Heart-shaped boxes and lacey trimmings won't win a chocoholic's love anymore. This Valentine's Day true cocoa gourmets operate on a level of bonbon appreciation that's every bit as discriminating as wine connoisseurship.
If you taste hints of spice in that dark chocolate, it may well be from the rare criollo cocoa bean grown on Madagascar's Mangaro plantation. Hints of fruit may appear in chocolate from Los Ancones in the Dominican Republic. Papua New Guinea's Maralumi estate chocolate could exhibit a slightly smoky taste.
The Parisian chocolatier Michel Cluizel (www.chocolatmichelcluizel.com), a third-generation family business, buys directly from the growers in equatorial countries. Jacques Dahan, president of Cluizel's U.S. operation, notes the parallel with château-produced wines: "There are two harvests each year, in autumn and in February. We blend the beans from the harvests on a single plantation." Cluizel's labels each 1er Cru de Plantation bar with the name of the beans' estate origin.
Cluizel's Noir Infini is truly unusual , with beans from Central America, Africa and the Pacific. Sage Friedman, chocolate sommelier at Cluizel's New York boutique, says that those with a sweet tooth will find Infini startlingly different. Its "dryness" compares to "crunching a cocoa bean." Friedman pairs this chocolate with Tequila, which tastes sweet by comparison.
Last year's launch of Cacao Reserve (www.cacaoreserve.com) by Hershey proved that gourmet isn't only for boutique chocolatiers. Slow roasting was the secret of the first line. Now its Single Origin Collection highlights the world's best cacao sources.
Tad Van Leer of J. Emanuel Chocolatier (www.jemanuel.com) is both a wine and chocolate aficionado. Five years ago, he huddled with Napa winemakers and began to "play in the kitchen." The result: Bacchus Wine Truffles. Van Leer infuses the confection's creamy center with reds and whites. "Dark chocolate best captures the berry flavors found in reds," notes Van Leer. "A Champagne or Chardonnay's creamy malolactic goes well with milk chocolate. Van Leer chooses his pairings with care, and labels truffles by flavor: Trefethen Cabernet 2003, Merryvale Chardonnay 2002, etc.
Marie Belle New York (www.mariebelle.com) has embarked on a program of liquor pairing, marrying its chocolate confections to specific top selections of Hennessy Cognac. Pick your passion.
The four varieties of Berkshire Bark (www.berkshirebark.com) bars—two dark, one milk and one white—invite crumbling, though chocolatier Kevin Schmitz keeps whole the nuts he blends into the Belgian chocolate: "As you chew, different layers of flavor emerge." Schmitz recommends pairing Port with Midnight Harvest bark (almonds, hazelnuts and cranberries) and brandy with Tropical Heat (mango, papaya, macadamia nuts and Ancho chile powder). He notes, "The crumbs go really well over ice cream."