* North American grind at top end of expectations
* Data signals recovery, better than Europe
NEW YORK Jan 17 (Reuters) - North American cocoa grindings rose 0.95 percent in the fourth quarter of 2012 to 120,053 tonnes, the region's first increase in a year, data from the National Confectioners Association said on Thursday.
The results, seen as a gauge of demand for chocolate's key ingredient, are at the top end of estimates that pegged the grind anywhere from 5 percent lower to 1 percent higher.
The recovery after three quarterly drops was also significantly better than Europe, which processed two-and-a-half times more beans than North America but reported a 6.2-percent fall.
Data earlier this week showed grinding there fell to nearly 328,000 tonnes on sluggish demand as chocolate makers worked off heavy stocks.
In Asia, demand has grown as an emerging middle class eats more chocolate biscuits and drinks. The new burst of consumption has helped to offset weakness in the mature European and North American markets.
The aggregate number of plants reporting in Canada, the United States and Mexico was unchanged at 17, the NCA said.
Survey respondents in North America included chocolate makers Barry Callebaut USA, Hershey Co, Nestle Chocolate & Confections, ADM Cocoa, The Blommer Chocolate Co and Mars Chocolate North America.
The fourth-quarter data comes ahead of Valentine's Day and Easter celebrations, two of the biggest events in the chocolate calendar.