The woman savored the piece of chocolate, then smiled. "I can tell the difference," she said. "The Venezuelan one zings in my mouth."
The white-jacketed chef behind the counter nodded. Between the three chocolate types he was presenting - from Venezuela, Madagascar, and Ecuador - all were 70 percent cacao, he said. Each of the truffles was made with the exact same filling.
The key, he told her, was where the cocoa plants were grown. The soils and climate influenced the flavors.
"Who knew chocolate had terroir?" the woman laughed, then moved to the next tasting station, where an array of olive oils awaited.
Welcome to the new Flavor Bar at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone. Here, in an extensive remodel on the first floor of the CIA's historic stone building in St. Helena, guests are invited to play with their food, through interactive tasting experiences designed to show them how an ingredient's origins and applications can vary flavor.
Tucked inside the Institute's new Spice Islands Marketplace (read: high end gift shop) just off the Institute's foyer, the bar offers a glimpse of what CIA student chefs might learn in their studies.
You settle in at one of 16 seats at the long stainless steel bar, and indulge in 15-minute workshops like "Taste Like a Chef: Calibrate Your Palette." Guided by an instructor, overhead plasma TV screens, and rows of tiny dishes of spices, seasonings, and garnishes, you discover how each meal should balance between sweet, sour, bitter and salty for the ultimate flavor explosion.
During the Chocolate Tasting class, you learn how chocolate is made, followed by a sampling of cacao in different stages, and from different regions of the world. As one participant tasted raw cacao nibs, she grimaced - the stuff is extraordinarily bitter. But as cocoa butter and sugar were mixed in, her face brightened.
While Flavor Bar experiences are still being added, a sneak preview grand opening party last week unveiled what's sure to be a CIA highlight: the Oleteca, or olive oil center, that officially debuts by mid-May. Stocked with a rainbow of super-premium olive oils, its wares include a pungent varietal from Petaluma's McEvoy Ranch, plus a Naturvie from Spain. As we sniffed and dipped oil on our tongues, our instructor helped us explore the profiles: artichoke-almond imbued notes for the McEvoy; apple and freshly mown grass from Naturvie.
"It's like wine," he said. "You wouldn't pair the same wine with every dish, so why would you expect one oil to do it all?"
At first, we just nodded knowingly, but soon we were dissecting the flavors ourselves, watching a promotional video on the Villa Campestri Olive Oil Resort just outside of Tuscany and thinking, yes, we could actually vacation at a luxury property dedicated to the joys of oils.
As we nibbled, we studied the Chocolate Lab (as in laboratory, not cuddily canine) that sits behind a clear glass wall next to the Flavor Bar. Like gourmet guinea pigs, students worked on elaborate confections in temperature and humidity controlled room, creating signature Greystone Chocolates for sale in the store.
"Madagascar," said a gentleman, picking up a box of confections and confidently striding to the cash register. "It's the best."
Details: The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, 2555 Main Street, St. Helena. Flavor Bar sessions run approximately 15 minutes at various times of the day and cost $10 per person. For schedules, reservations and directions to the school, call 707-967-2320, or check The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone website.
Tip: For an even more delicious CIA tour and Flavor Bar experience, contact Pure Luxury, a certified "Green" ground transportation company, for you private chauffeured transportation for the day.