From the heart: chocolate, sweet memories

As Valentine’s Day approaches, it’s time to adjust your notion of how fine chocolates should look, and how heartfelt sentiments should be expressed.

Eliminate the heart-shaped box, the crinkly brown paper candy cups and the business of squishing the bottom of a confection, to identify the filling before taking the first bite.

The exquisite choices in Menomonie are not about cream or coconut center, toffee or caramel texture. Both the chocolatier and the customer must deal with percentages: 41 to 99. The higher the number, the bigger the kick of cocoa; it comes from a specific type of bean in South America.

And the display? Each sinfully dense truffle sits in its own little covered, plastic container, the same kind used for a helping of mayo, tarter sauce or salad dressing in a cafeteria line or take-out bag. That keeps the candy fresh and cuts the possibility that one aroma will mingle or interfere with another.

So forget about lovely glass platters that present these candies as small pyramids of edible gems. What these products – from Legacy Chocolates – lack in presentation is made up in purity of chocolate taste that is not sugared down. The flavors for sale – champagne to espresso – change daily.

How good is the quality? Good enough to win “Best Chocolate” honors two years in a row in a poll of Twin Cities’ readers (through the alternative weekly newspaper, City Pages). Why would Minnesota residents choose Mike and Cathy Roberts’ Wisconsin company for this prize? The second outlet for Legacy Chocolates is in St. Paul, Minn.

Our introduction to this business happened on a 101-degree August day, while scurrying to a book signing at Menomonie’s historic Mabel Tainter Theater. We thought we were late for this part of the book tour, but actually had arrived an hour early.

“Good,” declared Marilyn Stower of Amery. “There’s time for chocolate,” assuring us that the short walk in sweltering heat would be worth it. She chuckled as our befuddlement with the choices. She treated us, then slowly savored a little something for herself.

When we met just three days earlier, this gracious hostess made Ben Logan (author of the long-loved “The Land Remembers” biography) and me a nice supper in her home. The meal began with pork chops and sauerkraut, lightly sprinkled with brown sugar, and ended with a pie of fresh peaches, topped with just-whipped cream.

The charm of Legacy Chocolates and Marilyn’s hospitality is in my mind this week as Marilyn nears the end of a 10-year battle with cancer. One part of northwest Wisconsin will never be the same.

Husband Harvey Stower, who has been the mayor of Amery for a dozen years, had organized our book tour, and we most recently chatted while he was home with his wife and hospice staff.

Marilyn had sniffed out another great chocolate maker 10 years ago, as she began treatments at UW Hospital. It was The Chocolate Caper in Oregon, a Dane County community of 8,000.

Claude Marendaz and his recipes are from Switzerland. His specialty is the two-layered Swiss pralines. “She would order something at least once a year,” even after treatments ended, Harvey said, and his City Hall staff were treated with the candy just last Christmas.

The conversation was a reminder that what you give others in this world is much less about pretense and extravagance than spirit and kind intentions.

We recently asked you to tell us about your favorite Wisconsin chocolate makers, and replies included The Chocolate Caper (“They make quality products at reasonable prices,” wrote Beth Wortzel. “Nothing too exotic, just the real thing at its best. I am so spoiled eating their chocolate that I can’t touch commercial products anymore.”)

What we should have asked, in addition, is for you to share the poignant memory that goes along with the giving or receiving of such a sweet gift. Please keep the opportunity for significant connections in mind as you prepare for Valentine’s Day. Make your words and actions more memorable as the material goods.

Wisconsin contains many quality candy makers. Here are eight choices, to get you thinking.

Legacy Chocolates, 643 S. Broadway St., Menomonie, and 2042 Marshall Ave., St. Paul, Minn. For more: www.legacychocolates.com, 715-231-2580.

The Chocolate Caper, 105 S. Main St., Oregon. For more: www.chocolatecaper.com, 608-835-9294.

Wilmar Chocolates, 1222 N. Superior St., Appleton. Boxed assortments include the Award Collection of candies that have earned the Wisconsin State Fair Seal of Excellence. For more: www.wilmarchocolates.com, 920-733-6182.

Seroogy’s, 144 N. Wisconsin St., DePere. In business since 1899, it is best-known for flavored meltaways (mint, peanut butter, almond, chocolate, chocolate crisp). For more: www.seroogys.com, 800-776-0377.

Beerntsen’s Confectionary, 108 N. Eighth St., Manitowoc. The third-generation family business produces chocolates in unusual/fun molds and also has a store in Cedarburg. For more: www.beerntsens.com, 920-684-9616.

Oaks Chocolates, 1206 Oregon St., Oshkosh. In business since 1890, and products include the popular Melty Bar candy bars. For more: www.oakscandy.com, 920-231-3660.

Kehr’s Candies, Milwaukee Public Market, 400 N. Water St., and factory store at 3533 W. Lisbon Ave. Making candy since 1930, and the old-fashioned feel of the factory store is worth a visit, but orders also are shipped. For more: 414-223-4305.

Quality Candy/Buddy Squirrel, multiple retail locations in Wisconsin, and tours of the St. Francis production facility are possible. For more: www.qcbs.com, 800-972-2658.