WALPOLE, N.H. — I LOVE chocolate. I love it with an abiding, unconditional affection that spans everything from M&Ms to my great-uncle's hand-dipped chocolate strawberries, the last word in decadence when I was growing up.
Compared with Larry Burdick, owner of Burdick Chocolates, however, I am only fond of the stuff.
Sitting at a burlap-and-brown- paper-covered table in his recently opened cafe here, the camera-shy chocolatier waxes eloquent on his craft. Call his handmade confections art forms, call them gastronomical events. Just don't call them candy.
''We make chocolate with gastronomy in mind, not a sweet tooth.... We're not candy, we're food,'' says Mr. Burdick, who likes to see his chocolates served as the denouement of a fine meal.
This attitude and Burdick's uncompromising standards combine to create some of the best chocolate around. Burdick Chocolates was named No. 1 by Consumer Reports in their February 1996 issue.
Critical acclaim came early for Burdick, who studied at European confiseries in the early 1980s before returning to New York to start his own business. Financial success has proved more elusive. ''In five years, I had five different chocolate shops in New York City,'' Burdick says. ''I had to shut down, move, rebuild, tear things apart, and start again [because of the high rents]. That was very frustrating.'' The company's growth, though slow, has been steady, and moving to Walpole, N.H., Burdick says, has brought greater stability.
The business, according to Paula Burns, Burdick's wife and business manager, is split 50-50 between mail order and supplying fine hotels like New York's Waldorf Astoria.
This December, Ms. Burns says, was the first year they could afford to hire enough help to make it through the holiday rush.
Burdick uses no flavorings, oils, or preservatives in his chocolates. He starts with Vahlrona chocolate from France; stirs in fresh local cream, butter, and honey; and then adds ripe raspberries, spicy ginger, or fresh orange pulp. This unstinting quest for quality drives up costs. Burdick estimates that he spends $4.50 per pound on the chocolate alone. Fresh ingredients also make for a much shorter shelf life. ''We don't build any stock,'' Burdick says. ''Each week's income is limited to what we can make in a week.''
Steve Grenier, a chocolatemaker, estimates that Burdick's makes 1,000 chocolates and 400 each of dark, milk, and white chocolate mice per day.
Most of the chocolates are small, unprepossessing morsels packed with flavor. The one exception is Burdick's trademark: little chocolate mice with toasted almond ears and silk tails.
The process begins the night before, when Burdick makes the ganaches (the sweet centers). These are left to set overnight, the next morning they are cut by hand, chocolate is heated in a tempering machine for the coating, and then the pieces are sent through an enrobing machine, which drizzles a curtain of fine chocolate over the ganaches. The chocolates then cool on trays and, once ready, are ''cleaned,'' placed in paper cups, and packed in gold-hinged cedar boxes tied with silk ribbon.
Burdick's training methods are simple: He makes workers do something over and over until they get it right. The chocolates must be cut at a precise angle; the mice's toasted almond ears must be placed just so. It is exacting, detail-oriented work.
Kiran Kumar, a student at the Culinary Institute of America, who is working with Burdick for six months, says, ''This is like a chocolate school. You could spend your whole life learning here.''
As for the future, Burdick and Burns would like to expand into retail stores, but they are proceeding carefully because of their chocolates' short shelf life.
Burdick would also like to expand to the second floor of the building, so he can cook without interruption and perhaps keep rooms for apprentices.
''I had some nice people help me,'' Burdick says of his desire to train others in what is traditionally a secretive business. ''I figure you've got to pay it back.''