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These are not just any chocolates

Critiques may run the gamut but not a bite is wasted

Chocolate tasting (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe) A selection of chocolates to be tasted, photographed at Sheryl Julian's home.
By Sheryl Julian and Erica Thompson
Globe Staff And Globe Correspondent / February 8, 2012
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We have rarely met a dark chocolate we didn’t like. That disposition was confirmed by several dozen Globe staffers who eagerly gathered to sample many boxes of little confections last week. Valentine’s Day is payday for chocolate shops, and since the treats can set you back $30 or more a pound, we decided you need help with the research, and we would oblige.

These handmade dark chocolates came from eight shops - not every one in the area, but enough to give us an idea of the variety available. All are the work of specialty shops and artisan confectioners; none are mass-market machine-made.

Americans have been serious about dark chocolates only since the 1990s, according to “The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink.’’ That was the moment when chocolate makers started touting the provenance of their chocolate and the proportion of cocoa to other ingredients, writes Maricel Presilla. It was also the time when medical research, financed by the food conglomerate Mars, Presilla says, suggested that chocolate offers health benefits.

The discussion of whether or not chocolate is good for you did not enter into our tasting. (But we did feel wonderful later!) We were judging the experience of buying the chocolates, the overall presentation, how the confections come packaged, and of course, taste.

“I like this taste but I can’t pinpoint the flavor,’’ said a colleague, biting into a rectangular candy with a firm exterior and fudgy center. If you can’t tell the flavor of what you just bit into, the chocolate maker did not succeed. Of course, most chocolatiers give you a hint of what’s inside, by sprinkling, say, a few pistachios on top, or adding a sliver of candied ginger.

We poured through the contents of chocolates shaped like hearts, decorated with bumblebees, wrapped in foil, and made into bark. Alas, we learned it is possible to dislike dark chocolate for any number of reasons: The outside coating is too hard, the chocolate has bloomed (that white blush usually associated with old confections), or a filling is too exotic or just not that pleasing. Among the least popular were licorice, which was hiding inside a chocolate-coated candy, and a funny green color that distracted from what encased it.

Many dreamy truffles, chocolates with a hint of salt, nut clusters covered with the dark elixir, and much more, led to these results.

Stowaway Sweets

The retail shop, in business since 1929 and owned by Michael and Alicia Canniffe, is in an old cottage that is also a bed-and-breakfast. Visitors enter the house though a garden gate; in an old-fashioned parlor, handmade chocolates are displayed in glass cases. A simple brown box is wrapped in red paper and holds about 28 chocolates, all garnished with a hint of their contents: pecans, ginger, almonds (about $25 a pound). “Inviting presentation,’’ “salty square with fudgy center is beautiful,’’ “tastes like butter, very creamy,’’ “lovely minty square,’’ “piquant, mild bitterness to the dark chocolate,’’ “wonderful hazelnut fondant, not at all too sweet,’’ “crystallized ginger deliciousness,’’ “chocolate caramel pretty amazing,’’ “super rich chocolate truffle,’’ “I like the contrast, wow, great afterkick,’’ “wonderful hybrid and not at all too sweet,’’ “piquant, mild bitterness to the dark chocolate,’’ “perfect balance,’’ “this is definitely the best set,’’ “favorite so far.’’ Detractors: “Taste is good, but nothing to write home about,’’ “too sugary, indistinct flavors,’’ “not creamy.’’ 154 Atlantic Ave., Marblehead, 781-631-0303, www.stowawaysweets.com

Athan’s European Bakery

The crowded Brookline location of this bakery, owned by Aristides Athanasopoulos, is so short on counter help that we follow the lead of another customer and reach for a gold box. First, we brush off the dust, then fill the box with individual foil-wrapped dark chocolates ($20 a pound). There are cards at the shop to tell you what’s inside, but no guide once you leave the shop. These large pieces could only be cut with a chef’s knife. Many had chalky exteriors (that’s the bloom). Tasting comments included: “like something I’d want to add to something I was baking,’’ “dried out,’’ “indecipherable,’’ “way, way too sweet,’’ “weird aftertaste,’’ “something unrecognizable about the taste,’’ “tried three and don’t know what they were,’’ “terrible texture,’’ “very good, simple, nice, and light,’’ “plain, decent chocolate, but not memorable.’’ 1621 Beacon St., Brookline, 617-734-7028, and 407 Washington St., Brighton, 617-783-0313, www.athansbakery.com

Nichols Candies

The store, owned by Barbara Nichols, is a throwback to the 1950s. Tables hold trays of chocolates covered with plastic wrap. Wooden boxes that hang over each table describe the candies. About 34 pieces come in a white and red heart box ($20.95 a pound), which looks a little like a Russell Stover assortment. Hearts are wrapped in red foil. Tasters said, “good nut clusters,’’ “wonderful peanut brittle square,’’ “caramel without the trendy salt,’’ “love the fact that someone put an “R’’ on raspberry, “C’’ on coconut,’’ “exactly like a peppermint patty, refreshing.’’ Then: “caramel chewy but too tough,’’ “grocery store chocolate,’’ “tasteless compared to the others,’’ “not very bold,’’ “fillings taste medicinal.’’ 1 Crafts Road, Gloucester, 978-283-9850, www.nicholscandies.com

Beacon Hill Chocolates

This pretty boutique with green and brown wide-striped walls is owned by Paula Barth and also serves gelato. Staff is attentive. Pick your own assortment (about $50 a pound). The presentation was “the prettiest chocolates,’’ according to one taster. “Very light,’’ “honest flavors, but run-of-the-mill,’’ “nothing extravagant,’’ “exteriors too hard,’’ “minty center? not very minty, but don’t know what it is,’’ “espresso filling good balance,’’ “an Oreo-like chocolate, two round dark wafers around a white chocolate center, a little too sweet, but adorable to look at,’’ “coconut is coconutty,’’ “not in love,’’ “kinda strange aftertaste,’’ “nice flavor, but can’t identify it.’’ 91 Charles St., Beacon Hill, Boston, 617-725-9100, www.beaconhillchocolates.com

L.A. Burdick Handmade Chocolates

Counter staff at Burdick’s is always in a muddle. They tell you one thing on the phone and something else when you get there. This hip spot sells lots of hot drinks and is famous for its tiny chocolate mice with satin tails, all made from the finest chocolate. The Valentine heart has a little stack of chocolate bark hearts in the center, along with squares, oblongs, cocoa-dusted truffles, and a few mice ($48 for about 40 chocolates). The Back Bay location opened last week (chocolates only for now, cafe later). “Cocoa-dusted truffle bittersweet and quite delightful,’’ “an extremely delicate - and wonderful - blend of hazelnuts,’’ “nice hit of coffee,’’ “silky smooth creams,’’ “clearly handmade, in a great way; gorgeous and artistic.’’ Detractors: “way too strong,’’ “slightly bitter,’’ “something fruity and exotic inside, no idea what,’’ “filling and chocolate way too sweet, not creamy or buttery at all.’’ 52 Brattle St., Harvard Square, Cambridge. 220 Clarendon St., Boston, 617-491-4340, www.burdickchocolate.com

Chocolee Chocolates

No more than three or four customers at a time can fit into this tiny space, with its dark hardwood floors and old-fashioned posters. Staff is helpful, including owner Lee Napoli; choose from the large display case ($1 to $1.50 per piece): clamshells, cones with gold edges, coconut-topped domes, and ultra-thin bark, which are packed in a brown box, the layers separated with tissue. “Box has a stylish, but homemade quality,’’ “unusual flavors, such as dried fig with marzipan,’’ “chocolate-dipped fig looks amazing,’’ “bold tastes, not sugary,’’ “creamy, intense chocolate, very fresh, truffle inside wonderful,’’ “coconut not too strong and not too rich,’’ “wonderful truffle,’’ “sharp, rich, and dark,’’ “caramel intense but not too chewy,’’ “caramel gooey but not too sweet,’’ “the way dark chocolate should be.’’ Others: “licorice an unpleasant surprise,’’ “slightly bitter,’’ “spicy filling is strange,’’ “good but not remarkable.’’ 23 Dartmouth St., South End, Boston, 617-236-0606, www.chocoleechcolates.com

Serenade Chocolatier

This friendly Brookline Village shop, owned by Nur Kilic, offers an appealing assortment in a red heart box, which holds about 37 pieces ($38 per pound). Flat chocolates are decorated with argyle patterns, strawberries, and coffee beans. You find heart shapes, butterflies, and fans in the assortment. “Beautiful presentation,’’ “great contrast between filling and chocolate,’’ “chocolate truffle is fantastic,’’ “melts in your mouth,’’ “appealing balance between cashew and chocolate.’’ Others: “marshmallow unpleasantly gooey,’’ “pistachio filling bland,’’ “not chocolaty enough,’’ “too sugary sweet.’’ Favorite of several tasters. 5 Harvard Square, Brookline Village, Brookline, 617-739-0795, www.serenadechocolatier.com

Chocolate Therapy

Rectangular box holds 15 pieces, all larger than the other boxed confections. Chocolates also come in small heart-motif boxes ($1-$2.50 a piece). Owned by David and Pam Griffin, the shop is small by mall standards. You get a message of serious chocolate when you enter under a brown-striped awning. Tasters found smooth, creamy fillings that dissolved nicely, with the right amount of sweetness, and a good balance of chocolate and filling. “Peanut butter smooth and sweet, and just enough to complement the chocolate.’’ “Nice, buttery, smooth aftertaste,’’ “plain chocolate circle has kick at the end, amazing,’’ “dissolves in your mouth,’’ “brilliantly creamy,’’ “caramel is delish,’’ “intense peanut butter,’’ “coconut is so lovely.’’ Two said these were the favorite. Two others, one who had something described as “broccoli and chocolate’’ and another who had “way too much green tea, kinda weird,’’ were not as happy. 702 Legacy Place, Dedham, 781-329-1571, www.ctsweetremedies.com

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Globe staffers Thomasine Berg, Joseph Kahn, and June Wulff contributed to this story. Sheryl Julian can be reached at julian@globe.com. Erica Thompson can be reached at erica.thompson@globe.com.