NEW YORK (CNN/Money) – We don't want to knock the Easter Bunny, but let's face it. When it comes to holiday treats, this harried hare doesn't always deliver the best possible chocolate.
That's fine for small children. But if you're looking for really fine goodies meant to be savored, you may have to get it yourself.
Happily, chocolate isn't what it used to be, thanks to an increasing number of artisanal chocolatiers who are creating singular confections made with higher cacao levels, natural flavors, and unusual ingredients (grated lime, chili peppers). Comparing these gourmet treats to the stuff of supermarket or drugstore aisles is like equating a bottle of Petrus to wine-by-the-box.
Like great wine, upscale chocolate can cost a small fortune -- as much as $70 a pound -- though there are certainly ways to enter the gates of chocolate heaven for less than $10.
Anyway, great chocolate is well worth the investment, according to Clay Gordon, a chocolate critic and founder/editor of the Web site Chocophile.com.
He points out that Americans already spend a vast amount -- roughly $13 billion -- on the sweet stuff per year. Despite our national sweet tooth, however, we still have "a way to go" when it comes to learning about chocolate, Gordon says.
"Most of the upper-end of the chocolate market has been dominated by a few fairly well-known brands, many of which have more to do with marketing than with substance," said Gordon.
For truly divine chocolate, smell, taste and try samples before you buy. Or, take our word for it and try some of these.
La Maison du Chocolat
What Tiffany did for jewelry, La Maison has done for chocolate. There may be no other store that makes as luxurious sweets as La Maison du Chocolate.
Start with presentation. La Maison chocolates are exquisitely arrayed in caramel-colored leather boxes fine enough to hold your grandmother's estate jewelry. Its dark- and milk-chocolate truffles, marrons glaces, caramels, and mendiants (slices of chocolate sprinkled with dried fruits, assorted nuts or orange peel) contain no more than 65 percent cocoa, so they're more sweet than bitter. Ganache fillings are made with cocoa butter, not milk fat.
Each year, La Maison introduces a limited-edition gift to mark Easter. This year, the company is selling leather-bound, egg-shaped boxes crammed with 39 dark- and milk chocolates and a big chocolate egg. This one-pound treat costs $78; the two-pounder runs $110. (www.lamaisonduchocolat.com 800-988-5632)
Dagoba Organic Chocolate
For years, the prospect of organic chocolate usually boiled down to carob, that largely tasteless impostor that left real chocolate lovers hugely disappointed. Then along came Frederick Schilling, a former chef with a mind for experimentation.
After learning that most cocoa growers relied on pesticides to get beans growing, Schilling founded Dagoba, whose name means "temple of the gods" in Sanskrit. The company buys handpicked, organic beans and cocoa from co-ops in the Dominican Republic and Central America, paying full price for the ingredients to comply with certified "Fair Trade" practices.
Chocolate bar choices include such offerings as hazelnut, milk chocolate, roseberry (a blend of raspberry and rose hips), mint/rosemary, lime and macadamia nut, chai (a mixture of milk chocolate infused with cardamom, anise, black pepper, cinnamon and clover), and a lavender/blueberry bar. A gift box of one dozen assorted bars runs $36. (www.dagoba.com 541-664-9030)
After 30 years in the pastry business, Norman Love decided to walk away from it all.
The former corporate pastry chef for Ritz Carlton, Love spent 42 weeks a year traipsing around the world to oversee the hotel chain's operations. Though he gave up a stellar career – his honors include a bronze medal from the biennial Coup du Monde de la Patisserie (World Cup of Pastry) competition in Lyon – it wasn't difficult for Love to switch gears.
"Chocolate is my passion," said Love, who dreamed of making a chocolate that was as visually stunning and delicious. So Love and partner Judy Limekiller founded Ganache.
The duo has perfected a technique in which the colored designs for each candy are hand-painted or airbrushed into chocolate molds, then filled the finest chocolate important from Belgium, France and Switzerland. They contain fresh ingredients like pureed raspberries, bananas, ginger and hazelnuts.
Call the shop directly to inquire about Easter treats such as the hollow, multi-colored chocolate eggs that hold eight truffles ($25) or any one of the pastel, galvanized tin buckets that have been filled with a solid bunny, truffles and other sweets. ($45) (www.ganachechocolates.com; 239-561-7215)
Andrew Shotts was the pastry chef at La Cote Basque in New York when he started making a line of colorful, intricately designed chocolates to serve to the restaurant's patrons after their meals. He then continued to experiment and create chocolates for subsequent employers, including the Russian Tea Room in New York and Guittard Chocolate in San Francisco.
During his stint at Guittard, Shotts created the company's signature couveture, a chocolate used to make truffles and pastries like molten chocolate cake and that is sold to pastry chefs across the country. Today, Shotts uses E. Guittard couveture at his own chocolate company, Garrison Confections, which he opened in 2001 with his wife, Tina Wright.
His current Vernal collection includes chocolates flavored with fresh herbs and honey, a mint-flavored mojito and a "spring trio" bonbon that's layered with almond, hazelnut and macadamia nut praline. (A box of 24 vernal chocolates runs $30.)
Easter offerings include edible white, milk or dark-chocolate postcards adored in colorful designs and holiday messages inspired by classic French greeting cards. Each, separately wrapped card costs $8 and is shipped in temperature-controlled packaging to prevent melting. (www.garrisonconfections.com; 212-929-2545)
Richard Donnelly Fine Chocolates
In 1998, just 10 years after he opened his chocolate shop in Santa Cruz, Calif., Richard Donnelly won the Best Artisan award at the prestigious EuroChocolate Festival in Perugia, Italy.
Donnelly learned his craft in Paris and Brussels before opening his own shop, where he produces no more than 50 pounds of chocolate a day.
His selections can be roughly divided into two groups: "American" chocolates filled with familiar tastes such as caramel and marzipan, and what Donnelly calls "more interesting" exotic chocolates suffused with herbs like cardamom, Chinese five-spice and lavender.
One pound of Donnelly's assorted sweets runs $65. For that price, Donnelly is happy to custom-fill orders for finicky clients who want a box filled with nothing but their favorites. (www.donnellychocolates.com; 888-685-1871)