We asked Taste Trials, a professional tasting organisation, to put on a blind tasting of 20 different dark-chocolate truffles. We stressed dark, so that we could get as close as possible to the quality of the base chocolate. The bought truffles were selected as being the darkest and most 'chocolatey'. The rest we made with various dark chocolates to an identical recipe (see right).
The unanimity was stunning. Shop-bought truffles were found to be overpriced and disappointing - particularly the Belgian and Swiss, which do not deserve the reverential status they enjoy in Britain. Three of our top four, which stood out a mile, were French.
Our tasters were a discerning lot: Chantal Coady founded the Chocolate Society and Rococo Chocolates; Jean Charles Carrarini buys for his impressive specialist food shop and restaurant in Marylebone High Street, London; Matthew Pinhey of Porters sells chocolate to top chefs the length and breadth of Britain; and Jean-Christophe Novelli, chef of the Provence restaurant, near Lymington in Hampshire. Your correspondent cites years of devoted searching for the best dark chocolate as credentials enough.
Our number one truffle was made from the French organic chocolate discovered by the Independent more than a year ago: Green and Black's Organic (pounds 1.89 for 100g (4oz) in wholefood shops). It has 70 per cent cocoa solids and we tasters voiced the same sentiments: a strong, almost fruity cocoa flavour which was pleasantly unsweet.
A close second came the legendary Valrhona Guanaja, another French 70 per cent cocoa truffle (pounds 6.90 per lb in specialist food shops). This proved finer and less rustic than Green and Black: we remarked on its rich, chocolatey, slightly alcohol-and-fruit flavour, with just the right amount of sugar.
Two offerings shared third place. One was a truffle made with Waitrose's Continental plain chocolate (an absolute snip at 56p for 100g), also French. This had 72 per cent cocoa solids and packed a strong punch. It lost points for its texture, variously noted as 'gritty' and 'floury', and artificial vanillin flavouring. 'When a chocolate is this good, why don't they use real vanilla?' asked one taster. Our other third choice was a truffle made from Charbonnel and Walker's 'Chocolat a Fondre' (pounds 7.15 for a 500g tin, Harrods). This is made in Belgium, and again is a 70 per cent cocoa solids chocolate, made to a recipe devised in England by a Frenchwoman. We enjoyed its rich fudgy texture and smoothness but some tasters picked up 'burnt' and 'coffee' undertones.
Well behind in everybody's ratings were a clutch of truffles home-made from middle-priced, widely available dark chocolate (all around the 45-55 per cent cocoa solids band), which had the same crucial fault - too much sugar. The best, and most expensive, of these was Lindt Excellence (99p for 85g), but tasters still found it characterless. Several in this group were notable for their grainy textures (Scotts Real Dark Chocolate, for example); others, such as Sainsbury's Swiss Plain Chocolate, offered 'peculiar tastes' such as rosewater, which we put down to unspecified 'flavouring'.
The real shockers were the very pricey truffles which sell on their up-market reputation. We christened this the 'Milky Bar Kid' section: you might buy them for a fix of white sugar, but not for their chocolate character. They represented poor value for money.
The worst was Thornton's Select Triple Chocolate Mousse. We ate only the plain ones, which contain 30 per cent cocoa solids (pounds 1.89 for seven). These, we felt, could not even be classed as a dark truffle. 'Nulle points,' observed one tester wryly. 'Hideous, pure sugar and greasy texture,' said another. Nearly as bad were Sainsbury's Belgian Truffles, the darkest the chain seems to offer (pounds 2.09 per 125g box). 'Very nasty', 'horribly sweet and milky' and 'despicable' were some of the comments. Godiva (pounds 2.74 for seven) and Gartner (pounds 2.34 for seven) both shared a sweet, sickly, emulsified texture.
There were several oddities. We all detested the one joker in the pack: truffles made with carob. However healthy carob may be, any chocolate lover would take a pledge of abstinence rather than turn to it. 'Gritty', 'health-store soap and cereal aroma' and 'soy sauce' summed up the tasters' disgust.
We had expected to like Gerard Ronay's hand-made truffles (pounds 2.97 for seven) which had been favourably reviewed elsewhere, but they did badly. 'An odd perfumed aroma', 'very light, tastes commercial', 'inside too sweet and milky' were our comments.
Our award for weirdness goes to the cult chocolate Noir Infini, where French chocolate wizard Michel Cluizel has pushed cocoa solids up to 99 per cent and produced a price tag to go with it - pounds l20 for 30g (1oz). Made into truffles by our recipe, they were proof that you can go too far with cocoa solid content. Around 70 per cent is about as dark as even sophisticated palates can find pleasant. 'Inedible: an intellectual exercise,' said one taster.