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The art of tasting artisan chocolates

Sweets for the sweet is a time-honored Valentine’s Day tradition, and no sweet is more beloved than chocolate. And when you’re buying for Feb. 14, there’s all the more incentive to buy the best.

So remember to take time and savor the chocolates you receive. The very best of the breed are more than mere commodity.

With quality chocolates, there’s as much an art to tasting as there is to wine. The more you know before popping that first truffle into your mouth, the more fully you will enjoy the experience, according to Madison chocolatier Gail Ambrosius.

“You need to use all your senses in order to experience the flavors fully,” says Ambrosius, owner of Gail Ambrosius Chocolatier on Madison’s east side. “You should breathe in the aroma, after visually noticing the chocolate’s color and sheen. The chocolate should have a distinct snap when you bite into it and then (you should) feel the silky smooth texture in your mouth.”

Megan Hile, owner of Madison Chocolate Co., one of the city’s newest producers, agrees. Moreover, she says, savor slowly and let the flavors come to you.

“Take a piece of chocolate in your mouth, chew it to start the melting process and then let the flavor open up,” says Hile, who currently runs her operation solely online. “Chocolate offers flavors that will hit you up front, in the middle and then on the finish.”

Great chocolate is defined by its origin point. Both Ambrosius and Hile have taken time to visit cacao growers and learn about what goes into producing the right beans to create great chocolate. The process is key, Hile says.

“Great chocolate to me means there is care taken from beginning to end — from the cacao plantation, to fermentation, to processing, to the chocolatier’s kitchen,” Hile says. “You can always find good chocolate, but great chocolate is made in small batches, by hand, using stellar ingredients by people who are passionate about what they do.”

Ambrosius agrees: “The chocolatier takes the chocolate and uses her alchemy to turn it into wonderful truffles, bonbons or other confections. I would say it is a combination of farmer, chocolate-maker and chocolatier.”

Both chocolatiers favor Ecuador as the source of their cacao beans, although they say countries in Central America also excel. Like anything else, some types of cacao are rarer and more expensive than others, Ambrosius says.

“Porcelana is said to be the rarest cacao, most expensive and most sought after,” Ambrosius says. “It is native to Venezuela, but there is rumored to be some in a remote area of Peru as well. It is light in color and very aromatic in flavor. To me it almost melts away like cotton candy in my mouth.”

While traveling in Peru, Ambrosius also learned of an heirloom cacao variety called cacao chuncho, named for an ethnic group of Amazonians in Peru at the time of the Spanish Conquest. “Very small beans, but the farmers were very proud of this chocolate,” she added.

Different Madison area chocolatiers favor different styles, but all of them produce the classic truffle favored with everything from coconut to chili powder to cognac. No matter the approach, all great chocolate has one thing in common.

“Great chocolate is made with love,” Hile says. “I believe you can taste the difference.”

Get Your Truffle On

The Madison area is home to five chocolatiers, men and women who make chocolate as an art form. Here is a list of where to shop for your Valentine’s Day treats.

Candinas Chocolatier, 11 W. Main St., Madison, and 2535 Old PB, Verona, WI. 608-845-1545 or candinas.com.

Chocolatier Markus Candinas learned his trade during a three-year apprenticeship program in Switzerland and the result has been more than 20 years of elegant chocolate. Whether sampling the espresso or elderflower truffle, you will find that Candinas’ workmanship speaks for itself. Shop the boutique in downtown Madison or the retail shop that fronts the factory in rural Verona. Each has its charms and plenty of chocolate to taste.

DB Infusion Chocolates, 550 N. Midvale Blvd. (in the Hilldale Shopping Center), Madison. 608-233-1600 or infusionchocolates.com.

A staff of trained chocolatiers crafts a vast array of truffles that are as attractive in appearance as they are scrumptious in flavor. This time of year, the Aphrodisiac for Her (65 percent Venezuelan dark chocolate infused with strawberry, passion fruit and tropical Tasmanian leatherwood honey) and the Aphrodisiac for Him (Patron silver tequila, lime and a blend of guajillo and chipotle peppers in a milk chocolate center) are must-haves for your truffle basket. Caribbean Fire (70 percent mostly dark Ecuadoran chocolate around a fiery center of ancho and chipotle peppers, nutmeg, allspice and jerk seasoning) will help spark romantic fires.

Gail Ambrosius Chocolatier, 2086 Atwood Ave., Madison. 608-249-3500 or gailambrosius.com.

Although not Madison’s oldest maker of handmade chocolates, Ambrosius has one of the area’s highest profiles, especially when it comes to dark chocolate harvested from unique areas around the globe. A former cartographer for the state who trained as a chocolatier in Paris after being laid off, Ambrosius manages to blend sweets and spices in unique ways that intrigue the palate and serve as a gustatory geography lesson to the world’s best cacao.

Madison Chocolate Co., online only at madisonchocolate.com.

Launched in fall 2012, Madison Chocolate Co. uses facilities at Food Enterprise & Economic Development Kitchens, a contract commercial kitchen and food industry incubator located on Madison’s north side, to produce chocolate truffles. A former Spanish teacher, Megan Hile began her food education process with Ecole Chocolat coursework and a “bean to bar” internship in Mindo, Ecuador. She markets her truffles using a consumer-supported agriculture model, which enables customers to buy shares in the company and receive a monthly shipment of chocolate in return.

Maurie’s Fine Chocolates, 1637 Monroe St., Madison. 608-255-9092 or mauriesfinechocolates.com.

Established in 1993, chocolatier Cher Mandel Diamond named her shop for her late father, who had been making fine chocolate truffles by hand since 1941. Maurie’s recipes form the core of the chocolate truffles Diamond produces. The second-generation chocolatier draws on fine, internationally harvested cacao, surrounding a dark chocolate ganache infused with natural fruits, teas and spices and a thin chocolate layer. Chocolates like the Amour, a raspberry-infused dark chocolate truffle; the Single Barrel, dark chocolate infused with bourbon; or the Oporto, dark chocolate infused with port wine, should be part of the Valentine’s Day celebration.

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