If you are reading this, it means—Oh dreaded day!—that I have finished this piece. When again will my work consist solely of buying and eating high-end chocolates? When again will I be the life of every party, dispensing pricey bonbons in exchange only for a rating and some commentary? Let us hurry on to the methodology section before I become too despondent.
I tested only boxes of gourmet chocolates that might make nice Valentine's Day presents and could be bought online. I picked my subjects from brands recommended by friends and Slate staffers, and tried always to order the most diverse mix of flavors possible, i.e., the "assorted" box. For those who don't swing both ways (I like only milk myself), a number of the companies I used—Jacques Torres, Godiva, Leonidas, See's, and Purdy's—offer separate milk and dark selections. See's and Gearharts even allow customers to customize their own box.
In total, I tested 11 boxes of chocolates, from those brands that have outposts at malls around the country, such as Godiva and Lindt, to those with only hometown stores, such as Gearharts and Jacques Torres. I judged them in the following categories:
Taste(80 percent of each score): Because no one could reasonably sample all the different flavors in each box, my strategy was to have as many pieces of every brand evaluated by as many different people as possible. To facilitate this, I schlepped around with me at all times a large plastic bag filled with 11 fancy boxes and a knife (giving me the odd feeling that I was doing something suspicious, if not illegal), and whipped the chocolates out at all vaguely appropriate social occasions. In total, 19 people gave scores and rankings to more than 250 individual chocolates. Testers were not told where their samples came from, and, when possible, people tasted a series of like flavors—all dark chocolates with caramel, say—to provide a better basis for comparison. It's worth keeping in mind that people's tastes, of course, differ wildly and that the low-ranked See's and Purdy's were given the highest scores by quite a few testers.
Aesthetics (15 percent): I assigned points based on both the box (tacky? unobjectionable? nicer than anything I have a right to own?), and the chocolates it contained (fresh, artisanal, and lovely to contemplate were all positives). The recent tendency of certain high-end purveyors like Mariebelle and Richart to emblazon their chocolates with colorful pictures and patterns was a point of some contention: They made beautiful art objects but a few people found the drawings "unappetizing" and preferred their chocolates to appear "natural." Never one to be deterred from eating food that looks artificial, I gave these prom queens high points.
Navigation (5 percent): This category includes an appraisal of both each box's layout (a flat box where all the chocolates are visible and accessible at once is the ideal), and the illustrated key to its contents. Poring over luscious photos and evocative descriptions of chocolates I might soon eat is almost as enjoyable to me as actually eating them, and I don't like this pleasure to be monkeyed with in any way. Of course, the worst infraction, of which See's, Leonidas, and Richart stand guilty, is not including a key at all. How am I to know which delicious-looking bonbon is actually booby-trapped with some icky cherry filling?
Initially, I planned to assign some points for "Value"—that is, bang for one's buck. I decided instead, however, that since each reader will know what she's willing to spend for something she likes, and since the most expensive purveyors were by no means bunched at the top of the rankings, it would be better to simply note each brand's price for a 1-pound box (or the closest measurement to this).
Results from worst to best: (Please note that "worst" should be taken as a highly relative term. I'd gladly eat most of the contents of any of these boxes at any time.)
See's: Custom Mix Selection
$13.60 for 1 pound
According to the rules I devised for myself, I should have ordered the "Assorted Chocolates," but I couldn't resist the chance to create my own custom selection from the 65 flavors on this San Francisco-based company's Web site. I'll willingly concede that I chose—perhaps inevitably, considering the nature of the task—like a 5-year-old; the resultant mix was filled with sickeningly sweet cream fillings that it's best to find once or twice per box. (Alas, this left me facing, for not the first time in my life, the fact that perhaps I should not be allowed the privilege of self-determination.) But See's certainly didn't help matters. The packaging consisted of two filmy pieces of white bubble wrap—instead of the crisp, waferlike paper that most other companies provided. The chocolates themselves looked old, ashen, and altogether unappetizing. (The ashen cast is called fat bloom and results when chocolate is exposed to fluctuating temperatures.) As for taste, the See's samples were compared to Milky Way bars, Snickers, ice-cream sandwiches, and other supermarket treats: nothing to spit out but nothing to write home about either.
Taste: 49 (out of 80)
Aesthetics: 4 (out of 15)
Navigation: 2.5 (out of 5)
Jacques Torres: Jacques' Assortment
$43 for 50 pieces
I blame a box weighted with duds for the surprisingly low showing of this New York store, which happens to be home to the best milk chocolate bar I've ever tasted. According to the brochure, there are more than 30 different flavors in the Jacques Torres line, including mouth-waterers like Liquid Caramel, Heavenly Hazelnut, and Cinnamon Praline. Alas, there's no guarantee of what will show up in any individual assortment, and I got the gourmet chocolate equivalent of coal in my stocking. My box had not one but five white chocolates filled with key lime ("like a dairy product gone bad" was one of the kinder comments), and various other "funny tasting," "unpleasant," and "too strong" fruit concoctions. Indeed, more than 70 percent of testers had something negative to say about their sample. On the other hand, those lucky enough to try a more appealing flavor—the Golden Espresso, say—waxed rhapsodic. With its stylish box, which looks like it should be accessorizing a Marc Jacobs dress, and "grown-up" flavors, it's a great brand to give as a present. But, if you're stuck with anything like the mix I landed, it's not much fun to receive.
Purdy's: Boxed Chocolate Assortment
$17.56 for 1 pound
This Canadian company offers an assortment that is "simple but tasty" (like the Pecan Caramel), "old-fashioned" (the Rum and Butter Fudgie), and "totally delicious" (the Strawberry Rosa). But while the chocolates are admirably straightforward, if sometimes too sweet, the same cannot be said of the packaging. The box is done up in a headache-inducing psychedelic purple pattern, and the key is illustrated with faint black and white pointillist drawings (what, please, is wrong with color photos?), which can make it difficult to correctly identify the chocolates.
Richart: Little Gourmet Ballotin
$59.50 for 25 pieces
These delightful-looking chocolates are decorated with children's depictions of the "dessert of their dreams," according to this très cher French store's Web site. Unfortunately, with the exception of one tester, who deemed her sample "subtle, great, an integrated taste experience," most wished they were eating one of those dream desserts instead. Opinions fell mainly into two camps: those who conceded that the vanilla, sesame, apricot, and orange-filled pieces were "objectively good" and "clearly fancy," but still didn't enjoy them very much, and those who simply didn't like them, citing their "toothpaste consistency" and a "fruitiness that overwhelms the chocolate."
Gearharts: 16-Piece Assortment
$19 for 16 pieces
This Virginia-based confectioner offers an excellent range of flavors with the right mix of exotic concoctions, like the Taj, with ginger, cardamom, and rose; or the Maya with cinnamon, chili, and orange; and comfort foods for chocoholics, like the Malted Milk Hazelnut and Maple Pecan. But while a few of these "delicious, perfectly balanced" chocolates brought down the house, the total score suffered from some bad apples (the Earl Grey tasted like a "brownie dipped in Windex") and underperformers (the Vanilla Bean Brulée and Malted Milk Hazelnut were surprisingly one-noted and "just OK").
Leonidas: General Assortment
$28 for 1 pound
This Belgian assortment comes without a key to its various pieces, but few nasty surprises are in store for those content to leap before they look. (For those who aren't, descriptions can be found on the Web site.) The no-frills box offers a selection of conservative, consistently tasty chocolates (favorites included the Noisette Masquée and the Carré Croquant), most of which are filled with praliné (a hazelnut paste) or butter cream. After sampling some of the "way too fancy" or "lowbrow-tasting" brands, reactions from tasters converged on relief and gratitude. "Good old chocolate," one tester wrote. "I feel like I just met someone I like," sighed another.
Godiva: Gold Ballotin
$35 for 1 pound
With its high-scoring chocolates and shiny gold packaging, this popular Belgian brand makes a virtually risk-free gift. That said, it seems revealing that testers' comments about these samples were, without exception, the least evocative and fun to read. The high scorers were called "good" and "nice"; the lower ones "average." Moral of the story: You can't go wrong here, but you can go more right elsewhere.
Bernard Callebaut: Assorted Chocolates
$39.67 for 1 pound
The Web site of this Canadian chocolatier was so inhospitable (no pictures or descriptions of any products, nor any e-mailed receipt as promised) that I opened the unassuming package with about as much skepticism and ill will as I could muster toward expenseable high-end chocolate. Good feeling flooded back, though, as soon as I tasted the Honey Milk Chocolate. Other standouts included the Coconut ("this is a taste I've dreamed of") and the Manon, made with marzipan and meringue. A few people complained about some goopy fillings ("like a boil that's been lanced"), but otherwise this was a very appealing assortment. You'll just have to trust me.
Lindt: Swiss Tradition De Luxe
$24.99 for 14.4 oz
This Swiss-made (preferable, by the way, to the Lindt Classics line, which is made in the United States) praline collection is like a CD compilation of best-loved classical music; easy for a true devotee to lambaste but irresistibly sweet and recognizable to most of the general public. There was nothing particularly innovative here, nor was there any piece that I didn't want to eat and wasn't happy to have eaten. Many tasters agreed with the person who pronounced it "by far my favorite. The most like a childhood treat." Others sniffed that yes, it did resemble a childhood treat, but that they were ready for an adult chocolate, thank you.
MarieBelle: Signature Blue and Brown Collection
$35 for 16 pieces
These jewellike chocolates nestling in their baby-blue box made for such a lovely sight that the age-old "Have my cake vs. Eat it too" dilemma reared its ugly head. While it seemed almost criminal to put such pretty things in one's mouth, most people felt little regret. This New York boutique's flavor-infused ganaches were praised for their "evanescence on the tongue," "subtle structure," and "discreet fruit flavor that shows up at the end of a taste rather than overwhelming you at the beginning."
La Maison du Chocolat: Coffret Maison With Assorted Chocolate
$57 for 14 ounces
These small, understated, and exquisite French bonbons come in an elegant brown box that looks like it should be holding Hermès cuff links and certainly qualifies as the fanciest piece of cardboard I have ever owned. People consistently praised the chocolates' light and airy textures ("it disappeared in my mouth"), and classic but sophisticated flavors. The milks—especially the Rigoletto Lait, a caramelized butter mousse, and the Figaro Lait, a hazelnut and almond praline—were simply the most delicious I've ever tasted. La Maison du Chocolat's pieces were also potent madeleines, reminding testers of, among other things, "an old library full of dark wood," "the red velvet walls in a steakhouse I once went to," "a nature hike (what a blast!)," and "eating ice cream while walking around Ile St Louis in Paris." With memories like these—not to mention an empty box nice enough to pass on to the grandkids—La Maison du Chocolat's hefty prices (and minimum shipping cost of $27!) start to look like a bargain.