Buying a box of chocolates for your sweetheart (or for yourself, for that matter) is not as easy as it used to be, when the only mystery about it was what kind of filling was beneath the chocolate in your assortment. Coconut? Raspberry? Almonds? Today, those same boxes of candy are still available, of course, but a closer look at the labels reveals a stunning variety in flavors and types of chocolate. Chocolate is now a burgeoning connoisseur's market, and one in which the origin is almost as important as the quality of the ingredients.

"I know people who claim they can take a bite of chocolate and tell you which plantation in Central America it was grown on, artisan chocolates in boxmuch the same way wine tasters do," says Tim Gearhart, chocolatier and co- owner of Gearhart's Chocolates in Charlottesville, Virginia.

For the ordinary consumer, however, chocolate can be confusing. Some labels on chocolate bars and heart shaped boxes use words like organic, vegan, and fair trade. The list of ingredients may include such things as chili pepper, juniper, and ginger. In chocolate? And is chocolate really chocolate? Often there's a percent of cacao listed, or words like 'chocolatey' or 'chocolate-flavored.'  What does it all mean and where can you turn for answers?

Chocolate Basics

Cacao (pronounced kah KOW) beans grow in tropical environment, such as Central America and the West Coast of Africa, so for most of us, buying local isn't an option. There are three kinds of cacao beans from which chocolate is made:  Criolla, Forastero, and Trinitario. These variations are similar to variations you find in other foods, such as apples. You have Granny Smith, Red Delicious, Fuji, etc. Just as apples are labeled with their variety, often a quality chocolate bar will be labeled with the variety of bean used.

The cacao bean is fermented, dried, and ground into nibs, and then the nibs are ground into two substances: chocolate liquor and cocoa butter. The pure form of chocolate liquor is what comprises baking chocolate. This dark liquor can be further processed and refined to make cocoa powder, or it can be mixed with cocoa butter, emulsifiers (lecithin), sweeteners, milk and flavorings to make chocolate.

The basic types of chocolate are:

Unsweetened baking chocolate - pure chocolate liquor.

Semisweet chocolate - contains up to 35 percent chocolate liquor.

Bittersweet chocolate - by U.S. law, must contain at least 35 percent chocolate liquor (43% in the UK).  Good quality bittersweet chocolate may contain 70% or more chocolate liquor; the higher the percent of chocolate liquor the more intense the flavor.

Milk chocolate - contains milk, usually in powdered form, and at least 10 percent chocolate liquor.

White chocolate - not really chocolate at all since it doesn't contain chocolate liquor. Real white chocolate does, however, contain cocoa butter. Unfortunately, what is often labeled as 'white chocolate' is actually a compound based on vegetable fat rather than the luscious, melt-in-your-mouth cocoa butter.

Consumers should take careful note of terms like 'chocolatey' or 'chocolate-flavored' on descriptive labels on any kind of chocolate bars. Those words mean the product is not really chocolate, but a vegetable-oil based product that actually contains little if any chocolate, let alone cocoa butter.

The Chocolate Movement

white chocolate truffle

If you haven't ventured in a chocolate shop lately, you may be surprised by the unique flavor blends currently on offer for what used to be a somewhat standard treat. Here are some samples from two of the best small-batch artisanal chocolatiers in the United States:  Gearhart's Chocolates in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Wen Chocolates in Denver, Colorado. (Note: Ganache is a mixture of chocolate and cream.)

Gearharts Chocolates:

Maya - cocoa dusted ganache with Ancho chili, cinnamon, and orange.

Tajâ - bittersweet ganache with cardamom, rose, and candied ginger.

Raspberry Zinâ - semi-sweet ganache with raspberry-zinfandel conserves.

Wen Chocolates:

Violette - dark chocolate infused with black violet tea, hand dipped in more dark chocolate, topped with candied violets.

Savannah - A blend of dark chocolate infused with honey pepper vodka, cayenne pepper, Aleppo chili, white pepper, and hot Hungarian paprika, topped with a chili mango.

Cesnja - Morella cherries aged in French brandy, combined with white pepper in a smooth and rich dark chocolate ganache.

As you can see, the chocolate lover now has a wide swath of flavors from which to choose. Both Gearhart's and Wen offer only fresh chocolate with no chemical laden preservatives. "There's nothing wrong with the big retail, Godiva-class chocolates, for example," says Gearhart. "But it's made to stay on the shelf for months. My chocolate is not. I think it tastes better."  "We prefer the freshness route,' says William Poole, chef and co-owner of Wen Chocolates. "This means our products (truffles) have a shelf life of approximately three weeks. Truffles, especially, need to be eaten fresh, as their infusions or flavors are better at that point."

So, another hint for the chocolate lover: look at the 'best by' dates on the package. Or, buy it directly from a small batch chocolate shop for the ultimate chocolate experience. Yes, the cost of handcrafted chocolates is more than you will find for most drugstore chocolates, but it's worth the price when considering the time and quality of ingredients involved. You're also likely to find two more important phrases on the labels of artisanal chocolates: organic and fair trade. Organic is good for your health because the cacao beans are grown without the use of harmful pesticides and fertilizers. Fair trade is good for humanity. Many unscrupulous plantations have extremely poor working conditions in which children are used, illegally, for the backbreaking work of picking cacao beans. This process is very labor intensive, so to sell inexpensive chocolate one must have inexpensive labor. This is why illegal child labor has become more widespread.

"We try our best to avoid the cacao from these plantations, which are mostly on the West Coast of Africa. Ours comes from Venezuela; it's arguably the best chocolate in any case. But it's really difficult to know what's going on at any individual plantation, unless you've been there. We rely on good reputations," says Tim Gearhart. William Poole agrees. "We do rely on reputation of manufacturer as well as industry publications in regards to fair trade."

Whenever you venture out to buy chocolate, read the labels; they tell a flavorful story. Choose real chocolate created with a conscience, and maybe add some exciting new flavor combinations to the mix.  Bon appetit!