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Origin: São Tomé
Overview: The first African cocoa plantations were planted in the 19th century on the islands of São Tomé and Principe, which is on the Equator off the coast of central Africa. The fertile, volcanic soil from Africa's smallest nation produces a forbiddingly dark, bittersweet chocolate.
Tasting Notes: The cocoa taste of Michel Cluizel's Tamarina Noir is enhanced by licorice and citrus flavors. It is part of a five-plantation tasting box for $26 (chocolatmichelcluizel-na.com). Fruit and spice dominate in the bittersweet Pralus São Tomé bar, which is $8 (chocosphere.com).
Overview: Ghanaian beans, usually at the bottom of the totem pole, tend to be used in mass-produced chocolates, but there are some standouts. Growers harvest pods by hand and ferment the beans between banana leaves on the forest floor.
Tasting Notes: Cocoa-dusted truffles from La Maison du Chocolat are sweet, earthy, and mild at $45 for half a pound (www.lamaisonduchocolat.com/en). Made from an aromatic cocoa, the Pralus Ghana bar, $8, is a bit spicier with plenty of acidity to round it out.
Overview: Beans from Ecuador tend to have strong acidity because they are grown at high altitudes. Ecuadoran cocoa is more complex than African, but it's not considered to be top-tier. The country's best chocolate comes from the Salinas de Guaranda area, which is in the central region.
Tasting Notes: Hershey's (HSY ) Cacao Reserve Arriba bars can be found at major retailers for just $3.29. Because milk is used in production, true chocolate buffs will scoff at the sweet, herbal taste. For a more sensual experience, try Domori's Arriba bar, $4.80. It boasts hazelnut, banana, and citrus flavors.
Overview: This South American country known for oil and Hugo Chávez is also a leading producer of high-end beans. But many so-called single-origin Venezuelan chocolates are actually a blend from several growing regions. Beans from Chuao and Porcelana are considered the best in the world.
Tasting Notes: Produced exclusively by Tuscan chocolatier Amedei in limited quantities, Chuao features notes of red currant and cherries. Even more rare is Porcelana. It tastes like bread and jam. Boxes of Amedei Porcelana and Amedei Chuao Napolitains are $24 (www.amedei-us.com).
By Lauren Young