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Come Valentine's Day, resist the urge to reach for the standard-issue, cellophane-wrapped heart full of ordinary chocolates and treat the object of your desire with something truly precious: gourmet chocolate. For this endeavor, strike the word "milk" from your mind and replace it with another: cacao.

The cacao is an evergreen native to South America with rare flowers that turn into large pods, with a sweet, buttery pulp that contains dozens of beans. The beans were first enjoyed in a spicy bitter beverage, and historically they were prized for their medicinal properties and even used as currency. Today they are dried, roasted and made into chocolate by adding sugar and cocoa butter.

Fine chocolate is not smothered in sugar, but a complex bittersweet creation that hits you in the center of the tongue. A bite of 71 percent cocoa Valrhona, the French standard of dark chocolate, has floral notes, a slight and pleasant bitterness, and an espresso coffee taste that lingers delightfully on the palate. A 3.5-ounce bar retails for around $4.50 in the New York City area.

Valrhona was created in 1924 by a Rhone pasty chef. Ardent students of Valrhona can immerse themselves in chocolate school, held twice a year in France.

For an American taste, look to John Scharffenberger. Scharffenberger, a talent from the sparkling wine world, joined his friend Robert Steinberg to create Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker of Berkeley, California. The company makes a delicious bar with 82 percent cacao, using beans from Venezuela, Ghana, Madagascar, the Caribbean and Indonesia. (Prices are similar to Valrhona.) The company opened its first New York store in November, at 473 Amsterdam Avenue.

When a bar simply won't suffice, Parisian chocolatier Richart has collections elegant chocolates filled with nuts, fruit and some exotic fillings, such as curry. Atop the box is a custom-inscribed message on a flat piece of chocolate, sure to melt the iciest of hearts.

The award-winning Jean-Philippe Maury, who in 1997 won the accolade of best pastry chef in France, has brought his talents to Las Vegas. His Jean-Philippe Patisserie was set to open in the Bellagio hotel in December 2004. His decadent chocolates look like miniature pieces of art that seem a shame to eat.

And no chocolate shopping experience would be complete without a stop at one of the nine boutiques of La Maison du Chocolat, which has sold the finest of chocolates since 1977. There are stores in Paris, London, New York and Tokyo. A half-pound box of dark chocolates retails for $39.

Your Valentine will surely reward your finding such pleasures. Of course, you needn't wait for Valentine's Day to give these rich chocolates as a gift—or to enjoy them on your own.

Visit www.lamaisonduchocolat.com,www.valrhona.com, www.scharffenberger.com and www.richart-chocolates.com.

Good Life Guide Gourmet

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