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The Choco Luxe Guide

The ultimate report on high-end chocolates—from sesame nougat bonbons to burnt-caramel ganaches to spiced hot cocoa.

How to Make the Perfect Cup of Italian Coffee

Food and Drink

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Wine and Spirits

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Imagine that someone asked you to write the definitive guide to the world's best chocolate. Like a bonbon in the sun, the initial euphoria ("Does life get any better than this?") soon melts into something approaching panic ("How could I possibly find it all?"). I thought I knew my stuff, having just returned from a self-guided tour of some of the best chocolatiers in Paris. But I quickly learned that chocolate, like wine, has almost infinite depth and variation, not to mention its own cast of superstars, villains, and rabid fans—a world that's part Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, part Sideways, with a dash of Fitzcarraldo.

Forget about your basic milk, white, and dark distinctions. True experts debate the merits of beans from São Tomé, Madagascar, and even Cuba. When Pierre Marcolini hears of a particularly rare crop, he buys the next five years' production to guarantee an exclusive. And at Christian Constant's Left Bank shop, single-origin bars made with criollo beans sell out immediately. I knew zilch about criollo until a few months ago, including how to pronounce it (cree-oh-yo), but now seek it out like a melting grail.

After months of devouring chocolate bars and bonbons from all over the world, my taste began to change. Originally a lover of sweet dark chocolate, curious about trendy-flavored ganaches, and a fan of anything with a coffee bean on top, I came to crave the dark, pure bars, like Debauve & Gallais's Santo Domingo. My journalistic impulses were also tweaked: The more marketed a product was, the less I tended to like it, preferring the underdogs of the underbrush, people who work with tiny cacao plantations and shun mass production. My hero here is Steve DeVries, a self-taught obsessive who's making chocolate from bean to bar. Also note that I have an anti-Belgian bias (too sweet!). I soon found I agreed with the experts who say that percentages are bunk when it comes to determining quality and that milk chocolate is for kids. White chocolate? Pteu! And for those of you who want to know how much weight I gained, let's just say that I adopted the winetasting technique of swishing the chocolate around the tongue and expectorating—the only option when you're making your way through a pound per day.

It was a wonderful rabbit hole to be led down. Just when I thought I had tasted the most incredible chocolate ever—Pierre Hermé's sesame nougatine, for instance— I would be blown away again by, say, Recchiuti's burnt-caramel ganache. Then I'd taste another heartfelt creation, such as the orange blossom-infused pistoles that were first made by Marie Antoinette's pharmacist for health and libido, and realize that chocolate is endlessly complex: rich, deep, sensual, comforting, childish, confrontational. And much more interesting than the Frango Mints that I grew up hoarding in the freezer during my midwestern childhood.


AMEDEI In the late eighties this Tuscan brother-sister team started making poetic creations with chocolate from rare criollo and trinitario beans (Alessio Tessieri buys exclusively from one plantation; Cecilia Tessieri blends the chocolate at their Pisa workshop). I loved the just-out-there-enough Praline da Meditazione box: candies that hint at licorice, orange groves, and the darkest coffee. The I Cru set features tablets from six countries—a good introduction to the not-so-subtle differences. Order at;

BROOKLYN CHOCOLATE & COCOA A recent recipient of the Master Chocolatier medal, presented by the elite culinary institution Maîtres Cuisiniers de France, Eric Girerd is experimenting with fine chocolate at his workshop in the wilds of Greenpoint, Brooklyn. His La Vanillière has a velvety, almost liquid ganache that blooms with vanilla. Adventurous (though slightly less successful) pairings include Provençal almonds spiced with curry. Order at 718-383-0853;

MICHEL CHAUDUN At his fusty-looking shop deep in Paris's Seventh, Chaudun—the unsung hero of French chocolate—is happy to make beautiful chocolate without all the fanfare and wasabi ganache. His chocolate bars are revelatory. Exceptional ganaches include the vanilla-drenched Bahia, the basil-tinged San Yago, and the peppery Sarawak. But my favorite here is the Cameta, a nougatine praliné covered in spiny, chocolate-dipped nuts. Purchase at Michel Chaudun, 149 Rue de l'Université, Paris; 33-1/47-53-74-40.

CHOCOLATS GENEVIEVE GRANDBOIS This Canadian contender takes a fearless, modern tack, making CD-like disks flavored with Espelette pepper, fleur de sel, or gianduja—instead of traditional bars and by using the insider favorite Amedei Chuao chocolate as the base for ganaches flavored with black truffle, balsamic vinegar, or tobacco from Monte Cristo cigars. Purchase at Chocolats Geneviève Grandbois, 162 Rue St.-Viateur Ouest, Montreal; 514-394-1000;

MICHEL CLUIZEL Since 1948 this family-run French company has sought out beans from the world's best plantations. I recommend nibbling your way through chocolatier Michel Cluizel's favorites, assembled in the Premiers Crus de Plantation set, which includes squares from Santo Domingo, Venezuela, Papua New Guinea, Madagascar, and São Tomé. Order at;

CHRISTIAN CONSTANT This lab-white temple in Paris carries a near-ideal selection of chocolate, ice cream, and food-to-go. The bonbons, all made with the highly coveted criollo bean, are flavored with the herbs and flowers found along the chocolate route (similar to the Spice Route, but from the Indian Ocean up to Arabia). Cinnamon, cardamom, vetiver, vanilla, and ylang-ylang delicately perfume Constant's masterful ganaches, which are at once creamy and firm. My tasting notes include a lot of "perfect!"s (rose and Corinthian raisins, orange blossom), a few "gorgeous"es (Yemeni jasmine and green tea, Chinese ginger) and a "holy cow" (coffee). Purchase at Christian Constant, 37 Rue d'Assas, Paris; 33-1/53-63-15-15.

DEBAUVE & GALLAIS The chocolatier of kings and great artists since 1800, Debauve & Gallais is rich in more than just history and motto (Horace's Utile dulci, or sweet utility). While the bonbons skewed too 16ème-arrondissement grandmère for my taste (with the exception of the whimsical Tarte Tatin and the spiky Oursin), there were a few revelations, including the Pistoles de Marie Antoinette: snap-thin discs of dark chocolate delicately perfumed with orange-flower water. Beautiful. The dark chocolate-covered pistachios and hazelnuts rank up there among the world's better ideas, and the single-origin bars are bliss, especially the sweetly nutty São Tomé and the bright, fruity Santo Domingo—all of which I plan to stash in my desk drawer for years to come. Order at 212-734-8880;

DEVRIES CHOCOLATE Steve DeVries does everything but pick the beans himself—making artisanal chocolates following pre-mass production processes. "The industrialization of chocolate has been great for the factories and retailers but not for your mouth," he says. "You don't see French bakers being asked to make croissants that can sit on the shelf for six months." The result is a heartbreakingly beautiful chocolate with a whole lot of soul. Order at 303-296-1661;

DOLFIN Beautiful bars from Belgium. I love the tobacco pouch packaging—and Dolfin's use of spices and fruit (green aniseed, lemon peel, masala). My favorite is the dark chocolate with pink peppercorn. It has the sweet-spicy nose and bright, almost floral flavor of the berry, but it never turns on you. Order at;

DOMORI This Genovese company makes the Italian starlet of chocolate: moody, intense, challenging. The Cru & Blend box takes you through Domori's favorite blends and beans, such as the fruity, tobacco-tinged Sur del Lago. Other bars include the Cabernetlike complexity of Porcelana and the super-macho Puro. One-hundred percent bean, no sugar. Pow, right to the moon! Order at

DONNELLY The rose- and crown-shaped sweets and foil-wrapped truffles might look like they came from your grandmother's sampler, but Santa Cruz-based Richard Donnelly is clearly a modern fondeur creating playfully clever chocolates with true-flavored fillings. Knee-weakening cardamom kicks out of a silky, dark ganache. Genius macadamia caramel laced with vanilla and honey exploded onto my keyboard. Milk chocolate and peanut butter form the ultimate Reese's peanut butter cup. Order at 888-685-1871;

CHRISTOPHER ELBOW This just in: Great chocolates from Kansas City! While designed to within an inch of their life these shiny, hand-painted gems feature well-balanced flavors—fresh, strong rosemary caramel; warm Vietnamese cinnamon; Champagne flecked with shimmering gold. Order at 816-842-1300;

FRAN'S CHOCOLATES Based in Seattle, Fran's offers classic American chocolates with a tasteful wink. A lavender linen gift box tied with a lilac satin bow is filled with straightforward bonbons, their crackling dark couverture (a thin coating) surrounding such subtly flavored ganaches as oolong tea, espresso, and single-malt whiskey—exactly what you want to eat while sprawled on the recamier. But the best offering here is the pure butter caramels, hand-dipped in dark chocolate. Help! Order at 800-422-3726;

GEARHARTS Next May, get in the Kentucky Derby mood with giant handmade mint julep squares from this Charlottesville, Virginia, confectioner: They're the real thing. Order at 434-972-9100;

GODIVA When the new Platinum Collection from the Campbell's Soup-owned company landed on my desk, I let out a groan. But...if Lamousse, Mokalata, and Razabelle float your cocoa boat, by all means indulge. Order at 800-946-3482;

GRENADA CHOCOLATE A solar-powered cooperative in the Caribbean that assembles accomplished organic bars that are a vanilla-boosted balance between fruity and strong, with a tobacco finish. The limited-edition Hurricane Ivan bar, made in conjunction with London's Rococo Chocolates, consists of beans that were in production when the storm hit the island in 2004. Order at;

E. GUITTARD Since 1868 this Bay Area family has been crafting chocolate in the French tradition. Today they produce some very fine bars and couverture (one of the reasons that inexpensive See's Candies are such a good value is because the company purchases couverture from E. Guittard). I like the rounded fruitiness of the Ambanja bar from Madagascar and the spicy finish of the Chucuri from Colombia. Order at 800-468-2462;

PIERRE HERME Whenever I wait in line for macaroons and a deux-mille feuille at his Paris shops, I try yet another of Hermé's seasonal offerings, like a mind-boggling ganache made toothsome with sesame seeds, or dark chocolate-covered strips of candied ginger. Though his heart is clearly in the pastries, his mind keeps whipping up some worthwhile chocolates. Purchase at Pierre Hermé stores in Paris; 33-1/43-54-47-77; for locations.

JEAN-PAUL HEVIN At first I wasn't bowled over by Hévin. Maybe it was the number of shops he has in Paris (four handsome boutiques) and Japan (four and counting), or the fact that he introduces annual themes like a fashion designer; one cult hit is Epoisses—the famously stinky cheese. But that was at the beginning of my tastings. Later a box arrived that changed my tune. Light yet rich, with a depth of cocoa flavor that isn't upstaged by his subtle parfums, these are the real deal. Particularly good are the meltingly soft ganaches in the lightly honeyed Carupana, the quiet ginger Zenzero, the midnight-dark vanilla Taha, and the Carbonado praliné, which gets its textural intrigue from nougatine and almonds. Purchase at Paris and Tokyo stores; for locations.

JIN PATISSERIE The Singapore-born owner of this zen-sleek Venice, California, teahouse and bakery also makes very pretty chocolates. Red-Leaf Caramel Clove, Black Roasted Sesame, and Thé du Hammam are fine new discoveries. Order at 310-399-8801;

JOHN & KIRA'S One day I had the great luck to have chocolate expert Chloé Doutre-Roussel help me taste. While she said the homespun appearance of these chocolates—made by a Philadelphia couple intent on using sustainably grown local ingredients—was unacceptable, she gave their snappy Valrhona couverture and fresh flavorings (mint from a local elementary school garden; a whisper of anise, lavender honey, or ginger) one pleased eyebrow up. Order at 800-747-4808;

KNIPSCHILDT CHOCOLATIER Former celebrity chef Fritz Knipschildt (he counts Ben Stiller among his tasters) has returned to his first love: chocolate. His ganaches, named for women (I went for Elizabeth, "passionate lady with gingerly appearance"; no comment), and Valrhona-based truffles are perfectly swell, but let me say this: dark chocolate-covered cornflakes. Give this man the Nobel Peace Prize. Order at 203-849-3141;

L. A. BURDICK Larry Burdick's chocolates, handmade in New Hampshire, are elegant and thoughtful, with muted bells and whistles like saffron and clove. Favorites include the Richelieu—my fantasy Raisinette, filled with cherry liqueur, cumin seeds, and dried cherries—and the honest Honey Caramel Truffle. The signature Mice are cute, but I'll take his Fig and Earl Grey bonbons any time. Order at 800-229-2419;

LA MAISON DU CHOCOLAT Founder Robert Linxe may have sold the company to Bongrain (which also owns Valrhona) in the nineties, but the (chocolate) bar remains high at the worldwide boutiques. Linxe's unending curiosity and passionate involvement are evident in such inventions as the Zagora—a ganache inspired by a visit to Marrakech that tastes like the ideal Moroccan mint tea. Seasonal offerings, like a fresh peach truffle, are ripe and true. LMDC's salty, sweet caramel was one of the best I tried, as was the Rigoletto: caramelized-butter mousse (!) with milk-chocolate coating. And of course there are the truffles, which are best super-fresh. Several shipments go out each week, so I say befriend a salesperson and become privy to the exact arrival days. Order at 212-744-7117;

LABORATORIO DON PUGLISI In Modica, Sicily, chocolate is still made in the Aztec style—that is, sandy with sugar and a tad rough-hewn—a taste that takes just seconds to acquire. This laboratorio dolciario has a more nuanced touch, using flavorings like bergamot and Carruba over the blaring chiles favored by other houses. Even the butcher-paper wrapper is folded and taped by hand. Available at select stores, call Cheese Works at 973-962-1202 for details;

L'ARTISAN DU CHOCOLAT British superstar chef Gordon Ramsay calls this family-run London boutique the Bentley of Chocolate. The House Tea chocolate, printed with roses, blooms with the flavor of orange blossom. A pairing of tannic red wine gelée and chocolate ganache is a fun dinner-party gimmick. But LDC could survive entirely on its Liquid Salted Caramel Balls. They resemble cocoa-dusted truffles but snap into explosive, addictive goodness. Even after months of pacing myself, I downed several of these in rapid succession and got, appropriately, a stomachache. Purchase at L'Artisan du Chocolat, 89 Lower Sloane St., London; 44-207/824-8365;

PIERRE MARCOLINI In calling him a Belgian making French chocolate, Pierre Hermé gave this chocolatemaker a high compliment. Marcolini even puts out seasonal collections, inspired by the fashion calendar. With the exception of the true-tasting Cannelle (cinnamon), Verveine, and Earl Grey ganaches, I found most of his bonbons too sweet, though I did fall for his single-origin bars (Java is one) as well as his ice creams and hot chocolate. Order at 212-755-5150;

CHRISTOPHER NORMAN I'd love to know what visitors to the Norman "gallery" in Manhattan's financial district think of these whimsical/pretentious ganaches, seasonal flavors like grapefruit-pink peppercorn and brown butter-pear. While not a fan of the gritty ganaches, I do like the bars (especially Mocha Dot and Blood Orange) and am planning a dinner party around a dessert of the figural specialty items, from a chocolate pyramid to a perfect cup of cappuccino. Order at 212-402-1243;

PRALUS Cited as a favorite of true chocophiles, chocolatier François Pralus makes single-origin bars that can be a challenge to those new to dark chocolate because of their more astringent, woody flavors. Colombie is a great place to start, with its toasty sweetness and raisin undertones. Order at

PUCCINI BOMBONI When I lived in Amsterdam, I had a small sideline smuggling these chocolates to American friends. The three spare, sophisticated shops (two in Amsterdam, one in Haarlem) sell fresh confections with flavors like gin, tamarind, fig, and lemongrass, but it's the chocolate-crunch caramels that now have me making smugglers out of friends. Purchase at Netherlands shops; 31-20/626-5474; for locations.

RECCHIUTI At the moment, the Bay Area is the epicenter of exciting chocolate. Michael Recchiuti is undoubtedly one of the quiet masters. His burnt caramel is one of my top 10: an intense ganache made from a blend of smoky-sweet caramel and 70 percent bittersweet chocolate. His crunchy sesame is another stunner with its earthy depth and addictive texture, and L'Harmonie Varietal palet d'or lingers on the tongue. Grapefruit tarragon is a leap of faith...but worth it. Order at 800-500-3396;

ROCOCO This lovely London pioneer, opened by Chantal Coady (formerly of the Chocolate Society and now of the Academy of Chocolate), tweaks the traditional and travels far beyond. The chocolate truffles are big enough to drown in, the artfully boxed bars beyond pretty—each marked with a bee and flavored with things like bitter orange and geranium; the house bonbons are a smidge naughty, from Nipples of Venus to Islay Scotch. Purchase at Rococo, 321 Kings Rd., London; 44-207/352-5857;

ENRIC ROVIRA Spain is returning to the chocolate game. Barcelona-based Rovira's thematic collections are focused more on Starck-modern packaging and overthought flavors than on quality, but they're certainly fun—more for showing off than for stashing. Imagine—as in John Lennon—comes with a CD; Planetarium includes a chocolate called Plutón (a genius take on the Spanish bar snack of fried salted corn); and La Vuelta al Mundo features candies based on the five continents (I liked Asia: crisped rice dipped in dark chocolate). Purchase at Enric Rovira, 113 Josep Tarradellas, Barcelona; 34-93/419-2547;

SAHAGUN Using seasonal local ingredients like rose-geranium leaves and marionberries, Portland, Oregon-based Sahagún produces confections that would make Alice Waters proud. Three favorites: a slab of chocolate, toasted almonds, and bergamot peel; the sneakily spicy Pepitapapá (toasted pumpkinseeds with jalapeño and dark chocolate); and the sheer delirium of a bittersweet thimble filled with take-no-prisoners caramel. Owner Elizabeth Montes used to sell only at the farmers' market; she now has a tiny storefront. Purchase at Sahagún, 10 N.W. 16th Ave., Portland; 503-274-7065;

SCHARFFEN BERGER In less than a decade this Berkeley company has become a national player, with offerings from bars to roasted cocoa nibs to scented candles. The 62 percent semisweet Mocha bar with ground coffee is my desk-drawer staple; in an informal blind taste test of pavés that I cohosted last year, it ranked near the top. The truffles are getting there, with substantial ganache and additions like star anise and cocoa nibs and caramelized sugar. Now that the business has been bought by Hershey, we'll see if the quality remains high. Order at 800-930-4528;

TEUSCHER Known for its killer Champagne truffles. If you hit the New York boutiques just right, you'll catch the weekly shipment from Zurich, guaranteeing the meltingly delicate, almost frostinglike ganache, dusted in cocoa powder. The Champagne adds an extra kick. Those who venture beyond this showpiece will find playful nonpareils (think four-star Sno-Caps) and a sinful hazelnut-crunch orb filled with ganache. Good lord. Order at 800-554-0624;

JACQUES TORRES The former Le Cirque pastry chef may be the king of New York chocolate when it comes to press, but I think the product itself is mixed. The coating has a pleasingly aggressive flavor, but the ganaches fall flat, lacking the cloudlike creaminess that is the mark of freshness. Flavors tend toward Grand Marnier, Alizé, and raspberry. Standouts include the Fonseca Bin 27 port and a buzzy espresso. Try the Brooklyn outpost for impressive hot chocolate. Order at 718-875-9772;

VALRHONA This French company provides much of the chocolate that fondeurs melt into their own creations (or chocolate pudding cakes). Every chocolate connoisseur I spoke to mentioned that its fruity Manjari bar would be on his or her desert-island list. Who am I to disagree? Order at;

VOSGES HAUT CHOCOLAT The fashion model of the lot: pretty and playful though ultimately one-dimensional. The zingy violet box is certainly seductive, but after reading through all the puns and exclamation points in the descriptions ("We invite you to cavort with the gods!"), I was exhausted. Flavor combinations—such as wasabi, ginger, and black sesame; curry and coconut; and Tellicherry peppercorns—could be less sweet and more challenging. Order at 888-301-9866;

*Offerings and prices change frequently; contact stores for information.


The Heart of Darkness


ROCOCO London chocolatier Chantal Coady hosts classes on "how to make chocolate behave" and "indulgent days out to the chocolate factory." "It's not too much like school," she promises. 44-207/352-5857

CHOCOTRAVELS This Italian company arranges trips to cacao plantations in Brazil, Mexico, and Venezuela, and to factories in Vienna and Hershey, Pennsylvania. Journeys to Italy combine the flavors and architecture of Sicily and Tuscany.

CHOCOLATE WALKS David Lebovitz, the celebrated cookbook author (The Great Book of Chocolate) and former Chez Panisse pastry chef, leads tours through the best chocolate Paris has to offer, from pastries to palets d'or. 415-367-3539

DEBAUVE & GALLAIS This boutique on New York's Upper East Side has a secret upstairs parlor, which you can rent for private chocolate-tastings and hot-chocolate parties. 212-734-8880

FORTNUM & MASON The venerable London shop had the smarts to hire chocolate expert Chloé Doutre-Roussel. She leads regular tasting classes to help you discover "a new chocolate world."

MORT ROSENBLUM Next May the affable author of Chocolate: A Bittersweet Saga of Dark and Light is cohosting a weeklong tour of Paris with David Lebovitz (see "Chocolate Walks," above). Spend the morning making a batch with the elusive master Jacques Genin, attend a private tasting at La Maison du Chocolat, and sip Kirs on Rosenblum's houseboat, which is docked on the Seine. 415-367-3539

SCHARFFEN BERGER Become an expert chocophile on a seven-night Radisson Seven Seas Voyager cruise with cofounder John Scharffenberger and the pastry chef from the Plaza Athénée (December 5-12; 877-505-5370). Landlocked? Book a private tour to watch how they work, from bean to bar, at the Scharffen Berger factory. 510-981-4066


Bored with familiar pairings, some chocolatiers are rummaging through the pantry in search of the next big ganache. Jean-Paul Hévin, for one, offers a sampler of chocolates combining Epoisses and cumin, Pont-L'Evêque with thyme, Roquefort with walnut, and goat cheese with hazelnut. Quel fromage!


Chocolatemakers spend almost as much time agonizing over their chocolate boxes as they do their bonbons. Our favorite was Pralus's minimalist presentation of its Pyramide des Tropiques.


MarieBelle Best of the spicy Aztec-style blends. 866-925-8800

Scharffen Berger Nuanced and not as sweet as typical brews. 800-930-4528

Schokinag Drinking Chocolate Nicely old-fashioned drink based on a 17th-century recipe. 866-972-6879


Eric Ripert | chef, Le Bernardin
"Every two weeks, I pick up a box at La Maison du Chocolat—I especially like the rochers—and eat it in Central Park while I walk to work in the morning. I also like the premier cru dark chocolates from Valrhona and Michel Cluizel, which I get at the grocery store."

Alan Richman | food writer
"I like See's Candies [from San Francisco]. They're huge—not little wussy designer chocolates. It's a great middle-class product. I also like chocolate that's sold in any crumbling store run by old ladies. You know it's fresh and they're making it."

Alice Waters | founder, Chez Panisse
"I love that Scharffen Berger works with Slow Food to make a rich, earthy, elemental single-varietal chocolate. It is not yet widely distributed, but we served it at the Chez Panisse Café's 25th anniversary. It's produced by sustainable and organic methods, using nacional cacao, a descendant of the cacao trees originally cultivated by the Mayans and found only in Ecuador."

Pierre Hermé | pastry chef
"Daim, a hard and lightly salted caramel covered with milk chocolate; the crusted liqueur chocolate bar from the Swiss company Villars; Absolument Praliné from our production: It's an almond praliné with toasted and salted corn enrobed with dark or milk chocolate, based on the salted and roasted corn served with aperitifs in Spain."


Three international salons to diet for:

CHOCOLATE FESTIVAL Britain's finest come together for a weeklong exhibition that runs from October 31 to November 6.

EUROCHOCOLATE A chocoparty in Perugia, Italy, October 15 to 23.

SALON DU CHOCOLAT The biggie, featuring exhibitors, demonstrations, and a chocolate fashion show: Paris (October 22-25), New York (November 10-13), and Tokyo (late January 2006).


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