Tried & Tested: The Heart of the Matter: Our soft-centred panellists sampled some chocolates for Valentine's Day

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EVEN IF chocolate doesn't really live up to its reputation among the Aztecs as an aphrodisiac, Valentine's Day and chocolates still seem to have an inevitable link. You can even send a message - or your phone number - spelt out in chocolate to the object of your desire. We asked a panel of professional and amateur chocolate-fanciers to sample some Valentine's Day selections and find out how good the offerings really are beneath all those red ribbons and bows. If you still haven't bought that special gift - or gifts - you've just time to read our guide and make your choice.

THE PANEL

Chantal Coady, proprietor of Rococo, London chocolate shop, co-founder of the Chocolate Society and author of Chocolate: The Food of the Gods; Peter Irvine, confectionery buyer, Harvey Nichols, London; Julia Zullo, student; Joanna Rippon, architect.

THE TEST

The panel gave the chocolates marks out of 10 for presentation, the appearance of the chocolates, the bitterness of the dark chocolate (indicating a high cocoa content) the taste and texture of the fillings and for overall quality. The marks were converted into a best buy rating.

*JOHN LEWIS LIQUEUR CHOCOLATES

in an Edwardian style package

pounds 3.45 for 115g,

pounds 4.75 for 165g, pounds 5.50 for 250g

The panel did not think the lace-patterned tin and garish foil wrappings were suitable packaging for a romantic Valentine's Day offering. 'The tin would be better filled with toffees or fudges,' said Peter Irvine, from rival store Harvey Nichols. The testers didn't like the contents much either. 'They all tasted awful - avoid this selection at all costs,' said Joanna Rippon. Julia Zullo liked the chocolate itself, but found the fillings 'awful and much too strong'. Chantal Coady praised a cherry liqueur chocolate made with dark chocolate and a real cherry, but said the milk chocolate tasted sickly and artificial.

**SAINSBURY'S BELGIAN CHOCOLATES

in a gift wrapped box

pounds 4.15 for 230g, also available

in heart-shaped pack

The panel thought the packaging was quite stylish and that the chocolates had a good appearance. They thought the menu card, showing what the centres are, was useful - some other brands leave you to guess what you're about to bite in to. The chocolates which had praline fillings got the thumbs up, but not those with liquid fondant centres, which were described as 'sickly', 'sticky' and 'oozing'. 'The fondants were too creamy and tasted horrible,' said Julia Zullo.

*THORNTON'S SELECT COLLECTION

of chocolates with a heart-shaped chocolate plaque, pounds 8.49 for 285g

You can have a message to your loved one spelt out on the chocolate plaque. Our testers didn't think, though, that this box would enhance your love life, at least as far as the packaging was concerned. 'A tasteless, tacky and cheap-looking heart- shaped box - if this was my Valentine's present, it would probably mark the end of the romance,' said Joanna Rippon. They also thought it was expensive and found the chocolates very sweet and sickly. 'The ultimate in commercial, tacky and overpriced chocolates,' said Chantal Coady.

**** CHARBONNEL ET WALKER BOITE BLANCHE .TX.- pounds 25 for a 1lb box

If chocolates truly are the key to the heart of your lover, this box should do the trick - but only if money is no object. At pounds 25 a lb, each mouthful is a luxury, but they beat all the other brands hands down. 'I'd love to find these on my doorstep,' said Joanna Rippon. 'Beautiful, classic box,' said Chantal Coady, 'the option of a per- sonalised message spelt out in chocolates is a great idea.' The testers liked the fillings, including traditional ones such as violet creams, although some were thought to be a bit sticky.

***LEONIDAS BELGIAN CHOCOLATES

in a gift-wrapped box, pounds 6.80 for 1lb

After the Charbonnel et Walker box, these were the chocolates the panel liked best, for less than a third of the price. The chocolates were large and sweet, so unless you are a real chocaholic you might find it a bit sickly to eat more than one or two. 'Typical large continental size, good selection, sweet creamy style,' said Peter Irvine, 'ideal for the sweet-toothed consumer.'

**GODIVA BELGIAN PRALINE HEARTS

in a gift-wrapped box, pounds 15 for 1lb

The panel weren't too impressed with how these chocolates were presented, which they felt looked rushed and haphazard. But testers gave them higher marks for taste and texture than they did for their looks. 'If you like pralines, these were very good, smooth and rich,' said Chantal Coady. 'The milk chocolate ones were beautifully smooth,' commented Joanna Rippon.

**MARKS & SPENCER BELGIAN CHOCOLATES

pounds 6.99 for 330g

The panel felt these failed to come up to the usual St Michael standard of quality. The box looked good at first glance: 'The wrapper and ribbons were probably the best things about these chocolates,' said Chantal Coady. But the rest of the packaging and the contents were very average. The panellists found the fillings of the chocolates, which had rather strange names, too sweet. 'Disappointing filling and textures for M & S. Poor value for money,' said Peter Irvine.

NEXT WEEK: CAT FOOD

(Photograph omitted)

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