Linda: Today's our day to taste chocolates. We missed Valentines Day but it's not too late to think about chocolate for Easter. We decided to focus on chocolatiers that make small batches of chocolates by hand. We visited four stores in the Chicago area, all highly regarded for their chocolate creations. It was hard to be entirely scientific in our side-by-side comparisons because each store had a somewhat different focus. But in each spot we sampled three pieces, at least one truffle and one enrobed chocolate.
Sharon and I discovered that we like different fillings – I love chocolates with fruit-based fillings like raspberry or cherry, Sharon, not so much. I love dark chocolate, the more intense the chocolate taste the better.
That said, we agreed on our two favorite chocolatiers overall – Vosges Haut-Chocolat and Belgian Chocolatier Piron. Vosges is creative in mixing the savory and the sweet and pushing the envelope in filling combinations. Piron is a very traditional Belgian chocolatier, with exacting standards that shine through in the appearance and taste of their products.
But first a bit of terminology. Chocolate comes from cocoa beans, which are pressed to make cocoa liquor, which in turn, is separated into cocoa butter and cocoa solids. White chocolate has only cocoa butter, no cocoa solids. White chocolate and milk chocolate are typically 25% to 40% cocoa liquor. Dark chocolate is typically 50-75% cocoa liquor. But even two dark chocolates with the identical percentage of cocoa liquor can taste different, depending on the mix of cocoa butter and cocoa solids. The higher the percentage of cocoa solids, the more intense the chocolate flavor.
To me the best chocolates have a rich chocolate flavor, melt smoothly in your mouth, and have a filling that balances the intensity of the chocolate.
Sharon: My only disappointment in our tasting was I never had that old-school melt-in-your mouth experience I was craving. Not quite sure why it is so hard to find the really soft, creamy filling.
Vosges Haut-Chocolat, 951 W. Armitage, Chicago
Sharon: Vosges is the ultimate high-end chocolate shop experience. It is truly a feast for the eyes as well as the palate. There are numerous glass display cases, chandeliers, and a beautiful dining-type table that serves as an invitation to sit and savor a bit of heaven. The truffles and assorted other chocolates (barks, seasonal novelties, and sugar-free) are displayed clearly with descriptions of their flavor profile. We sampled three: peanut butter bon-bon; Red Fire truffle with cinnamon and chile; Tian Nacu truffle with Mexican vanilla.
For my tastes, the peanut butter was too salty with Himalayan salt in the peanut butter cream and also topped with sea salt. I really enjoy savory and sweet, but it was just a bit overwhelming for me. The red fire (dark chocolate) was the perfect balance. A little bit of heat, but not so much that it blew your head off. And lastly, the Tian Nacu truffle did not have enough of a vanilla taste for my liking.
Linda: The Red Fire truffle was my favorite chocolate of the day. The first bite brought a smile to my face. The heat was integrated with the taste of the chocolate, not an aftertaste like other places. I do love salt and chocolate together and didn't think that the peanut butter bon-bon was too salty.
Belgian Chocolatier Piron, 509-A Main Street, Evanston
Linda: This was our last stop of the day. We were lucky to be able to talk to Michelle, the quite knowledgeable counter person. The shop itself is filled with beautiful chocolates. All of the chocolates are made on site by the Piron brothers, who have been creating chocolates in the Belgian tradition in the Chicago area for over 25 years. They make chocolates daily, use no preservatives, no extenders, and only the best ingredients. (Check out the list of ingredients in some mass-produced chocolates and you'll see what I mean.) We tasted two of their best sellers - the Grand Marnier, a chocolate butter cream flavored with Grand Marnier - and their milk chocolate, praliné truffle. I especially liked their truffle, with its hazelnut flavored interior. We also tried the dark chocolate ganache with pecan - a heart-shaped chocolate with a nicely balanced pecan flavor. After our in-store tasting, we each bought 4 chocolate pieces to take home, a sure sign that we liked the Piron chocolates.
Sharon: I agree with you. I enjoyed Piron quite a bit. This shop has more of a small-town, comfy vibe that you don't experience in the city. My favorite chocolate that we tasted together was the dark chocolate with pecan. I thought it had the perfect balance of nut to cream. And the chocolates I took home with me were even better than what we sampled at the shop. I had a crème caramel and a mocha ganache that were both outstanding. I also tried their version of red chile; disappointing because the chile was only dusted on top, not infused in the ganache.
You don't have to live in Chicago to try these chocolates. They can be ordered online. Easter is just around the corner.