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Charlotte's chocolate connections

Candlelight, a card, chocolates and a little lust - I mean, love - are elements of a "romantic" evening. And although Valentine's Day may be institutionalized romance as well as a major business event for restaurants, greeting card companies, florists and chocolatiers, any lover of consequence should at least provide some, if not all, of the above - or suffer the consequences.

The easiest to procure has always been a box of chocolates. Even the candy manufacturers make it effortless by packaging their goods in festive heart-shaped boxes. But should you choose these?

Good chocolate can be expensive. Is it worth it? The long and the short answer is yes, since the better the quality of the chocolate, the better the taste. For the most spectacular chocolate, buy the best Belgium you can. Even though cacao trees are tropical, Belgium is the center of the chocolate universe. In Brussels, hordes of chocoholics visit the Museum of Cocoa and Chocolate complete with a fountain pouring pure chocolate. In Belgium, chocolate shops sell handcrafted chocolate via white-gloved clerks. Since handcrafted chocolate contains no chemical preservatives, these confections have a shelf life of 15 days or less. Even European Godiva tastes different since the creams used are unpasteurized.

I'd fly to Brussels just to have more chocolate from Pierre Marcolini. Although his company has expanded to Paris, London and Tokyo, he has yet to open a shop in the US. He produces the quintessential chocolate.

In the States, the buzz is about Jacque Torres. His New York City shop will overnight chocolate. He also has a Chocolate of the Month Club for that year-round love:

So where can you get handcrafted chocolate in Charlotte?

The Barking Dog Chocolatiers, for starters. Drs. Joal Fischer and Debbie Langsam have been making gourmet chocolates in Dilworth for eight years. A small box of three truffles, their signature "chocolate mouse," and two pieces of toasted pecan and drunken cherry bark is $12, while their extraordinary fabric-covered origami pyramid filled with chocolates, and a small toy dog, is $75. Seventy-five percent of the proceeds go to charity.Barking Dog Chocolatiers, 1607 Dilworth Road West. 704-332-4880.

Dean & Deluca has a new showcase for their chocolates at the SouthPark store. Here you can buy a small two-piece box of Altmann & Kuhne, a Viennese chocolate, for $25. They also sell Knipshildt Chocolates, Harbor Sweets Chocolatiers, including sugar-free, and Bridgewater Chocolates from Connecticut. On the lighter side, try a tin of chocolate sardines or a box of black and white dominoes by Christopher Norman for $45.Dean & Deluca, area stores.

The Fresh Market has an assortment of chocolates. Their Godiva counter has individual pieces of chocolate, but you can also buy the heart-shaped boxes ($65) here as well. This year, Godiva offers a $26 box of Passion Truffles: five for her and five for him, with exotic fillings.Fresh Market, area stores.

For professional help in selecting product for your Valentines, try the Godiva shop in SouthPark Mall. These employees have extensive knowledge of their goods as well as carry the full line of chocolates available from the company. The stuffed bear with a small box of chocolates is $22.Godiva Chocolatier, SouthPark Mall. 704-366-1335.

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