The French are famous romantics. They also have some of the best chocolate in the world. So when Patisserie Poupon makes chocolate candy, it can inspire a love affair -- at least a love affair with chocolates.
Frenchman Joseph Poupon and his wife, Ruth, own the Baltimore pastry shop. Ms. Poupon laughs when she remembers the scene at their shop last Valentine's Day. "We had a steady stream of men through here. The ones whose wives frequent our shop all had the same request. They said, 'give me the biggest heart you have,' " she says.
Valentine's Day is Patisserie Poupon's single biggest day for selling chocolates, just as it is for Baltimore's many other makers of handcrafted candies. The Christmas and Easter holidays send those with sweet tooths out to buy candy in droves for several weeks, but Valentine's Day candy is primarily a one-day affair.
The confection of choice for Valentine's Day customers is creamy centers coated with chocolates, such as truffles, cordial cherries, butter creams or other bonbons. Beautiful containers seem to be almost as important as the chocolates inside.
It's not surprising that chocolate is so popular for Valentine's Day. Chocolate has been associated with romance since it was introduced to Europeans by the Aztecs, who believed it was an aphrodisiac.
"Chocolates send the message of love like no other, especially with women," says Jim Ross, one of the original founders of Naron Candy Co.
And it's possible that the message could be rooted in science. Chocolate boosts serotonin levels in the brain, which in turn creates a feeling of calmness and pleasure, according to the folks at the Chocolate Manufacturers Association.
Could that explain chocolate cravings?
Baltimore is a convenient place to have a craving, with at least nine chocolatiers practicing their craft here.
Most of Baltimore's candy makers are family-run operations, and have been around for years. "We were once one of the two hubs of candy manufacturing, along with Philadelphia," says Mr. Ross, who co-founded Naron Candy in 1945. He says Pratt Street was once known as "Glucose Alley," but many of the candy companies that lined the street either went out of business or were absorbed into larger ones.
The newer arrivals, European-style chocolatiers, like Patisserie Poupon, and Kirchmayr Chocolatier, are at the high end of the price spectrum. But even with a starting price of $23 to $24 per pound, their morsels go quickly. Both chocolatiers use expensive ingredients such as fresh cream, imported hazelnut pastes and European-processed chocolate, which almost always has a higher percentage of cocoa than American chocolates do. The candy makers create their treats to be eaten within a few days or weeks, and they are generally sold in one-pound containers or smaller amounts.
"It doesn't spoil, but the flavors evaporate. You cannot preserve the freshness for a long time," says Albert Kirchmayr, whose shop on Charles Street has a banner that reads, "Chocolatiers Age Well -- Chocolate Doesn't."
The more traditional Baltimore candy makers, such as Glauber's, Log Cabin, Moore's, Naron, Rheb, and Wockenfuss tend to use American-processed chocolate, more sugar and lots of fresh butter. Their chocolates will remain fresh for up to several months, because butter is not as perishable as cream. Their bonbons cost $10 per pound or less, and are often sold in amounts as large as seven pounds.
Maybe that's not always a good thing, though. "The bigger the heart, the guiltier the guy," jokes Murph Scherr, owner of Naron Candy.
Locally, most Valentine's Day chocolates are sold in cardboard, heart-shaped boxes decorated with lace, fabric and flowers. These decorated boxes add several dollars to the price of the gift, and are often recycled -- customers bring back the same box year after year to be refilled.
Three of the local makers offer containers actually made of chocolate, including Moore's Candies, Kirchmayr's, and Patisserie Poupon. In addition to chocolate-shaped hearts that hold up to a pound of bonbons, Patisserie Poupon also offers two other choices -- a delicate chocolate mailbox that holds a box of chocolates, and a chocolate bonbonniere. Bonbonniere is French for a box where chocolates are stored. "You can just eat the shell, or use it in another dessert, or melt it down to decorate with," says Ms. Poupon.
Bomboy's of Havre de Grace is somewhat of a hybrid between the European style and American style of chocolate makers because the shop uses fresh cream in some chocolates. Bomboy's chocolates, which should be eaten within six weeks, sell for $8.20 per pound. But what is price, anyway, when one has taste to consider? And taste preferences are so individual.
Each chocolate maker, from the least to most expensive, believes he is making the highest-quality chocolate he can. These chocolates are more expensive than the mass-produced national brands, but Baltimore's candy makers say quality is the reason for the price difference.
Quality generally refers to texture and taste. Texture is determined by how finely the chocolate is ground, and the creaminess of the fillings, provided by either cream or butter. Taste is determined by the balance of the bitterness of cocoa with the sweetness of sugar, and by the flavors that are added. Of course, freshness affects both taste and texture. If it doesn't have to be shipped long distances, or sit on a grocer's shelf, chances are that the chocolate will taste the way it was intended to taste.
Baltimore's chocolatiers say that their handmade, locally produced chocolates are worth the extra money. "The price is usually forgotten long after the taste lingers on," says Mr. Scherr.
Women, who are thought to be the primary recipients of Valentine's Day chocolates, also buy candy for their significant others. "Women come in the week before, and men come in the last day," says Esther Hardger, whose father founded Rheb's in 1917, and who has worked in the retail operation all her life.
Gallant romantics sometimes use an ordinary box of chocolates to camouflage an extraordinary gift, such as jewelry. "They'll come in with an engagement ring and ask us to hide it in the box," says Mary Glauber, manager of one of her family's retail stores.
One guy even took it a step further, going to Log Cabin Candies Feb. 14 and asking them to insert the ring inside a cream-filled chocolate. "He told his girlfriend the ring was in there, and that she had to eat the entire seven-pound box to find it," says Richard Rudell, owner of the company.
A sampler of local chocolates
* Bomboy's Home Made Candy (410) 939-2924
* Glauber's Fine Candies (410) 583-7222
* Kirchmayr Chocolatier (410) 323-7705
* Log Cabin Candies (410) 879-2525
* Moore's Candies (410) 426-2705
* Naron's Candy (410) 945-0800
* Patisserie Poupon (410) 332-0390
* Rheb's, Louis J. Candy Co. (410) 644-4321
* Wockenfuss Candies (410) 483-4414