Valrhona is a wonderful French chocolate company. They make several different kinds of chocolate bar that should satisfy most tastes. I personally have tried several of them, and have found them all to be excellent. Not a lot of places in the U.S. carry Valrhona, but you can find it in more upper-crust candy shops and sometimes in specialty gourmet food shops (I first found it in a wine shop after a tip by my godmother. It's a good thing she tipped me off, too, because I don't drink so I never would have gone in there otherwise).

Noir Amer

"Noir Amer" literally translates as "black bitter", which is a fair description of both the color and taste of this chocolate. If you ever see this stuff for sale anywhere, buy as much as you can afford. This is the second best chocolate I know (but not by much; it's a very close call between this one and the Callebaut. Needless to say, it's damn good. This chocolate has an astonishing 71% cocoa solids in it. I have never found anything higher. The ingredient list is: cocoa beans, sugar, cocoa butter, lecithin, vanilla. If you ask me, that is the right and proper place for cocoa solids to be in an ingredient list.

Eating Noir Amer is, for the true chocolate afficionado, almost a religious experience. It is as close as I have ever come to experiencing Pure Chocolate Essence. Noir Amer is, to be candid, really really strong. Really, I'm not kidding; this chocolate is not for the faint of heart. Remember when in Return of the Jedi Darth Vader says "Do not underestimate the power of the Dark Side"? This chocolate is like that, but in a good way.

My impression is that the mystic Valrhona chocolate chemists tried really hard to come up with a formula that maximizes the percent cocoa and has just barely enough of the other ingredients to make an edible chocolate. Any less and they would probably be required to call it baking chocolate. Yeah, there's sugar in this chocolate, but who are they kidding, this stuff is bitter. It's actually sort of sweet at the same time, but not very. What happens is that you taste the sweetness and the bitterness at different times. You taste the sweetness first, but it is quickly overwhelmed by the total suffusion of chocolate flavor so that after a few seconds it doesn't matter much that there is any sugar in it.

Naturally, this gets high marks with me. I like my chocolates strong and bitter, and this sure fits the bill. It's probably not for everyone, though. I certainly wouldn't shun anyone for declaring that Noir Amer is too strong for their taste.

I do find that the texture is a bit too hard and waxy for my taste. It doesn't quite crumble up in my mouth the way I like. It tends to stick together too much when being chewed; this makes it hard to distribute easily around my mouth. Strange as it may seem, for really strong chocolates like this, I prefer the texture of the Callebaut over that of Valrhona.

Noir Gastronomie

"Noir" means black, and I'm told that "Gastronomie" translates as "intended for eating". You can draw your own conclusions about why they'd give that name to a chocolate bar; I mean, isn't all chocolate destined to be eaten? This is the second strongest chocolate in the Valrhona line. This chocolate has 61% cocoa solids in it, which is, after the Noir Amer, almost the strongest chocolate I've ever found. I remember years ago having had some other European chocolates whose label claimed to have 65% cocoa solids, but I can't remember what exactly it was.

This makes a fine eating chocolate, albeit in small quantities; it's very strong. There is just enough sugar in this chocolate to cancel out the natural chocolate bitterness, but no more. I live in awe of whoever the head chocolate formula person at Valrhona is. It is a very smooth, velvety chocolate. The good folks at Valrhona certainly know how to properly conch chocolate.

The bar itself is large, and breaks up into 32 small squares, each of which is several grams large. I tend to eat this stuff at work, and I find that one of these squares lasts me all day. Bite off a little nibble about the size of a small pea, and let it melt in your mouth. When the nibble is melted, you will be left with a strong chocolate taste in your mouth for several minutes.

This is a wonderful chocolate, but I can't give it five bars because, when it comes right down to it, I think the Noir Amer is better.

Le Noir

Valrhona's Le Noir chocolate is the next step down the line, at 56% cocoa solids. The ingredient list reads: cocoa beans, sugar, cocoa butter, lecithin, flavored with natural vanilla. This is quite a delicious chocolate, but is not nearly so overpowering as the Noir Gastronomie or Noir Amer. For people who find very high percent cocoa chocolates to be too strong, I would enthusiastically recommend Le Noir.

This is a nice firm chocolate like the others, but is detectably softer than the others. I find the consistency to be just about perfect. It's not so soft that it melts immediately, but it's not so hard that it can be uncomfortable to eat nor so that it takes a long time for its flavor to develop. The flavor itself is really quite nice. Very chocolaty, as you would expect, but also plenty sweet. Not excessively sweet, but there is ample sugar to mask the chocolate's natural bitterness. The back side of the wrapper claims that Le Noir is "a blend of the most fragrant cocoa beans from Carribbean and Indian Ocean plantations." In any event, it is perhaps the source of the beans that gives this chocolate its slightly fruity taste. I also detected a bit of a smoky flavor, which I quite like.

Overall, I would recommend this chocolate for people who like semisweet chocolates but find that bittersweets are not quite to their liking. If you have had your fill of Hershey's Special Dark and wish to move on to something else, then by all means give Le Noir a try.

Le Lacte

Believe it or not, Valrhona even makes a milk chocolate, called Le Lacte. As you would expect, it has less cocoa solids than any of the others, a mere 40 percent. 40 percent, however, is a lot more than many commercial milk chocolates. The ingredient list reads: cocoa butter, sugar, whole milk powder, cocoa beans, brown cane sugar, flavored with natural vanilla, lecithin, malt extract.

Now if you've read very many of my reviews, you know I'm not partial to milk chocolates. But I have to say that I'm quite impressed with Le Lacte. It really is one of the nicest, most amiable milk chocolates I've ever had. The first thing that caught my eye in the ingredient list was that cocoa butter was the top ingredient. That is fairly unusual in a milk chocolate. Usually the sugar and milk ingredients are before cocoa butter and cocoa solids. I have to say that putting so much cocoa butter in this chocolate is truly a stroke of genuis. I'm no food chemist or anything, but I believe that many of the wonderful qualities of this chocolate have to be related to the high cocoa butter content. It may be that the Valrhona company has so much extra cocoa butter available because of the unusually high cocoa solid content of their other chocolates. If so, I can only praise them for making such good use of their extra cocoa butter

This chocolate has a lovely somewhat light brown color, about the color of Thandie Newton's skin (she's an actress. She's been in Flirting, Jefferson in Paris, Interview with the Vampire, The Young Americans, and The Journey of August King. I may be forgetting some, you can check out IMDB for a complete list). It has a lovely crisp snap when you break off a piece, even at room temperature. This, I know, comes from the cooca butter. It is cocoa butter that is responsible for that same crisp snap in dark chocolates. Most milk chocolates don't break so well unless they're cold.

When you put the piece in your mouth, you become instantly aware of a rich creaminess. This chocolate has an extremely luscious, smooth feel to it. It is much much smoother than any of the other milk chocolates I've had. Most of them have a little bit of a gritty feel to them, which I suspect comes from the typically high proportion of milk solids in comparison to cocoa butter.

In any event, this lovely smooth feel is the cocoa butter melting, and it's such a wonderfully rich feeling you just can't resist smooshing it all around your mouth. This may be a deliberate strategem of whoever came up with the recipe for this chocolate. If so, it is another stroke of genius because as you do so, the chocolate melts rapidly and the other flavors develop. The next ingredient I became aware of was the milk solids, followed shortly thereafter by the sugar and then the cocoa. Needless to say, the balance of these ingredients is very near to perfect. I think I might have put in a touch more cocoa solids and a bit less sugar, but in all honesty I can't say that there is any real flaw in the balance as it is.

I was a little surprised that I couldn't really detect that the sugar used was brown cane sugar instead of the usual white cane sugar. I had expected more of an influence from that. Also, I didn't really get a sense for the malt extract either, but since that is last on the ingredient list I suppose that isn't terribly surprising. All in all, I have to give this chocolate high marks, especially for a milk chocolate. From now on, this will be the chocolate I recommend to people who prefer milk chocolates to dark.