Of humankind’s many vices, chocolate is certainly the most delicious, if not the oldest. To the ancient Mayans of Central and South America, the cacao plant symbolized life and fertility, and they valued chocolate so highly that they often used the beans as currency. Later the Aztec believed that cacao inspired wisdom and power, which is why emperor Montezuma drank bitter, liquid chocolate—and why the plant’s scientific name, Theobroma cacao, literally means “food of the gods” in Greek.
Fast-forward thousands of years and chocolate is still considered nutritious and indulgently inspirational to people on almost every continent. The global demand for cacao forms the economic backbone of countries from Africa through the Amazon, but with that demand has come the mass production and inherent dilution—both in flavor and price—of this once-prized food.
Enter the recent luxury chocolate movement, whose champions do more than wrap Swiss or Belgian confections in expensive paper. Most of these chocolatiers emphasize a bean-to-bar philosophy, which includes hand-selecting cacao beans—often organic and sourced fairly or directly—then roasting them in-house and crafting small batches of single-origin chocolate bars, truffles and beverages.
If it sounds similar to microbrewing or Scotch distillation, it is. Just ask Jacques Torres, who has been doing this for more than a decade at his New York factories. He, like Theo Chocolates in Seattle and San Francisco’s TCHO, believes that making chocolate is a personal, creative process, demonstrated by unique flavor profiles (which include, respectively, fig, fennel and dark citrus).
And what better way to educate the public on this art form than by providing behind-the-scenes perspective. By inviting visitors to watch the painstaking process of roasting beans, tempering ganache and painting truffles, these chocolatiers’ tours are worthy stops for culinary travelers seeking intimate experiences (and, possibly, investment opportunities in eco-friendly companies). Some, like Lake Champlain Chocolates in Burlington, Vermont, and Askinosie in Springfield, Missouri, even donate proceeds from their tours to local environmental programs. But all of them sweeten the educational messages with plenty of samples. Taste away.