FOR THE LOVE OF CHOCOLATE

All his life, Jason Judkins was seeking something, but he was looking in all the wrong places, like vending machines. "Usually between 2 and 3 o'clock I'd eat a Snickers, a Three Musketeers or a Twix," he recalls. "Then after dinner I'd have chocolate cake, or Hershey's Nuggets, or ice cream with Hershey's syrup." But that was before his first taste of a dark-chocolate truffle from The Cocoa Tree, an artisanal candy store in his town of Franklin, Tenn. Made fresh on the premises from dark chocolate and organic cream and butter, it made his mouth "explode" with tastes he'd never gotten from an M&M. Of course, he could have bought a lot of M&Ms for the price of a single truffle, $1.80 plus tax. But these days he is satisfied with chocolate only a couple of times a week instead of twice a day, and since each piece is 10 times as good, he's way ahead.

Long after iceberg gave way to arugula, candy remained defiantly retro: cheap, garishly wrapped and tasting just like it did when you were a kid. But eventually, connoisseurship touches everything. The symbol of this revolution is dark chocolate, intensely flavored with cocoa, fragrant and complex. Comparing it with milk chocolate--also made from cocoa, but diluted with milk powder, lecithin and much more sugar--is like comparing wine with grape soda. Once dark chocolate was an obscure and furtive passion that involved haunting drugstores for a stray Lindt bar. Now grocery stores carry Dagoba Organic Chocolate at up to $4.40 for a two-ounce bar, or the Chocovic Ocumare, which caters to the obsessive chocolate snob by listing its cocoa content (71 percent) and the type of bean (Venezuelan Criollo) on the wrapper. Sales of high-end chocolates have risen 20 percent each year since 2001, says Clay Gordon, who runs the chocophile.com Web site. And the revolution has reached even the mass marketers. Hershey's introduced dark-chocolate Kisses in 2003; this year Mars is rolling out dark versions of Twix and, yes, even M&Ms. "Americans have spent the last 10 years educating themselves about wine, olive oil and cheese," says Gordon. "Attention is finally turning to chocolate. The surprise is it's taken this long."

In fact, chocolate is joining wine as a signifier of gourmet aspirations. John Scharffenberger was a successful vintner before turning to chocolate in 1996. "Taste the depth of flavor that well-fermented cacao produces," his Web site proclaims, a slogan about as far as you can get from "Wotta chunka chocolate!" Last year his stores in Berkeley, Calif., and San Francisco (a new one just opened in New York) sold 800,000 pounds of truffles and chocolate bars, a testimonial, he believes, to Americans' increasing sophistication. His products aren't cheap, but, he says, "you don't eat Velveeta because you're poor, but because you don't know better. This isn't about wealth, it's about sophistication."

Indeed, anyone with a dollar or two can taste the artisanal truffles of Legacy Chocolates in Menomonie, Wis., or Moonstruck Chocolate Co. in Portland, Ore., or any number of other local chocolatiers now dotting the mallscape. ("Truffle" typically means a soft chocolate confection dusted in cocoa powder; filled chocolates are better described, simply, as "bonbons.") Biting into one, you immediately understand why chocolate has been associated with sex at least since 1519, when the Aztec emperor, Montezuma, became renowned for the vast quantities of hot "xoco latl" he drank before visiting his harem. The rich taste and intoxicating aroma arouse the senses, immediately bestowing pleasure upon the eater. This experience has given rise to a new type of customer, capable of integrating chocolate consumption into a normal, healthy lifestyle, like those French women who don't get fat. Kristan Collins, a Portland, Ore., pediatrician, finds it more delicious and healthful to buy and eat truffles one at a time, a few times a week, rather than buying a giant box only on Easter or Valentine's Day. The mental effort involved in trying to make a box of chocolates last a respectable time detracts from the pleasure of eating them, as does the guilt of gobbling them all down at once. And you never have to worry about breaking a tooth on a frozen Milky Way at 3 in the morning.

The relentless push toward sophistication and quality has been felt even at Godiva, which was the ne plus ultra of chocolate when it was introduced to America in 1966. (It is now a subsidiary of Campbell's, Inc.) Godiva's offerings included the "G Collection" of super-high-end chocolates that sell for as much as $350, in a handcrafted and numbered box of "East African Wenge Wood." New York chocolatier Jacques Torres takes the opposite approach to packaging, handing his exquisite truffles over the counter in orange plastic bags. "People are saying, do you have any tissue to put in the bags?" Torres mimics in his distinct French accent. "I tell people I sell chocolate, not boxes!"

In all cases, though, it's about the pleasure of consumption, of connoisseurship and luxury--exactly what you don't get from a stale candy bar munched thoughtlessly at one's desk. "Starbucks founder Howard Schultz realized 20 years ago that he isn't selling just coffee, he's selling an experience," says chocophile.com's Gordon. "The difference between a carton cup of coffee for a buck and a Starbucks for $3.95 is people are saying, 'I deserve it. I am worth it. and I am going to spend that money on me'."

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