Cecilia asked me to put on a hairnet, a plastic jacket and disposable blue booties, then led me downstairs to the factory. The machines, Swiss, Italian and German models painted ivory, clacked and hammered away, sounding like an orchestra of conga drums. A young guy with tattooed forearms strained to push sweetened cacao paste through a screen with a paddle. For some reason, the floor was painted blood red. The chocolate smell was so strong and pure I could barely think. Somehow I managed to remark to Alessio that these antique machines must limit the quantity of chocolate Amedei can make.
If you are either passionate about chocolate or just like trying new and different chocolates, this is definitely the way to go. My wife is a self-proclaimed “Chocaholic” and for years I would have to scour the depths of malls or online searching to find her new chocolates, until I bought her this gift one year. Monthly you receive top quality chocolates from around the world and enjoy learning about the different chocolatiers, ingredients, etc. The fun for us is not just the chocolate (which is always amazing), but discovering new producers and ingredient combinations. It’s a great program that has even turned this non sweet-tooth person into someone who can truly appreciate the incredible variety and nuances of fine chocolate (ok, maybe even a “chocaholic”). And thankfully I no longer have search, someone else has done that for me and I can truthfully say that I trust their judgment on what is a fine chocolate way better than my previous guess work.
American consumers are expected to spend an astonishing $1.8 billion-plus on candy for the holiday this year, and about 75% of that will be on chocolate. Mass-market confectioners like Russell Stover, in business since 1923, will account for most of the sales. (The company, which also owns the Whitman’s brand, is the largest boxed-candy manufacturer in America.) Most smaller chocolate shops prepare special Valentine’s Day assortments and/or other chocolate-related gifts, though, and these tend to offer greater variety and utilize better-quality chocolate.
For more than 30 years, Seattle-based owner Fran Bigelow has been setting candy trends—she was selling miniature chocolate bars and elegant truffles before they became ubiquitous. Her sweets also have a very high-profile admirer: As a lover of salty-sweet desserts, one of President Obama’s favorite indulgences is Fran’s Smoked Salt Caramels ($12)—buttery caramels coated in milk chocolate and sprinkled with smoked sea salt. franschocolates.com
Owner Patricia Tsai is a self-taught chocolatier whose background in the business world taught her how to avoid the pitfalls of running a sustainable food business. Since 2012, Tsai has been sourcing cacao from a small farm in Tabasco, Mexico. At Chocovivo, she roasts and grinds those beans into chocolate using a grinder made in Mexico; she also has an ancient Aztec stone grinder, which is fascinating to watch in action. The shop sells a variety of chocolate products, including hot chocolate mix and chocolate sauce, but Tsai’s single-origin and blended bars (flavored with locally sourced coffee, spices, and essences) have attracted a loyal following. Three years ago, Tsai expanded her operation to include hair and skin products made from natural cacao and cocoa butter. Chocovivo ships nationwide. 12469 W Washington Blvd, Los Angeles, CA
Since 2008, Original Beans has taken the “bean to bar” idea full circle with their “bar to bean” commitment to plant a seedling for every chocolate bar sold. Details of their Grand Cru Blend No. 1 80 percent organic dark chocolate are kept secret, but they claim to use some of the rarest cacaos from South America and Africa. And with only raw cane sugar added, the bars are also vegan.
Zabar’s is as New York as it gets. Whether you’re celebrating Hanukkah, Christmas or New Years, Zabar’s bagels, deli meats, and pastries will put you in a New York state of mind. The Black and Whites are particularly fun to eat. Do you eat one side first then the other, or take an equal bite of both sides down the middle? I haven’t decided yet, so I’ll keep practicing.
This SoHo chocolate shop and store showcases luxurious, single-origin chocolates and confections derived primarily from Criollo cacao beans. Its Signature Ganache Collection features edible works of art, while its rich Hot Chocolate Collection gets a kick from the popularity of its Aztec Hot Chocolate. Cacao Bar, its 15-seat café, offers a sweet respite for patrons to order in coffee, chocolate or a baked goodie.
For those who don't eat animal products (or just prefer to stay away from dairy), these Amore di Mona vegan chocolates make a delicious and thoughtful gift. They're also free from gluten, wheat, soy, and peanuts, and they come in a 24-piece box complete with a bow. Best of all, reviewers say, it's "very high quality chocolate" and they "taste amazing!"
Master chocolatier Christopher Curtin makes incredible salted caramel truffles and bonbons filled with Shiraz-infused ganache at Éclat Chocolate, but his pretzel bar, infused with the flavor of Pennsylvania Dutch pretzels, might be the ultimate salty and sweet chocolate concoction. Shipping options vary, depending upon distance; see order guidelines for details. 24 South High Street, West Chester, PA
Presented in a stunning gold box, and then hand-tied using a two-tone gold and brown ribbon, the GODIVA Chocolatier 19 Count Classic Gold Ballotin will definitely bring a smile to your face. It is exactly what you need this festive season, and it comes in a 7.2-ounce box that contains up to 19 pieces. What’s more, the box has Godiva classics such as Dark Mint Medallion, White Chocolate Demitasse, and Milk Chocolate Embrace, meaning you will have a variety to choose from. The chocolate is produced by Godiva Company, which was established in 1926 and has vast experience.
Milton S. Hershey opened The Hotel Hershey in 1933, on a hill overlooking his chocolate factory. Its architecture was inspired by a hotel he and his wife, Catherine, had visited in the Mediterranean and includes a Spanish-style patio, a decorative fountain and a unique dining room without corners. It has 276 rooms and has been expanded to include event space. Wendy Pramik for USA TODAY
Starting off in 2004 with six flavors of chocolate-dipped toffee, this boutique/factory just outside of downtown L.A. now also produces chocolates, petits fours, preserves, cakes and pastries. Though their line of petits fours rightfully shine with flavors like rose petal, their equally tasty toffees, truffles, mendiants and caramels also make for excellent gifts. Plus, for Valentine’s Day, heart-shaped bittersweet or milk chocolates are available in an assortment of boxes.
Michel Cluizel ($35 for 15 pieces), another favorite from our 2014 review, performed well against the new competition. Everything we said about it before still stands. It’s a very well-made chocolate, and the flavors are pretty safe. These would be a good choice for a person who likes Godiva and is interested in better quality chocolate, but is not yet ready for unorthodox flavors.
Amedei sits just outside Pontedera, where they build those stylish Vespa scooters that make even old Italians look young. Amedei’s factory, a low brick structure, used to be an iron foundry. Alessio and Cecilia met me inside a tasting room, where a table was set with linen tablecloths and silver chargers. Two large jars were prominently displayed; filled with what looked like water, each held a large, red, heart-shaped object. Cecilia wore a severe suit of charcoal gray, a no-nonsense expression, and a red scarf; the factory was cold that day. Alessio’s face was round and rosy, and his rimless eyeglasses made him look more like a graduate student than a chocolate baron.
In addition, boxed chocolates come in several pieces to make sure you have plenty of chocolates at your disposal. Most manufacturers also deliver fast, so you can start enjoying your chocolates only a few days after making the order. Plus boxed chocolates tend to include different varieties of chocolates for optimum satisfaction. To help you identify the best package, we unveil the following guidelines.
Ecuador is home to some of the best cacao beans in the world. Only approximately 5% of cacao in the world is labeled as “Fine Aroma,” and Ecuador produces nearly 63% of it. Until recently, Ecuador focused their efforts on exporting their cacao, but in the last few years, they have turned to producing their own chocolate. One brand, Paraci, has won dozens of international awards in recent years, beating out traditional European chocolate makers.
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.