Tour guide Linzi Jean Fastiggi, center, makes a stop at MarieBelle in SoHo… (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from New York — To appreciate Carmen Botez's love affair with chocolate, one must travel back to her childhood in dreary Romania, where the only chocolate she knew came from China, wrapped in red paper and with a slightly waxy taste.
After the fall of the Soviet bloc, Botez had the freedom to travel and to taste. And taste she did: dark chocolate, milk chocolate, white chocolate (yes, she considers it chocolate, contrary to many confectionary snobs), chocolate with fruity, boozy, smooth and nutty interiors, chocolate mixed with spices.
"People have this idea that chocolate is an indulgence, that it's bad for you. You hear words like 'guilt' associated with it," said Botez, 32, between sips of -- what else? -- hot chocolate. "For me, it's not a dessert thing. It's a food."
And a business opportunity.
Several times a week, locals and out-of-towners gather for one of Botez's various New York City chocolate tours. You can choose from a hipster-oriented outing that highlights chocolate sellers in Manhattan's Lower East Side or stick to the luxury shops uptown. And it seems nothing, not even bacon, is too odd to mix with the silky, sweet stuff.
The idea has proved to be recession-resilient. Mainstream chocolate sales increased 2.8% in the last year, according to the National Confectioners Assn. Sales of "premier" chocolate -- which includes Ghirardelli and Lindt products, and the high-end offerings on Botez's tours -- have soared 20% in the last three years.
"When we are in uncertain times, whether it is economic, personal or professional, we turn to what comforts us, and that is certainly chocolate," said Joan Steuer, president of Chocolate Marketing, a consulting business.
In addition to the turbulent times, she attributed the increased sales to dark chocolate's "health halo," which has formed in recent years. Chocolate, she said, "is known as both a pick-me-up and a calm-me-down. I can't think of any other food substance like this."
And though chocolate may be seen as a luxury, it is a relatively affordable one compared with diamonds, wide-screen TVs or new cars.
"When you're thinking of the real luxury items you have to cut out, it's easier to find room in your budget for a piece of chocolate than some of the other luxury items people like to indulge in," said Susan Whiteside of the confectioners association.
There are now so many high-end chocolate shops in New York that Botez cannot accommodate all those that want to be included in her tours.
One recent rainy Sunday, Linzi Jean Fastiggi was leading a tour group that included five women from Chappaqua, a suburb north of New York City. Friends for more than a decade, they were celebrating the birthdays of Rïse Daniels, 60, and Audrey Rabinowitz, 50, incessant bakers with a penchant for chocolate.
Their first stop was the Jacques Torres Chocolate shop in SoHo, where the ladies sampled a ménage à trois -- named for three mystery ingredients that give the treat a distinctly spicy flavor.
"I wasn't wowed by it," Daniels said. "I would have liked a more dominant flavor."
But her demeanor changed once she experienced a ginger-laced chocolate. "It's completely excellent!" she cooed, nibbling at the morsel with her eyes closed. "It is perfection."
From there it was on to Kee's, a shop barely bigger than a walk-in closet, where founder Kee Ling Tong makes everything fresh each morning and his treats are often sold out by early afternoon. The crème brûlée chocolates are a favorite here, but they come with a warning: The large, square chunks must be devoured whole, or the creamy filling spills onto the floor.
Fastiggi urged everyone to get out of their chocolate comfort zones and try something different, such as the Thai chili bonbons or the bacon-and-chocolate candy at Vosges Haut-Chocolat. "Let it sit on the back of your tongue. Focus on the flavor," she said.
"Oh my God, that Earl Grey. . . . It's purrrrrrfect," one woman said of a tea-laced sample.
"It's crunchy. It's not just nutty," another said of a more traditional nut-filled bonbon.
Fastiggi makes no bones about why she loves chocolate. "I'm a big fan of fat in general. I just love the taste of it," she said as the group lingered over chocolates blended with everything from curry to wasabi.
It is the unusual offerings that keep these shops in business despite the prices. At most gourmet chocolate shops, a single bonbon costs about $2.50. And it's not unusual to spend $50 or more for a box.
But it's not just the chocolates you're paying for, Fastiggi noted. It is the unique touches -- such as the silk-screened faces on the tiny chocolates at MarieBelle, where you also can buy jars of what appear to be olives or river rocks but are actually artfully designed sweets. Here, slabs of chocolate bark are $35 a pound.
It is also the eating experience. "These are to be savored. They're not to be popped in your mouth like popcorn," Whiteside said.
On any given weekend day, and particularly around the holidays, the shops on the chocolate tours are full of customers -- unlike many high-end restaurants and boutiques that have had to shut their doors.
Botez realized there was a market for her obsession after she moved to New York 10 years ago and founded an online magazine, Chocolate Zoom. Reader interest prompted the tour business.
Most of the tour groups are filled with women and couples. Rarely do men come alone, Botez said. But there was one who signed up solo, prompting Botez to comment that he must be quite a chocolate fan.
"No, I really hate chocolate," he responded. But because everyone else seemed to love chocolate, he added, he decided to come on a tour and figure out what he was missing.
By the end of the tour, Botez said, the man was a convert.