The holidays are upon us once again and that means that it's once again time to try and find that perfect gift for the chocolate lover in your life (even if it turns out to be yourself). And honestly, what better gift is there than chocolate? Last year I whipped up a bit of a list of gift ideas, but it happened to end up getting posted a little later than I would like. This year we're striving to improve on last year by getting the list out earlier and adding a bunch of new bits of love to it.
First, a word of warning. I write what I know. There are probably tons of great things out there that aren't getting on my list because I'm just not aware of them. So just because I sing the praises of brand X doesn't mean that it's the be-all end all or anything. It’s just the brand I’m most familiar with and favorably disposed toward. So grain of salt and all that.
Anyway, on with the list!
It's a little early for the sales and coupons to be popping up, but a few have surfaced and I figure with the economy as is we should address them. You can order early at a lot of the online stores (thank goodness - good chocolate has a short shelf life) so while we have coupons it's best we take advantage. Of course I shared our Vosges Haut-Chocolat coupon (2810WB1) with everybody earlier this month and it is still good for 10% off through the end of November. Alternately, if you order gifts for three or more of your loved ones by the 21st of November you can get a whopping 15% off with promo code 2811EM1 (good in stores and online, but this early in the season I'd go for online with a ship date a little closer to the actual holiday of choice). Charles Chocolates has a similar deal going on where you get a 20 Piece box of Pecan Caramels if you order for six or more of your chocolate loving loved ones. Those are the only ones I'm aware of right now, but I'll keep updating this section with any new coupons or deals that I see go slipping through my inbox so check back now and again. Typically you'll see a lot of free ground shipping deals between now and Christmas so I'm sure to find something.
Shopping for the Chocolate Lover
As I stated in last year's lineup, the chocolate lover can be very easy or extremely difficult to shop for depending on their tastes. I know those who are thrilled with a bag of York Peppermint Patties (me included) and I know those who will not be happy with less than high quality artisan bars. Knowing the tastes of your gifting target is the fist step. Once you know what you're aiming for in broad terms you can start to narrow in and I have a few ideas to help with that.
The first option I'm offering is the local chocolatier. If a person doesn't frown on anything not in bar form then it is a great resource and a wonderful way to help out your local chocolate artisans. If you go in with a couple of basics regarding the giftee's tastes (milk, dark, or white, and what fruits, liqueurs and other flavors do they like) you can have a custom assortment whipped together. It's a simple concept - when in doubt ask an expert. This also has the added benefit of zero shipping cost and the chance to see exactly what is going into the box. And, personally, I believe in supporting the little guy. And if you're not sure how good your local guy is, then I suggest you turn to the power of Google or word of mouth.
And in a similar strain we have the mighty Chocosphere. They are the internet kings of bar chocolate. If only the finest bars of chocolate will do then Chocosphere is your hookup. They have an amazing array of bars (and other stuff, but the bars steal the show in my eyes) and they build custom gift bags, baskets, boxes and just assortments and you can even make a special request regarding the contents. So, in theory, you can specify the tastes of the person you're shopping for and they will put something fitting together. Or you can take a look in their "Great Gift Ideas" section for some neat chocolate assortments and they also do a chocolate of the month club and the ubiquitous gift certificate. And if you know what you're looking for you can always order those specific items and do-it-yourself.
Next up is the standard array of online chocolatiers. They are legion and many will have nice deals between now and Christmas. I'm not going to try to list them all here, but a number of them will get mentioned as the list drags on, so keep reading!
Finally there is the last minute gift. If you find yourself pushed right up on the deadline then I say look local. I do not recommend shopping for gift chocolate at the grocery store (most don't have the necessary selection of quality stuff to really get gifting with). I do recommend that you look to the local chocolatiers and the semi-regional stores (like Anthony Thomas in Columbus or Betsy Ann in the Pittsburgh area). If you get desperate you can always grab something at one of the mall stores (Godiva, Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory), but I believe that going out of your way for something more than grocery or mall chocolate delivers a message (and the converse applies as well).
And now for the fun stuff. Returning from last year are the "specialized" categories!
For the Tea and Chocolate Lover
For the Fruit and Chocolate Lover
- As with last year I'm opening up with the Charles Chocolates Tea Collection. I ordered a set for myself last winter and enjoyed it thoroughly. Very awesome stuff.
- One of the highlights of the New York Chocolate Show for me was getting to try a bunch of the teas from SeendipiTea. They have a batch of teas with chocolate in them and even have a really nice gift set with individual tins in a nice display box. I will admit I don't know a whole lot about tea, but I loved all of their teas that I tried.
- MarieBelle and their Dark Obsession Chocolate Rose Tea have to get a mention as well. They've got a variety of teas and hot chocolates and you can get a nice combo pack of tea, coffee, and hot chocolate.
- And you can always give tea and chocolate. You know, separate. You don't have to get the one with the other in. Just a thought.
- I still can’t say enough about John and Kira’s punkin figs. They are magic. I was planning on grabbing some at the chocolate show and have instead opted for online ordering which was quick and painless.
- Fran’s Chocolates also does figs as well as dipped apricots, orange peel, and ginger.
- Speaking of apricots, they really are great with chocolate. And the local chocolatiers (and even the queen of the Mall stores, Godiva) are likely to be great sources for fresh or dried fruit dipped in the yummy stuff. And you can get various dried fruit covered in chocolate at some of the “healthier” grocery type stores (like Whole Foods). Dried blueberries and goji berries are quite lovely.
- One of the items I really felt a need for at the Chocolate Show was a tube of the Orange Twigs from Charles Chocolates. They are evil little butter truffles with lovely orange flavor to them. In a less chocolaty and more fruity vein they also do homemade marmalades and Pâte de Fruit which I haven’t tried, but would expect to be just as excellent as everything else they make.
- Recchiuti has some interesting fruit items including Pâte de Fruit and Key Lime Apples and Pears.
- MarieBelle, one of my favorite places in New York City, has some gorgeous River Rocks and their Tropical Fruit Caramels.
And speaking of caramel...
For the Caramel Lover
Some Like It Hot
- Can I mention the Fran’s Chocolates without mentioning the bump they’re getting by having their name dropped by Mr. President Elect Obama? Fran has been famous for her caramel’s for years now, but now it turns out the Barack Obama loves her Smoked Salt Caramel in Milk Chocolate. But even without the unofficial endorsement of the future President these are caramels to be high on any list.
- MarieBelle, as I mentioned a couple of sentences back, has those Tropical Fruit Caramels to try.
- Another of my favorite places,Lillie Belle Farms, still offers their Scovie Award-winning Cayenne Caramels which I finally tried and like a lot. Better than them, though (in my opinion, of course) are their Lavender Fluer du Sel Caramels. Tres yum! They have a number of other fruit based pieces so take a look at their selection.
- In addition to his fruit offerings Recchiuti also has Fluer de Sel Caramels which I imagine are as good as everything else he offers.
- The be all end all of “hot” when it comes to chocolate are the Maya and Aztec styled hot chocolates one of my favorites being Jacques Torres’ Wicked Hot Chocolate. It’s exceptionally good and just shy of overwhelming.
- MarieBelle also have their own Aztec Hot Chocolate (both spicy and non-spicy versions, but since this section is about the hot stuff, well, we’ll just focus on the heat). More Wonderful Stuff.
- And equally as wonderful is the Spicy Maya Hot Chocolate from Chuao Chocolatier. Their Spicy Maya bar is also great and their Firecracker truffles (Caramel fudge, chipotle, salt & popping candy) are something you have to experience. Wild stuff.
- I can’t talk “hot” chocolates without mentioning the king of the Maya chocolate bars: Dagoba Xocolatl. It’s a bar I keep returning to because it is just so right it’s wrong.
- Lake Champlain have a pretty good Organic Dark Spicy Aztec Chocolate Bar as well.
- Well paired wine and chocolate is a great gift idea and Chuao Chocolatier have a few of them available.
- Vosges also offer wine and chocolate gift sets, but they go one further and offer up beer and chocolate gift sets. How awesome is that? And even better? They have their Caramel Marshmallows paired with Rogue Chocolate Stout! I’ve been munching the Caramel Marshmallows with various stouts lately and they go together wonderfully. Yum.
- And sometimes a beer alone is enough. That Rogue Chocolate Stout I mentioned is just one of many beers with some chocolate action going on. The one thing you need to know, though, is you’re probably looking at nothing lighter than a porter and more likely a stout. Ask your local beer experts for hints.
- And speaking of your local experts, your local wine shop and chocolate shop might be a good source for ideas. If you want to pair dark chocolate with fine wine then ask for a fine wine that will sing with chocolate and take advantage of some local expertise.
Over The Top
- For the chocolate lover who might find themselves in New York City there is the option of a walking tour from Chocolate ZOOM.
- If your chocolate lover loves to bake then cookbooks are a wonderful way to go. I have a fondness for one called Chocolate Obsession (for rather obvious reasons), but there are tons of them out there. Check the reviews on Amazon to find some of the better ones.
- Help the chocolate lover on your list make their own chocolate with the help of Chocolate Alchemy. I know it’s something I’m dying to try.
So the concept here is this: what do you give the chocolate lover on your list when money is no object (or at least less of an object than it is for most of us)? The answer seemed pretty simple to me: travel. When giving a box of chocolate just isn't enough then you step up to the next level and give an entire city of it. Once again - this list will be anything but complete and limited by my knowledge and experience. Use you imagination and I'm sure you could come up with something to put my little list to shame.
Now, to the list!
The first place that springs to mind when I think of chocolate destinations is Hershey Pennsylvania. They’ve got the Hershey Hotel with it’s chocolate spa treatments and the whole big Hershey's Chocolate World and Hershey Park for those with kids. It’s simple and probably not too terribly expensive and offers something for the whole family.
The next two offerings are cities that are home to an amazing amount of fantastic chocolate. First up is San Francisco, the powerhouse of American chocolate. Home to Ghirardelli and Scharffen Berger as well as Recchiuti Confections and Charles Chocolates the city has some serious hitters on offer. And for a taste of the international Fog City News is an amazing source of chocolate from around the world. And the annual Ghirardelli Square Chocolate Festival sounds like a winner. There is also the San Francisco Chocolate Salon in the spring (March 21 in 2009). And even if you don't get into town during a big event, it still has more than enough to offer to make it a great chocolate destination. Not to mention that it’s San Francisco! Ignoring the chocolate you still have an amazing vacation destination.
To me New York City is the American outpost of European Chocolate. There are a vast number of European chocolatiers with a presence in the city and on top of that there are some great American chocolatiers to try as well (especially Kee’s Chocolates in SoHo). On top of the straight chocolate there are an amazing array of world class restaurants where you can find something chocolatey to indulge in. And if you’ve got kids in tow then there is the fun with the Hershey and M&M's stores in Times Square (not to mention the giant Toys’r’Us) I still dream of somebody taking one of the little boutique hotels and making it a chocolate hotel with shops and restaurants and such, but I don’t know whether my vision is really all that feasible. Anyway, while there you can wander on your own or take a couple of walking chocolate tours through Chocolate ZOOM as a great guided introduction to the city's chocolate. Time things right and you can even take in the New York Chocolate Show which is awesome fun. And just like San Francisco if you look aside from the chocolate for a second you’ll come to realize that you are in a city that is amazing all on it’s own.
Now to really take things to another level why not take a look beyond the borders of our humble little country? There are cruises offered every so often with chefs on board who do the whole cooking class thing and if you manage to slip onto one where somebody with some chocolate cred is on board (I know that Katrina Markoff from Vosges does one of these from time to time). And I hear stories of evil midnight chocolate buffets on cruises. What better to eat at midnight (ok, at midnight I’ll usually go with pizza or some bar snax, but when on the cruise maybe the whole choco-buffet thing would work for me)?
Taking things one step further is what is possibly the greatest chocolate city in the world: Paris. You can have a chocolate tour led by the legendary David Lebovitz and Mort Rosenblum as well. We’re talking Paris here! And if you get creative you could maybe make it part of a Mediterranean cruise or a chocolate tour of Europe. If you’re going overboard why not go all the way? The only problem I can come up with is that the city might overshadow the chocolate.
The one thing I found myself lacking for last year’s list was a way to go to the source. To visit a chocolate plantation and get involved in the process first hand. This year I’ve got Cotton Tree Lodge, a resort in Belize with an enticing array of outdoor activities offered, but more important they have what they call Chocolate Week. They offer Mayan chocolate making as part of the normal visits, but when you visit for Chocolate Week it takes things to a new level. You get a week full of chocolate making (as well as the other lovely diversions they offer) from bean to bar and on top of it you get to take home chocolate that you made! How cool is that? And to make things a little more enticing they’ve told me that if you mention my blog you can get 10% off of your Chocolate Week vacation. This, to me, is the ultimate in chocolate travel (unless you string together all of the destinations which, of course, is crazy over the top and crazy expensive as well). You get to go to the source of it all and experience the chocolate making process first hand. At a resort. Now that’s a “win win” if ever I saw one. And it’s probably a lot cheaper than Paris.
Now I’m sure that there are more ideas to be had. This is just what I was able to come up with from my experience. The concept is that you think about it and pick the right gift for the chocolate lover you’re shopping for. So take me at my word or use this as a starting point and make the holidays special for those you love.