3 Hours on Ibn Gvirol Street

Maybe the Tel Aviv thoroughfare should be renamed Chocolate Boulevard in honor of the many stores specializing in everyone's favorite guilty pleasure.

Fine chocolate means, first of all, fresh chocolate, produced from high-quality cocoa beans that have been handled properly from the moment they were separated from their pods. Or, more precisely, from the time they were planted. As with wine, olive oil or any other product from a natural source, the quality of the final product depends on that of the raw material, including the terroir in which it is grown.

As a result of tasting more types of chocolate - made of cocoa beans from different regions in the world, with varying percentages of cocoa solids and cocoa butter - one learns a little more about this big, complex world. Tel Aviv's Ibn Gvirol Street has become a chocolate stronghold of late: It is home to two chocolatiers that make fresh chocolates on the premises, and three shops devoted to well-known brands of Belgian chocolates, which are flown in every two weeks in carefully controlled conditions.

A soldier who has just wolfed down a falafel sandwich from a nearby stand stands in front of the display window, which is filled with chocolates. He is here to slide a little sweetness down his throat in the form of that popular Middle Eastern dessert, Belgian chocolate filled with a berry liqueur ganache and a whole, bright pink raspberry. It is followed by a cherry swimming in a sea of white chocolate and covered with dark, bittersweet chocolate.

Irit and Izzi Liron lived in Belgium for a few years and decided to import the pralines from the Belgian chocolatier Valentino, which are handmade in a small family business. The store also offers Pate de fruit, a jellied confection made from fruit, sugar and pectin that has a long history in the world of sweets. All European confectionery shops boast spectacular display windows thanks to these colorful and tasty gelees. Among those produced by Valentino, the pear is especially good. It retains the delicate flavor and aroma of the fruit.

149 Ibn Gvirol St. 077-7090149; 85 Ibn Gvirol St. 077-5070085 100 grams for NIS 85; www.valentino.be

In 2004 a serious disagreement broke out among members of the French chocolatiers' professional association. This was no small matter for a nation that practically bestows upon the chocolatier, as on a master artist in any other gastronomic field, the aura of a philosopher king. The argument revolved around the origin of the most noble of pralines - the Palet d'Or. Everyone agreed that the term came from "golden puck," but some people decided to challenge the traditional creation myth ascribing its invention to the chocolatier Bernard Serardy in the town of Moulins in the late 19th century. Residents of the town, who saw their most glorious historic asset in danger of evaporating, threatened a strike and the debate heated up.

If bittersweet chocolate, which contains the greatest amount of cocoa solids, is the Rolls Royce of chocolate, then the Palet d'Or is its shining hood ornament. The palet consists of ganache - chocolate stirred into heavy cream - that is covered with a thin, glossy coating of dark chocolate. The chocolatier presses a gold leaf or gold flakes into the top that announce: This is the real thing. A tiny masterpiece of pure chocolate, without other flavors to distract from the pure essence of the thing itself.

Leonidas is a large Belgian chocolate manufacturer that was founded in the early 20th century and now exports to 1,700 branches around the world, including two in Israel. Its Palet d'Or contains 72 percent cocoa solids and is made from cocoa beans grown on the island of Sao Tome in the Gulf of Guinea. The delicate blackberry ganache, coated in bittersweet chocolate, is also very good. We were less blown away by the classic chestnut cream praline and the sweet champagne and white chocolate truffle. The shop resembles a stern apothecary, and thus suits the well-off, older people still remaining in the neighborhood, some of whom may still have fond childhood memories of European chocolate culture.

74 Ibn Gvirol St. 03-6093363 100 grams for NIS 28; www.leonidas.co.il

At first, the lips taste a slight saltiness from the Atlantic sea salt crystals that top the praline. The milk chocolate and caramel are felt inside the mouth and then the flavors merge on the way to the throat. The work space of chocolatiers - trays covered with drips of hardened chocolate, and a chaotic array of chocolate blocks and slivers - sometimes resembles an artist's atelier. But instead of finding the purpose of a block of marble, the goal here is to find the creative combination of flavors that will accentuate the flavor of this natural raw material.

For Eli Trab, this can mean bittersweet chocolate paired with lemon and espresso; a buttery toffee crunch with chocolate pieces covered with soft, caressing curves of cocoa powder; thick rounds of light golden marzipan dipped in fine bittersweet chocolate - all totally addictive. He is just 25, a complete autodidact with no formal training in the field, but he makes and sells creative and marvelous pralines and truffles in his shop, done up in shades of gray, red and white.

Eli uses the French Valrhona chocolate exclusively for his creation. Many consider Valrhona to be the best commercial chocolate manufacturer in the world. It was certainly one of the first to market quality chocolate like wine, as single-vineyard varietals and blends from various regions.

Anyone wanting to know more about the company, which has surrounded itself in an exclusive atmosphere of enigma, should read the funny chapter "Valrhona Valhalla" in "Chocolate: A Bittersweet Saga of Dark and Light" (not yet translated into Hebrew) by Mort Rosenblum (author of "A Goose in Toulouse" and "Olives," among others). It recounts the author's trials and tribulations while on a pilgrimage to Heaven - Valrhona headquarters, which is protected by a web of secrecy that would do Willie Wonka proud.

60 Ibn Gvirol St. 03-6958612 100 grams for NIS 23-38; www.cardinal-online.co.il "Chocolate," Mort Rosenblum, North Point Press

Two weeks before Passover, two women were already busy in Daskalides wrapping festive boxes of chocolate with gold ribbons. And despite the holiday atmosphere, Laurent Cige and one of his regular customers were engaged in a heated exchange about Madame Tzipi Livni and about the poor French of Monsieur Shimon Peres, a man the French love to admire and Israelis love to hate.

Laurent Cige was Ibn Gvirol's chocolate pioneer. Seven years ago, when he saw that little quality chocolate was being imported to Israel, he decided to bring in the Belgian brand Daskalides. He still sells it a price that is very close to that in Europe. Daskalides offers 60 types of chocolates. The regional chocolate bar series offers an excellent way to experience the difference in taste among chocolates produced from cocoa beans grown in different parts of the world: The bittersweet chocolate from the Ivory Coast contains 85 percent cocoa solids and is particularly strong and bitter in taste. The Dominican Republic chocolate, with 72 percent cocoa solids, has a slightly fruity, spicy flavor, and so on.

40 Ibn Gvirol St. 03-6968035 100 grams for NIS 30; www.daskalides.co.il

Uzi Goetz's small shop is reminiscent of the floral-themed teahouses that are dotted around Paris. It has green velvet chairs on which you can sit and sip a cup of coffee while sampling the tiny chocolate delicacies. There are chocolate-scented candles, Victorian-style teacups and illustrated labels that remind us that eating chocolate returns us to our childhood. On the shelves is an excellent selection of imported chocolate bars, including liqueur-filled ones from Switzerland's chocolate-maker Goldkenn as well as liqueurs and chocolates in paper baskets made by Uzi himself.

5 Ibn Gvirol St. 03-6851234 100 grams for NIS 32