Single-minded chocolate connoisseurs


You know your wine comes from Bordeaux, your goat cheese from a farm in California and your coffee from a free-trade plantation in Costa Rica. Now you can trace the origin of your chocolate beans.

The trend in chocolate is toward higher cocoa percentages in single-origin varieties that feature the unique taste, smell and texture of an area, be it Java, Tanzania or Santo Domingo. So for your sophisticated sweetheart this Valentine's Day, you might want to dust off your atlas.

"There's something ultra-luxurious about a straightforward, delicious chocolate that is created in a small production, hands-on environment," says Edye Sanford, 40, a Baltimore clothing designer and seamstress who enjoys single-origin chocolates at her monthly mothers' group meeting. "It's nice to have chocolate that's not just a sugar fix. It's its own taste pleasure."

While most companies use a mix of cocoa beans to create chocolate, single-origin bars are made from the beans of one specific region or even, as in the case of single-estate chocolate, one particular plantation.

The beans come from such exotic spots as Madagascar, Cote d'Ivoire and Papua New Guinea. Not unlike cheese from a particular farm or an estate-bottled wine, the beans, manufacturers claim, are imbued with the unique flavors of the region created by soil and climate.

Single-origin chocolate is usually dark, rich and lightly sweetened. Cocoa percentages are like the thread count of the chocolate world; most chocolate snobs won't eat anything with less than 70 percent.

"It's the same sort of interest people have in coffee, for instance, or red wine," says Susan Smith, a spokeswoman for the National Confectioners Association in Virginia. "They become more interested in flavors and become, well, connoisseurs of chocolate."

Sanford says buying single-origin chocolate goes hand in hand with her love of food and its origin. "We shop at the farmers' market. We really like to know where our food comes from," she says.

Most single-origin chocolate bars cost between $1.99 and $2.50, although some go as high as $6. Handmade truffles can top $70 a box.

Jordan LeBel, an associate professor of food and beverage management at the Cornell University School of Hotel Management, says the trend toward single-origin varieties stems in part from a growing interest in the reputed health benefits of dark chocolate. Food lovers, he said, also like to discover the next great taste and appear "in the know."

"The thing about food and beverages is that they are a basic human necessity, but as with any necessity we humans are never satisfied with the basics," LeBel said. "We always like to go one up."

A premium chocolate, he said, "compared to other premium things we might desire, is still affordable and won't break the bank."

Vere, a Manhattan-based chocolatier whose name comes from the Latin word for truth, entered the single-origin business last year. It uses Arriba beans from Ecuador that are certified by the Rainforest Alliance to be pesticide-free and responsibly harvested.

Vere president Kathy Moskal said her bean creates a dark chocolate with a fruity, floral flavor that lacks the bitterness many people associate with dark chocolate. "You don't so much taste sweet as much as the real flavor of the chocolate, which is very complicated," she said.

Dallas-based NoKa Chocolate creates single-origin bars and truffles using beans from Venezuela, Ecuador, Cote d'Ivoire and Trinidad. Each sleek black package comes with a guide to eating and enjoying the confection, along with tasting notes for each varietal. At first glance, it is easy to see the slight color variations between the four chocolates and to smell slight differences.

NoKa chocolatier Katrina Merrem describes the Venezuelan bar as "very bright, citrusy, with a little acidity." The Cote d'Ivoire version, she says, has the taste and texture of comfort food: "The notes that come through are like a burnt caramel and toasted coconut."

At her Hampden shop, Ma Petite Shoe and Chocolates, Susannah Siger carries two signature lines of chocolate with single-origin bars -- Michel Cluizel and Plantations Chocolates. Cluizel's bars come from specific estates such as Plantation Concepcion in Venezuela, while Plantations bars use only Arriba beans from Ecuador.

Siger also carried the limited-edition Chocolatour line of chocolates created by Chocolove, a company based in Boulder, Colo. In 2004, only 5,000 bars were made from each origin. Siger sold out of her share almost immediately.

Chocolate lover Sanford has already sampled the Plantation chocolate she's bringing to the next outing with her friends. She said it was "like nothing I've ever tasted." The company's fair wages to workers and its guarantees of rain-forest-sustaining farming practices were a bonus.

"As moms," Sanford said, "we love a pleasure that's not so guilty!"

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