by Chrysa Smith

What better way to wrap up winter comfort foods than with a favorite, comforting treat: chocolate. Ah yes, the elixir of life. The great comforter. The sweet that makes the winter duldrums just a bit more tolerable. The choice of cupids everywhere.

Where did the whole chocolate-valentine connection begin? Well, you can thank the pagans. As with so many present day festivities, the roots began with the feast of the God of Fertility, celebrated on February 14th. It took on a Christian spin in the High Middle Ages, named for a martyr named Valentine, and kept developing through the great romantic periods in Europe, and propagated by the great American greeting card companies, chocolatiers and jewelers.

Some cynics will say, “It’s just a Hallmark holiday.” To these naysayers, I say, “Bring on the chocolate, the jewels, the heart-shaped cards and expressions of love. But especially, the chocolate.”

According to scientific studies, one of the things that makes chocolate so darn good, and so befitting the celebration of love, is that it contains phenylaline: one of the same brain chemicals that is kicked up a few notches when we fall in love. Remember? The sky is just a bit bluer, the birds sing just a bit more melodically, the air smells a bit sweeter. So while we’re hitting anniversary celebrations of 25, 30, 40 years or more, or wishing we were, it’s so nice to know that even though we may not have the string of suitors in tow this Valentine’s Day, we can have at least a momentary ‘high’, compliments of Hershey’s.

What makes the best chocolate? Not unlike wine, coffee or even beer (oh, how gauche), much depends upon the fermentation, the roasting, the overtones that the cocoa exhibits. I searched for specifics and one of the better explanations came from one of the most trusted research sources: Yahoo Answers (I jest). But, I think this one has merit. It says the Belgian chocolate has fruity overtones, maybe a higher tannic content. The Swiss chocolates have a vanilla component; lighter and airier. Italian chocolate has characteristics of dried fruits: raisins, figs, dates; deep and rich. And American? Well, it’s cheaper, and according to Dr. Smith (aka: me), I think it has deep roots in our emotional brain from childhood. Those trips to the corner candy store, boxes of Whitman’s or Russell Stover’s back in our tender years elicit fond memories and thus, comforting tastes and flavors.

What is nice to know, is that while women usually buy about 75% of chocolate throughout the year, the sexes are reversed in the days leading up to February 14th, leaving the male species waiting on line with those pretty heart-shaped boxes. Aaah! And some say romance is dead. Must be those same cynics who don’t like this very sweet ‘dia de amor.’

Whether it be from a lover, a child, a parent, a friend, may there be sweet treats waiting for you this Valentine’s Day! As for me, while I love a good Hershey’s bar with almonds (sweet childhood memories) I’m still hoping for a little Toblerone (Swiss) or Raymer’s; (Belgian chocolates made in Doylestown and our Valentine’s giveaway) or one of these artisan brands listed below (that have received great reviews), made in the US, using fresh and often, local, organic ingredients, that I hope to sample soon:
John & Kira (have sampled and can attest to their yum factor);