Valentine’s Day throws me into a tailspin each year as I wonder what to get for my husband of 20-something years and my teen son, whose affections drift elsewhere these days. Yet somehow I always return to chocolate, that gift-giving panacea that seems to melt in the spotlight at this time of year.
And that brings me to the whole wide world of chocolate that I’ve enjoyed. Scholars credit the Mayans with planting the first cocoa trees in South America around 600 AD. If you believe the internet, around 1519 the Spanish explorer Hernando Cortez wrote that he’d seen a beverage called Chocolatl being consumed by Montezuma prior to visiting the imperial harem.
Mexican chocolate today is its own delicacy, to be sure. Polished beans are ground into a dusty spice that is added to chili to produce a rich dark mole negro, and to hot milk with cinnamon to create a drink that kids love. We like to bring home bars of Mexican chocolate, especially from Oaxaca, to be shaved, like nutmeg seeds, into various dishes. But it’s not romantic, no matter what Cortez thinks he saw.
Of course, Cortez’ hinted revelation sired enormous interest in the cocoa bean from which the drink was derived and, over time, the French chefs got into the chocolat business.
And the French have a knack for making anything sexy… In Paris we buy a Valrhona powdered cocoa to bring home for cupcake icing or exceptionally tasty pancakes. When it comes to Valentine’s Day though, a simple wrapped bar of Michel Cluizel Noir au Grue de Cacao with 60% dark chocolate and crumbled cocoa beans serves as a lovely gift. And it sends a message of love at a bargain price you’ll rarely find in Paris.
But the best place to relish chocolates must be Brussels. For gift giving at any spend level, think pralines. Pralines, or chocolates with a filling of any kind, were invented at the Brussels outpost of Neuhaus, a shop dating back to 1857 which can be toured today. Don’t try to fake it on Valentine’s Day. A Guylian praline brought home from Brussels bears no resemblance to one bought in Los Angeles or New York, because U.S. import regulations require the addition of preservatives.
So you’re off to Brussels. In the city center, chocolate prices can range from a 50 pence Cote d’Or candy bar to a €100 box of Pierre Marcolini designer chocolates. Which is more romantic? Marcolini’s artisanal line of confections is infused with flavors such as coffee from Kenya, cardamom from Istanbul, vanilla beans from India, mango jam from Brazil. Each bonbon is individually crafted in the most appropriate shape to release its flavors, then packed in discreet black boxes so no one criticizes your loved one’s eating habits.
Is it sexy? Romantic?
M. Marcolini himself says, “I have become obsessed with fulfilling my duty towards the cocoa bean, which has given me so much.”
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