Saying "Americas" makes it seem all fancy like Iron Chef. And in a way, the International Chocolate Awards (ICA) are a bit like Iron Chef. The best of the best within the country vying for a high prize to make it to the next round where the International Awards will take place. Chocolatiers from Spain and Italy and Canada and the UK coming to NYC just to munch and taste what the city has to offer, in the name of Chocolate. Yup, sounds official to me.
As a food blogger I was able to judge one of the preliminary rounds of the International Chocolate Awards at the end of June. After the main series of judging was done those that placed went on to the Grand Jury round and those in the Grand Jury spent the weekend before our Independence Day deciding which chocolates would make the cut in their categories.
I can't get into the specifics of judging and I can't tell you what I tasted as all entrants were anonymous to us so we judged on taste and location alone. What I can say is that this is a particularly interesting type of judging. I always wondered what judges were thinking when they sat down and tasted a variety of items. And how they cleaned their palate in preparation for the next bit or dish. And to experience that within 90 minutes for chocolate, dark, milk, and spreads, was fun and enlightening.
One of the most important things is to ensure that your palate can be distinct for each item and flavors from one aren't interfering with how you judge something else. Especially if the darkest of chocolates, we're talking 00% chocolate, has a chalky taste because there's NO sugar whatsoever. You have to take it in stride. But, like one of the Grand Jury members--one was stationed at each table to help guide us newer judges through the round--just because it's different doesn't mean it's good. So, if you haven't tasted 10% chocolate doesn't mean you'll like it but don't discount it because it's not sweet. You're judging chocolate for things outside of being sweet in something like the ICA and you have to consider a lot of things. Just like on Iron Chef or in any competition. I've done Takedowns I know the criteria. And I love food. And it's not all about taste. It's about construction and smell and texture as well as flavors. And yes, flavors, plural. As in all the ingredients within it should help to make a unified taste that does not disturb or distract.
Chocolate making is hard stuff. As is spread making. So much can go wrong. And as Jackie, a fellow judge, told me "chocolate is fussy." It can't be too cold, it can't be too hot it needs to be perfect. Tempering it requires patience and perhaps a cool machine to help. So everyone who made chocolate going into the categories of dark bars, milk bars, white bars, flavoured bars, spreads, and filled chocolates each has it's own unique listings for what you are looking for and all the while you are continually testing and cleansing your palate to judge a bit more.
It was a great experience. Held at the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) this year in Chelsea the space was gorgeous, the weather a bit humid but not gross, the staff and organizers extremely friendly, and fellow judges really serious but cool about the whole thing made it a great time.
The grand jury finalists for the Americas were announced last week on the ICA site. And they will move on to the larger competition to be held in September.
So, that's my gist for the ICAs. A great time and fun to participate to acknowledge the hard work of chocolatiers on a worldwide stage. Keep updated on who wins on the International Chocolate Awards site and stay tuned for next year!