creations impress both the palate and the eye. As Val, one of the panelists, said: "It's more than candy -- it's art." Thomas was more enamored of the taste, writing, "Who knew it was possible for chocolate to be both bold and delicate at the same time?" For Valentine's Day, Shotts makes a limited collection called Legendary Lovers. With chocolates named after star-crossed lovers like Roman mythology's Dido and Aeneas (strawberry basil and raspberry verbena), the collection is bound to get you in the mood. ($20 for the 12-piece box; garrisonconfections.com, 401-490-2740)
I was delighted with Artisan du Chocolat’s Couture chocolates. You would do well to make Artisan your first stop in London. The flavors range across fruits, nuts, herbs, and spices and are very well done. My favorites were the softy and crunch Feuillantine and smooth Honey, followed closely by the cooperating flavors in the Coriander Praline and the Banana and Thyme and the slightly piquant Sea Salted Caramel. The collection also shines with the Orange Blossom, Passion Fruit, Lavender, and other pieces.
Katalin Csiszar and her husband, Zsolt Szabad, began the award-winning Rozsavolgyi in their home in Budapest in 2004. They source beans from Venezuela growers, and roast them very lightly to preserve their true flavors. Only organic cane sugar and a small amount of of cocoa butter goes in before they are formed into intricate patterns meant to mimic fireplace tiles, and wrapped by hand in paper that looks like your chic grandma’s vintage silk scarf. Purists rave about their Criollo and Trincheras bars, but those who like surprises go for inclusions like olives and bread, and flavors of Japanese matcha, and Indian masala spices.
I recommend Bridgewater’s assorted chocolates, including the toffees, which you can buy separately. However, their marzipan, truffles, and bars do not impress me the same way, although nothing is particularly wrong with them. The truffles had an airy mousse-like filling. The orange truffle was pleasant, but the hazelnut and raspberry were distant in those truffles. The bars with bits of various fruits, nuts, or other items had a more appealing chocolate flavor than most chocolatiers’ bars. The fruits added a bit to the flavor but were a minority portion. The marzipan was standard.
The most famous Venezuelan cacao of all comes from Chuao. The trees of Chuao are shielded by mountains from all but the warm Caribbean breezes; the soil is naturally irrigated by three cascading rivers. Doutre-Roussel calls the region “one of the jewels of the earth.” Besides the microclimate, Chuao has centuries-old traditions of harvesting and preparing cacao. First it’s fermented to develop the compounds that will later blossom into rich aromatics, then it’s laid out on the parvis in front of the village church to dry slowly in the sun. Because the farmers worked together as a cooperative, Chuao is one of the only places where a chocolate maker could buy, at one stroke, 9 to 10 tons of uniformly excellent cacao. Until recently, that chocolate maker was Valrhona. Today every last kilo of cacao from Chuao goes to Amedei.
There is something for everyone on this list of chocolate companies. Whether you prefer indie chocolatiers like La Maison Du Chocolate in New York and Norman Love Confections in Naples, FL; European chocolate makers with a rich history like Teuscher in Zurich, Switzerland; more recently popular brands like Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker in Berkeley, CA, or tried-and-true standbys like Hershey's and Godiva, it's hard to go wrong with any of the chocolate makers on this list. Which company makes your favorite chocolates?
Jacques Torres’ products are excellent, and there is not much to detract for that. A correspondent recommended the Alizé Heart of Passion, but the nut pieces are my favorites, with the Heart and other fruit pieces second. Most of the nut pieces, such as the Heavenly Hazelnut, had the fine crunchy texture of a praliné. The Cinnamon Praline was also a great nut piece, with hazelnuts. The European Peanut Butter had sort of an airy taste to the peanut butter. The Heart had a nice pop to the passion fruit flavor enveloped by chocolate flavor. The Creamy Raspberry, Fresh Squeezed Lemon, and Love Bug were also excellent fruit pieces.
The gourmet cookies from San Francisco’s Salty Sweet Bakery are for the cookie-loving kid in you with tastes that are all grown up. You’ll know it from your first bite as the cookie flavors reveal themselves like a chorus line of CanCan dancers on your tongue that finishes with the ephemeral taste of real vanilla and the final flirty curtain call of salt. These sweet but not too sweet cookies tend toward the soft-baked to chewy spectrum. Each are topped with a sprinkle of delicate sea salt flakes.
For the chocolate purist, or anyone looking for the perfect corporate gift, we think Maison du Chocolat ($60 for 28 pieces) is a great premium choice. The flavors are subtle enough to really let the chocolate shine. The packaging, reminiscent of brown pebbled leather, is understated and innocuous enough to gift for professional reasons. Although these chocolates are incredibly smooth and slightly less sweet than the Michel Cluizel, the overall flavor profile isn’t quite as daring as those in the Recchiuti box and might not provide the same sensory adventure as our main pick. We also think the assortments available online are a little big for a Valentine’s gift (although you can purchase smaller boxes in their stores).
Chocolate doesn’t get any fresher than Jouvay, perfected by the Grenada Cocoa Farmers Cooperative based at the rural Diamond Chocolate Factory. The idea was to partner with local farmers working right in the ecosystem to grow the best quality beans. While visiting the 18th-century factory inside a converted rum distillery built by French monks, see the cocoa beans drying on trays under the Caribbean sun. Growers employ a centuries-old French tradition of “walking” the beans—turning them gently by walking over the shells, which are later roasted and removed. Inside the small tasting room, sample each chocolate bar flavor, such as ginger and cocoa nibs. Factory and farm in Victoria, Grenada.