Chocolate by the Bay Your guide to chocolate in the SF Bay area Tue, 19 Jul 2016 19:44:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Kids’ meal Sat, 02 Jul 2016 00:27:57 +0000 McCreas Singles

If you had asked me when I was 5 years old what I wanted to eat if I could eat anything, I probably would have said, “Candy.” [caption id="attachment_8525" align="alignright" width="420"]box of cigars A box of cigars as a chocolatier envisions them[/caption] Fast forward many decades, and that was kinda exactly what I had for lunch yesterday — albeit really nice artisan caramels, mostly chocolate-covered and with exotic (and un-kid-friendly) flavors like rosemary, blue cheese, single malt Scotch, and cigar. There was a table full of caramels, and I was going to eat them all.

No picky eaters allowed

I didn’t think up this meal myself. I was invited by TasteTV and the International Chocolate Salon to be a judge at their 2016 Caramels Competition. I’ve been a judge at their SF salons before, but that is a somewhat relaxed process where I can try whatever I like as I wander around vendor booths that are giving away free samples. This, however, was my first time judging at a sit-down affair with veteran judges who weren’t my fellow CBTB chocolateers. There were 9 judges around the long table @ 1pm, when Andre Crump of TasteTV rolled in the boxes of caramels. There were 10–15 selections in all, from chocolatiers as far away as Boston, Vancouver, and San Diego, and a few closer to home. To the 5-year-old inside me, trying all that candy looked easy-peasy, but the adult me wasn’t so sure. I usually have my crew to share the task to prevent sugar overload. Also, I usually skip anything that doesn’t appeal to me. That behavior was not going to cut it this time. Then one of my fellow judges told me that last time he did this gig, it was twice as much chocolate. I asked how he survived. His answer: “Focus.” He meant he needed to focus to keep track of all the chocolate, so he could remember and judge them fairly. I realized I was out of my league because my priority was physical survival. [caption id="attachment_8530" align="alignright" width="200"]bee caramel Even bees of the caramel kind are having a tough time these days[/caption]

Bee careful

We tried the caramels in roughly alphabetical order of their makers, so we started with some fairly straightforward chocolate-covered caramels that began life as cute bees, but got kinda roughed up and melted flying down from Canada.  Safe transit was a problem for several of the competitors, with some busted boxes and tossed-around treats. The bees would make cute gifts, if they can work out their packaging and transportation issues. We then moved on to 2 mainstream trendy flavors: a maple and uncured bacon caramel and a passion fruit caramel, both in 72% dark chocolate. The twist on the bacon caramel was that the caramel was very grainy -- turns out it was because the bacon was ground up in the caramel. The passion fruit twist was that while it was very fruity, it also tasted a little unripe. Not a bad thing, it was like eating a slightly green banana, but definitely unusual. [caption id="attachment_8536" align="alignleft" width="320"]ferawyn Turtles Fera’wyn’s turtles swimming around in a box would make any recipient smile[/caption]

Memorable tastes

Things got seriously weird with the “smoked cigar” caramel chocolate truffle, which tasted just like I imagine a cigar would taste like, based on memories of the scent of my grandfather’s cigar as I sat behind him while he drove my sisters and me to dancing school (aah, the good old days of no seat belts and casual second-hand smoke). I think if you know a chocolate-loving cigar smoker, this would be the thing to give them. But nobody else. That taste was immediately topped, however, by the BBQ Brisket caramel chocolate truffle, which I found inedible. I like Michael Mischer’s barbecue chocolate, but this went beyond BBQ sauce and seemed to throw in every side dish at a barbecue too. I don’t have the words to describe what this tasted like. Maybe it tastes better with beer, but I don’t drink beer. If you ever try this caramel and can describe it in real words, let me know. For now, I’m sticking with the 5-year-old’s vocabulary: Yucky. The next caramel/truffle was a dulce de leche, and I was so happy to have a normal flavor, I won’t hate on it being white chocolate (cough, not really chocolate, cough). It was pretty and sweet, and helped me get past the ghost of barbecues past. I finally got a totally enjoyable caramel next: Fera’wyn’s Artisan Chocolates turtles are very cute milk chocolate-covered chewy caramels perched on half a pecan each. Supposedly some have ghost pepper chili salt, but I didn’t feel the heat. What I did taste was a nicely balanced mix of good chocolate, not-too-sweet caramel and pecans. These could be addictive. We also had a Cointreau-flavored caramel from Fera’wyn’s, which had a nice subtle citrus flavor that ended with a mildly peppery aftertaste. [caption id="attachment_8539" align="alignright" width="200"]rosemary Gem This rosemary sea salt caramel from Gem Chocolates looks like a jewel[/caption]

Does beet reduction count as a vegetable?

Things continued in a delicious streak with the next two gems from Gem Chocolates: a caramel made with a beet reduction and orange, and a rosemary caramel with sea salt flakes. Both were shiny, almost glowing pieces that resembled jewels. Their savory flavors were distinct, although the beet was more subtle, and beautifully balanced with the caramel and chocolate. The rosemary was a strong top note that lingered, while the sea salt flakes on top were a nice salt flavor — noticeable, but not too salty — and the flaky texture was nice too. The next competitor’s caramel was a true old-fashioned chocolate covered caramel. It was big and very chewy, but not too sticky, with a super-thick coating of chocolate. Popping one of these whole in your mouth means you are not talking for at least the next 10 minutes (as someone at this event can attest to). Unfortunately, it was salty — like it was trying too hard to be hip, when it should have just stayed old school.


I loved the next 2 caramels by Luxx Chocolat: The Citrus & Savory was a lemon caramel and fresh basil ganache layered in a thin dark chocolate shell. It was a little grainy, but had a nice basil flavor ending on a sweet citrus note, and the shell was the perfect thickness and darkness to compliment, not overwhelm, the inside flavors. [caption id="attachment_8541" align="alignleft" width="200"]black and blue I see green, white & brown. What do you see?[/caption] The other caramel I liked from Luxx, is a bit of a head-scratcher. It’s called the Black & Blue, but if you look at the photo, it looks more like Army camo. The ingredient list might be the name inspiration: a dark chocolate filled with a vintage port-flavored caramel and a blue cheese ganache. But I think maybe they are going with the black-and-blue-dress meme with the visuals. Whatever the name or the decoration, I liked this cheesy treat. The first taste is chocolate, but then the blue cheese takes over, there’s some sweet caramel, and it ends with a little salt. A nice savory caramel. [caption id="attachment_8543" align="alignright" width="200"]cinnamon Bun Doesn’t that look like drizzles of cinnamon icing on the top?[/caption] Luxx submitted a 3rd caramel, Cinnamon Buns, described as creamy cinnamon caramel studded with Georgian pecans and an icing ganache. Truth: It tastes like a cinnamon bun dipped in chocolate. The first taste is very cinnamon-y, then the sweetness overtakes everything. I could not handle this one’s tooth-aching sweetness, but if you LOVE cinnamon buns, you gotta try it.

Pretty gift-y

[caption id="attachment_8550" align="alignleft" width="320"]McCreas Caramels The graphic elements at the bottom of each tube of McCrea’s Caramels’ is repeated on the inner ring of the tube when you open them up, but in reverse (white on gray)[/caption] The next 3 entries by McCrea’s were straight-up chewy caramels in twisty cellophane wrappers. No chocolate, a little sticky, but not a deal-breaker. Of the 3, I liked the Black Lava Sea Salt best. It was not too sweet, kinda buttery and just enough salt. Tapped Maple had a distinctively maple flavor, but not cloyingly sweet like maple candy. I didn’t care for the Single Malt Scotch at all. Definitely voted with my inner 5-year-old on that. Their packaging was killer — capped tubes with simple, elegant graphics. Nice substantial packaging that stands up to shipping, decorated with easy-to-read, good-looking labels, and containing grown-up flavored caramels: Good gift item for many occasions and recipients. [caption id="attachment_8554" align="alignright" width="320"]mink box The Grapefruit Caramels from Mink Chocolates seem custom-designed to be fun hostess gifts[/caption]

Shaken, not stirred

The caramels from Mink Chocolates seemed totally aimed at the gift market with the swirly-tentacle logo graphics on the box and the 60s-inspired cocktail-shaking redhead on the caramels. The grapefruit-flavored liquid caramels were enrobed in a super-hard dark chocolate, which was a good thing because the package got a bit banged up in transit. A weaker chocolate might have made for a messy presentation, if the runny caramel fillings had broken free from their chocolate casings. Lucky for us, the chocolate held firm and we got to enjoy Mink’s “organic, edible, fresh chocolate art.” Biting through the hard chocolate, you immediately get the grapefruit flavor of the liquid caramel. That lasts a bit because it takes a while for the chocolate to melt in your mouth, so the last taste you get is chocolate. I don’t know if this is common idea for caramels, but I did like how using a super-hard chocolate delivered the liquid caramel’s flavor first before you taste the chocolate. The next competitor’s caramel was described as smoky BBQ soft caramel topped with bacon praline. This was a nice chewy caramel, but the bacon was a minor flavor — I think making it a praline took away its smoky meatiness. Instead it was just a sweet crunchiness added to the chocolate and caramel flavors. [caption id="attachment_8556" align="alignright" width="420"]Oakland Chocolate Company Very cute handmade turtles from Oakland Chocolate Company[/caption]

Jamaican sliders

Oakland Chocolate Company submitted 2 types of caramels to the competition: Walnut Cashew Caramel Turtles and Caramels Macchiato. OCC works with Jamaican cacao farmers in a coop association to help small farmers there get a fair price for their cacao. OCC roasts the beans and makes their own couverture chocolate, which they use to make their bonbons and other treats, like their turtles. The turtles were adorable with the nuts arranged around the caramel to resemble the shape of a turtle, then all hand-dipped in chocolate, with more handiwork to indicate a shell, and topped with a sprinkle of salt. Super-cute, but I didn't like the chocolate used. I think the handmade aspect is very appealing — it’s clear that lots of care and attention went into making these — but the chocolate taste was disappointing, so these were non-starters for me. Their Caramel Macchiato, on the other hand, was very tasty. In addition to using Jamaican chocolate, they also used Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee. The caramels had a nice coffee flavor that was strong, but not bitter. And the chocolate tasted good, so I’m not sure if adding the coffee performed some kind of alchemy that transformed the chocolate, or if it was a different chocolate altogether.

Not done yet

It took 2 hours to try all of these caramels, take notes and talk about them, then ultimately judge them. By the time we were done, I was a little sick from all that sugar. I know I will be taking a short hiatus from chocolate now, but I did it: I had an all-caramel lunch. My inner 5-year-old’s bucket list has one less item to cross off. After all that chocolate tasting and careful judging, we had one more treat: One of the other jurors brought a bottle of milk chocolate wine from CV. I’d never had chocolate wine before, so even though I was a little nauseous, I had to try it. CV’s milk chocolate wine is quite tasty: It’s a blend of red wine, chocolate and cream that you serve chilled. It tastes like chocolate milk but with an alcohol warmth. It reminded me of Kahlua, only chocolate instead of coffee flavored. Do not leave this drink unattended around children — they will not care if it’s wine, it’s dangerously delicious. After that, they turned us loose, and I went out into the SF afternoon breeze enjoying a major sugar rush. I do wish I could have continued the 5-year-old’s fantasy day, but this adult had to get back to work.   See the list of winners on International Chocolate Salon’s website.


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Have a seat @ Dandelion Chocolate Tue, 28 Jun 2016 01:50:15 +0000 Dandelion Chocolate Lounge

If you find the wait for a seat at Dandelion Chocolate’s flagship store in the Mission disheartening, we found the solution (at least until the ginormous space @ 16th & Harrison opens): Dandelion Chocolate Tokyo! [caption id="attachment_8455" align="alignnone" width="630"]Dandelion Chocolate exterior Customers streamed in as soon as the doors opened for business[/caption] [caption id="attachment_8454" align="alignright" width="320"]Dandelion Chocolate line Waiting in the line feels Dandelion familiar[/caption] On our trip to Japan in May 2016, Ronnie & I made sure to include a visit to Dandelion’s new-ish (opened Feb. 2016) factory+store in Tokyo. We are pleased to report it’s a wonderful experience. It’s the same Dandelion vision, but with a Japanese vibe and plenty of seats! I was a little worried when we arrived shortly before opening, and a line was already forming. And it took a while to get to the front of the line, but as we approached, I saw that it was because most of the people in line had questions. While I couldn’t understand what was being said because I don’t speak Japanese, it seemed that people wanted information about what they were buying — there was a lot of curiosity about the products before a decision could be made. And maybe because it was morning, once a decision was made, a lot of the orders were to go, so there was no reason to worry about finding a seat.

A little déjà vu

The factory+shop has a similar layout and architectural details to Dandelion’s Valencia St. location with the counter in front of an open kitchen and lots of wood, but seating is upstairs in a dedicated space. Balancing my hot chocolate as I climbed the stairs was really the only downside I could see in having the 2nd floor as seating. The large main area has several groupings of lounge chairs, small café table-&-chair sets, and one long workbench-type table with stools, with windows across the front overlooking the street and a school playground. [caption id="attachment_8460" align="alignnone" width="630"]Dandelion Chocolate upstairs Dandelion Chocolate Tokyo upstairs looking toward their unique viewing table in glass-enclosed back room[/caption] The back space is glassed in, I assume for smokers because a lot of restaurants in Japan still allow smoking (unpleasant blast from the past), tho’ many do segregate the smokers in these kinds of rooms. However, there were no smokers when we were there, so we checked it out for ourselves. This room is dominated by a long wooden table with a glass insert running down the middle of the tabletop. This is actually a window looking down into the kitchen below. So you can enjoy your chocolate while watching the action in the kitchen from a bird’s eye view. Coolest table in the joint. [caption id="attachment_8458" align="alignnone" width="630"]Dandelion Chocolate table view The view through the backroom table[/caption] We had made arrangements beforehand to meet with Mei Iida, Dandelion Tokyo’s head of education and HR. We wanted to find out how things were going in this SF outpost and what was the same/different in this version of Dandelion.

Working on it

Mei was a knowledgeable, enthusiastic Dandelion expert, who graciously answered all of our questions. I found that Dandelion’s value of transparency extends to explaining their current state of affairs, when I asked how it was going in the kitchen. Mei said, “We are working on developing flavors, so we are still selling bars from San Francisco. But every chocolate maker is working hard on their own to develop flavors; and we already use our own ground chocolate to make our chocolate drinks and pastries.” [caption id="attachment_8457" align="alignleft" width="320"]Dandelion Chocolate counter Dandelion Chocolate Tokyo counter with a familiar-looking menu[/caption]


While the menu looked familiar, Mei told us they have their own house hot chocolate drink: Puramai (which like Dandelion’s Mission hot chocolate is named in honor of an SF neighborhood) is named after a district in Osaka. “We collaborated with a local tea company to make this drink,” Mei explained. “Nakamura Tea Life Store is a local store run by a designer who grew up in Osaka. They make organic tea that is produced in one spot, like bean to bar, but with tea.” Like Dandelion, Nakamura also believes in transparency with its products. “You can trace where the tea comes from, according to its label,” Mei told us. The tea Dandelion Tokyo picked to use in their house hot chocolate is an organic leaf Hojicha (roasted tea), which Mei said has less caffeine. Their aim is to mix the essence of roasted tea with their own chocolate. We tried it and think they were successful: The tea is an after-note to the chocolate. It’s subtle,  and I’m not sure what their chocolate tastes like on its own, but I think the two are blended nicely into a less sweet chocolate drink with a light roasted flavor lingering. And of course it came with their housemade marshmallow and a small nibby bread on the side, which was a little crunchy, a little salt-y and pretty yummy.

Transported culture

[caption id="attachment_8453" align="alignright" width="320"]Dandelion Chocolate chalkboard Dandelion Chocolate Tokyo’s chalkboard[/caption] I asked Mei how the Tokyo staff learned to make chocolate the Dandelion way, and she told me that one chocolate maker went to San Francisco to learn how to make chocolate, and Pablo Aguilar came from San Francisco as a consultant/advisor. (Pablo is a chocolate maker at Dandelion San Francisco with almost 30 years of experience working with cacao.) The store offers Dandelion’s Chocolate 101 classes as noted on their chalkboard, and every Wednesday they have a factory tour. Mei said that they plan to start offering the Chocolate 201 classes this summer. [caption id="attachment_8456" align="alignleft" width="420"]Dandelion Chocolate bestseller Dandelion Chocolate Tokyo’s bestselling Brownie Bite Flight[/caption] If we’d been in Tokyo a week earlier, we could have had a special treat. Mei told us Dandelion co-founder Todd Masonis was in town and did the Chocolate 101 class that week with Pastry Chef Lisa Vega doing Pastry 101 for the 1st time. Mei hopes to have more special events in the future. Mei told us that they are developing Dandelion Chocolate Tokyo based on what they do in the San Francisco Dandelion, but with its own flavor. “We are trying to recreate it but also do it Japanese,“ she said. “Make it something that belongs in our neighborhood.” I’d say they are making something that would fit in lots of neighborhoods: Comfortable, pretty space with delicious treats and a gracious staff: who wouldn’t want that? Dandelion Chocolate, 4-14-5 Kuramae, Taito-ku Tokyo [caption id="attachment_8459" align="alignnone" width="630"]Dandelion Chocolate upstairs Dandelion Chocolate upstairs lounge act[/caption]


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A cacao tree grows in Japan Tue, 21 Jun 2016 20:31:51 +0000 Japanese Chocolate Garden

[caption id="attachment_8385" align="alignleft" width="320"]Chocolate Fondue building It's not just me, right? That building totally looks like a giant chocolate fondue pot.[/caption] On our May 2016 trip to Japan, we wanted to see what local artisan chocolate is like in Tokyo and Kyoto. We were, of course, super excited to visit our own SFBA Dandelion Chocolate’s Tokyo location, but we were also curious about what’s happening with Japan’s homegrown artisan chocolate scene. Although Ronnie & I don’t speak Japanese, we figured chocolate would be enough of a common language that we could learn what’s unique and interesting there. We got a warning before we started: Our Airbnb hostess in Tokyo, Margo, turned out to be a fellow chocolate fanatic, whose mother sends her chocolate from Europe because, as Margo explained, “Chocolate is the one thing the Japanese do not do well. They do many great things, but chocolate isn’t one of them.”

The scene’s the thing

We checked out a few places for ourselves, and concluded that Margo is not entirely wrong. The shopping experience is wonderful: Pretty shops, pretty packaging, interesting-sounding flavors, and very polite staff make for a fun time, which I think might be more of the point for most Japanese than the actual chocolate. [caption id="attachment_8380" align="alignnone" width="630"]Chocolat Bel Amer Package You can count on the packaging of Japanese chocolates to make any gift recipient feel special[/caption] As I understand it, chocolate is a customary gift on Valentine’s Day, as it is here in the U.S., but with a twist: women are expected to gift the men in their lives with chocolate on this day, and not just those in whom they have a romantic interest. They give store-bought chocolate to co-workers, bosses, and guy friends. Boyfriends and husbands get handmade chocolates, because that’s true love. [Japanese women: you have my sympathy; not only do you have to hand-make chocolate for your beloved (I do not cook), plus buy something appropriate for every other man in your life (I am not a shopper), but on your special day, when the men in your life reciprocate with chocolate presents, they tend to give you white chocolate because the holiday is named White Day (I dislike white chocolate). Triple ugh. ] [caption id="attachment_8378" align="alignright" width="320"]Meiji black chocolate bar There’s more to the Japanese chocolate scene than weird KitKat flavors from Nestle’s and bars like these that sound like they should be really super dark, but contain milk powder and other additives (from Meiji, the Hershey’s of Japan).[/caption] Since it’s usually an obligatory gift, it seems there is less at stake in making chocolate in Japan. As a result, the shopping experience is great; the chocolate, not so much.

Olde Tyme Bean-to-Bar

It shouldn’t be that way: Chocolate has a long history in Japan. In the early 1900s, Japanese confectionery company Morinaga started selling its own domestically produced chocolate, becoming, according to its website, “the first bean-to-bar manufacturer” in Japan. (However, it also states that the cacao beans were grown in Japan, which seems doubtful because Japan isn’t close enough to the equator.) When we visited the Advertising Museum in Tokyo, we saw a couple of Morinaga’s rather trippy chocolate commercials from the 50s & 60s (one for a bar called “Yell” featured a man in a hot air balloon leading people on the ground in a rousing cheer). Morinaga continues to sell chocolate candies today, although most Americans probably know them better for their soft, fruity Hi-Chew candies. Other longtime chocolate-making companies in Japan include Meiji, Lotte, and Mary Chocolate. And there are lots of other chocolate options in Japan: International food conglomerates like Nestle’s make products specifically for the Japanese market, department stores carry a large variety of local and imported chocolate brands (French brands are particularly easy to find), and there’s novelty chocolates everywhere — we even saw chocolates shaped like little sumo wrestlers when we went to a sumo tournament. But while those chocolates were interesting, they didn’t compel me to eat them. (Although next time I go to Japan, I will definitely try the chocolate slices à la Kraft Singles made by Bourbon.) Instead, we focused our tasting on local artisan chocolates in the 2 cities we visited, and while I can’t claim to have experienced the whole gamut of artisan chocolate there, I can say I found some good chocolate in Japan. In addition to Dandelion Chocolate’s factory+store, we visited 2 artisan chocolatiers in Tokyo, Décadence du Chocolat and Musée du Chocolat Théobroma, and one in Kyoto, Chocolat Bel Amer.

No language barrier

We were very lucky when we visited Décadence du Chocolat in the Ginza because the counter person had spent a lot of time in California so language was no problem. Higashi wasn’t a chocolatier, but she was helpful in showing us which chocolates were uniquely Japanese. We tried the Ume, a dark chocolate flavored with plum wine; Ocha, a dark with green tea; Litchi, a dark with lychee puree & liqueur; Satsuma, a dark with a milk ganache flavored with Imojochu (sweet potato spirits) and sweet potato; and Sansho, a dark with Asian pepper. [caption id="attachment_8376" align="alignnone" width="1765"]decadence du chocolat truffles Décadence du Chocolat’s line of 29 truffles includes uniquely Japanese flavors like the Satsuma, flavored with sweet potato spirits, and the Ume, flavored with plum wine.[/caption] These are good chocolates with a very smooth ganache and strong chocolate flavor. We liked them, but found the flavorings too subtle. I couldn’t taste plum wine in the Ume, just felt a little alcohol numbing at the end. The Satsuma had a distinct taste, but it didn’t seem like sweet potato or even booze. In fact, each one tasted different from the others, but if I didn’t know what was in them, I wouldn’t be able to guess. We had the same problem with their new product offering: the brightly colored “7 crayons” — nice tasting chocolates, if a bit too sweet for me, but I couldn’t tell what flavors they were supposed to be without looking at the menu. We found this to be a common theme in the Japanese artisan chocolates we tried: very subtle flavors supporting the chocolate. I prefer flavored chocolates that run through a progression of flavor notes, or have big bold tastes. I liked Décadence’s chocolates — they are not overly sweet, they have a lovely chocolate flavor and creamy, smooth ganaches — but I would prefer the unique flavors do more than support the chocolate. [caption id="attachment_8374" align="alignnone" width="630"]decadence du chocolat exterior Décadence du Chocolat is housed in this cool, funky Art Nouveau-meets-The Hobbit store underneath an elevated expressway.[/caption] We asked Higashi what their best-seller is, but she wasn’t sure because they had only been in this space for 9 months and she was fairly new to the business. But she did tell us her personal favorite was the Rocher Noir, so we tried that too. This was a different experience: A dark chocolate with almond & hazelnut praline and cacao nibs, it was a creamy/crunchy chocolate with a strong hazelnut taste. We West-Coasters must think alike. There was no mystery about what we were eating. Higashi also recommended their “cigars,” which are brandy-infused truffles rolled in chocolate flakes and shaped like cigars. These were more satisfying to us than the subtle truffles because there were more brandy notes in the chocolate so the taste seemed more balanced to us. Décadence du Chocolat, 〒104-0061 Tōkyō-to, Chūō-ku, Ginza, 1 Chome−2−3

Mystery at the Musée

Our next visit was not as easy. Musée du Chocolat Théobroma is tucked away on a small street near the Harajuku district and other interesting sites, so it seemed easy to get to, but even with GPS on our iPhones, we got lost and wandered a bit before we found it. Once we got close, there was no overlooking it though: A series of brown awnings with Théobroma written on them, windows crammed with chocolate references — plus their little white truck parked on the sidewalk in front and prominently displaying their logo — all told us we had found the place. [caption id="attachment_8372" align="alignnone" width="630"]theobroma truck Théobroma is within walking distance of the Harajuku district and Meiji Shrine[/caption] Inside they have a loooong display case with lots of chocolate inside. Like Décadence, they have a variety of truffles, although with a more European flavor profile: liqueurs and hazelnut paste, which makes sense since Théobroma’s chocolatier spent 6 years in Paris learning how to make chocolate. [caption id="attachment_8401" align="alignright" width="320"]Musee Mystery truffle Since we can’t read Japanese, we just took a chance on this one.[/caption] They also have a lot of bars and molded chocolates, so you can find gifts for any chocolate lovers on your list. At the end of the space is a small café where you can enjoy hot chocolate and desserts — kind of like a mini-Angeline’s, transported from Paris. A really lovely place to hang out for a bit. However, the staff’s English was minimal, so while we could communicate enough to purchase chocolates, we couldn’t ask any questions about the chocolate. I couldn’t find out about their unique products — like the little tins of “caviar” or the bags of what looked like polished pebbles or what was in the special white truffle we bought — beyond what little English or French there was on the packaging and signs. So we bought a few truffles to try and a box of their chocolate “flight” — eight squares of chocolate, each with a different amount of cacao, from 46% to 90%. [caption id="attachment_8371" align="alignnone" width="630"]theobroma items Theobroma offers a lot of cute gift options in addition to a full line of truffles.[/caption] Like Décadence, the chocolates were good quality chocolate, and again the added flavors were very subtle. We could not decipher what the white chocolate truffle was even after tasting it — it seemed a little sour/fruity/citrus-y to us, but remains a mystery. Even the Parapara truffle, which was listed as pepper flavored, was subtle — instead of a hot pepper, there was a ground black pepper flavor at the end along with some peppery grit from a sprinkling of black pepper on the outside of the chocolate. Of the samples we tried, only the Zea, which was coffee flavored, had a strong taste aided by the crunchy coffee grinds in the ganache. I was intrigued by the Tomate (tomato) listed on the menu — that’s not a chocolate flavoring that you see everyday — but it wasn’t in the case that day. Musee du Chocolat Theobroma, near Meiji Shrine and Harajuku neighborhood, 〒151-0063 Tokyo, Shibuya, Tomigaya, 1 Chome−14−9 We were only in Tokyo a few days, so we haven’t even skimmed the surface of local artisan chocolate there. Others we look forward to checking out in the future: Le Chocolat de H, Mont St. Clair, and Green Bean To Bar Chocolate. Just another reason for planning another trip! [caption id="attachment_8429" align="alignleft" width="420"]Bel Amer Exterior Chocolat Bel Amer was a popular shopping destination when we visited[/caption]

Chocolate in a tea town

On this, our first trip to Japan, we also visited Kyoto, which is known for its temples and tea — it’s where the tea ceremony originated. Although it was only May, it was super hot and humid in Kyoto. Not ideal weather for chocolate touring: we skipped the hot chocolate and chocolate fondue, which left us with not a lot of options for exploring the local chocolate scene. In fact, the time to check out chocolate in Kyoto is probably around Valentine’s Day. A lot of local tea companies and other food companies create special chocolate-themed items for the holiday. I would love to try the fresh strawberries dipped in chocolate, then rolled in matcha green tea offered by one of the tea shops there, but they only make them in wintertime. As in Tokyo, there were mainstream chocolates everywhere, including imported French chocolates, but the artisan scene is small. We met up with fellow CBTB chocolateer, Martha, who was visiting Kyoto at the same time, and checked out Chocolat Bel Amer, a Japanese chocolate maker with stores in several cities. They are known for their extensive line of chocolate mendiants, 2-1/2" rounds decorated with fruits, nuts, candies and chocolate paints, in a wide range of flavors from green tea to sake to black bean. They also make “Stick Chocolate,” which look like very pretty ice cream-sicles, but are chocolate with different flavors and decorations. [caption id="attachment_8423" align="alignnone" width="630"]Bel Amer Stick Chocolat Bel Amer’s Stick Chocolat packaging and display mimics upscale cosmetics[/caption] We opted for a sampling of their traditional truffles and their line of tea-flavored jelly chocolates. They also offer the jelly-filled chocolates in sake flavors, but since we were in a tea town, we thought we’d try local. [caption id="attachment_8441" align="alignnone" width="630"]Chocolat Bel Amer Truffles If you’re OK with sweet-sweet-sweet chocolates, Bel Amer’s Matcha truffle (far right) is an interesting sensation[/caption] [caption id="attachment_8436" align="alignright" width="420"]Bel Amer Cacao Garden Chocolat Bel Amer had a cacao-themed Japanese garden[/caption] The traditional truffles we tried were more flavorful than we expected based on our recent experiences, but very sweet. For example, the Praline had a strong sesame flavor, which was a nice Asian twist on praline, but it was in a super sweet milk chocolate. The matcha green tea truffle had a very matcha tasting smooth ganache with a powdery texture afterwards — pretty cool taste sensation — but the white chocolate base was too sweet for me. The tea jelly chocolates were similarly too sweet. The jellies were really interesting: firm, chewy, with unique tastes (the “deep steamed” green tea from Shizuoka Prefecture was the weirdest: vegetal/grassy with mushroom overtones), but the chocolate wrapping the jellies was disappointingly sweet and a little grainy. Better chocolate would have helped — or maybe forget the chocolate and just put the jelly in mochi balls for an extra-chewy treat. [caption id="attachment_8427" align="alignnone" width="630"]Bel Amer Tea Line Bel Amer’s jelly-filled chocolates shine like little jewels[/caption] Chocolat Bel Amer, 66, Masuyacho, Nakagyo-ku Kyoto-shi, Kyoto, 604-8111 We didn’t have enough time in Kyoto this time to get a real feel for the chocolate scene. Next time I visit Kyoto, I’d like to check out Dari K (and their chocolate sake in a bottle shaped like a cacao pod), Cacao 365 (to see the uniquely Japanese designs on their chocolates), and Cacao Magic, a raw chocolate shop. But first, I must learn some chocolate-related Japanese phrases so I can converse with Japanese chocolatiers and find out what’s happening in their own words.


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Chocolate Deluge Wed, 20 Apr 2016 01:00:37 +0000 chocolate Deluge

Here in California, we welcome the El Niño storms that are putting a serious dent in our 4-year drought, but their affinity for soaking us most Saturdays tries my patience. When March 5, the day of the 10th Annual International Chocolate Salon, started with another one of these fun-dampeners, I worried it might mean trouble: trouble getting to the affair, where we CBTB-ers were scheduled to give a talk; trouble with attendance, because people would stay home; and trouble for vendors, because it’s hard to make sales if there are no customers. Not to worry on the 1st count: Traffic from the East Bay followed the rain’s lead, flowing slow but steady. The fuzzy glowing headlights of on-coming cars on the bridge looked like electric dandelion seed heads, and the white central tower faded in the mist. Sure, 10am looked like early evening, but the ride was nice. And when we arrived, even though it was only 10:30, the place was buzzing, with lines already forming around the vendors in the front. Seems like a lot of people decided a day spent indoors sampling chocolate, candy, tea, wine, and spirits was the perfect way to cope with a soggy Saturday. As the day wore on, I found vendors selling out of popular items and generally busy filling orders, so I had worried for no reason on all counts. [caption id="attachment_8246" align="alignnone" width="626"]Chocolatiers were already getting swarmed 1/2 hour after the Salon opened. Chocolatiers were already getting swarmed 1/2 hour after the Salon opened.[/caption]

What goes with chocolate?

Since our focus is on local chocolate, I skipped other vendors and headed for local chocolatier, Jade Chocolates. Mindy Fong, Jade’s owner and head chocolatier, had her whole line of truffles, bars and snacks for sale at the show, but her agenda at the show wasn’t on vying for awards. Instead, she was looking for inspiration and ideas for new flavors. I suggested “savory,” since I like her Thai Basil truffle a lot, and I think she is good at making less-sweet chocolates (so if the next time you visit her shop in the Richmond and see new savory truffles, you can thank me—at least a bit). [caption id="attachment_8245" align="alignright" width="320"]endorfin Box After the chocolate is long gone, Endorfin’s tasting box will still be there for you.[/caption]

Eye candy

Next, we checked in with Endorfin Foods. Brian Wallace, Endorfin’s founder & head chocolate maker, was introducing Endorfin gift sets: individually wrapped mini bars in a wrap-around birchwood box that includes tasting notes and instructions on back. They offer 3 different sets: an 80% single-source assortment, a dark mylk (not milk, because they use coconut milk, and the FDA doesn’t allow the use of the word, milk, if it’s non-dairy) assortment, and a mixed dark & mylk set. You can buy the sets online, they come in 12-piece and 20-piece versions. When we ooh-ed & aah-ed over the pretty handmade tasting boxes, Brian explained why they had put the extra effort into their packaging, “Packaging is important, because unless you are at a tasting event, people are buying based on what it looks like.” Based on these boxes, people will buying these sets as gifts, for a memorable evening with friends, or maybe for themselves. The boxes will last long after the chocolate is gone, and with their see-thru cover and divided interior, they will make for attractive storage containers. When we asked Brian what else is new, he told us, “There’s so much going on; we’re getting more wholesale markets, so it’s easier for people to find us. Bittersweet Café is carrying all 9 flavors of bars, and we’re at Chocolate Covered now.” [caption id="attachment_8243" align="alignleft" width="320"]Sarah Mardaraswala of R & J Sarah Mardaraswala of R & J hands out samples of their popular toffee.[/caption] Before we left, we picked up a jar of their Bliss Butter, a crunchy spread that includes coconut, almonds, cashews, cacao nibs, and more: It’s not available on their website yet, and Brian told us that he’s working on maximizing its shelf life. Right now, he said, if it’s left out of the fridge, it lasts a couple of weeks, but kept in the fridge, it will last over a year. I won’t be able to test that claim because our jar will be empty long before a year is up.

Ye Olde Toffee

Continuing our recent interest in toffee, we visited our new fav, R&J Toffees, to pick up some half-pound boxes as gifts and to help us evangelize about R&J. To say this is a classic toffee doesn’t explain what makes it so good. As we learned at the last Salon, R&J ages their toffee so it’s super buttery. And they recommend keeping it in the fridge or freezer and letting it age some more at home. You can buy R&J Toffees online, but only in 1-lb. boxes. If you want the smaller sizes, it’s available at some local Whole Foods, the Palo Alto Farmers’ Market, some miscellaneous spots like Alta Bates(?), and at festivals. They keep a list of coming events they will be attending on the Locations page of their website.

Nutty for Norway

The booth next to R&J was Nuttyness, which makes chocolate-covered marzipan bars and treats. While toffee is something I am developing an appreciation for, I had not acquired a taste for marzipan yet, having only experienced it as Boxing Day cake frosting or shaped into cute-but-dry fruits and flowers. But a Salon is a place to be exposed to new ideas and give things a second chance, so we dove in. [caption id="attachment_8244" align="alignright" width="320"]nuttyness Marzipan aficionado Kristian Salvesen displays Nuttyness’s bars in their new packaging along with the coming-attraction Marzibons.[/caption] Oakland-based Nuttyness is run by the husband-and-wife team of Kristian and Anis Salvesen, who know that most Americans have not tasted good marzipan. They are on a mission to give us the quality marzipan experience Kristian had growing up in Norway, where it’s a homemade Christmas good luck item. Anis explained to us the first difference between their marzipan and others is that Nuttyness marzipan has a high nut ratio: 2/3 nuts to 1/3 sugar. Another difference: Everything is chocolate covered! Whether it’s their traditional marzipan logs, their bigger candy bars or the coming-soon marzipan truffles, everything includes chocolate in the mix, which definitely makes it more palatable to me. They use high quality ingredients — from the chocolate and California almonds to the bitter almond oil that gives marzipan its distinctive taste. “We use bitter almond oil, not synthetically made almond extract,” Kristian explained. “We use extracted oil, and only 0.1 to 1% bitter almond in the marzipan because it’s so strong.” That being said, between the block-like logs and the bars, I definitely prefer the bars, which have a thin layer of marzipan encased in either Swiss milk chocolate or Belgian dark chocolate. The marzipan becomes more of an accent to the chocolate instead of the main feature, which works for me. Kristian told us that they made the bars to compete with other chocolate bars. They are similar in size to other high-end bars, so they can be stocked on the same shelves and have more visibility. Plus he wanted to do a milk chocolate bar – the original logs are all covered in dark chocolate. As he developed the milk chocolate bar, he found that  it became more about the milk chocolate, not just the marzipan. I think the variety is good — if you love marzipan, go for the original block-y Nuttyness bars. Otherwise, get one of the bigger chocolate bars for a subtler marzipan experience. Announced at the Salon were Nuttyness’s Marzibons, truffle-sized flavored marzipan covered in chocolate with flavors like lemon ginger and orange cayenne, and a set of Marzibons with pâte de fruit layered with the marzipan in raspberry, blackberry and passion fruit flavors. Kristian told us the Marzibons will be ready for sale in a couple of months Nuttyness products are available online and locally at Bi-Rite, The Pasta Shop, Draeger’s, Rainbow Grocery, Village Market, Haight St. Market, Chocolate Covered, and other food shops. [caption id="attachment_8272" align="alignleft" width="320"]Wendy and Jessica Socola Chocolatier Socola Chocolatiers Wendy and Jessica[/caption]


We stopped by Socola Chocolatier to see what’s new and met the newest hire, Jessica, who’s been working at Socola since November after finishing pastry school. Alas, Socola’s youngest team member, baby Amias, was not at the Salon. But considering how young Socola’s founders, Wendy and Susan Lieu, were when they started their own business, it probably won’t be long before he’s helping out. We also picked up a box of Socola’s newest collection, the San Francisco Collection. It’s a mostly happy, light group of chocolates: a straight-up 72% truffle, a crunchy hazelnut dark, and a champagne dark. [caption id="attachment_8277" align="alignright" width="280"] Socola’s San Francisco collection is a cute set of 4 different flavors decorated with iconic SF scenes, but watch out for Alcatraz[/caption] Then there’s the Alcatraz-decorated truffle flavored with Fernet-Branca herbal liqueur, which must be the piece that represents SF’s darker, wilder, weirder side. It’s very herb-y and hard for me to describe. I read a description of Fernet as tasting like unsweetened licorice. I think that describes its bitterness, but it was more vegetal tasting to me, like tobacco. It falls under the category of bitters, so if you already like Fernet or similar “medicinal” liqueurs (or like to exercise your tastebuds), you have to try this truffle. But I think it’s definitely an acquired taste. You can find the San Francisco Collection and the rest of Socola’s offerings online or at Socola Chocolatier + Barista on Folsom in SF. Just remember: You’ve been warned.

Traditional chocolate spirit

[caption id="attachment_8271" align="alignright" width="320"]Liam Cacoco Liam and Cacoco’s colorful new packaging[/caption] Next to Socola was our current favorite hot chocolate, Cacoco. We met co-founder Liam Blackmon, who was manning the booth and also scheduled to give a talk before our presentation that day. He was excited about the new packaging they were previewing at the Salon and a new flavor, Firewalk, a 70% with habanero & herbs, which he described as their spicier offering. We really like the new packaging that is shaped like a mini-Mayan pyramid with similarly evocative graphics. Kudos to the designer for creating an elegant, yet simple package that will make for a special gift. We like the flavor and mouth-feel of Cacoco’s dark drinking chocolate, which surprises us because we are not raw-chocolate enthusiasts. Liam explained to us that they are trying to capture “the traditional spirit of cacao,” so Cacoco is “unroasted, but not raw, because it’s fermented. Fermentation activates the flavor, it truly unlocks the flavor. Roasting changes the flavor by de-activating some flavors.” To Liam, this unroasted but fermented chocolate “feels better. We’re not ‘raw raw raw sis boom bah.’ Instead we make traditional-style cacao, minimally processed.” You can order Cacoco online or find it in a few grocery stores (like Rainbow and Real Foods), and farmers markets (Corte Madera & Santa Cruz Downtown on Wednesdays,  Santa Rosa & San Mateo on Saturdays, and Walnut Creek & Sebastopol on Sundays). [caption id="attachment_8268" align="alignleft" width="320"]Karen Urbanik shows off flying noir’s Baby Dino Egg Karen shows off flying noir’s Baby Dino Eggs[/caption]

Flying dinosaurs

From the traditional, we skipped to the experimental and avant garde chocolate of flying noir. Chocolatier Karen Urbanek had a new collection at the Salon, The Way South, which in addition to being decorated with all natural colors as is her signature, featured more heat than previous collections. The Carapolte was a salted caramel flavored with chipotle that had a warm heat. Sweet Heat mixed fresh habanero peppers with honey and was hot. But my favorite flying noir truffle this time was the simplest. The Rica was a ganache made from a 70% dark Costa Rican chocolate that Karen combined with caramel, then also used to enrobe the ganache. Karen describes the 70% as “a beautiful chocolate.” I’d describe it as delicious. The truffle was also very attractive: It’s hand rolled with a rough surface dusted with mica so it subtly glittered – very pretty. [caption id="attachment_8300" align="alignright" width="320"]flying noir Way South collection flying noir’s The Way South collection features the glittery Rica (upper left)[/caption] Going in another unexpected direction were flying noir’s Baby Dino Eggs. Nestled in a clear plastic orb were 3 egg-shaped truffles, each a different flavored solid ganache, twice enrobed in the Costa Rican 70%, then finished with a sugar & salt shell. Adorable. Karen gave us an update on her kitchen move to Oakland, sharing space with Nuttyness. “We’re settling into the new space; there’s still a lot of construction going on. But I enjoy sharing space with Kristian (of Nuttyness) – he’s a great guy to work with.” Unfortunately, the new kitchen won’t have a display space like in her previous place. “There’s no shop,” she explained. “It’s off Hegenberger Road— we share a yard with Ray’s Electric. It’s not a walk-by location. But we will have events, including an opening celebration.” In the meantime, you can buy the new collection and the Dino eggs online, and at Bi-Rite Market. [caption id="attachment_8304" align="alignright" width="320"]NeoCocoa Christine NeoCocoa’s owner & landlady, Christine Doerr, has lots to smile about this year.[/caption]

A space of her own

Bigger kitchen update news was in store at the next vendor, NeoCocoa. Christine Doerr, NeoCocoa’s founder and master chocolatier, told us, “I bought the kitchen I work in. “The woman who owned the kitchen sold it to me,” she said. “I will do some renovations. The kitchen was set up as a catering kitchen, so I will change it to a chocolate kitchen with controlled heat and air conditioning.” No shop in the future, because it’s an industrial space, she explained, but pick-up service will be available. She also plans to rent space to another chocolatier. Another step up the business ladder: “We did articles of organization yesterday.” While this might have all been a big distraction from chocolate-making, she had her full line at the Salon, including 2 experiments and a new truffle. The first experiment we tried, mocha marshmallows, are quite the hit of chocolate. A crisp, richly dark chocolate shell surrounds a  fluffy coffee 1st/chocolate 2nd marshmallow. I didn’t think I was a marshmallow fan, but the contrasting textures of the hard shell and soft interior in favorite chocolate and coffee flavors make me wish I kept these as pantry staples. [caption id="attachment_8306" align="alignleft" width="280"]NeoCocoa Marshmallows I need a steady supply of these marshmallows[/caption] When I saw the other experiment, Black Sesame Seed Brittle, I thought it was mislabeled because it’s sprinkled with white sesame seeds. It was when I looked closer that I saw the black sesame seeds are in the brittle itself. So the inside is dark seeds in lighter-colored brittle, and the outside is the reverse: a layer of dark chocolate with lighter-colored seeds. Another cool contrast. It’s a nice thin brittle, like a toffee, and not teeth-endangering hard, instead it’s crunchy, with a pronounced sesame flavor followed by the dark chocolate. [caption id="attachment_8305" align="alignright" width="280"]NeoCocoa Hazelnut Squares NeoCocoa Hazelnut Butter Milk Chocolate Truffles contain a surprise on the bottom[/caption] NeoCocoa’s new truffle at the Salon, Hazelnut Butter Milk Chocolate, is a very smooth, fudgy bite with a slightly crunchy bottom shell. NeoCocoa truffles are usually “naked,” no shell, just ganache, so this was a surprise. Based on the delicious new treats coming from NeoCocoa, I think kitchen ownership agrees with Christine.

Listening to chocolate

[caption id="attachment_8270" align="alignleft" width="320"]Jennifer and Omega of Firefly Jennifer and Omega of Firefly connect us with the spiritual side of chocolate[/caption] Firefly Chocolate, new at the Fall Salon, came to this Salon with a larger selection and double the booth staff. Last November, Firefly founder & chief chocolatier Jonas Ketterle was flying solo. This time, Jonas was “off in Thailand doing cacao ceremonies for a month,” according to Omega, one of the 2 people manning the booth. Omega explained the ceremony, “You heat up cacao, and all share one vessel. It’s a sacred plant; it’s a rush – it’s psychoactive [changes brain function and alters perception, mood, or consciousness]. Ceremonies last for 2 to 12 hours. You’re dosing with chocolate the whole time. It sure feels great during it.” I guess the next day is spent recovering from the chocolate hangover — and Jonas is doing this for a month? Sounds like the extreme sport version of chocolate tasting. Firefly had their line of 2-ingredient bars (85% cacao with 15% coconut blossom sugar, a low glycemic sugar), plus a 60% bar with coconut (our personal favorite). I asked Jennifer about the status of flavored coconut bars that Jonas said they were working on last fall. She told me that they are coming and how to get them, “Subscribers will get the first flavored coconut bars.” Their monthly subscription includes their classic bars and one new/limited flavor bar. If you can’t wait for the next Salon to see what’s new with Firefly, sign up! [caption id="attachment_8315" align="alignright" width="280"]Firefly Salve Firefly Salve smells great: chocolate with a hint of peppermint[/caption] For us, it was 2 new products they debuted at the Salon that got us interested: Coconut Hazelnut Chocolate spread and Chocolate Salve. The Coconut Hazelnut Chocolate spread is so new they don’t have real packaging for it yet, but the Chocolate Salve comes in a cute little jar with a nice graphic of a firefly on the lid. Jennifer explained that the salve came about as a solution to a production problem: “The coconut oil we use to make our chocolate salve is a byproduct of making coconut butter [one of the non-chocolate items Firefly sells]. We stone-grind coconut flakes to make coconut butter. The oil rises to surface, leaving coconut butter at the bottom. We mix the oil with cacao butter and essential peppermint oil, so you’ll smell like an Andes mint all day.” It is true, the salve smells great. It’s also very soothing. Add the cute packaging, and this makes for a great chocolate-themed gift. One thing to note: Its consistency depends on the temperature. I’ve found my jar of salve to usually be quite solid, sometimes even hard to sample until I warm it with my hands. But when we had a recent hot day, the salve in the jar was liquid. If you use coconut oil in cooking you are familiar with this phenomenon, but if you are used to face creams and body lotions manufactured for consistency, this might be a surprise. It does not affect the salve’s efficacy in moisturizing or its shelf life. We loved the other new product, Coconut Hazelnut Chocolate spread. It’s like Nutella, but better — at least if you love coconut because that’s a distinct part if its flavor profile. We’ve been spreading it on toast, of course, but also fruit, waffles and pancakes,  and mixing it in yogurt. It’s a great addition to the pantry, although we have been keeping it in the fridge because we are unsure of its shelf life. Jennifer recommended that we use it up within a month, because they don’t know about shelf life either: “We are at beginning stages of making it,” she explained. “And we’re not sure about summertime: temperature fluctuations cause the oils to separate.” Since we like this spread so much, we are not taking any chances. We do have to heat it up before we use it because it gets rock solid in the fridge. But it’s still good a month later. The Coconut Hazelnut Chocolate spread and the Chocolate Salve are available on Firefly’s website. [caption id="attachment_8269" align="alignright" width="320"]Daniel Cowboy Toffee Dan McGinnis of Cowboy Toffee supplied us with unique samples and a definition of local we like[/caption]

Campfire chocolate

Cowboy Toffee Company was a new-to-us vendor, but they are veterans of the special-event scene. In fact, other than online, the best way to buy their toffees is at events from Phoenix to Seattle. Their name makes sense when you know they are headquartered in Oakdale, CA, the “Cowboy Capital of the World.” And they embrace that theme wholeheartedly from their logo to their packaging to the cowboy-themed names for their range of toffees, from Mustang for their traditional toffee to Ghost Town (flavored with ghost peppers) to our fav, the distinctive Chuckwagon. Chuckwagon Toffee ditches the usual nuts, instead it uses coffee — to be precise: alder wood smoked roasted coffee. Cowboy Toffee’s Dan McGinnis told us the coffee comes from Café Darte Artisan Coffee Roasters in Seattle, where they roast the beans over smoking alder wood, which is how people in the Northwest smoke salmon. Cowboy then grinds the coffee and dusts it heavily over the milk-chocolate covered toffee. They also perk up the flavor with hickory smoked sea salt. I found this to be a treat with very distinct flavor stages: First coffee, then toffee, then smoke, ending with salt. Interestingly, the chocolate was not very noticeable. And maybe more interesting is how the coffee flavor continues afterwards — because I would keep finding coffee grounds in my mouth. This is not as bad as it sounds, but it does make for a lingering effect worth noting. I’m interested in trying some of their other toffees next time, such as the Calamity Jane, which was flavored with pink peppercorns, and the So Much S’Mores, with its toasted mini marshmallows; but I don’t know if any of them will top the Chuckwagon experience. I also want to thank Dan for giving us the definition of local, when I wondered if Oakdale fell within our CBTB purview. According to Dan, local is within a 100-mile radius. Works for us! [caption id="attachment_8324" align="alignleft" width="320"]Matt's Heavenly Toffee Matt’s Heavenly Taste Toffee was super-popular at the Salon[/caption]

A sweet story

At their second appearance at a Chocolate Salon, Heavenly Taste Toffee, was swamped with attendees sampling the toffee. It was so intense, Matt Elkins, Heavenly’s owner/candymaker, couldn’t keep the sample baskets filled and resorted to breaking off pieces of any toffee people requested. In spite of the madness, he was his usual happy, gracious self. He had his complete line of toffee at the Salon and told us his current favorite is the Black & White, a cashew toffee sandwiched between a 72% dark chocolate and a 35% white chocolate. Since I’m not a white-chocolate fan, I tried his best-selling Coconut Macadamia Nut Toffee. It’s a crunchy toffee sprinkled with big flakes of coconut which makes for a very coconut-y taste with toffee at the end. If you like coconut, it’s a nice addition to a traditional-style toffee. Heavenly makes sweet traditional toffee; in fact, it was the sweetest we sampled. But that makes sense because as Matt explained, “Grandma started it all, and Mom taught me the recipe.” In addition to being available online and at events, Matt told us Heavenly Taste Toffee is now in Whole Foods. Check their website for latest locations.

Award-winning heat

Caramel maker Kindred Cooks was showcasing their Spicy Hot Bacon Caramel at the Salon. Jeri Vasquez, Kindred Cooks’ founder, was excited about its recent win as the Best Sweet Bacon Dish at the Bacon & Beer Classic at Levi’s Stadium, Feb 27. Jeri explained it has a slow reveal, “As it dissolves you get more flame.” I can’t say I wasn’t warned, it does end with a lot of heat. If you like spicy heat — and bacon, although that seemed incidental at the end — you gotta try this caramel. In addition to the award-winner, Kindred Cooks had 2 other new flavors : Espresso & toasted coconut. “I’d been thinking about these for well over a year,” Jeri said. “It’s fun to see what’s new, but it is unusual to have 3 new flavors in a year.” [caption id="attachment_8332" align="alignright" width="320"]CocoTutti Crew CocoTutti’s capable crew hands out bite-size samples of their tasty hand-crafted truffles/bars[/caption] You can find Kindred Cooks caramels in about 20 stores locally, online and at events, like the monthly Treasure Island Flea Market.

One for me & one for you

We stopped by CocoTutti’s always super-busy booth to see what was new, but Elyce Zahn, CocoTutti’s founder and head chocolatier, was not there to catch us up. She was in Oregon for another chocolate show, a bit of unfortunate scheduling. But CocoTutti still had their line of truffles and CocoQuintet bars at the Salon. And the news was that all the truffle flavors they had at the show were also available in the CocoQuintet bars for the first time. This is great if you want to buy something for yourself, but a box of truffles seems like too much of a splurge. Maybe even better news: They’ve revamped their website, and to celebrate the new look, they are offering discounts on boxes of truffles. [caption id="attachment_8333" align="alignleft" width="320"]Ferawyn Bunnies Cute little Fera’wyn bunnies filled with their popular Limocello ganache[/caption]

Chocolate renovation

Also MIA at the Salon due to the competing Oregon show was Fera’wyn’s  Artisan Chocolates co-chocolatier/owner David Whittingham. Maybe not the best occasion to be away from, since they had the best location in the Salon: first booth everyone encountered. But Joanna Whittingham, David’s wife/partner/cochocolatier, had planned well, bringing a crew to assist and an almost assembly-line process to handing out samples and taking/fulfilling orders. They had their line of truffles, plus bars, pretzels, and for Easter/springtime their cute little ganache-filled bunnies. We managed to snag their last pair of Limoncello-flavored bunnies at the Salon. If you like citrus-flavored chocolates, these are a nice version with a refreshing light lemon flavor. Fera’wyn makes Limoncello truffles all year round, so you don’t have to wait for next spring’s arrival, but the bunnies do make for a sweet, small gift. We also tried 2 truffles Joanna told us they had tweaked: the Lil’ Green Matcha and Bourbon. “We added liliquoi [to the Matcha] to round out the flavor and give it a little sweetness,” Joanna explained. Liliquoi is a type of passion fruit grown in Hawaii, and that’s where they get their liliquoi syrup from. It did give the truffle a nice fruity taste that matched well with the matcha. The matcha made for a beautiful earthy green ganache, and was also the dominant flavor, as the truffle’s name implies. We approve of this tweak. [caption id="attachment_8346" align="alignright" width="280"]Ferawyn bourbon Fera’wyn’s Bourbon truffle gets an upgrade[/caption] Same goes for the Bourbon. Joanna told us that they had changed the milk chocolate they used for the ganache to Valrhona (a premium French chocolate), resulting in a flavor she described as “caramelized chocolate.” We liked its boozy, cherry overtones and how the flavors lingered afterwards. Ronnie said, ”If bourbon tasted like that, I might have a drinking problem.” In talking about other Fera’wyn flavors we like, we got a cool tip form Joanna. “It’s feast or famine with Naga Chili,” she said when talking about what was sold out and what she still had at the booth. “But if there are any Naga Chili leftovers after the show, a co-worker drops a few into her coffee.” Quite the cup-warmer. You can buy Fera’wyn’s Artisan Chocolates online, or at events like the Chocolate Salon. Check their Facebook page for where they will be next.

Choc’ Talks

We CBTB chocolateers led attendees on some virtual “DIY Chocolate Tours of the Bay Area” on their smartphones. We covered downtown SF, the Mission and the Peninsula, plus any areas the audience asked about. If you missed our presentation, you can plan your own local chocolate tours using our DIY tour suggestions. Afterwards, we were invited to talk about chocolate on SK Morton’s Lousy San Francisco Podcast, in which we talked about local chocolate a little bit, but a lot of other topics too — many unrelated to chocolate, as far as I could tell — as the rain continued to pour outside. It was a silly, fun way to end a long day of chocolate exploration and explanation since we were the experts in the room — not hard when we’ve been writing about chocolate since 2009, although our host showed very specific appreciation for peanut butter cups. A kindred spirit.


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Free online class: Bean-to-Bar at home Fri, 18 Mar 2016 02:17:39 +0000 chocolate making

[caption id="attachment_8215" align="alignnone" width="700"]Cocoa beans, a few essential ingredients and your favorite toppings can become you own custom chocolate bar. With a few ingredients, some inexpensive equipment and some expert guidance, you can make chocolate from bean-to-bar in your home kitchen.[/caption] Attention Mad Scientists, Cocoa Nuts and Do-It-Yourselfers: The learn-at-your-own-pace website, Skillshare recently posted a free class, Chocolate 101: From Bean to Bar. Presented by Peter Gray and Nate Hodge of Raaka Chocolates in Brooklyn, NY, the half-hour class starts with a brief history of chocolate then goes on to explain cocoa beans and flavor profiles, leading you step-by-step toward making your own chocolate bar. Raaka makes unroasted bean-to-bar craft chocolates from a large facility in Red Hook, Brooklyn, but they began as a small-scale venture in the back of an apartment. The class, presented in 9 short videos, is designed to guide the enthusiast through the lengthy ( it can take a day or two from start to finish), often messy (the fun kind of messy) process of making a custom “Dream Bar” topped with anything you want. Following a concise foundation, you’re introduced to the tools you’ll need to make bean-to-bar chocolate at home. This is definitely not industrial chocolate making as the tools range from a mallet, bowl, hair dryer and a low-cost grinding machine (or a mortar and pestle for the budget-minded with significant arm strength) to a double boiler, candy (or laser) thermometer and moulds. If starting from beans or nibs isn’t for you, Gray explains that you can begin from blocks of couverture chocolate (chocolate with extra cocoa butter added in to give a nice texture, sheen and flavor to the bar when tempered). The class covers buying, cracking, winnowing and grinding beans, tempering chocolate, moulding, adding toppings and even wrapping the finished bar. Students are encouraged to post pictures of their finished works in the class gallery. So if you’ve been longing to try your hand at making your own chocolate bars, this class might just be the guide to get you started on that dream.


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A Lousy excuse to talk about chocolate Tue, 15 Mar 2016 18:22:47 +0000 Lousy podcast

A round of late winter El Niño rains slowed traffic on the Bay Bridge, giving me time to think about the evening ahead and how I might eventually recount it here. My story would have to begin with the line I’ve waited years to use: “It was a dark and stormy night.” In the driving rain, our windshield wipers seemed to be timed to match my pulse. What had we agreed to? According to Google Maps, we would reach 350 Townsend in about 23 minutes. That left plenty of time for me to run through my checklist of anxieties. Would my nerves get the better of me and render every sentence a series of ums and uhhs? Had I prepared well enough to talk about the evening’s topics? Is my speaking voice better suited to print than broadcast? My internal voice was telling me, “It’ll be fine. It’ll be fun.”


Nancy and I had been invited to join SK Morton as guests on his Lousy San Francisco Podcast and talk about San Francisco chocolate and CBTB. A week earlier it had sounded like a fun idea and another chance to spread the word about the local chocolate scene. Listening to a couple of episodes of the podcast, we learned that the format is built loosely around a weekly theme and leaps humorously from topic to tangent as the show progresses. The world of SK Morton’s Lousy San Francisco Podcast is populated by characters with names like Coco Bear and Squidge, who I imagine are real people. Show regulars include Pete & Lizzie, Suzy L, Michelle Thomas, SK's wife, Babette, and a small but enthusiastic studio audience known as the Throng. In the context of the podcast, nothing seems out of place from the Muppet Show and Bullwinkle sound clips to the casual plugs for SK Morton’s Lousy San Francisco Tours, Bridal Fitness or The Amazon button (visit, click the button on the home page, and shop Amazon as you usually would. For each purchase you make, Amazon will give a little bit to help keep the podcast going). The episodes we listened to sounded like friends and guests hanging out in the living room for an hour (or two). Nothing too formal, we told ourselves. It should be fine. It should be fun.

Take cover

When we arrived at our destination, the rain was falling harder. We called up to let our host know we’d made it and watched as another car pulled into a parking spot in front of the building. A woman got out of the car; we commented on the weather as she waited with us at the door. Seconds later, SK appeared. A natural host with a resonant voice, an affable manner and an air of mischief, he welcomed us, and we followed him inside through a maze of corridors. He introduced us to Suzy L, the woman who’d joined us at the front gate. In one hallway, a golf bag and a well-loved love seat marked the way to the Bomb Shelter, the small studio/office where the Lousy SF Podcast happens. There was a rounded L-shaped desk with four microphones positioned around it, a sound mixing board, computer monitor, chairs, bookshelves, a full-sized drafting table and a random collection of papers, photographs and objects that echoed the format of the podcast.

Places, everyone!

Mesmerizing patterns bounced around the computer screen while an eclectic music playlist (Rogers and Hammerstein, Elton John, and music from Disneyland rides...) helped fill the short interval as we settled in and the Throng arrived for the start of the podcast. A rectangular basket was conspicuously turned face-down on the desk. “I’ve got a surprise for later,” SK explained. “We’re going to do a blind taste test.” He shifted the basket toward the middle of the table, and I caught a sharp whiff of milk chocolate. I announced that I smelled a Hershey’s bar. A subtle change in his expression told me I had just spoiled at least part of the surprise. I hoped I hadn’t ruined the evening.

Is this thing on?

The scheduled fill-in co-host, Michelle called to say that her Über ride was running late, so SK asked Suzy if she would mind doing the intro. Suzy took a seat at the microphone, held the script in front of her, and SK played the intro theme. We were OFF (... or ON. I’m not sure which describes it better). She delivered a lively intro that promised guests Robert DeNiro, David Bowie, George Lucas and Robin Thicke. From that point, the details of the evening begin to blur in my memory. I recall that Nancy and I were introduced as chocolate experts. SK kept us laughing and on our toes. I remember that Michelle did arrive and take over as co-host, steering the discussion to chocolate, sharing some questions from listeners and showing a pretty impressive knowledge of chocolate to boot. I remember that there was a lot of laughing. I remember that Nancy was sharp and funny as we chatted for about an hour and a half. Did I mention the laughing? I even vaguely remember being invited back to talk chocolate again at a later date.

And that’s our show

If you're curious about the details, head over to (you don’t have to type the www). Look for Episode 35: Chunks of things. The show description begins, “It was a dark and stormy night.” (Yeah, he beat me to it.) You might want to settle into your comfy chair because it’s an 80-minute show. And be sure to have a bit of your favorite local chocolate with you because it takes a while to get around to the chocolate portion of the podcast. (and don’t forget to look for the Amazon button on the Home page). Back outside, the rain hadn’t eased. As we drove home across the bridge that evening, we tried to assess how the whole thing had gone. Had we actually said anything useful? Was it entertaining? We told ourselves that with some editing, it’d fine. It had been fun. I’ll end here in the tradition of the Bullwinkle and Rocky Show with two alternative titles for the episode: “I lost my point in San Francisco,” or “Are you sure there’s chocolate in this?” Thank you, SK Morton and crew, for a very entertaining evening.


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CocoaBella Chocolates Fri, 04 Mar 2016 21:27:24 +0000

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Alexander’s Patisserie Fri, 04 Mar 2016 19:21:52 +0000

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Breakable love Thu, 03 Mar 2016 23:51:45 +0000 L'Amourette Box

I’m not sure if toffee is having a “moment” right now, or if it’s just me finally paying it some attention, but I’m seeing it everywhere. At the Fall Chocolate Salon, there were a couple of exclusively-toffee vendors, and chocolatiers who I am more used to serving straight-up chocolate selling toffee too. [caption id="attachment_8118" align="alignright" width="320"]L'Amourette Box A pretty, delicious gift for someone special (which could be yourself).[/caption] Now I’ve discovered that a local bean-to-bar chocolate maker I love, L’Amourette Chocolatier, also makes toffee worth seeking out. The toffee comes in large thin irregularly-shaped squares, lightly dusted with caramelized almond bits, that are encased in cellophane sleeves, which keeps the mess down when you break the toffee into bite-sized pieces. There are 2 squares in each box.

Pretty as a picture

The packaging makes it a pretty gift: a 5"-square Tiffany-blue box decorated with L’Armourette’s Art Nouveau-esque logo and graphics. And the toffee itself has an obvious hand-of-the-maker visual appeal. I’d say the taste is what you would expect of a straight-up toffee, with one exception: It’s made with is a very nice, non-bitter dark chocolate (as I would expect from L’Amourette). If you or someone you love fears bitter chocolate, this toffee could be your gateway to the dark side. The caramelized base is crunchy and sweet, becoming chewy toward the end, and melds nicely with the smooth, dark chocolate. Almond bits are scattered throughout the candy base and across the top, but they are not a top flavor note. It’s really about the caramel & dark chocolate combo. [caption id="attachment_8090" align="alignnone" width="630"]toffee pieces Inside the gift box are 2 generously sized (over 4" square) toffee slabs.[/caption] I found L’Amourette English Toffee at Sacred Wheel Cheese Shop, an Oakland merchant who sells much more than cheese (and serves a great, inexpensive lunch). You can also order it online from L’Amourette’s website.


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What’s that? Sun, 28 Feb 2016 23:36:56 +0000 wall graphic

Following a tip from a local chocolatier, I recently walked over to 16th & Harrison in SF’s Mission District to see Dandelion Chocolate’s new building. Whoa, that’s a lot of real estate devoted to chocolate in our pricey real estate market. The actual address is 298 Alabama St. I don’t know any more at this point; both Dandelion’s website and Facebook page are quiet about this location, but I’ll post more when I hear something. In the meantime, we can fantasize about what the future holds for chocolate lovers @ 16th & Harrison. [caption id="attachment_8099" align="alignnone" width="630"]new Dandelion Building Dandelion’s ginormous new building[/caption]


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