We ate chocolate every day for a month (poor us) to find the best of the best.
Best New Chocolate Drinks
Fran Bigelow of Fran's Chocolates in Seattle chips tiny morsels directly from blocks of high-quality dark Belgian chocolate for her Premium Shaved Chocolate. Mixed with hot milk, it produces a rich and velvety bittersweet drink that's a giant step up from instant cocoa ($9 for 8 ounces; 800-422-FRAN). " Chicagoans love to belly up to the (cocoa) bar at Vosges Haut-Chocolat; for out-of-towners, boxes of Vosges Parisienne Couture Cocoa... ground from dark chocolate, orange peel and Tahitian and Madagascan vanilla bean... re-create the experience ($17 for 16 ounces; 888-301-YUMM). " La Maison du Chocolat Tea Salons in Manhattan are some of the swankest places in America to sip a cup of hot chocolate or buy bottles of the stuff to take home. The full-bodied Caracas variety, which has a higher cocoa content and a more intense flavor, is available only at the salons; silky Guayaquil, which is sweeter and milkier, can be shipped across the country ($16 a pint; 800-988-LMDC).
... Laura Naughton
Best Chocolate Shop Discoveries
The last few years have brought a boomlet in artisanal chocolate boutiques. Here, three new ones that are exceptional and idiosyncratic. " The chocolates at XOX Truffles in San Francisco look like chunks of gravel, but they taste remarkably smooth. They're made from Cacao Barry chocolate, in 27 sublime varieties... from crème de framboise to coffee crunch (754 Columbus Ave., 415-421-4814). " At Pastry Maxine in Scottsdale, Arizona, Richard Ruskell bakes some of the best brownies in America. But the main draw is his chocolates... available only from September through May, as they're too delicate for desert summers (7609 E. Pinnacle Peak Rd.; 480-419-9199). " Manhattan's quirky Lunettes et Chocolat (owned by Maribel Lieberman) offers a dazzling array of handmade, cocoa-butter-painted chocolates, plus designer eyeglasses (25 Prince St.; 212-925-8800).
... Jessica Blatt
Chocolate with port... old news. Chocolate with Cabernet... exotic! Swanson Vineyards in Napa Valley and Vosges Haut-Chocolat in Chicago have teamed up to make Alexis Estate Bon Bons, Belgian chocolate infused with a lusty Cabernet-Syrah. Hints of cherry, vanilla and coffee in the wine are a natural complement to the same flavor notes in the chocolate. But what about the mysterious dusting of curry spices on the truffles? "I've always loved the combination of dark chocolate with red wine," says Swanson, "but it's that outrageous curry powder that pulls it all together" ($30 for 12 truffles; 707-944-0905 or 888-301-9866).
Best Organic Bars
Organic is the latest buzzword in chocolate, but too often the flavor doesn't match the good intentions. F&W editors sampled almost a dozen brands and found the clear winner: Dagoba Organic Chocolate Bars. Produced in eco-friendly Boulder, Colorado, they can easily compete with the finest nonorganic brands. Made with the purest organic cocoa beans, the dark chocolate bars have a wonderfully creamy mouthfeel and an intense, clean bittersweet flavor. The boxed gift set also includes milk chocolate and chai-, latte-, raspberry- and lime-infused bars ($30; 303-473-9632 or www.dagobachocolate.com).
Best Old Guard Chocolatier
In a former life, chocolatier Michel Cluizel may have been a Mayan. Cluizel says he is the only major chocolatier who rejects genetically modified ingredients and other additives such as soy lecithin, using only cocoa beans, raw sugar cane, natural dried fruits and vanilla beans... just like the Mayans, whose chocolate-making prowess he so admires. Although his family has been making exquisite chocolate in Normandy, France, since 1948, he continues to set new standards by pioneering the return to what he refers to as "noble" ingredients. Cluizel's products, from truffles to baking chips, are ubiquitous in chocolate shops; his new tasting kit of chocolate disks with cocoa contents from 33 to 99 percent is a great gift for the connoisseur ($30; www.chocosphere.com).
Best Gift Set
Philadelphia-born Michael Recchiuti represents a new breed of chocolatier: European-trained, yet proudly American. What could be more American than the S'mores Kits he sells at Confections by Michael Recchiuti, his San Francisco shop? His spectacular campfire-ready version of the classic snack features rich bittersweet chocolate bars, all-natural marshmallows and surprisingly spicy graham crackers flavored with cinnamon and cloves ($12; 800-500-3396).
Best Avant-garde Chocolatier
In architecture, Barcelona is famed for Antoni Gaudí; in confectionery, it's becoming renowned for Enric Rovira. And just as Gaudí's sensuous, surreal architecture changed the Catalan capital, the Catalan capital has shaped Rovira's avant-garde style. The flowers on his Rajoles chocolate tiles resemble those on the stones that pave Barcelona's courtyards; his mosaiclike white chocolate and hazelnut tiles give a nod to the ceramic splinters that decorate Gaudí's dazzling structures. Rovira also looks to the stars for inspiration: His remarkable Planetarium gift box ($30) uses truffles to represent the solar system. For a peek into the workings of Rovira's mind, go to www.enricrovira.com; to mail-order his chocolates, go to www.senses.ca (416-597-6368).
Best New Books
Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Hermé by Dorie Greenspan ($40). France's most celebrated pastry chef offers a splendid array of recipes, from classic (Dacquoise) to quirky (Sichuan Pepper Truffles). " A Year in Chocolate by Alice Medrich ($26). Medrich applies her talents to desserts inspired by the season. Save her Mocha Meringues for summer; winter demands her rich Chocolate Mardi Gras Fondue. " The New Taste of Chocolate by Maricel E. Presilla ($30). The Cuban-born anthropologist and restaurateur has produced a comprehensive history of chocolate, from its Amazonian origins to its current artisanal rebirth. Her primer on tasting chocolate is a standout.
... Lily Barberio