It's a rare breed that doesn't enjoy milk chocolate. Creamy, sweet, delicious, it's a welcome treat any time. Dark chocolate, on the other hand, is more of an acquired taste, but it serves as an exquisite cap to an elegant meal. The taste of dark chocolate is enhanced with drinks that embrace its bitterness—red wine or a dark blend of coffee.
Cacao beans are grown throughout the tropical belt, mostly in South America, the West Indies and West Africa. The word cacao derives from the Mayan language and means "bitter juice." That juice is preserved—indeed, celebrated—in dark chocolate, untempered by milk and sugar, as happens with candy-counter chocolate. While your basic Hershey's bar delivers more sugar than cacao, the darkest and finest chocolates in the world are as much as 70 percent cacao.
In addition to a sharp taste, high cacao content translates to a range of aromatic and exotic flavors—from unusual floral wisps to lingering roasted nut flavors. For the typical M&M's lover, a dark chocolate from, say, Russian chocolate maker A. Korkunov (72 percent cacao) will be a totally unfamiliar experience, with its tangerine notes and toasted almond finish. San Francisco—based Scharffen Berger Bittersweet Chocolate, one of the best and most readily available domestic varieties, starts with a rich burst of espresso-bean flavor and evolves to a lemony finish.
As your palate matures and comes to appreciate dark chocolate, you will soon realize that it can be as full of subtle distinctions as wine. And since the best producers blend and roast their own cacao beans, no two brands of chocolate taste quite the same. One of the best chocolate producers in the world, Valrhona of France, produces vintage-dated "domain" chocolate from individual estate plantations. In translation, you can compare the floral perfume of their Ampamarkia bar (from a cacao plantation in Madagascar) to the earthy and richer Chuao bar (from a plantation in Venezuela). Or try the cigar and citrus flavors of Valrhona Gran Couva from Trinidad. Should you line up the different brands, you'll get an understanding of how varied and intriguing the flavor of the cacao bean can be. Yes, dark chocolate is an acquired taste. But once you've ventured onto the dark side, you'll never look at a Snickers bar or a Hershey's Kiss the same again.