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What you need to know about real chocolate 

Forget that candy aisle stuff

While the uncertainty of life, as described by Forrest Gump's mom, may be like a box of chocolates, if you buy a box of chocolates from The Secret Chocolatier, Charlotte's preeminent chocolatiers, you will know exactly what you are going to get: a mouthful of luscious deliciousness. February is a busy month for The Secret Chocolatier clan, chef Bill and Karen Dietz, and their daughter Robin and her husband Andy Ciordia. This year with a second store in Ballantyne, they are even busier.

Want to kickstart a thorough exploration of chocolate? We've got you covered. Here's what you need to know.

First, if you want to experience chocolate, you need to visit an artisanal chocolate shop. Even though I grew up frequenting a delightful chocolate shop that specialized in molded milk chocolates, it wasn't until I consumed Pierre Marcolini chocolates in Brussels — the first, a bergamot infused with fresh lemon and lime, the second, bitter ganache spiked by Moroccan pink pepper berries — that I understood chocolate as a revelatory experience. In other words the similarity of mass-produced kid-focused chocolates available on the candy aisle to artisanal chocolates is akin to the relationship of grape juice to wine.

As Andy Ciordia simply notes of his artisanal chocolates, "So many flavors to explore in such a small package." At an artisanal shop, you can discover how to taste chocolate — how flavors unfold and interact.

Do you love white chocolate? Here's a newsflash: It isn't actually chocolate, as it contains no cocoa solids. White chocolate is a blend of cocoa butter, sugar, milk and is thought to have been created by Swiss-based Nestle, better known for its Toll House chocolate chips than its white chocolate Alpine bar.

But there are white cacao beans. Four years ago, a rare find occurred in the chocolate world. Nacional cacoa trees were discovered in northern Peru. These trees produce football-sized pods containing 40 percent white beans; the others are purple. White beans produce an intensively flavorful, less bitter and mellower chocolate. When these white beans are roasted, however, they brown like other cocoa beans.

If, as you're reading this story, your mouth is watering but you need an excuse to indulge, take note: Chocolate may be good for you. Dark chocolate with a cocoa content of at least 70 percent contains flavonoids, those healthy organic compounds also found in red wine, green tea, blueberries and apples. Scientists are currently studying the potential health benefits, including anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, as well as a link to disease prevention, including cognitive impairment, provided by the flavonoids (catechins and proanthocyanidins) in chocolate.

What about chocolate as an aphrodisiac? Some chocolates contain phenylethylamine (PEA), the same chemical released in our brains during sex. PEA triggers the release of serotonin and endorphins — those feel good chemicals. However, other studies show PEA doesn't last long in our bodies. Additionally, some believe in a positive relationship between theobromine, also found in cacao, and sex. While none of these claims have been proven conclusively, the consumption of chocolate is undeniably gratifying.

Anecdotally, the Aztecs used a chocolate drink, xocolatl, to pump up their warriors, and Aztec kings drank it before visiting their harem. In 1765, Dr. Baker (yes, the same Baker's Chocolate today with La Belle Chocolatière on the packaging), a medical doctor who believed in the health benefits of chocolate, opened the first machine-based chocolate factory in Boston.

Two-hundred-fifty years later, chocolate seems to be coming into its own. Single-sourced chocolate bars are becoming popular. Chocolate connoisseurs have become fluent in regions (the best from South America), types, harvesting, storage, and the time beans are conched (from one to three days).

Where to begin? Ciordia suggests, "If you're new to chocolate, but you like certain things like dark red wine, try 70 percent Costa Rican (Upala from Potomac Chocolate). Hawaii's Madre Chocolate produce a dark milk bar they tell people is their gateway bar. Once you find it, you'll start digging further into what chocolate can be."

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