.The paste the Aztecs made from the beans was dissolved in water and mixed with spices. They called the result xocoatl, or bitter water.
.Chocolate connoisseurs among the Aztecs would have found all the gods in their pantheon insufficient to explain the creation of such a thing as Valrhona chocolate. Valrhona is considered the gold standard, the Chateau Lafite Rothschild of chocolate.
.In fact, purveyors of Valrhona, made in eastern France, near Lyon, usurp the terminology, and much of the preciousness, of viticulture, describing a certain variety as "grand cru bittersweet Guanaja," for instance.
.What is special about Valrhona is that "everything they use, every raw material, every ingredient, is the best," said Russell Hind, manager of the Chocolate Society shop in London.
.The society, created in 1990 by three chocolate fanatics "to promote the consumption and enjoyment of the finest-quality chocolate," as its literature states, holds tastings and other events for members, including a large number from abroad who buy through the society's mail-order service.
.They pay pounds 55 (dollars 88) to join and receive a hamper full of chocolate and a 5 percent discount on purchases. The shop sells Valrhona, homemade chocolate from a Yorkshire farm and virtually nothing else.
."What makes chocolate is the beans," Mr. Hind said. "Valrhona's buyer goes all over the world, sourcing plantations." In what he said was a first for the chocolate business, Valrhona bought a plantation in Trinidad and in 1998 made a variety solely from beans grown on it. "If you think of fine wine, it's exactly the same principle."
.Another unique aspect of Valrhona among the major brands of chocolate, he said, is that it does not use vegetable fat, which sticks to the mouth. Instead, only natural fat from cocoa butter is used, which melts away more easily.
.Despite its reputation among the cognoscenti — it is the chocolate of choice of top chefs — Valrhona is far less known by the public than brands such as Godiva. The company, eager to maintain the exclusivity of the brand, likes it that way.
."They don't want to be huge," Mr. Hind said. "They have turned down big orders. They don't want to be in supermarkets."
.But the exclusive nature of Valrhona has not translated into higher prices, and it provides good value for holiday shoppers. The more popular brands, he said, "are in the same monetary range and the chocolate is inferior."
.At Harrods, the London department store, a kilogram assortment of Valrhona costs pounds 39.50, compared with pounds 40.70 for Godiva and pounds 39.90 for Neuhaus, a popular Flemish brand. The Chocolate Society's Valrhona runs from pounds 16.50, without the membership discount, for a one-kilogram bar of dark chocolate with 61 percent cocoa solids, to pounds 41 for a 200-piece, one-kilogram assortment of chocolate squares.
.The variation among chocolates made in different countries reflects different production processes and consumer tastes.
.A manager in the Harrods chocolate department explained that Belgian chocolate was "very deep, with intense flavors; you wouldn't be able to eat too many of them."
.Swiss chocolates, on the other hand, "have a lighter, creamier texture," said the manager, who, conforming to Harrods policy, asked not to be identified. "That's why they're more expensive; it takes longer mixing and putting the ingredients together."
.ENGLISH PRODUCERS tend to concentrate on filled chocolates, with an emphasis on offering a variety of fondants.
.The French go to the opposite extreme: their specialty is strong, dark chocolate. The way to tell a good one, by the way, is to break it, the manager said: There should be a clean snap.
.He said that chocolates go in and out of fashion, like many other things. A popular seller this year is organic Swiss chocolate. With the presumed healthfulness of what is seen as an otherwise unhealthy food, he said, this is "good for marketing and good chocolate."
.Among the purported healthful qualities of chocolate, whether organic or not, is the ability to reduce cholesterol, provide needed minerals during women's menstrual cycles and ease the pain of a hangover. Still more reasons to be beholden to Quetzalcoatl.
.THE CHOCOLATE SOCIETY. For mail-order service and information about membership, telephone: 44 1423 322 230. For the shop, 36 Elizabeth St., London SW1W 9NZ, telephone 020 7259 9222, within Britain, or 44 20 7259 9222 abroad. fax: 44 1423 322 263. Web site: www.the-chocolate-society.co.uk. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.