People who want chocolate a cut above the stuff found near grocery store checkout lines have plenty of big-name national brands to choose from.
But connoisseurs know the only way to get truly fine chocolate is to find a local chocolatier.
In the Baltimore area, there are a number of chocolatiers making confections the old-fashioned way — by hand.
There's the Velvet Chocolatier, a tiny shop riding high after a recent shout-out by O, The Oprah Magazine. There's Cacao Lorenzo, run by a man who prides himself on upholding meticulous European chocolate-making techniques. And there's the maker of Izzy's, who only recently started making Peruvian-style chocolates, but they've already earned a spot in the Whole Foods specialty section.
You won't find these chocolates in the two for $5 rack at the discount store. But you'll also be getting something handmade by people who consider their work an art — a delicate, perishable object of art that's meant to be savored, not saved.
The Velvet Chocolatier
Chocolatier: Ruthie Carliner
Contact: 10403 Stevenson Road, Suite B, Stevenson, 410-365-9883, http://www.thevelvetchocolatier.com
House favorite: The Cashew Chew, toasted cashews mixed with soft vanilla caramel, salt, and dipped in dark chocolate.
In barely two years as a chocolatier, Ruthie Carliner, a former auto sales executive, has achieved what many longtime food-makers only dream of. She's opened a boutique in Stevenson Village, captured a spot on the shelves at Whole Foods and — most notably — scored a mention in this autumn's "favorite things" issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.
Since the magazine's editors sung the praises of the Velvet Chocolatier's dark chocolate caramel cups, petite confections, oozing with soft caramel that is set off with a touch of sea salt, Carliner has been happily swimming in orders — some from as far away as Israel and China.
"It is insane," says Carliner, a mother of three from Owings Mills. "It is just crazy."
Carliner spent nearly her entire career in the car business, first working for her father's dealership, Penn Pontiac GMC in Dundalk, and then taking it over when he died.
When she sold the business in 2007, she didn't have to work but wanted to.
"My husband," she says, "was like, 'Do something fun — what do you want to do?'"
Play with chocolate, as it turns out.
After taking a few short courses, reading a number of books and, as she puts it, "practicing, practicing, practicing" in her kitchen, she opened The Velvet Chocolatier in May 2010, choosing a spot in Stevenson amid boutiques selling clothing, home goods and gifts.
Entering The Velvet Chocolatier, one doesn't walk into a shop but steps right into Carliner's kitchen, where at any given time there might be a vat of milk chocolate melting or truffles being rolled.
She offers a tightly edited selection of truffles, enrobed chocolates, bark and discs, which are like personal-sized pieces of bark. All of it is kosher and all includes as many American ingredients as possible.
Carliner is proud that not one of her chocolates has an ingredient list of more than a few words.
"How can you be a purist and have all these ingredients?" she says. "I wanted to make it as simple as possible."
That simplicity carries over to The Velvet Chocolatier's packaging. The thick brown paper bags and boxes accented with velvet ribbon exude a feeling of homespun elegance. Each box says "Handcrafted in Baltimore."
Carliner's truffle menu is simple and straightforward, with flavors including cinnamon, honey milk chocolate and coffee. She blends her white, dark and milk chocolate barks with pumpkin seeds, organic blueberries and pistachios.
Yet lately, thanks to Oprah, it's all about the caramel cups. Even actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus sampled them at the recent Baltimore wrap party for her HBO show, "Veep."
Chocolatier: Larry McGlinchey
Contact: 1818 Pot Spring Road, No. 20, Lutherville-Timonium, 410-453-9334, http://www.cacaolorenzo.com
House favorite: Basque squares, port-wine soaked figs with milk chocolate butter ganache enrobed in chocolate.
For someone in such a smooth and sweet profession, Larry McGlinchey's composure melts faster than a truffle in July when confronted with misconceptions about his beloved medium.
He scoffs at dark-chocolate snobs, the sort who won't deign to consume chocolate with a cocoa content below a certain percentage.
He simmers when folks wave off white chocolate — when he's all but certain they've tried only the American kind, the stuff he says tastes like "sweet wax."
The term "chocoholic"? He despises it.
It's hard being one of the last of the old-school European-style chocolatiers. McGlinchey painstakingly produces small-craft chocolate in a mass-produced world, carrying on time-honored traditions even as folks fall for the latest foodie trends and dietary news flashes.
"Europeans do this really weird thing with chocolate," he likes to say. "They eat it. Americans treat a chocolatier like a gift shop. They buy it to give away."
McGlinchey, who's 59, has been making artisan chocolate from a shop in Timonium for nearly seven years. He diverged into the profession several years before that, leaving a longtime career in medical equipment sales.
He'll walk to work and spend the entire day crafting one type of bonbon. Recently, he devoted most of a Thursday to his white chocolate chardons, little rough-edged snowballs filled with poire William white truffle cream. Each chardon requires time, attention and six separate steps — making the ganache, filling each shell, leveling the filling, capping it off, dipping it in more chocolate and, finally, hand-rolling it to achieve the signature spiked coating. A whole day of work, all to disappear on someone's tongue in a matter of seconds.
In the front of his Timonium shop, McGlinchey displays his "galerie" mixed box, like something in a museum. The box tilts back on an easel for customers to admire. His biggest seller, the galerie is filled with about eight types of enrobed chocolates. There's the lavender flower with dark chocolate surrounding a lavender-infused ganache, the Basque square with port wine-soaked figs in a milk chocolate butter ganache and, McGlinchey's creation, the "India," with cinnamon, anise, fennel, ginger and clove.
While some chocolatiers angle to get their work into area gourmet stores, McGlinchey refuses, saying his perishable confections should ideally be eaten in a week, not languishing on a grocery shelf.
"You can't make fine chocolate en masse; you just can't do it," he says. "We're the last of a dying breed."
Chocolatier: Debora Varon
Contact: No bricks-and-mortar shop, but available online and at area Whole Foods and Fresh Market stores and Ma Petite Shoe in Hampden, http://www.izzyschocolate.com
House favorite: A tie between the apricot, coconut and cherry flavors
Born and raised in Peru, Debora Varon came to the United States in 1985 to get a master's degree in food science and horticulture, and stayed to get a doctorate in genetics. But after nearly a decade in breast cancer research, she knew her heart wasn't in it and left.
"I knew I spent all of this time [becoming a scientist], but I had to ask myself — do I want to spend any more time here?" She was brave enough to admit to herself that the answer was no.
After experimenting with everything from computer graphics to being a collection agent, Varon, at 50, is now fairly certain her calling all this time was hiding beneath a candy shell.
"I was really searching for something," she says. "Every day I go home now, and I'm happy."
Varon has waded slowly into the chocolate business. She makes her candies by hand, renting kitchen time a few days a week from a church on Harford Road that's not far from her home in Arcadia.
Izzy's makes just one type of chocolate, Varon's spin on a traditional Peruvian delicacy called "tejas," which means roof tiles in Spanish.
Tejas are typically a mixture of fruit, nuts and dulce de leche, often covered in fondant. Varon covers hers in a bittersweet Belgian chocolate and has gotten creative with the fruit fillings.
People in Peru enjoy the candies filled with plums, raisins, apricots and coconut, and Varon makes some of those. But she also focuses on cranberries, mango, pineapple, cherries, figs and dates. And while Peruvians often try to cut the cost of the tejas by going heavy on dulce de leche, Varon loads hers with fruit — each one is filled with a heaping spoonful of it, resulting in a piece of chocolate double the size of what one would typically find.
She realized she might have a future in chocolate after her mother came for a visit a few years ago and the two of them decided to try to make the candies. She gave the results out to friends, word spread, and soon people were offering to buy them. She named the fledgling business after her daughter.
Very recently, Whole Foods told her they'd sell Izzy's in their specialty food department.
Someday soon she'd like to expand the business. For now, however, Varon makes the candy entirely by herself, in very small batches — only about 300 pieces a day. She wraps each piece by hand in her signature foil-and-tissue packaging.