It is 1 p.m. on a sunny Sunday afternoon in Dallas and 16 strangers have agreed to share the next four hours together on a worn black tour bus, indulging in an afternoon spent savoring sweet treats at the area's best bakeries, markets and specialty shops.
Crammed in two-by-two, the air conditioner blows at a mean pace as we begin our journey to the third shop. "Is everybody ready for some chocolate?" Jeanine Stevens yells to the crowd.
"Yeah!" the guests respond in unison while passing a bottle of white wine down the aisle.
Stevens, a copywriter from Wylie, started Dallas By Chocolate, a food tour company that offers sweet and savory food tours in Dallas, last year. She plans to include Fort Worth tours soon.
Her job today is to keep the crowd excited and engaged with chocolate trivia, and fellow guide Steven Doyle, a food writer in Dallas, dutifully minds the cooler chock-full of wine and water. Doyle started working with Stevens when the company formed last year. He's the kind of guy who loves food, loves talking about food and keeps the party rolling with constant refills.
Today's tour is dubbed My Heart Belongs to Chocolate, and our odyssey will lead us to a bakery in University Park, a gelato shop in Highland Park, a chocolate boutique in Dallas and finally a pie company and a specialty foods market in Oak Cliff. Along the way we'll listen to chocolate evangelists and indulge in generous samples at every stop.
Before you take a bite, though -- on this day or on Valentine's Day -- consider cocoa's newfound clout and how far it has come since British chocolatier Richard Cadbury created the first box of Valentine's Day chocolate in 1868. Today, more than 36 million heart-shaped boxes of chocolate will be sold in anticipation of Feb. 14. Chocolate sales total nearly $1 billion in the U.S. annually, according to the National Confectioners Association.
But chocolate, that sexy, luscious, romantic food of the gods, has, in this foodie age, taken on mythic qualities. Buzzwords like "artisan," "hand-crafted" and "savory" are part of our chocolate vernacular now. Local chocolatiers have become celebrities and TV stars, and these artists have replaced the faceless flavor of a Mr. Goodbar or Snickers with complex combinations that cause us to rave, crave and savor the cocoa magic being conjured up in DFW.
When, later in the tour, we come face to face with a two-pound, anatomically correct chocolate heart -- valves pointed north, its bloody red color both off-putting and somehow tempting -- we begin to understand just how much chocolate has evolved.
No longer can it be contained to a bar, a kiss or a sampler box.
Willy Wonka would be so proud.
Chocolate in DFW
What many of us know about chocolate is limited to the grocery store aisle quick picks, something bright and cheap and waxy.
Even if our appetites are always willing, our chocolate IQs need a bit of help.
Specialty chocolate "is not a Hershey bar, doesn't feel like a Hershey bar in your mouth and doesn't cost what a Hershey bar costs," says Becky Henry of Hot Chocolates in Hurst.
In the 10 years since Henry and co-owner Lori Thomas opened their store, they've seen other chocolate shops come and go. That's because outside of downtown areas, it's hard to convince a customer to pay $1.25 for a truffle when you can get a giant bar of chocolate at Walgreens for the same price.
"You have to work a little bit harder to educate your audience that it is worth your price," says Henry.
Hot Chocolates offers 40 varieties of chocolate candies and also serves as a pastry shop. Cakes, says Henry, have helped keep the place in business. "We handcraft everything on-site. We don't resell other companies' chocolates. We do custom flavors." This Valentine's Day, they are selling a hunk of burning love, a dark chocolate bar with chili oil and spices, and chocolate-dipped gingerbread.
But while the Fort Worth area has only a few independently owned chocolate shops, Dallas, it seems, is in a chocolate frenzy. In addition to tours and classes, there is the annual Chocolate Conference, which was held in September.
"I've not seen this [kind of chocolate community] anywhere else," says chocolatier Kate Weiser of Chocolate Secrets in Dallas. "What's so great about the Dallas chocolate community is that we are kind of a tight-knit group."
If Weiser has a chocolate question, she consults with other chocolatiers, including Stephen Smith at Nib Chocolates or Troy Easton of Sublime Chocolate in Allen. There isn't unfriendly competition because each chocolatier and each shop adds something special. Chocolate Secrets is known for its hand-painted bonbons. Each one takes four to five days to complete. They are gorgeous to look at and better to eat, says Weiser, who recently competed in a Food Network Sugar Dome challenge.
"When I first started, most people were used to giant, golf ball-size milk chocolate truffles," says Weiser. Today's customers are more educated and appreciate the delicacy of Belgian or French chocolate and the time it takes to make real chocolate art. "Each one of my truffles is loved on a little more than the chocolate you would find in the grocery store," jokes Weiser. And really, a hand-painted bonbon doesn't compare to an 80-cent tube of Rolos.
At Sublime Chocolate in Allen, customers can make their own chocolate bars. They pick the ingredients and in 15 minutes have a custom bar. The shop also offers sipping chocolates as well as gourmet coffees and other treats. It's important, says Easton, to educate the customer. "A box of chocolates from a supermarket is a lot different from going into the chocolatier," says Easton. "We talk about the ingredients. I try to put as much flavor into it as I can so you know it's raspberry or mango."
Easton started cooking young, working in law during the day while he put himself through cooking school at night. Since Sublime Chocolate opened in 2008, Easton still wonders why people want to come all the way to Allen "to get my chocolate?" He's not quite sure what makes the trip worth it, but he does have some ideas. "We're trying to sell an experience," Easton says, "rather than just a piece of chocolate."
Back on the chocolate tour bus, the visitors have loosened up. We started with mimosas at Empire Baking Company, where owner Meaders Moore Ozarow discussed the importance of unbleached flour in baking and offered us divine chocolate brownies. And now, as we bump along Interstate 35 with our bus driver, Glen, we yell a united "Woohoo!" as our bus crosses the white-spindled Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge toward Oak Cliff.
It has not been easy to keep up with the cocoa-crazed enthusiasm. While the others have enjoyed their samples, I've been stuck in a flavorless haze of allergy medicines, my mouth tainted by the taste of cough drops. At times, I wonder why I agreed to sacrifice my Sunday for a $35 food tour.
But then we arrive at Bolsa Mercado, the market side of Bolsa restaurant in Oak Cliff's Bishop Arts District, an area known for independent restaurants, specialty shops and retail stores.
In the market, we are guided to a large table recently vacated by a Girl Scout troop.
On a table before us is a bowl of pesto humus -- a palate-cleanser -- and three chocolate samplings, explains Stephen Smith of Nib Chocolates. Smith, who trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, points at something with dark bark and salt, something smoked with a Spanish paprika and something on a stick. When someone sets a large tray of chocolate in front of you and tells you to dive in, you tend not to listen to the details.
The sweet saltiness of the Nib chocolate cuts through my funk. Yum! Finally, flavor.
I shut my eyes and savor the moment. When chocolate is done right, something inside your head tingles, your tongue pushes against your teeth and your eyes involuntarily close. Like good lovin', chocolate done right satisfies every desire.
That's part of the joy of the tour, explains Stevens: Each place offers a different atmosphere, different flavors and different chocolate, from boutique store fronts that sell blue cheese-infused chocolate treats to delicate tastings formed by master chocolatiers. And consider this: 82 percent of people say they would prefer an experience rather than a gift for Valentine's Day.
"Thanks for taking me on a chocolate tour. I never would have done this," a cowboy in the seat behind me whispers to his wife. Chocolate touring is like antiquing in the cowboy world -- it's just not done.
But somehow, on this bus, with this crowd, in these shops, it seems just right.
Only minutes ago we stood agog as the manager at Dude, Sweet Chocolate brought forth that 2-pound chocolate heart, created by Dude, Sweet owner Katherine Clapner (see sidebar). She made it on a whim after meeting charismatic Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne on a plane, and now it retails for $45. A limited number even come with a USB drive that includes 15 songs from the band.
It was just one of the many sweet surprises we encountered.
"We really, really enjoyed the tour," says Bennie Watson of Englewood, Fla., who came to Texas to visit her family. Watson's daughter, Stacy Hopper, and her granddaughter, Bethany, a high school student in Allen who is studying culinary arts and plans to be a pastry chef, are going to continue taking food tours once a month. Stevens' company also offers bacon and margarita tours as well as tours of specialty food markets.
And really, it doesn't take much to convince someone to enjoy a day spent together enjoying salty and sweet delights with someone special, says Watson. Her daughter swept her away with a few easy words: "All she had to say was chocolate."