What a luscious surprise. You can start the grand tour of Planet Chocolate on a busy corner in Carrollwood. Open the door to a new store called Choxotica and you're headed around the world in 200 chocolate bars. Make that 200 so far; Choxotica's goal is 400. You won't find the usual truffles and pralines, but rather slim, flat ingots of the exotic candy coaxed from the humble and bitter cacao beans of Venezuela, Mexico, Grenada, Tanzania, Indonesia and on around the equator. From there, samplers move on to taste the grand chocolatiers of the Old World, their followers and new upstarts. The world of chocolate is a remarkable place of rain forest agriculture and European confectioneries, peopled by barefoot growers and white-coated chefs. And growing legions of chocoholics. For them Choxotica (3802 Ehrlich Road; (813) 264-8000) will be as dramatic as the rain forest. Among the growing group of chocolate shops in the Tampa Bay area, it is a unique destination, a candy store as luxury showroom.
Chocolates, white, milk and mostly dark, up to 80 percent cocoa, some organic, some fair trade and all stored at perfect temperature and humidity, are displayed like rare books or fine cigars. Guittard, Vosges, Dolfin, Verite, Chuao and more wear ornate labels of European chocolate houses or the waxy recycled brown paper of whole earth artisans. Some are New World creations with mock drug labels like Dechox and Chotox. A single example of each is fixed like an expensive electronic device on display, offered with samples.
Displays have numbered tags, descriptions and prices, from $4 to $13. Make a decision and hand the tag to the attendant, who will retrieve your precious choice from cold storage.
A global taste
I picked two, each garnished with a map showing distant origins. One was from Ecuador and polished in Missouri and another from Sao Tome, on the west coast of Africa, packaged by Chocolatour in Boulder, Colo.
The Ecuadorian was smooth and tartly winey with raspberry flavors. The Sao Tome, vintage 2005, was smoky with a bit of spice, straightforward and powerful, perfectly balanced, earthy but with a touch of citrus.
If the dark magic of bars does not transport you, savor chocolate as a drink as Aztec and European royals did. Choxotica offers chocolates of a dozen origins from the earthy varieties of Africa to the rare delicacies of Peruvian mountains. Any of them can be brewed with spices from equally afar, chili, cinnamon, cardamom, vanilla and ginger.
Our tour director is Eric Green, a Tampa Realtor who made an unusual journey before building this shrine to chocolate.
His inspiration was a doctor's diagnosis that he was overweight and on his way to diabetes. His wife had started a diet program, and he joined her with his own wrinkle, eating a small piece of dark chocolate before each meal. "It really satisfied; there was so much flavor . . . and at the very end a little sweetness.''
The combination of pleasure and diet turned serious. He couldn't find all the chocolates he read about. Retail stores didn't have the variety, let alone the freshness or the constant temperature.
He learned the story of chocolate: cacao born in Venezuela, traded north through Mexico and then joining coffee and tea as Europe's newly fashionable beverages. In the 19th century the Dutch, Belgians and Swiss made it cocoa and solid candy, while the colonial powers transplanted cacao across their possessions.
Green, along with other new chocolate fanciers, took delight in understanding that chocolate is a natural product as distinct in geography, vintage and varieties as fine wines.
Like fine wines
Green's Choxotica enshrines the culture of chocolate, from flat-screen TVs projecting images of cacao workers on plantations and pastry chefs in sterile kitchens, to a background of world music and posh leather seating for private tastings.
Raw beans are available for tasting, and pure, filtered water is on hand (and free for the taking if you bring a liter jug).
Air is strictly controlled, too, no more than 50 percent humidity, temperature less than 70 degrees in the tasting room and 63 to 65 in the storage area. Chocolate should be cool but never, never refrigerated.
Green sells small cold packs for a long ride in the Florida heat. For people who take chocolate to an environment not as pristine as Choxotica, his advice is easy:
Don't worry about storing chocolate for a long time. Eat it.
Chris Sherman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8585.
Tampa Bay's big box of chocolates
In addition to Choxotica, chocolatiers and chocolate shops have popped up all around the Tampa Bay area. Among them are:
Chocolate Diva's, 735 Broadway, Dunedin; (727) 734-3764
Chocolate Pi, 2821 S MacDill Ave., Tampa; (813) 831-2195; www.chocolatepi.com
Chocolate Specialties by Joe, 595 Corey Ave., St. Pete Beach; (727) 360-4800; www.chocolatejoe.com
Chocolate Studios, 404 Orange Ave., Palm Harbor; (727) 785-2263; www.chocolatestudiosflorida.com
Chocolates by Michelle, Gulf View Square Mall, Port Richey; toll-free 1-877-849-2626; www.chocolatesbymichelle.com
Godiva, several boutiques around Tampa Bay and sells through other retailers and online; www.godiva.com
Peterbrooke, locations in Carrollwood, Valrico, Palm Harbor and Largo and also sells online; www.peterbrooke.com
Schakolad Chocolate Factory, locations in downtown St. Petersburg and Tampa's Soho district and also sells online; www.schakolad.com
Soleil Chocolates, 17506 Preserve Walk Lane, Tampa; (813) 903-9800; www.soleilchocolates.com
Vanessa's Fine Chocolates, sells online and by mail-order; toll-free 1-866-733-0812; www.vanessasfinechocolates.com
Viktoria Richards Chocolates, sells online and by mail-order; (727) 505-6567; www.viktoriarichardschocolates.com
In Janet's Kitchen
For a video primer on the difference between eating and baking chocolate, go to food.tampabay.com.