With Valentine's Day just around the corner, many South Jersey lovers still are wrestling with age-old questions: To buy a box of chocolates or craft a homemade gift? To dine in or fight the crowds for a romantic table for two?

A bold few will attempt the hybrid gift: Homemade chocolates - or chococlate-flavored candy - for instance. But if you think your sweetheart won't notice the difference between melted-down Hershey's bars and made-from-scratch sweets, think again.

The people who know say there's a difference. A big difference.

"The key ingredient is whole ingredients we use here, none of that powdered stuff," says Rodney Blomdahl, a third generation chocolatier who's been running Rauhauser's Own Make Candies on Asbury Avenue in Ocean City for 24 years. Besides looking and tasting better, "real chocolate" has antioxidants, he points out, but "the only way it's really good for you is in moderation."

Blomdahl, who's training his teenage children Trevor and Blake to take over the business his grandfather started in 1965, buys chocolate from Wilbur Chocolate in Lititz, Pa., so he can concentrate on making his own centers as well as fudge from scratch. When he couldn't get consistent-quality vanilla fondent for his very-popular fudge, Blomdahl began making his own.

"You have to be consistent and precise, otherwise, if you don't have consistency, the first people who tell you will be your customers," he says.

Donald Meyer, of Van Holten's Chocolates in the Lacey Mall on Route 9 in that township, makes his own chocolate from cocoa butter, chocolate liquor and sugar.

Meyer estimates he eats about two pounds of chocolate per day, all while taste-testing ten different kinds of chocolate-covered pretzels or checking the quality of his turtles, of course.

Meyer grew up around his family's Jersey City chocolate and ice cream store, where he learned the craft and met his wife, Patricia. She learned the business side of things from her mother-in-law before the couple headed south 31 years ago and opened up shop. Now Donald makes the chocolates in the back, while Patricia deals with the public.

"They keep me out of the front because I have a habit of throwing people out," Donald jokes. "I'm like the chocolate Nazi: No chocolate for you."

But really, he's just an easygoing guy who wants people to taste "real chocolate," not sugar and hydrogenated fat. And while he won't share the secret family recipes from which he makes his livelihood, he's happy to give tips on tempering, the all-important process used to slowly lower the temperature of molten chocolate so that it thickens and sets in place.

"Real chocolate doesn't like sudden changes in temperature," he says. So, warm fresh fruit to room temperature before dipping, "Otherwise it gets dry and dull and it doesn't look pretty if the item you're dipping is cold."

Overheat the chocolate and it will burn. Cool it too quickly and it will "bloom" - and not in a good way. Blooming happens when the ingredients in chocolate separate and leaves white swirls on the chocolate's surface, dulling its sheen. The taste is the same, but to the trained eye, "it just doesn't look pretty."

To reach the perfect consistency for his hand-rolled Easter eggs, Blomdahl heats his chocolate - the kind you can buy from a wholesaler in bulk - to 110 degrees using a double-boiler pan to avoid scorching the chocolate. Then he slowly lowers the heat to 89.3 degrees for milk or 90.3 degrees for dark chocolate.

To make his well-known fudge, Blomdahl uses copper pots to cook the base of sugar, milk, corn syrup, butter and salt, then lowers the heat before adding favors such as vanilla or cookies.

"When you try someone's fudge, you always want to try their chocolate. That way you can tell if they're using real chocolate," he advises. "But if you can taste the grain, it doesn't have much of a shelf-life left. It's already starting to dry out."

Or if it all sounds like too much for you, "Just come buy it from us," says Mike Jagielky, who owns candy shops in Margate and Ventnor. "You can't make or find it cheaper on Absecon Island."

Contact Felicia Compian:

609-272-7209

If you go:

Jagielky's Home Made Candies

5115 Ventnor Ave., Ventnor

609-823-6501

8018 Ventnor Ave., Margate City

609-822-2204

Rauhauser's Own Make Candy

721 Asbury Ave., Ocean City

609-399-1465

Van Holten's Chocolate

328 Route 9, Lacey Township

609-971-0871