Choose Your Chocolates Well

A Valentine’s Day guide to chocolates that are good for you AND the planet

A box of chocolates is the time-honored way to tell your valentine, “Honey, I love you so much, I spent big bucks on this delightfully packaged assortment of delicious bonbons.”

But if you don’t choose your chocolate carefully, you may inadvertently send an altogether different message, such as, “Honey, I’m such an ignorant clod that I bought you this box of waxy, artificially flavored chocolates made with cocoa beans harvested by child slave labor.”

The shops are bursting at the seams with elegant, raffia-ribboned boxes, but the contents may not be as tasteful as the packaging. Short of actually sampling them, though, how can you tell which chocolates make a thoughtful gift?

What goes into good chocolate?

The simple answer is, less is more. Read the list of ingredients; the shorter, the better. A high-quality chocolate requires only four things: cocoa beans, cocoa butter, sugar and vanilla. Many chocolates also contain an emulsifier, such as soy lecithin, to help blend the ingredients.

Don’t get distracted by the add-ons; the fruits, nuts, chipotle peppers or whatever the flavor of the month is. Focus on the primary ingredients. Vanillin, a cheap synthetic version of vanilla, is verboten, as are the cheap vegetable fats, or “cocoa butter equivalents,” used as a substitute for the far more expensive cocoa butter.

Now that chocolate is the new wine, choco-snobs are debating the respective merits of various cocoa bean plantations and conducting chocolate tastings. If you’d like a crash course in the finer points of the finest chocolates, get your hands on a copy of Chloé Doutre-Roussel’s excellent primer The Chocolate Connoisseur.

This deceptively small, Pepto-Bismol pink book provides an astonishingly thorough overview of the history of chocolate, where it’s at and where it’s headed. The author’s resumé is solid chocolate, ranging from her stint as chocolate buyer for Fortnum and Mason in London to her participation in a number of “chocolate societies” to her current status as consultant to some of the world’s finest chocolatiers.

Ms. Doutre-Roussel, who consumes a pound of chocolate daily (not coincidentally, she also swims for an hour each day), explains why high-quality chocolates are not just so much better tasting, but better for you. We keep hearing about all the supposed health benefits of chocolate, but, as Ms. Doutre-Roussel points out, this really only applies to high-quality chocolates made with good ingredients. (Sorry, all you Snickers fans.)

I knew that chocolate was high in fat, but I had no idea that cocoa butter, like olive oil, is high in good fat. That little nugget of good news is worth $18.95 all by itself! Who knew? As for dark chocolate’s antioxidant content, Doutre-Roussel cites a Cornell University study which found that “a cup of hot cocoa (made with cocoa powder) has twice as many healthy antioxidants as a glass of red wine, and four times more than a cup of green tea.”

How is good chocolate made?

As for organic, fair trade chocolate, the good news, according to Doutre-Roussel, is that more and more cocoa bean producers are seeking organic certification and we can look forward to “higher quality and more flavorful beans in the future.”

In the meantime, the only organic chocolates that Ms. Doutre-Roussel recommends are Green & Black, and Dagoba, as well as a “quinoa and dark chocolate bar by Kaoka of France.” As for the rest, she writes, “Every time I eat organic chocolate a little voice in my head says, ‘Just let me give a check to the co-operative, but please don’t make me eat this!’”

One chocolatier who’s producing outstanding chocolates in a socially responsible way is Michel Cluizel, a French company that opened its first North American shop at New York’s ABC Home and ships its chocolates overnight to anywhere in the U.S.

The Cluizel family has a personal relationship with every plantation that supplies their cocoa beans, and does not purchase any cocoa beans from the Ivory Coast, where child slave labor has become so serious an issue that several corporations who do buy their beans from these plantations have been sued

And the Cluizel chocolates, for my money, are among the best I’ve ever tasted. 

Among the best: the dark chocolate-covered Morello cherries aged in Kirsch, and dark chocolate ginger “twigs.” The dark chocolate salted caramels are a favorite, as well. But it all looks equally enticing. Start with the finest ingredients, and you’ll finish with the finest chocolate. It’s that simple.

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