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Americans go crazy for precious chocolate

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At Kee's in New York City the truffles have flavors like black sesame, green tea and honey kumquat. (Julie Cirelli/CNS)

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Each morning the chocolate makers at Kee's shape each truffle by hand. (Julie Cirelli/CNS)

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Kee's will ship truffles to chocolate lovers who can't get to New York City except in the summer when they might melt on the way. (Julie Cirelli/CNS)

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All of the truffles are made on site at Kee's Chocolate Shop in New York City. (Julie Cirelli/CNS)

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Artisan chocolates are made without preservatives and only have a shelf life of up to four weeks. (Julie Cirelli/CNS)

The store is crammed with people who wait patiently to buy the balsamic, the lemongrass-lime and the smoked salt versions. “You have to try the blood orange,” a customer says. “It’s seasonal.”

The object of the customers’ affection? Artisan chocolates at the closet-size Kee’s shop in Manhattan, where each chocolate is arranged in a box like a gem. Artisan chocolates like these created by Kee Ling Tong are made by hand in small batches, without preservatives. Occasionally they look almost too pretty to eat. Almost.

These small delicacies are breaking out of boutique store boxes and changing the American chocolate scene as big companies capitalize on consumers’ evolving chocolate palettes. Two years ago Mars launched the Ethel’s line of truffles, and Hershey recently bought three artisan companies: Dagoba, Joseph Schmidt and Sharffen Berger.

“There’s been a definitive trend of people looking for an upscale version of their favorite commodities: clothing, coffee and now chocolate,” said Phillip Levine, a spokesman for Mars.

Like fashion designers, artisan chocolatiers, many of whom hand paint their creations with dyed cocoa butter, have collections. Garrisons Confections in Providence, R.I., has collections named winter solstice and autumnal equinox that change with the lunar calendar. Garrisons typically retires a flavor after one season, but its mojito truffle is so popular it has been back three summers in a row.

Soma Chocolates in Toronto features the revolution collection and the alchemy collection as well as “single origin” bars, which means all the cocoa beans came from the same place.

The increased popularity of these delicacies has led to debate within the chocolate world about what the term “artisan” actually means. Mass retailers like Target, which uses preservatives and produces its chocolates in bulk, have begun using the term on its own packaging. Target has a “Choxie” line that features flavors like cardaomom, strawberry balsamic and Thai coconut, and it augments its “artisan” label with the phrase, “inspired by art.”

For Tong that definition is off the mark. Artisan, she says, means “making it your own. The fillings, the flavors, it’s all your own and you can be creative. It is an art.”

Tong frequently finds inspiration when she goes out for dinner. Her new Kaffir lime truffle was inspired by a salad.

“The difference between a high-quality chocolate and an everyday chocolate is time and attention at every stage,” said Clay Gordon, author of the forthcoming book "Discover Chocolate." “It is like the difference between driving a Ford Escort and a Lexus.

“The relationship you want to have with your chocolatier is the one your grandmother had with her butcher. He knew her preferences and her name,” Gordon said. “Your chocolatier should be able to tell you, ‘I know you like the strawberry ones, but this raspberry thing is good.’ That can only be done with an artisan.”

Gordon hopes his new book will help people appreciate chocolate the way they have learned to appreciate wine. He teaches courses about pairing the two and says he is “contrarian” in his pairings because he recommends milk chocolate with red wine and advocates trying dark chocolate with a white wine that isn’t too acidic, like a dry Riesling.

Jin Caldwell is the chocolatier for Ethel’s lounges, which aspires to be a chain in the Starbucks mold. The 10 Ethel’s in Chicago, and the one in Las Vegas, have armchairs, sofas and chocolate fondue for two. Caldwell started her career as a pastry chef, and she will sometimes spend many months designing a truffle recipe. She tries things out, then her creations go to a panel of tasters and eventually to the graphic designers.

Caldwell just finished creating a champagne raspberry and a jasmine tea flavored chocolate to be released around Mother’s Day. For Valentine’s Day, Ethel’s signature slightly curved rectangle truffles say, ‘I love you’ in six languages.

“I love chocolate. I love what I do. Chocolate is an amazing medium,” Caldwell said. “The word cacao in Mayan means food of the gods. It is food of the gods, and people can’t get enough of it.”

E-mail: mrk2105@columbia.edu