Ever since childhood I have been especially fond of the filling round taste of dark chocolate, something that may have originated from me habitually sneaking bits of Mom's baking-chocolate from the kitchen-drawer, a preference that stayed with me ever since. Naturally I greatly enjoyed most other kinds of Norwegian chocolate too, and while growing up I gradually expanded my chocolate horizons. Early in my travels I discovered Swiss Toblerone, and later I randomly came across the amazing Cote d'Or and Guylian imports from Belgium. With my studies abroad I found myself delighted by Australian Cadbury and American Ghirardelli, but I always treasured the one special kind of Freia baking-chocolate called "Selskapssjokolade" from my childhood far above all others.
This all changed in 2006 when I started traveling regularly to Brussels to visit my girlfriend living there. Flying down so often allowed me to thoroughly taste my way through all of the amazing chocolate-shops we came across on our travels around Belgium, and I got to try an amazing range of delicious pralines the like of which I could never have imagined, as well as the wide selection of Cote d'Or, Galler, Jacques and a host of other brands available in the grocery stores. But one day I came across something different, namely a set of three country-labeled chocolate bars in the display-window of a Neuhaus-shop. The label "Occumare Venezuela" especially piqued my interest, so I simply had to try one...
And how did it taste? Well as you may have guessed it turned out to be amazing! It was hands down the best chocolate I had ever tasted, so on my next trip to Brussels I made it my main priority to buy more of it, and also to sample the other two bars labeled "Sao Tomé" and "West Africa". Those too ended up surprising me, but not in the amazing way that the Occumare did; The West Africa bar tasted very much like most other regular chocolate to me, and while the Sao Tomé bar was somewhat better it too felt dry and boring in comparison. I couldn't help but wonder why the Venezuelan bar tasted so much better than the other two in the series, and also whether the special "Occumare"-label found only on that bar had something to do with it. I immediately started Googling for answers.
Now, I'm not going to turn this into some mystery novel about Chocolate so I'll just give you the simple facts. After days and even weeks of spending my free time reading about chocolate on Wikipedia and a host of other sites, I started getting the hang of it, and it turns out that cacao isn't just cacao after all. It consists of a myriad of different varieties roughly divided into three main groups, of which the South-American version called Criollo is highly praised for its aromatic properties and the one most often used to make quality chocolate. This type of cacao combined with quality preparation is what made the Venezuelan bar from Neuhaus so amazing. At that time it was actually considered to be one of the best bars available so it turns out that me finding this particular bar was a stroke of luck, as it was its special combination of an amazing taste and the branding mystery that led me to begin my search to learn about and discover the world of fine chocolate.
And what of the "Occumare"-label you ask?
It turned out to be the name of a green valley leading to a small seaside municipality on the Venezuelan coast, a place where the cacao-harvest has been a staple of life since the Spaniards created their first plantations there in the 1650's. It has since been one of the most famous sources of cacao used to create quality chocolate, and even more so in later years after origin-bars stating their source of cacao has become popular among artisan chocolatiers.
Now if you are curious to learn how you yourself can identify fine chocolate in a store, I will be writing a follow-up to this post in a few days, so read up on chocolate history in the meantime and stay tuned!
Update: And why was it notable that Freia Selskapssjokolade was my favourite as a child you may wonder. Well it turns out that up until the new millennium and the booming interest in fine chocolate that followed, that particular brand was one of the purest and most high quality semi-dark chocolates available on the Norwegian market. This means that the preference for dark chocolate that led me to chocolate connoisseurship in Belgium was likely caused by me being randomly exposed to one of the only somewhat fine dark chocolate-bars available when I was a child! That certainly is a strange twist of fate :-)