Sweetest deals on fine chocolate for Valentine's Day

For that delicious moment when you give sweets to your sweetie on Valentine's Day, WalletPop offers one expert's list of the top chocolate values.

Clay Gordon, creator of thechocolatelife.com and author of "Discovering Chocolate" (Gotham), did the anointing based on the best blend of taste and relatively modest price.

"When compared to other gourmet foods, chocolate is one of the least expensive," Gordon told WalletPop. "You don't have to buy a whole lot of it. Two or three pieces of 'I love you and know what you love to eat' is more valuable than a two-pound box of cheap chocolate."

Note that Gordon does not accept advertising from chocolate makers for his Web site.

In no particular order, these are Gordon's top five:

The chocolate-covered salted caramels from Fran's Chocolates define buttery and savory nirvana, Gordon said. The Seattle-based chocolatier also received the only Valentine endorsement from Chloe Doutre-Roussel, the French author of "The Chocolate Connoisseur," who told WalletPop that all of Fran's delectables have "the ingredients to be perfect taste." A 20-piece box of gray salt and smoked salt caramels costs $24. For comparison's sake, a 19-piece Godiva caramel and nut assortment is priced at $32 on its Web site.

The cocoa-butter-painted bonbons from Norman Love Confections in Ft. Myers, Fla., are "pure bliss exploding in the mouth," Gordon enthused. "Not only do they taste good, but they're exquisitely beautiful." Love -- who can resist a name like that on Valentine's Day? -- offers American flavors such as apple pie created with a French sensibility, he added. These delicacies have a short shelf life, so order small. A 10-piece box of heart-shaped chocolates is $22, still a bargain, he said.

For the best blend of whimsy, yumminess and money smarts, Gordon turns to Walpole, New Hampshire-based L.A. Burdick's chocolate mice and penguins. Great chocolate in all shades, Gordon said, adding, "They're just so fun." The chocolate mice come in milk with a mocha interior, white with cinnamon inside, and dark with orange inside. The penguins, the Web site says, are comprised of "hand-piped ganache of dark chocolate and lemon, almond arms, dark chocolate dressing, and accented with white chocolate." For either creature, a box of nine runs $32. A penguin or mice duo sells for $4.

If your beloved is politically minded and loves high-end dark chocolate, Askinosie chocolate bars are the way to go, the chocolate maiven advised. A bean-to-bar maker based in Springfield, Mo., Askinosie imports cocoa beans from the Philippines, Ecuador and Mexico. "This is for the serious dark chocolate fan who wants to feel good about helping cocoa farmers around the world," Gordon said. "Sean [Askinosie, the founder] treats his farmers very well." Even the wrapping has that laborers-unite vibe. Three-ounce bars cost $8.

The very health conscious have their guilty pleasure, too, in Nicobella's vegan organic dark chocolate truffles. Well, not so guilty apparently. "It's chocolate which is healthy for you, but you don't feel like you're sacrificing anything to get healthy chocolate," Gordon said.
Nicobella's $13.50 six-pack is a bargain for the natural set, he said, and perhaps for everyone. "Dark and intense," he raved. Flavors include walnut flaxseed crunch, sunflower banana butter, pumpkin chai, blueberry almond, ginger green tea and pure cocoa bliss.

No matter what you choose, put some thought it into it, Gordon urged. There's no price on that. "We all have chocolate memories," he said. "Very few of us have special Brussels sprout memories."
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