4.5 gram squares with small ridges. Bars differed in depth of color but shared a beautiful deep red tinge, particularly at the snapped edges. Roasting seems to deepen the tone of brown expressed in the bars, from warm brown to espresso. The light roast bar was brighter than the rest. All were well presented, with nothing more than a few small bubbles. 219 was cracked, but I suppose I’ll take the fall for that.
Smell: Scents were pretty faint with these bars; in fact, I got about as much odor from the paper as the bars. Still, a faint but rich cocoa smell presented itself, particularly with bar 220. Bar 222, the light roast bar with no conche, was the exception, which, with its minimal processing, radiated fruity candy smells.
Snap: These well-tempered bars snapped firmly with clean break lines that revealed those lovely reddish tones.
Taste: Papua New Guinea’s theme is truly a candy shop tour of brightly tangy fruit flavors dunked in chocolate. 219’s light roast first revealed warm notes of maybe leather, followed by vibrant berry flavors with supporting earthy cocoa notes. It reminded me a bit of drinking bitter hot cocoa through a Twizzler. 220’s medium roast mellowed the cacao’s flavors to those of strawberries and pineapple dunked in a hot fudge fountain, while 221’s dark roast pulled me momentarily out of childhood to sip chicory coffee and pinch tobacco before bright blackberries and strawberries burst through, backed again by a deep cocoa flavor. 222’s light roast without conching is definitely the wildest child of the bunch: do they make chocolate-covered cherry Starbursts? Astringency is part of the package here, too, further dialing up the volume on this SweeTart chocolatey experience.
Texture: All bars hit my tongue with a slightly grainy feel but warmed into a satisfying thick, chewy texture, adding to the intensity of the experience.
These high-volume chocolates, all dense with cocoa-drenched sweet, tangy flavors, astringency and a firm texture, create an intense, fun ride. Goes to show, with a little science and a lot of skill on Rob Anderson’s side, this candy man can.