Research origins of the cacao
Finding the source of chocolate doesn't refer to tracking down its geographic origins, because all cacao beans are grown within 20° of the equator, North and South. Many of the farmers responsible for harvesting cacao beans only receive about 10% above the going commodity rate for cultivating and growing the beans, and even this is in countries where 'fair trade' practices are in effect.
A better option would be to choose one of the smaller chocolate makers often referred to as 'craft chocolate' manufacturers, which have now become common in the US. These smaller businessmen pay as much as five times the actual commodity rate for cacao, making them by far the fairest of cacao business practitioners. By doing this, you'll know that you made the recipient happy, and that you're helping these smaller businesses.
Finding out anything about manufacturing methods used in the making of chocolate can be difficult, because there is often very little information about them included on the label, or on the box containing the chocolates. Looking at the content of cacao is not always an indicator of quality, so for instance chocolate made with 80% cacao is not necessarily better than chocolate with 60% cacao, because it doesn't really tell you anything about the quality of other ingredients, or the manufacturing process itself. What you should look for on labels is some term like 'minimally processed', because that's an indication that the beans were not overly roasted, and that healthy micronutrients were not laundered out.
Tasting the chocolate
Tasting the difference between chocolates is a little like tasting the difference between wines – you have to take your time and really pay attention to what your senses are telling you. To get really good at it, try these simple chocolate tasting steps:
- Cleanse the palate – try a small drink of warm water before tasting, so your taste buds are prepared for the experience
- Appearance – fine chocolate should have a glossy surface unless it's been dusted with some kind of flavoring
- Fragrance – be careful to inhale the chocolate through your nose so you don't lose the sensory experience during tasting
- Sound – you should hear a crisp pop or snap as you bite into it, which is an indication of a well-tempered chocolate
Tasting technique – let the chocolate linger in your mouth and melt before swallowing so you can truly taste it. If you chew and swallow it quickly, that will mix all flavors together, and create taste confusion.