'Designer Chocolate' for Valentine's Day

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From right: Christian Alexandre, Whanjun Park and daughter 'Yum Yum' Park at L'Artisan du Chocolat i

From right: Christian Alexandre, Whanjun Park and daughter "Yum Yum" Park at L'Artisan du Chocolat in Los Angeles. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR
From right: Christian Alexandre, Whanjun Park and daughter 'Yum Yum' Park at L'Artisan du Chocolat

From right: Christian Alexandre, Whanjun Park and daughter "Yum Yum" Park at L'Artisan du Chocolat in Los Angeles.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR

Valentine's Day is the single-biggest sales day for chocolate in America. We visit Christian Alexandre and Whanjun Park, the husband-wife team behind artisinal chocolatiers L'Artisan du Chocolat, to find out what goes into chocolate so good customers don't mind paying $30 for a half-pound of the sweet delicacy.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand. According to the American Chocolate Manufacturers Association, Americans eat about 12 pounds of chocolate a year.

CHADWICK: And lucky for us, Valentine's Day is one of those days we're actually expected to do it. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates paid a visit to a couple whose sweet beginnings led to some pretty tasty treats for the rest of us. Here's Karen's report.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES reporting:

Chocolate can be pretty alluring stuff, even when it comes in the 50-cent bars you pick up at the convenience store, but high-end handmade chocolates are a revelation. The flavor is deeper, more intense. The texture's silky and luxurious. That's what Jennifer Scarlet is looking for. She's being guided through the jewel-like displays at L'Artisan du Chocolat here in Los Angeles by proprietor Christian Alexandre.

Mr. CHRISTIAN ALEXANDRE (Proprietor, L'Artisan du Chocolat): Look at this one right here, this round. I just put it in. It's a tomato.

Ms. JENNIFER SCARLET (Shopper): Oh, the tomato, yes.

Mr. ALEXANDRE: And this one is an olive, Kalamata olive chocolate.

Ms. SCARLET: Ooh, that one's interesting. I'll try the olive one.

BATES: Scarlet, a trim blonde pharmaceutical rep, says she likes supporting neighborhood businesses and likes offering something to her clients that's not generic. She doesn't look like she eats much of anything, but she's quick to correct me.

Ms. SCARLET: Oh, trust me. I eat chocolate. I actually love the Rochers. They're very good. The hazelnut flavor and milk chocolate. Those are my favorite.

BATES: L'Artisan, a tiny storefront wedged between downtown L.A. and Hollywood, has itself become a favorite of several food critics for having some of the best chocolate in the city. Here's where Alexandre's wife, Whanjun Park, and her daughter, Hing Dun Yume, nicknamed Yum-Yum, make chocolates by hand.

Some of their fillings are traditional: chocolate Ganache, a mixture of chocolate and cream flavored with liqueurs or fruit. Others are more adventurous, like that Kalamata olive, an oddly compelling mixture of rich, dark chocolate and slightly sweet chopped Kalamata olives. Candy like this makes it easy to understand why chocolate has often been regarded as an aphrodisiac.

For example, here's Juliettete Binoche as a renegade chocolate maker in the 2000 film, Chocolat.

Ms. JULIETTE BINOCHE (Actress): (As chocolate maker) And these are for your husband, unrefined coconips(ph) from Guatemala to awaken the passion.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: You've obviously never met my husband.

Ms. BINOCHE: Ah, you've obviously never tried these.

BATES: Passion is how L'Artisan started. Mr. and Mrs. Alexandre actually met in a restaurant next door. Both were divorced, and French was their common language. A passion for each other led to a passion for making chocolate, which they began selling after kept pestering them to start a business.

Mr. ALEXANDRE: So when the third or fourth said the same think, I looked at her and said, don't you think there may be something here?

BATES: Well, there was, and five years later, L'Artisan du Chocolat does a brisk business in mostly dark chocolates. They run about $60 a pound, and they're shipped, on ice, all over the country. Like many artisanal chocolate makers, the Alexandres have begun experimenting with combining chocolate and vegetable or herb essences. Several new offerings are subtly flavored with basil, chili or lavender. Christian Alexandre says this is a return to chocolate's ancient beginnings.

Mr. ALEXANDRE: Initially, centuries, centuries ago in Central America, Mexico and so on, they were drinking chocolate with a lot of spices, and then several centuries we are coming back to this way of having the chocolate flavored with herbs and spices, but now it is in the solid form.

BATES: Whanjun is an elegant, soft-spoken woman. Daughter Yum-Yum is as bubbly as her name. I asked them if they ever tire of eating chocolate.

Ms. HING DUN YUME (L'Artisan du Chocolat): Never. You know, I still eat five or six pieces, so, yeah. Especially for winter time, I eat a lot, yeah.

BATES: And promises, Alexandre, if you eat enough of their handiwork, there's an interesting fringe benefit.

Mr. ALEXANDRE: One pound of my fine chocolate a week, and you will become fluent in French in no time.

BATES: Which sounds like a lot more fun that learning the traditional way.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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