Yes, chocolate tasting is a legitimate job! And here’s what it’s like to be living that dream. By Nivedita Jayaram Pawar
Hong Kong-born Cherrie Lo has a sweet life…literally! After earning a tasting certificate from the International Institute of Chocolate and Cacao Tasting, Lo now evaluates chocolates as a taster and judges several prestigious chocolate competitions. In a candid interview, Lo reveals the highs and (hardly any) lows of her job.
How did you get interested in the world of chocolates?
My job as the marketing and branding manager of a luxury chocolate brand, Vero Chocolates, involved working closely with chocolate chefs from around the world. This exposed me to different ingredients, varieties, chocolate making processes, skills, etc. Later, I worked with the world’s best pastry chef Pierre Hermé. But I wanted to go deeper: know the rationale behind choosing particular cacao for a bar; the distinctive tastes and notes of beans from different origins; the science of making chocolates, and more. So, I bought a one-way ticket to London to learn more. The course opened the world for me.
What is the not-so-glamorous part of the job?
Being a chocolatier involves investing a lot of money and personal time to keep tasting and keeping up with the market. There are new flavours and ingredients to discover each day. Whenever I travel for leisure, chocolate walks and tours are always the first things I enrol in. Sometimes, you understand a little bit more about the local culture through the chocolate people are tasting and buying. I end up spending a lot of money on luxury chocolates just to taste and keep up with the trends. I also visit Paris a few times in a year to attend chocolate events, meet chocolatiers and shop for chocolates. When I have a chocolate tasting, I have to sleep early the previous night. When you don’t sleep well, your brain is not connected well with your palate. You end up with a palate that is not sharp enough to judge.
And, I can’t apply nail polish as its strong aroma comes in the way of judging the subtle aromas of chocolates. I even have to use non-scented hand creams! Chocolatiers work for years before they submit their work, and I have to be really mindful and respectful of that.
What are some of the unusual chocolates you have tasted?
In Britain, I tasted white chocolate made using toasted milk powder. It tasted like a toasted marshmallow. It was so yummy! Another one with soy sauce (instead of sea salt) was quite interesting. It had a distinctive umami taste. A Taiwanese chocolate brand uses dried sakura shrimp mixed with green Thai curry to make a white chocolate bar that tastes delicious. Another Taiwanese brand uses a mix of vinegar and ginger, which was quite memorable too. Chocolate with roasted spring onions may sound odd, but it creates new sensations on the palate. In Sweden, they add liquorice to their chocolate, which makes it quite bitter.
Is there a particular way to taste chocolates in order to really savour craft chocolates?
For the perfect tasting, you need an environment that is free of noise and aromatics. So put off any candles and home fragrances, and definitely walk away from the kitchen! Make yourself a peaceful environment with a glass of sparkling water by your side. The bubbles help take the flavours to the palate. Next, look. A good bar will have a natural shine, which means it has been tempered and stored well. When you break the bar, it should make a crisp snap sound. Then, inhale the aroma. Judge whether it is fruity, floral, or more. Lastly, when you put it in your mouth, break it down to tiny pieces and let it melt before you finally taste it.
What are some of the things you do to keep your palate vibrant?
I try to taste and smell everything. Whenever I am in Italy, Hungary or Paris, I make it a point to visit the food markets to smell, touch and taste various things—especially spices and fruits that are usually used in chocolates. It makes the link between the brain and the palate stronger. I also eat a lot of polenta cooked like a smooth porridge as a palate cleanser. Of course, a bottle of sparkling water in between chocolates is a must to keep the palate vibrant.
How many chocolates have you tasted so far and how do you not let all the tastings affect your waist?
I was in Florence recently and ate over 197 chocolates in a span of three days of judging. That’s a lot of chocolates! But the solace is that I live in Central London, very close to the national park. I walk and run all the time. I exercise regularly and maintain a healthy lifestyle.
Which is the most exciting place for chocolate lovers right now?
Definitely Paris. Every chocolate there is amazing, classy and timeless. Fresh mint chocolate from Alain Ducasse just blows my mind. In contrast, chocolatiers in Japan and Taiwan are far more innovative and experimental. They are constantly infusing comfort food items into chocolate. I once tasted a bar of white chocolate infused with Japanese curry rice that was so homely and flavourful.
Growing up did you eat a lot of chocolates?
I always loved ice-creams and cakes. Chocolate was never my first choice. But as I got into the chocolate field, I realised chocolate is magical. It takes you back to your childhood. In that sense, I am a chocolate traveller.
How do you enjoy your chocolate?
I love both bars and bonbons. Some evenings, I create my own chocolate chopping board, cut a piece and enjoy it. On a cold evening, I make myself a warm cup of tea and enjoy a nice bar with a book for company.