My love Patrick is receiving a nose hair trimmer for Valentine's Day. Though I know he will appreciate the thought, I figured I better throw a little romance into his gift as well. He's a lover of chocolates, the higher end the better, and I'm hoping he will share a few with his better half. A tip from a friend led me to Chuao Chocolatier, which has four store locations in San Diego. Chocolatier Michael Antonorsi founded the company three years ago in Encinitas. "I decided to pursue my passion," he told me, "so I went to France and became a chef, then specialized in chocolate and pastry. I am from Venezuela and the best chocolate in the world comes from Venezuela. So we figured we will use the best techniques, with the best raw materials -- Venezuelan chocolate. And where do we make it? Well, in the best place -- San Diego." The secret to good chocolate, Antonorsi explained, is in the cacao plant it comes from. "There are different types or families of cacao," he said. "From the south coast of the Amazon river is a cacao called forastero. It is a type of cacao that is very robust, solid, but a little less refined in the flavor profile. It has a flat type of cacao flavor.... The criollo blossoms in the north coast of South America, which is now Venezuela, and it is much more refined and delicate. Not even one percent of the cacao in the world is criollo. The criollo type is very delicate, complicated, low yields, but very, very fine. Since criollo is so delicate and sensitive, the type that has been industrially grown worldwide is the forastero type of cacao. Then there is a third version, which was sort of like a hybrid called the trinitario strand. About 10 percent of cacao in the world is some sort of trinitario blend. It's more aromatic, fruity, but it is also a little more resistant than the criollo. So in Venezuela now there are many different crossovers and combinations. We have over 14 types of cacao in Venezuela. We make some really fine chocolate based on the Venezuelan cacao. In the past 20 to 40 years, every chocolatier in the world trying to be very refined would have some kind of a reference to Venezuelan cacao."
Beyond the high-quality cacao, Antonorsi says, "What I think makes our chocolate special is our creative combinations of centers and the fact that it is freshly made. It is all natural -- no preservatives and no artificial flavors -- which for the chocolate industry in the United States is something new. Some chocolates you buy have been sitting on the distribution chain for two or three months. Artisan chocolatiers like us make small batches, handmade, with fresh fruit, real ingredients, no extracts or artificial compounds. And that by itself makes a big difference between my chocolate and other kinds. So if we do a passion fruit caramel, the ingredients are sugar, cream, butter, and passion fruit. We have been free to create some very interesting combinations, with spices; we have chocolate with goat cheese, chocolate with strawberry caramel and balsamic vinegar."
For this Valentine's Day, Chuao Chocolatier is offering a limited edition chocolate gift package called Eros ($39 ), after the god of love. "It's a heart-shaped chocolate shell," explained Antonorsi, "about a third of a pound, which is sealed and needs to be cracked open. And inside there are champagne truffles. The outside heart is painted in a shiny coppery glitter. The champagne truffles are made without champagne extracts or artificial champagne flavors. It's made from 12 bottles of champagne that we reduce down to one bottle of champagne. We will be offering it only until Valentine's Day."
Another sweetheart present offered this year is called Mi Amor ( $32 ), a pink and brown, polka-dotted, heart-shaped box filled with 16 truffles: honey truffles, almond truffles, wild truffles, and Chuao's signature champagne truffles.
A box of nine bonbons or truffles costs $15 at Chuao. Sixteen chocolates, $25 , and 50 go for $75 . And what is the difference between a bonbon and a truffle? "My definition of a truffle," Antonorsi said, "is a confection that has a free form or a rounded kind of a free form, and to which the outside layer is other than chocolate. While a bonbon is a confection that has a more defined form, can be molded or dipped, and the outside layer is chocolate."
Chuao is also offering a chef wine selection box ( $59.95 ), a 2003 Piemonte Moscato with a box of 25 wine pairing bonbons, packaged in a brown suitcase box.
I pressed Antonorsi to share his favorites. "My favorite ones normally have a little bit more than just the flavor. I like the Picante, which has a bit of cayenne pepper and pasilla chilis. It is very smoky, and it has a little heat on your throat."
Another favorite, "the Candela, which is in the shape of a little flame and painted like a flame. It's a macadamia nut praline with chili and salt. It is almost like a snack. The Chèvere is the top of the top. It is goat cheese buttercream with pear Williams, and it has crushed black pepper and chocolate. So you can imagine you get the acidity, the tartness of the goat cheese, and then the round sweetness of the pear, and if you happen to crush to a little bit of crushed black pepper, you get a little spike of peppery aroma to it, and it is just awesome."
The store will ship chocolates nationwide, and Antonorsi recommends placing orders for store purchases.
The UTC shop was hopping when I arrived there to buy some bonbons and truffles for tasting. The saleslady told me that their chocolate bars were a popular item as well ( $5.95 each or $15 for three). "The spicy Maya dark chocolate bar is quite popular," she pointed out, "as is the Earl Grey milk chocolate bar."
The store also offers chocolate-making classes each month. Contact store for times and dates.