Whether your loved one is a self-professed 'chocoholic' whose day is not complete without at least a small sampling of the alluring sweet or someone who appreciates just an occasional indulgence, chocolate can lift the spirits and soothe the soul. No wonder it's a perennial favourite for Valentine's Day gifts.
"When it melts in your mouth, it's magical," says renowned chocolatier Lara Vaarré, owner of the award-winning Truffle Treasures shops in Ottawa. "You're transposed in time and think, 'This is bliss.' It's a reward moment, which is why it's such a great Valentine's Day gift."
Our love affair with chocolate dates back as early as the seventh century, when cacao beans were cultivated by the ancient peoples of Mexico. The Aztecs named it 'food of the gods.' Consumed as a bitter beverage, they believed it would bring great wisdom, understanding and energy.
Explorer Christopher Columbus introduced chocolate to Spain at the turn of the 16th century. By 1570, cocoa gained popularity as a medicine and aphrodisiac. Chocolate eventually found its way to Europe and Great Britain, where the expensive import was a status symbol for the upper classes.
"Chocolate was considered a delicacy and became a symbol of love," says Vaarré. But all not chocolate is created equal. "Good quality chocolate should melt at body temperature and dissolve on the tongue," she says.
Be sure to read the ingredients before investing in your sweet indulgence: unless it contains at least 19% cocoa solids, it's not really chocolate. Specialty shops like Truffle Treasures use Belgian chocolate to tempt the gourmet chocolate palette with delectable flavours like spiced mango, chili, and champagne and strawberry.
The 2000 movie Chocolat starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp told the story of a mother and daughter who are met with skepticism when they open a chocolate shop in a small French village. Eventually, they win over the townsfolk with their incredible chocolates.
The movie celebrated chocolate's reputation as a pleasure food - a reputation supported by scientific research. The many chemical compounds naturally found in chocolate help explain why so many of us crave chocolate and why we reach for it when we're feeling down.
Not only does chocolate give us a boost of energy and act as an anti-depressant, it also contains a chemical our brain releases when we fall in love. And there's more good news: one of the chemicals it releases communicates a feeling of calm to the brain and helps stabilize moods.
Can't enjoy even the smallest piece of chocolate without feeling guilty? Consider this: research suggests dark chocolate is good for your heat. Consuming a small bar each day can reduce blood pressure among those suffering from high blood pressure and can also lower cholesterol.
"Chocolate also contains anti-oxidants, minerals and vitamins," says Vaarré, who admits to indulging in her favourite food at breakfast, lunch and dinner. And contrary to common belief, chocolate contains just a small amount of caffeine, does not cause acne and does not promote tooth decay.
"There's a reason why chocolate is called 'food of the gods,'" says Vaarré.