With the approach of Valentine’s and Easter, chocolate season is on the way. Chocolatier Nathaniel Izard of Izard Chocolate offers his top tips on what to shop for.

As the first ever chocolate making company in Little Rock, what do your chocolates offer that other brands don’t?

We make chocolate in very small batches, anywhere from 80-110 pounds per batch. Most large manufacturers are interested in two things: saving time and saving money. We’re interested in one thing — making the best-tasting chocolate. We spend a lot of time in research and development, and we spend extra time in the manufacturing process itself to create the most delicious chocolate possible.

Your chocolate is bean-to-bar. What does this mean? Isn’t all chocolate bean-to-bar?

Many chocolate and candy companies do not actually make their own chocolate. Most companies will buy chocolate that’s already been manufactured to make their own branded products. In our case, we buy beans from cacao farmers all over the world, and once they arrive we roast, de-shell, and grind the beans, and then conch, age, and temper the chocolate into tasting bars. That’s what it means to be a bean-to-bar chocolate maker.

With Valentine’s coming up, lots of people will be buying chocolate. What should consumers be looking for?

Like anything, there are varying degrees of quality when it comes to chocolate. Most people don’t want to get their special someone a case of boxed wine and a Hershey bar for Valentine’s Day. You want your gift to be special, so look for brands that you can’t find at the chain grocery and drug stores. It requires a little extra effort, but then that’s as much of a statement as the gift itself.

If someone is trying to stick to their New Year’s resolutions, what is the healthiest option to go for?

In my opinion, and the opinion of well-respected doctors and health specialists around the world, dark chocolate is healthy for you in moderation. In fact, people have been eating cacao (the main ingredient in dark chocolate) for thousands of years because of its health benefits. So look for dark chocolate that contains 65% or more cacao, and eat just a couple of squares to replace your usual dessert. That way you can feel good about keeping your New Year’s resolutions on track.

How important is it to buy ethical chocolate?

I believe that it is very important. Unfortunately, it is sometimes hard to define what ethical chocolate is and what it looks like, but for the most part, the more information you are able to find on the origin of a chocolate bar, the more likely the company is being transparent. I believe transparency is key to reforming the cacao industry.

Chocolate pairings are becoming increasingly popular. What are some of your favorite drink or food pairings?

Over the past year or so we have worked with Colonial Wines & Spirits on several wine and chocolate pairings. My new favorite is a Nero d’Avola (a red wine) by Indigenous with our 70% Dominican Republic bar or one of our sea salt chocolate-dipped caramels. If you want to stay local, I recommend Rocktown Distillery’s three-year aged whiskey with some of our bourbon pecan caramels.