Is there any better time than the Easter holiday to explore the local art of chocolatiering?
Those melt-in-your-mouth delicious chocolate bunnies and luscious filled eggs have to start somewhere, and Pennsylvania has for decades been squarely anchored in the center of the nation's "chocolate belt."
This year, U.S. residents will consume 120 million pounds of Easter candy, and 70 percent will be chocolate. Total annual spending on Easter candy in recent years has surpassed $2 billion, according to the National Confectioners Association.
And much of that deliciousness has begun in this region, where skilled immigrants and quality dairy products melded for a match made in chocolate heaven.
Today, we give you a taste of the craft of four local chocolatiers who said that Easter represents 20 to 25 percent of their annual sales, behind front-runner Christmas.
Discerning chocolate lovers from Pittsburgh's northern suburbs have for years sung the praises of Betsy Ann chocolates. Known for its hand-dipped, chocolate-covered strawberry cordials and other creative delights, the West View-based company was founded in 1938 by Betsy Ann Helsel and purchased by Harry and Catherine Paras in 1967.
Since then, the Paras family has strived to maintain their reputation for quality products in an ever-changing industry where competition is fierce and recipes are closely guarded.
"Everything is made from the best ingredients we can get," company vice president Karen Paras said.
Betsy Ann makes its own caramel from scratch, and the truffles are lovingly hand-poured and designed to melt at body temperature.
At 84, Mr. Paras still works in the chocolate kitchens every day, hand forming filled eggs, nougat fillings and other delicacies.
The retail outlet next to the factory features a dizzying array of Easter goodies and some unique chocolates with religious motifs, including a chocolate rosary.
The story and symbolism behind Easter, eggs, crosses and other elements of the holiday are explained on the back of each product.
Company president Jim Paras said one of his favorite parts of the chocolate business is the emotional family connections he feels with customers.
"We're up to the fourth-generation customers," said Jim Paras, 53, son of Harry and Catherine. "That's one of the big stories that's never told about chocolate. It's really the family tradition that's the powerful tradition, and we need this in our country right now."
Jim Paras, a chocolate whisperer if there ever was one, has worked in his family's business for 40 years and said he's still always surprised by the reaction of customers who walk through the door and seem to be instantly transported back to their childhoods.
"People become very emotional," he said. "Especially when it's high quality, it reinforces that memory."
For that reason, Betsy Ann does a lot of Internet business, especially with customers who have moved from the area. A year ago, the company began cutting back many of its own retail shops in favor of display racks at various retailers, including many in the South Hills.
Confections from Edward Marc Chocolatier have touched the lips of some of the world's best-known power-brokers, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, U.S. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
Based in Trafford, the chocolate company has something no other can boast: a retail outlet in one of the world's busiest and largest office buildings, the Pentagon.
"People come into the Pentagon and the first thing they get hit with is the smell of chocolate," said Chris Edwards, who, with his sister, brother and parents, is keeping alive the chocolate-making traditions handed down from his great-grandparents, Charlie and Orania Sarandou.
Greek immigrants, the Sarandous started the company in 1914 -- at that time called Keystone Candies -- out of their Butler Street home in Lawrenceville.
The company eventually became Geoffrey Boehm Chocolates, Sherm Edwards Candies and then in 2009, Edward Marc Chocolatier.
Since then, the company has expanded its production by a staggering 75 percent, due mostly to a marketing blitz by the Edwards children, each of whom worked in the George W. Bush White House.
Chris Edwards also served as deputy chief of staff for Ms. Palin in her 2008 bid for vice president, and he knows on which page of her book, "Going Rogue," that Ms. Palin mentions her love for Edward Marc peanut butter meltaways. (It's page 293.)
But Mr. Edwards is quick to point out that he's a bipartisan chocolatier, whose chocolate medallions embossed with the seal and signature of Ms. Pelosi and Ms. Clinton have been gifted to guests at White House state dinners and other prestigious events.
Famous also for their vanilla salt caramels -- each sprinkled with an incredibly flavorful touch of sea salt -- and gourmet-filled eggs, the company has local retail outlets next to the Trafford factory, at its 55-flavor Milkshake Factory on Pittsburgh's South Side and at a Sherm Edwards shop along Old William Penn Highway in Monroeville.
Mr. Edwards, 35, who splits his time between homes in Washington, D.C., and Hampton, said his goal for the company is to continue growing while maintaining a loyal customer base and offering reasonable prices.
"In this recession, people don't have to spend $100 for a pound of chocolate for it to be good," he said.
Sarris Candies bills itself as "the world's best chocolates," and while that may be up for debate, the Canonsburg company is by far the largest local chocolatier, with an annual production rate of more than 3 million pounds of chocolate.
Founder Frank Sarris died two years ago, and his son, Bill Sarris, has taken over as company president. His mother and company co-founder, Athena Sarris, remains CEO.
The company's famous ice cream parlor remains closed until June 1 due to a Feb. 3 electrical fire that caused mostly smoke and water damage, but the well-known retail outlet is fully open even as the company continues estimating its losses.
Bill Sarris said the fire, which was confined primarily to a second-floor production area above the ice cream parlor, forced the company to throw out at least $1 million worth of chocolate. Other damages included plastic molds from Europe that were melted.
"Every day, we discover new losses," he said. "We still don't know what we don't have yet."
The retail showroom was reopened shortly after the fire and is as colorful as ever, full of chocolate bunnies in every imaginable shape, filled eggs and, of course, the foil-wrapped eggs that have been an Easter basket staple for generations.
A Washington & Jefferson College graduate with a degree in chemistry, Mr. Sarris, 59, began working with his father at the age of 10, learning to hand dip chocolate bunnies.
He grew up in the family's apartment over the retail store and said he was amazed at the outpouring of support he received from longtime customers and friends after the fire.
"It really makes you appreciate your customers," he said. "I'm very humble."
Dorothy's Candies may have gotten its start 65 years ago in the McKeesport basement of company founder Dorothy Gastel -- who learned the trade from her mother, Mae Gillespie, during the Great Depression -- but it has made incredible strides since then, all the way to the Hollywood Hills.
For the past four years, Dorothy's chocolate-covered potato chips -- one of the company's signature products -- have been among the featured "swag bag" items at the Oscars.
Her famous Swiss chocolate is also the favorite of the Pittsburgh Opera, which inspired a line of dark chocolate confections called "Diva Divines," with higher cocoa and lower sugar content than most dark chocolates.
"It's a heart-healthy boost with a focus on natural ingredients, but you think it's a dessert," said Dorothy Gastel's daughter-in-law, Marti Gastel, 64, who operates the White Oak company these days with her husband, Robert Gastel Jr., 65.
Dorothy's also has served as a chocolatier for the Kentucky Derby -- where its candies will again be featured this year -- and Ms. Gastel said she was told that Barbra Streisand served some of the company's chocolates at a Hollywood bash.
An autographed photo of Goldie Hawn adorns the main showroom on Long Run Road because the actress often stopped by the store while visiting her mother, Laura Steinhoff Hawn, who once lived in McKeesport.
"She would put on a babushka and sunglasses to disguise herself," Ms. Gastel recalled of the celebrity. "She always said we were her favorite chocolate."
Ms. Gastel swears by the antioxidants and other health benefits of her chocolate, saying that she is in great shape and takes no medications, even though she eats chocolate daily.
"Nobody gets fat on fine chocolate," she said. "They get fat on doughnuts."
The Gastels are big believers in handmade confections, and almost every piece of chocolate that leaves the company has been handcrafted at some point by one of the company's 35 employees. It takes a minimum of five years of training to learn the complex processes, such as truffle making and chocolate painting, Ms. Gastel said.
"Everything we do is quality," she said. "It's going to look different and taste different because it's made differently."
The products Dorothy's sells are practical as well as beautiful.
"Yes, we're elegant," Ms. Gastel said. "But, we're also Pittsburghers."
Janice Crompton: email@example.com or 412-851-1867. First Published April 5, 2012 8:15 PM