Best chocolate? Go to Madagascar

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This one is for chocolate-lovers.

Fellow addicts know that not all chocolate is created equal. When we feel that urge - the insistent yearning for that succulently rich, creamy, antioxidant-laden comfort which is cacao, not any choco will do. Oh no, not for the "nectar of the gods" described by the Aztecs and enjoyed for millennia. Hershey's may honestly make the claim "chocolate," but offering a plain bar to a chocoholic in a bad mood is like flinging a drop of water at a dehydrated camel.

Lindt truffles, dark, s'il vous plait. Homemade chocolate drizzled on those perfect eclairs crafted by Chef Jesse at Kynrede Cafe in Hayden. Fluffy yet creamy, dark chocolate mousse, topped with white chocolate cream (at Sage in Nelson, B.C. and yes, that's a hint for local restaurateurs, pretty please).

Chocolate is not just a food; it's an experience. Quality matters, and there are so many varieties of chocolate.

Want the best? That would be criollo, the rarest, sweetest, and most aromatic of cacao fruit. Yes, chocolate originates from a tree, a seed (like with coffee, a seed we erroneously call a "bean") inside a papaya-like fruit ranging from green to brown, depending on maturity.

Madagascar-grown criollo cacao is considered the world's finest. This small island off Africa's east coast grows less than a percent of the world's cacao crop, but it's highly coveted stuff that only grows in dense forest, so demand also prevents the deforestation happening elsewhere in Africa. Madagascar's climate and soil are ideal for growing cacao, and climate and soil affect the taste of chocolate.

How do they make the gods' precious nectar?

Like with any other fruit tree, they prune. They pick at just the right moment of emerging ripeness. Inside each pod are 20 to 50 good seeds ("beans"), which are harvested, fermented, and dried in the sun. Drying is a careful process; the beans are raked regularly over one to two weeks so they dry evenly. When ready they are packed in hand-labeled bags and sold to premier restaurants and chocolate makers worldwide, who crush and mix them with fat such as cocoa butter - the cacao bean's own fat, powdered sugar, and - if milk chocolate - milk.

Dark chocolate fan? Just skip the milk. White chocolate? That's sugar, cocoa butter, and milk without the bean solids.

With my apologies to Hershey fans, a note. Hershey became famous for his trade secret process; it's why Hershey's tastes a little different, just a little sour, with a tang. No coincidence there; the secret process somehow prevents the need for fresh milk, perhaps using an acid to keep it from continuing to ferment. Ever travel abroad and note the milk chocolate tastes different? Americans became so accustomed to this taste that other manufacturers now add butyric acid to what they sell us.

So, milk chocolate fans, if you know someone traveling to France or the U.K., ask them to bring you a KitKat, Mars, or just a bar of plain milk chocolate for a taste test. Let me know if you agree that chocolate and sour should go their separate ways.

Sholeh Patrick is a (dark) chocoholic and columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Contact her at Sholeh@cdapress.com.

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