A Bittersweet Guide to the Best V-Day Chocolate

John and Kira's
John and Kira's

If life is like a box of chocolates, picking out a box to give is even harder: You never know what you're gonna get.

That's why a team of NPR employees spent the past two weeks blind taste-testing more than 30 brands of chocolate from all over the world. (A tough job, I know. We sacrifice.)

From Whitman's Samplers at the drugstore to truffles from the fancy boutiques in Paris, we tried it all. (Though no one except me knew what brand we were tasting.)

White, milk, dark, fudge, with cherry, cherry bombs, truffles, more fudge, cherry fudge, chocolate from Java, coffee-infused beans — even chocolate massage oil and chocolate lip gloss, with a dark, bitter flavor. (Yum!)

After gorging on the good (and not-so-good) stuff, NPR's stuffed staff reached some decisions about the best — and worst — Valentine's Day online-orderable gifts to give this holiday season. Read the guide, and meet some old favorites, some new treats — and some chocolate that will definitely win you a few points with your sweet.

The Best

For Willy Wonka Fans

Amano Chocolates

The Madagascar and Ocumare bars from Amano Chocolate are wrapped in gold foil and taste "almost perfect. I want more!" says one tester. A warning: It's bitter and dark. If you don't like the "weirdly sour" taste of dark chocolate, stay away. Otherwise, enjoy the "very fruity, lovely dark" bar that can be used for cooking or just "an enjoyable chocolate-eating experience." (2oz. bar, $6.00,Amano Artisan Chocolate)

Not Your Average Cheese Ball

Candinas

When you think of Wisconsin's food offerings, truffles may not be the first item that comes to mind. (But cheese curds are so not as romantic.) The truffles from Markus Candinas' shop in rural Verona, Wis., are romantic – and delicious. "The experience? It's like stepping into a dark nightclub where really good music is playing, and you just can't wait to hit the dance floor," said one tester. Flavors range from cocoa-dusted dark chocolate to a creamy milk-chocolate mix surrounding "a blissful blend of candy heaven." But be careful eating these truffles. "This one exploded all over my chin and made me feel dirty," said our taster from Wisconsin. Cheese balls certainly never do that. (36 pc, $43.00,Candinas)

Exploding Liquor Bombs

Donnelly Chocolates

After tasting Donnelly Chocolates Liquor Bombs, a collection of handmade dark chocolates with hard-liquor centers (tequila, Manhattan, limoncello, port, margarita, and scotch), the room was spinning for more than a few producers (in a good way.) "That was the best liquor-chocolate combo I've ever had," said one. "So much better than Pabst." Donnelly also makes dark chocolate massage oil (which was — thankfully — not tested at the NPR office.) But that tastes pretty good, too. (12 pc liquor bombs, $40.00; 2oz. massage oil, $15.00, Donnelly Chocolates)

Mouth Watering Fran's

Frans Chocolates

Forget truffles! (Even though Fran's truffles were delicious and "light on the tongue," says one reporter.) The gray and smoked salted caramels from Seattle-based Fran's are what you want to get someone you really, really like. They received a unanimous seal of approval from our staff, who couldn't resist the odd combo of sweet and salty flavors. "Could this be the perfect chocolate?" asked one tester. "With a smooth, creamy — but not too sweet — inner filling and just a touch of caramel, this candy has won my heart! I'll be your Valentine for another piece." Unfortunately, the pieces went far too quickly to give out seconds. Another tester exclaimed "Amazing. Smooth. Rich. Fantastic." Your Valentine might say the same. (15 pc caramels, $22.00; 20 pc truffle, $44.00, Fran's Chocolates)

No Surprises Here

Godiva G Collection

Godiva's G Collection doesn't come in a gold box like its solid and mint collections, but our reviewers gave their new Valentine's Day collection a gold medal for presentation and taste. We liked that the chocolates were painted to match their flavors, meaning no surprises. (Lemon is yellow, apple pie is green.) "The salted caramel was the best chocolate I've ever had," said one reviewer. "I think I just ate peanut butter and jelly inside a chocolate, and it turned my insides to jelly," said another. The only complaint we received was about the lemon: "Want chocolate, not lemon," he wrote. (30 pc, $90.00,Godiva G Collection)

Champlain Hearts

Lake Champlain Chocolates

If you're not spending Valentine's Day snuggled in a cabin in Vermont, buying a giant Valentine Chocolate Heart from Lake Champlain Chocolates in Burlington, Vt., may be the next best thing. It contains a mix of caramel hearts, truffles, and dark mint crunch squares — and wowed the panel. "Within this heart-shaped fortress of dark chocolate goo, I think I taste a hint of butterscotch with a cherry and maple accent," said one taster. "It strives for decadent sophistication with earnestness, but works more like an connoisseur's secret love for Two Buck Chuck." Another simply wrote: "So creamy it's almost perverse!" (22 pc, $36.00, Lake Champlain Chocolates)

Fly Me to the Moon

Moonstruck Chocolate

Portland-based Moonstruck Chocolate may be on the cheaper side, but its taste is out of this world. Choose from a selection of hand-decorated truffles, or try their box of Love Letter Truffles, which spell out L-O-V-E. (Or V-O-L-E, depending on how you arrange them.) "Would I buy this as a gift or be happy if someone gave one to me as a gift? Absolutely!" said one of our chocolate mavens. Said another: "A perfect balance of high quality dark chocolate with a hint of cherry. Not too sloppy or gooey. Just perfect." A third remarked on the design: "I love the imprint of the man on the moon. A very cute-looking piece of chocolate. On a scale of 1 to 5, I give it a 5 for looks!" (10 pc truffle collection, $30.00; 4 pc Love Letter Truffle Collection, $12.00, Moonstruck Chocolate)

Kosher for Valentine's Day

Neuchatel Chocolates

I always ate jellied chocolate on Passover — which tastes nothing like quality Valentine's Day truffles — but a certain national reporter (Guy Raz) says Neuchatel Chocolates' truffle collection brings back fond memories of the Jewish holiday. "This is beautiful and sweet," he says. "It reminds me of my mother's Passover chocolate cake. Layers of matzah and chocolate infused with Manischewitz wine." (For the record, these Swiss truffles contain not a hint of Manischewitz.) But what they do contain (caramel, liquor fillings, cherries!) is decidedly delicious. Expect to receive a mixed collection of 24 assorted truffles in a red velvet (think Elvis) box. But the chocolate is "gooey, creamy, and deep" — not dense — and you will have to pop the entire bit in your mouth to avoid chin spills. But if "gushy and sweet" is your thing, then you may want to buy these chocolates. (But you won't want to wait until Passover to eat them.) (Velvet Heart, $35.00, Neuchatel Chocolates)

Love This Truffle

Norman Love Box of Chocolates

Norman Love used to be a pastry chef, but now focuses entirely on designing chocolates that look too good to eat. (But they're entirely — and deliciously — edible.) His truffles are filled with a variety of flavors: lemon, peanut butter, and caramel (which one tester said "reminded me of a Sugar Daddy, but better.") Our panelists were impressed not only by the taste, but by the appearance of Love's truffles, which look like miniature paintings left over from Woodstock. One tester exclaimed "Oh my God! This is what a truffle should be. Seriously – this was the perfect truffle: a thick, rich chocolate outside and a creamy goodness inside — it was a ball of love." Or, you could say, a ball of Love. (30 pc, $55.00,Norman Love Confections)

The Rest

For the Grab Bag If you're one of those people who doesn't want a sampler but can't decide between a chocolate-covered

pretzel, a toffee, bits of graham cracker and a truffle (or 10) — then perhaps Bridgewater Chocolate's Valentine Assortment is for you. Or perhaps not. Our tasters were mixed on the quality of chocolate in the box: If you're after the high-end stuff, then Bridgewater isn't going to do it for you. (One taster said that in a pinch, the box would "satisfy an urge for dark chocolate.") But if you want an assortment of sweets at a sweet price, Bridgewater is the place. (1 lb. Valentine Assortment, $32.50, 12 pc. Cherry Hearts, $26.95, Bridgewater Chocolate )

For Heating Up the Love Life: Milk chocolate is mellow. Dark chocolate is bitter. And dark chocolate with bits of chili and cherries is bitter still — but with a zesty kick. (And a love poem on the wrapper.) If your love likes things hot and spicy, try Chocolove's Chili's and Cherries in Dark Chocolate bar, which one taster describes as "the perfect chocolate, until the burning sensation hit the back of my throat." Another called the sensation "like an illicit kiss." The bars are hot, but perfect, we discovered, when broken up and sprinkled in cups of hot chocolate — adding even more heat to a decidedly delicious treat. (bar, $2.95, Chocolove)

For Bittersweet Couples Want to present your honey with a token of your sweet but (not-so-sweet) affection? Try DeVries Chocolate, the darkest and most bitter of the chocolates we tasted. The bars, which are made up of 80 percent organic cocoa beans and 20 percent pure cane sugar, sit well with the dark-chocolate lovers on our panel, who said that the "nice, bitter flavor" was "very good with no aftertaste." (Darker chocolate contains a larger percentage of cocoa, FYI.) But be forewarned: our non-dark-chocolate-loving tasters found this chocolate to be "too bitter" and "a bit overpowering." One even said it "reminded me of shoe polish." (1 bar, $7.35, Devries Chocolate Store)

For the Culinary Adventurous: Raspberry wasabi? Rose hip tea? Granola and yogurt?(!) The flavors in Garrison Confections' box read like a hipster fusion restaurant's appetizer menu. But our tasters were mixed about the mixed bag of flavors in the 12 decorated (with pretty, colorful hip stamps!) piece bonbon collection. "This reminds me of Japan," one raved. Another was decidedly unimpressed. "It's got sort of a gelatinous, gooey consistency that makes it go down a little rough, and I'm not a fan of the plasticky stuff they put on top to give it the stripes. Ack!" The spicy kick in the wasabi treat was also an eye-opener for one taster, who said "It'd be okay for the adventurous, but it doesn't live up to its spectacular presentation!" (12 pc assorted Valentine's Day Collection, $24.00, Garrison Confections

For the Socially-Conscious: The mint in John and Kira's garden mint ganaches is grown by students at Drew Elementary School and University City High School in West Philadelphia; the students learn about farming and nutrition while growing the ingredients that go into the "smooth and silky" chocolate squares. Other flavors include lavender honey and papohaku ginger, but all ingredients are purchased from sustainable family farms. "The aftertaste is better than actual chocolate," said one, though another called the aftertaste "strange" and said "it tastes like diet chocolate." (28 pc Every Flavor Box, $39.00, John and Kira )

For the Food Network Fans Brooklyn-based Jacques Torres has designed pastries at the world-famous Le Cirque eatery in New York, published two dessert cookbooks, and currently hosts a pastry-themed show on the Food Network. But are his Valentine's Day chocolate skills up to snuff? That depends on whether you like exotic (and we mean really exotic flavors.) Most tasters liked the texture of the treats, but not necessarily the flavor. (25 pc, $27.00, Jacques Torres)

For the Kids: Eating mice-shaped chocolate is a pleasant experience, but only if you don't have an infestation at home. Cambridge-based L.A. Burdick's box of animal shaped chocolate (they come in penguins or mice) will wow your little ones. One jokester said "Tastes just like real mouse — bitter ears, sweet body, inedible tail!" (At least we hope he was joking.) The actual mice are mocha or cinnamon inside dark or milk chocolate shells. And yes, the tails — which are made of string — are inedible, so you may want to watch carefully should you give these treats to your tots. (16 mice, $45.00; 9 penguins, $32.00, L.A. Burdick )

For the Language Lover: How do you say 'I Love You' in the language of chocolate? The answer, according to the Parisian-based La Maison du chocolat is a travel-themed Valentine's Day trunk, which contains seven country-themed chocolates. Our tasters called the chocolate "an experience" and "expensive-tasting" but were mixed on whether it actually tasted good. One remarked, "Nothing heart stopping about it." But if you don't want to fly to Morocco or Brazil or Surinam (which are all represented in the leather trunk) and want to get your Valentine a real international treat – this may be the gift for you. (Adventure 18 pc., $38.00, La Maison du chocolat)

For Royalty Fans: The regal-sounding House of Mary Chocolatier supplies the pralines for the Belgian royal family, but the box and chocolates look so very regal that we had trouble deciding whether to eat them or display the chocolates in a royal portrait hall (They're stamped with pictures of the queen.) But eat them we did, and were pleasantly surprised by the dark chocolate-covered-hazelnut filling. "It melts in your mouth as soon as you taste it," said one. Looks – and tastes – like it's fit for a queen. (50 pc, $134.00, House of Mary Chocolatier)

For the Bejeweled: You can't judge a book by its cover, but can you judge a chocolate by its box? If so, the Paris-based Michel Cluizel heart-shaped Bonbon Box would win, no question. The reusable stained-glass box contains ten assorted bonbons and can be reused again and again. But would our tasters want to go back for the chocolate, too? Maybe. "Tastes expensive, maybe too expensive for my Valentine," grumbled one. "It's good, but nothing spectacular." (10 pc., $55.00, Michel Cluizel)

For Daddy Warbucks: The money-shaped designs in Belgian Neuhaus' Valentine Ballotin confused some of our tasters. "I'm not sure why I'm eating a Euro," said one. "But it tastes like it's on the money. (Ha ha ha.)" Another liked the King-Tut-shaped dark chocolates. "It was pretty good," he wrote. "The soft chocolate inside was excellent, with a slight crunch." (Most of the chocolate is filled with hazelnut ganache.) The tri-layered cube of treats contains other weird shapes (dollar signs, pyramids) making us feel like we were involved with some type of Masonic mystery, instead of simply eating a treat. (37 pc. $57.50, Neuhaus)

For Chocolate Snobs: "Is Sharffenberger in your sample?" more than one person asked me during the past two weeks. "I can't tell you," I said. But an intrepid reporter spotted a Scarffenberger wrapper in the trash. "Aha!" he exclaimed. "I knew it!" The six different bars from the Berkeley-based company were a big hit, though no one could pinpoint exactly why. "I'm not sure whether I would give these to my Valentine or use them to bake," said one tester. "Either way, they taste really, really good." The six flavors in the variety pack include bittersweet, semisweet, and cacao mocha. (6 one oz. bars, $14.95, Scharffenberger)

For the Starving Artist: Two Poet Truffles is a two-person Michigan-based homemade poetry and truffle operation. With every batch of six truffles, you also get a homemade poem. The poetry's good, but the truffles are even better. One tester wrote, "This chocolate tastes like memories and I don't know why except possibly that the last truly memorable piece of chocolate I ate tasted like this." We doubt it, though — unless that taster regularly eats Orange and Smoked Paprika Caramel truffles, just one of an assortment of odd (but enjoyable) "really yummy" flavors. (6 truffles, $10.00, Two Poet Truffles)

For Your Literary Lover: Our testers gave a green light to the Gatsby Truffle Collection from Vosges Haut-Chocolat . The 9-piece assortment of white chocolate and dark chocolate (three white, six dark) truffles are made with fresh cream and feature tiny rose petals embedded on top. (Perfect, we guess, for that Daisy in your life.) One reviewer called the truffles "delightful and creamy, with a hint of something alcoholic." (9pc, $27.00, Vosges Haut-Chocolat)

For Last-Minute Gift Ideas: It's 5 p.m. on Feb. 14 and you have nary a gift in sight. It's too late for mail-order, so head to your local drugstore and pick up a Whitman's Sampler or some Truffle-Style Hershey's Kisses. Both were seen as traditional offerings in our office, even though some called the old standbys "mediocre" and one asked if I was "trying to poison" her. Ok, Ok! So they're no Belgian truffle, but the Whitman's and Hershey's selections did obtain a rave review from one tester, who said they were "rich and smooth with a great texture and the perfect level of sweetness." And who can resist kisses or a big heart? At least you won't be coming home empty-handed. (Sampler, prices vary; bag of kisses, 99 cents to $ 2.99, Hershey's, Whitman's )

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