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Much like fine wine, chocolate permeates the senses.
By Sam Gugino
Ever wonder why men give women chocolate for Valentine's Day? It's because women -- American and Canadian women in particular -- crave chocolate more than any other food, says Marcia Pelchat, a sensory psychologist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia (and they crave it far more than American men, who list pizza as No. 1).
But why chocolate?
"Women have more issues with food than men do. Certain foods are forbidden. Invariably, this increases the desire for them," says Mindy Kurzer, who studies cravings at the University of Minnesota. However, the concept of chocolate as a reward cuts across gender lines. As children, we were given chocolate for special occasions. This early conditioning continues into adulthood. "We still keep those early associations. They just get more sophisticated," says Jennifer Wellott, a chocolate buyer for Dean & Deluca in New York. "What is it they say about the difference between men and boys? It's just the size of their toys."
Despite myth and folklore, there is no evidence that chocolate is addictive. Chocolate does have a stimulant called theobromine, which is similar to, but less potent than, caffeine. Chocolate may also have marijuanalike compounds. "But you'd have to eat a lot to get the same effect as marijuana," Pelchat says. Some argue that chocolate releases opiates in the brain that produce a sensation somewhat like runner's high (a sensation I experienced only once in my 23 years as a runner, and then only when I was listening to "In a Gadda da Vida" on my Walkman).
Aztecs considered chocolate, which they consumed in unsweetened, spicy drinks, an aphrodisiac. Indeed, chocolate contains phenylethylamine, a compound that raises levels of serotonin in the brain, giving one a sense of euphoria, possibly a feeling you're in love. "But so does any carbohydrate," Pelchat says. "So why don't we give potatoes for Valentine's Day?"
Perhaps, just perhaps, it's because chocolate tastes good. And not only that, it feelsgood. Chocolate has a very low melting point (roughly body temperature). So it goes from being an almost-brittle solid to a thick, smooth, mouth-coating liquid in a matter of moments. As it melts, it releases volatile chemicals that contribute to chocolate's complex aromas. Pelchat notes that foods that change their state in our mouths also pique our interest. When you factor in chocolate's roasted quality (which is similar to that of coffee) and then some sugar -- we are conditioned to like sweet things even before birth, Pelchat says -- how could chocolate miss?
Chocolate and wine matching is always a dicey proposition. Again, sugar's the culprit. A fruity Pinot Noir worked out surprisingly well, however -- much better than Cognac, single malt Scotch, and aged rum. A pear eau-de-vie wasn't bad, but a less alcoholic pear liqueur was better. As expected, Port was best of all. The fresh fruit in vintage-character Port brought out the fruit in most chocolates better than a 10-year tawny, especially when you're listening to "In a Gadda da Vida."
Sam Gugino, Wine Spectator's Tastes columnist, is the author of Cooking to Beat the Clock.
Although solid chocolate can age almost like wine, chocolate confections should generally be consumed within two weeks. Keep all chocolate between 55 and 62 degrees and around 50-percent humidity. Here are some mail order sources:
How to Get It
Boulder, Col., (888) 246-2656, www.chocolove.com
Dean & Deluca
New York, (800) 221-7714 (for Michel Cluizel chocolates); www.dean-deluca.com
Santa Cruz, Calif., (831) 458-4214; www.donnellychocolates.com
Fran's Chocolates, Ltd.
Seattle, (800) 422-3726
135 stores in the United States. For mail order, call (800) 946-3482;
La Maison du Chocolat
New York, (800) 988-5632; www.lamaisonduchocolat.com
L. A. Burdick Chocolates
Walpole, N.H., (800) 229-2419
Michael Recchiuti Chocolates
San Francisco, (800) 500-3396
Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker
South San Francisco, (800) 930-4528; www.scharffen-berger.com