Chocolate heaven, here on earth

You don't need to have a husband, wife, or significant other give you chocolates on Valentine's Day. Do what I do. Pick up the phone, get on the Internet, go to a candy shop, and buy some for yourself.

I hunt up and down the East Coast for gourmet chocolate shops and have found many that I like. But three stand out in my mind because of the imagination and creativity that go into the confections.

"Have you ever had chocolates made with potatoes?" I asked my friend Fred as we climbed the stairs leading to Seaside Chocolates.

"9:30 in the morning is too early to think about chocolate, let alone chocolate made with potatoes," Fred answered. But that didn't deter me; I had been told these were the best chocolates in Maine.

"It's never too early in the day for chocolate," I said. "Potatoes or no potatoes."

Seaside Chocolates (www.seaside chocolate.com) was started by Monica Elliott and Eugene Greenlaw in Lubek, Maine, in 2002. Eugene is a native of Lubek; Monica had emigrated there from Peru in 1999, bringing with her recipes for Peruvian caramel and chocolate. They combined their culinary talents, making their chocolates by hand in small batches.

The ones made with potatoes are called Needham bars and are a Maine tradition, says manager Stephanie Page. "They're made with a center of coconut, potato, and powdered sugar, and then covered with chocolate. You don't taste the potato at all. The starch gives the center a great base and consistency."

Fred stopped complaining about the time of day after he devoured a Needham bar, followed by a truffle and a Sicilian marzipan in a bittersweet chocolate shell.

I went straight for a dark chocolate bonbon, then moved on to a pecan-filled truffle and a cameo chocolate mint.

In Burlington, Vt., Jim Lampman, a restaurant owner, wasn't expecting to found a candy company. It happened because of his tradition of giving boxes of expensive chocolates to his staff.

One day the chef confessed that the chocolates were terrible, and Lampman challenged him to make something better. The chef came up with truffles made from dark Belgian chocolate and Vermont butter and cream. That was 23 years ago and the beginning of Lake Champlain Chocolates (www.lakecham plainchocolates.com).

The truffles come in a variety of flavors from cappuccino to raspberry. Even more special to many customers are the pecan caramel clusters - two kinds of chocolate covering roasted pecans and caramel. And Vogue magazine has named the Five Star Bars - packed with fruits and nuts covered in dark Belgian chocolate - "the ultimate chocolate bar."

At Sweet Inspirations (www.nantucket clipper.com) on Nantucket Island off the coast of Massachusetts, owners Jim and Kathy West greet customers with samples of chocolates served on elegant silver trays lined with lace doilies. Of the many rich candies to choose from, I always zero in on the chocolate-covered cranberries.

A visit here is what I imagine being turned loose in Willie Wonka's chocolate factory would be like.

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