Candy, Darling

A long time ago, in the jungles of Mexico, a Mayan or Olmec Indian discovered a ridged, football-shaped fruit. It was filled with white, mildly sweet flesh and a few dozen hard, bitter, inchlong seeds. Ignoring the flesh, this early human let the seeds ferment, and then dry out. The seeds were roasted and their thin outer husks removed. The seeds were ground into a powder. Chocolate was born.

This early chocolate wasn't sweetened. It was blended with spices, often chiles, and mixed with water. The concoction was poured from one vessel into another, back and forth, until a foamy head appeared. You can still get a sweetened, cinnamon-flavored, rice-enriched version of this drink in the markets of Mexico.

When the Spanish came to the New World, the Aztecs were in charge, and chocolate's popularity and prominence had grown.

The seeds, called cacao, were used by the Aztecs as a form of currency. For 100 seeds, you could buy a turkey or hire a porter for a day. A fresh avocado was worth three seeds.

Bitter chocolate was the drink of Aztec nobility. The Spanish preferred to sweeten their chocolate with sugar. They developed a sort of wooden swizzle stick with ridges, called a molinillo, to make the still-popular froth.

In 1829, a Dutchman named Van Houten created cocoa by removing the fat from chocolate. Twenty years later, the Fry family developed a method of blending cocoa powder, sugar and melted cocoa butter. The result was chocolate that could be molded. Chocolate bars and filled chocolate confections were now possible.

Boxes filled with these kinds of chocolate sweets have been a Valentine's Day tradition since Richard Cadbury introduced the prototype around 1870.

If the object of your affection loves all things chocolate, consider giving four different bars of Valrhona chocolate. Duck & Decanter, 1651 East Camelback, sells 100-gram bars of varying percentages of cacao (pure chocolate content) for $3.35 each. Start with a taste of the 40 percent version and work your way up.

If you're buying for a cook (or a glutton), consider a 10-pound bar of Ghirardelli chocolate from Trader Joe's. At $19.99, it's a bargain.

Still, the fancy stuff is more in keeping with Valentine's tradition. After tasting an obscene amount of locally available chocolate -- with help from friends who participated in a blind tasting -- I can give you some pointers.

Chocolates by Bernard Callebaut, sold at shops by the same name in Chandler and Scottsdale, are pristine chocolates. They taste and look better than all the rest. Uniquely rich fillings are entombed in crisp, eggshell-thin chocolate that melts in your mouth.

The Rhum looks like a miniature chocolate cupcake. It's a dense, rum-infused dark chocolate wonder. The coconut filling is a sort of coconut fudge, nothing like the Almond Joy coconut in most of the other brands. The Mochaccino is like cappuccino on steroids.

My tasters found the Bernard C chocolates "classy," "unreal," "gorgeous" and "unbelievably creamy." These raves don't come cheap. Bernard C's chocolate is $34 per pound in the basic -- and very classy -- copper box. For fancy wraps, add $2 per pound.

My choice for this year's ultimate chocolate valentine is the Bernard Callebaut hollow chocolate heart filled with chocolates. It comes in dark or milk chocolate, in three sizes. The large holds about 40 chocolates and sells for $50.

Joseph Schmidt Chocolates, available at AJ's Purveyor of Fine Foods, is a close second. It's more highly rated by The Chocolate Companionthan Bernard C, but I don't agree.

One of my tasters really liked J. Schmidt's signature truffles. The smaller truffles are as highly glossed as a showroom car. Fillings vary, but the creamy chocolate varieties are the best.

The chocolate shell can be a little thick, which makes the first bite a bit messy. The slicks (hockey-puck-shaped disks) are easier to eat. They're decorated in abstract colors reminiscent of modern Japanese art. Prices vary, but the large truffles are $1.75 each.

Godiva, available at various locations, is to chocolate what Mercedes is to the world of cars. It has status, style and name recognition.

The beautifully crafted pieces make it from the box to your mouth in a matter of seconds. They're quick to melt and coat your tongue with intense chocolate flavor. But they're not perfect. They're almost too sweet, and many of the fillings lack distinctness. Still, I don't know anyone who can eat just one.

Godiva's not cheap -- $32 a pound for a basic box. Studded velvet hearts come in several sizes. The 12.5-ounce heart has 30 pieces and sells for $56.

See's Candies, also sold at various locations, are reasonably priced, good-quality chocolates that deliver better-than-average taste with a little style. The nuts and chews are particularly good. The toffee is a bit salty.

See's chocolates have a pleasant, homemade look. They're not as shiny as Bernard C, J. Schmidt, or Godiva. See's delivers a lot of taste for $11.70 a pound.

A few of the See's chocolates had a whitish patina called "bloom." It's usually from exposure to heat. Some of the cocoa butter separates from the chocolate solids and mars the appearance. It doesn't make the chocolate inedible, but it changes the consistency.

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