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The cacao tree is a prima donna, growing only within 10 degrees latitude of the Equator, where it thrives in the deep, moist soil of lowland tropical forest.

Young cacao trees demand shade, clinging to the canopy of a banana or rubber tree. But only 3 out of 1,000 flowers on a cultivated tree will grow into a cacao pod, dangling awkwardly from the trunk like a Christmas ornament.

The oblong, fluted fruit represents the first step along chocolate's arduous journey from bean to bar. For a crash course on the rest of the chocolate-making process, you can stop by the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena.

The interactive Chocolate Tasting, guided by Pastry Chef Stephen Durfee during a 15-minute video, takes place at the 16-seat Flavor Bar in the new Spice Islands Marketplace and Store.

"We're trying to provide something for everyone," said Patricia Donnelly, manager of the marketplace and store. "It's for people coming in at the end of the day, the woman who is expecting and can't drink wine, or even a family with kids."

During the Chocolate Tasting, guests are given a tray with samples of chocolate at 11 different stages, from the bitter bean with its cocoa nibs to specialty chocolates from around the world.

The tactile experience - you can crush beans, rub cocoa butter into your hands and taste unsweetened chocolate with a chaser of cane sugar - helps reinforce the complex process behind a Hershey's or a Valrhona bar.

"After doing this, people will realize why certain chocolates are more expensive," Donnelly said.

The tasting also helps folks read and understand the labels on a blended chocolate bar. For example, 70 percent means the bar is 70 percent chocolate and 30 percent sugar.

Moving from bitter to sweet, the tasting culiminates with an explanation of the "terroir" of chocolate, which like wine, is influenced by the soil where it is grown.

While chocolate sourced from Ecuador's Guayas River Basin hints of jasmine and wildflower, Madagascar's Sambirano Valley yields a chocolate slightly scented with citrus and Venezuela's Occumare Valley chocolate explodes with ripe cherries and berries.

Next to the Flavor Bar, a glass case full of chocolate confections offers souvenirs for sale. Beyond that, you can watch students working in the new Chocolate Laboratory through a glass wall.

In addition to the chocolate tasting, the Flavor Bar offers a "Taste Like a Chef: Calibrate Your Palate" discovery tour, where tasters learn to identify - and balance - the flavors of salt, sweet, sour, bitter and umami in their food.

"Taste Like a Chef" is offered on the hour from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. The Chocolate Tasting is offered on the half hour, from 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily. Tasting cost is $10 per person.

At the end of April, the Flavor Bar will debut another tasty adventure: the Oleateca Villa Campestri olive oil bar, offering sips of super-premium olive oils from top estates in Spain, Italy, Greece and California, paired with food and wine.

To make a reservation, call 967-2320. The CIA at Greystone is located at 2555 Main St., St. Helena.

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