Chocolate is serious business. Americans consume 11 pounds per person every year. For Valentine's Day 1994, Americans spent approximately $600 million on sweets for their sweet.
When picking a quality assortment, Nick Malgieri, teacher at Peter Kump's New York Cooking School and author of the highly acclaimed ''How to Bake,'' says that taste and texture are most important. ''Chocolate should have a mellow, blended flavor,'' Mr. Malgieri says. ''It shouldn't be either immediately sweet or bitter.'' The chocolate coating surrounding the ganache (filling) should be thin and ''slightly crackling.'' Because of their typically fresh ingredients and natural flavorings, fine chocolates have a shorter shelf life than mass-market ones.
A panel of Monitor staff members heroically volunteered to sample, evaluate, and rank confections from some of America's top mail-order chocolatiers. Here are the top five:
1. La Maison du Chocolat, New York: Imported from famed chocolatier Robert Linxe's home base in France, these chocolates have a melt-in-your-mouth delicacy that is unsurpassed. (212) 744-7117 (45-piece box - $45 )
2. Burdick Chocolates, Walpole, N.H.: 800-229-2419 (1 lb. - $40) See story, right.
(Tie) 3. Chocolates by Mr. Roberts, Boca Raton, Fla.: Handmade by Swiss tailor-cum-chocolatier Heinz Robert Goldschneider, this is a sophisticated group garnished with crushed candied violets and mocha beans. Flavors are complex, the dark chocolate superb. (407) 392-3007 ($21.50 per lb.)
(Tie) 3. Godiva Chocolates, Clinton, Conn.: Masters of presentation, the beauty of Godiva's shell-molded chocolates is surpassed only by the velvet, gold, and be-ribboned boxes they come in. The chocolate has a delicious, creamy flavor, but the molding makes for a thick outer coating that can overpower the ganache. Godiva will guarantee orders for Valentine's Day. 800-9-GODIVA ($33 per pound)
4. Chocolats le Francais, Wheeling, Ill.: This entirely dark-chocolate assortment specializes in unusual flavors like Earl Grey Tea and Lemongrass. Unfortunately, the chocolate had a bitter aftertaste. But the Cashew Fleurons, a large upscale turtle made with whole-roasted cashews and soft caramel, won rave reviews. 800-452-4221 (46-piece box - $35, eight-piece box of Fleurons - $18)
5. Harbor Sweets, Salem, Mass.: Benneville Strohecker began making these nautical-themed candies as a hobby in 1973. Almond butter-crunch Sweet Sloops and dark-chocolate Marblehead Mints come wrapped in gold foil. While tasty, panelists found these solid chocolates less complex than others. 800-225-5669 (1 lb., 5 oz. - $39.50)