Chocolate's Countless Varieties

So much chocolate, so little time... Bonny Wolf talks about the many varieties of a treat that gets extra-special attention on Valentine's Day.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Valentine's Day is this Tuesday, and chocolate manufacturers want to thank you very much for spending lots of money to demonstrate your affection to the one you love. But choosing the right chocolate has become more complicated than simply reaching for a nice box with a pretty bow. WEEKEND EDITION food essayist Bonny Wolf examines the evolution of what now fills that heart-shaped box.

BONNY WOLF reporting:

Chocolate has a dark side, and that's a good thing. Good for your health, good for the environment, and just plain good. All in moderation, of course. But dark chocolate remains something of a dark secret. The biggest, most visible displays of Valentine candy still glow pink and red, giant baskets filled with adorable fuzzy bears proclaiming love, surrounded by candy kisses, conversation hearts and assorted chocolates. And assorted usually means creams or nuts encased in regular old chocolate, rather than infused with saffron or lavender with 75 percent cocoa covering.

Many Americans still manage to say Be Mine with chocolate unadorned by sea salt from the coast of Brittany. But the truffle may be turning. Last year Americans spent more than $1.5 billion on dark chocolate, some of which is discussed in certain circles with a reverence previously reserved for fine wines. Boutique chocolatiers make their dark delicacies by hand in small batches, buying the lemongrass that flavors them from local farmers, and the chocolate from Ecuadorian cocoa cooperatives.

And then there's the understandably popular belief that dark chocolate is better for you than red wine or even green tea. Piles of studies, many funded by the big candy companies, say so. Though it's not too hard to convince people to view chocolate as a health food. Cocoa contains natural substances that may be good for your heart, cholesterol, blood pressure and skin. Did I mention the anti-aging properties? If only that's true.

Willie Wonka has noticed what's happening. Hershey's just set up a subsidiary called Artisans Confections to market its premium chocolates. The candy bears a seal reading, Natural source of flavones anti-oxidants, whatever that means. Russell Stover's new Private Reserve line puts 70 percent cocoa dark chocolates up against the Whitmans Sampler. Even Target has its own line of chic chocolates with flavors like chai tea and lemon rose.

So go with the heart-shaped box from the corner drug store or the hand-painted ginger-scented bon-bon from the downtown boutique. You can't go wrong. As Lucy from Peanuts once said, All I need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn't hurt.

HANSEN: Bonny Wolf's book of food essays will be published by St. Martin's Press this fall.

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