Complete Chocolate Lover’s Guide for the San Francisco Bay Area

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The just-right salon


I felt like Goldilocks at this fall’s chocolate salon — it wasn’t too big, and it wasn’t too small

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I love the SF Chocolate Salons. They are great occasions to try artisan chocolate and meet local chocolatiers. There are always some new local chocolatiers and some without a retail presence, so shows are the best way to check out their wares and find ones you like.

But they can also be overwhelming, especially the spring International Salons, which fill a large pier in Fort Mason with big crowds, amplified presentations on the floor, and lots of vendors — too many vendors for me to try them all (and that’s with me eliminating all non-chocolate, non-SFBA vendors). I always miss somebody I wish I’d had a chance to meet.

The 5th annual SF Fall Chocolate Salon, held Nov. 22, 2014, was different. It was held in a smaller venue at Fort Mason, and with just enough local artisan chocolatiers there so I was actually able to visit everybody I wanted to, meet new chocolatiers, catch up with show veterans, and try some really good local chocolate.

It was not too big, but it was also not so small that I felt it wasn’t worth the price of admission ($20 in advance). There were still too many chocolates to sample, but that’s a good problem, right?

Endorphin Chocolate
Cacao plantation owner, Warren Ogden, explaining Endorphin’s chocolate.

Almost raw

Our first stop in the door was new-to-us Endorfin Chocolat, an Oakland-based chocolate maker whose chocolate is one step beyond raw because while it is unroasted, it’s fermented.

We sampled their Turkish Coffee, which is a 64% bar with a unique texture, somewhat crumbly, not snappy like tempered chocolate, but not soft like raw chocolate. If you’re interested in the health benefits of cacao, but can’t get excited about raw chocolate, this might be the bar for you. The coffee flavor also helps give the bar a more chocolate-y taste, which I often find lacking in raw chocolate.

Endorphin Absinthe
Endorphin Absinthe bar

I also tried their Absinthe bar, which is flavored with the ingredients that go into Absinthe liqueur (like wormwood and hyssop), but doesn’t contain alcohol. It has an herb-y, slightly licorice flavor, but I didn’t like this one as much. It seemed like a drier bar, almost chalky, and grainy. With a decadent-sounding name, I wanted a bar with a smoother, creamier mouth-feel.

While we didn’t meet Endorphin’s founder this time, we did get to talk with his booth-handler, Warren Ogden, who’s starting a cacao plantation in Ecuador and hopes to be one of Endorphin’s suppliers when his trees bear fruit. He was able to give us the high points about Endorphin and its founder, Brian Wallace (whose chocolate education includes attending Ecole Chocolat and extensive study in Costa Rica).

A unique offering from Endorphin is their chocolate subscriptions, like CSA boxes from local farmers. “Endorphin offers monthly CSA’s” explained Warren. “It might be special bars or hot chocolate mix, always with a letter about the source, what’s behind it, and recipes.”

Note: Endorphin is doing a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for packaging and equipment. Deadline is Dec. 14.

Animated chocolate

The next chocolatiers we talked to have the mouth-feel concept down pat. Quail Point Chocolates makes chocolates using a French formula that involves liquid dairy (which is causing them some problems with law enforcement) and creates very creamy ganaches.

QPC chocolates
Pretty chocolates that taste pretty good.

QPC chocolates are a perfect combination of art and science in the service of pleasure. They use high quality ingredients like Cacao Barry chocolate from France and organic dairy products to make subtly flavored truffles, enrobing their mousse-like ganaches in dark chocolate shells of just the right thickness, that are then decorated with pretty transfers. I confess, I wouldn’t care what flavors they were selling, I would eat them all.

And it’s not just me. At the Salon, Dan Galvin, QPC owner/chocolatier, told me that in a little over a week, they had to finish a big job for Pixar. “We were the employees’ favorite at the Pixar market [an annual for-employees-only event involving local chocolatiers],” he said. “And we sold more in 1-1/2 hours there than we sell the entire day at the Salon.”

Because they were the favorite, Pixar contracted them to do their Christmas gift to all employees and talent. “We’re doing custom boxes with custom flavors,” Dan said. And it represents a huge opportunity for them: “This one Pixar job is 4 times our annual volume.”

Quail Point Chocolates
If you’re lucky enough to see Quail Point Chocolates at an event, buy whatever they are selling.

Dan and his partner seemed super happy about this gig, not just because it’s so big or that Pixar employees voted them their favorite. It’s also personal, because “we’re 2 software geeks,” Dan explained, and they love Pixar animation.

Legal frustration

Their legal problem seems like a typical bureaucratic nightmare — small business struggling with regulations that don’t really fit applied by entities that don’t really understand what’s involved. It seems that selling their chocolates wholesale to corporations, like Pixar and the New York Times, plus retail at farmers markets doesn’t fly with the powers that be. “Napa County is now enforcing California’s wholesale law,” Dan explained. “So we had to pull out of the local farmers market. I looked into the small kitchen exception, but it doesn’t work for us because you can’t do dairy with it.”

So if you want Quail Point Chocolates (and you do), your options are to find them at events (next scheduled event: the Sacramento Chocolate Salon, Jan. 31, 2015), visit their website (it says shopping cart coming soon, but maybe if you plead with them via email), or be a very lucky Pixar employee this year.

Chocolate is fun for the whole family as mom and dad help out son David at Fera'wyn’s booth.
Chocolate is fun for the whole family as mom and dad help out son David at Fera’wyn’s booth.

A family affair

Next to Quail Point, Fera’wyn’s Artisan Chocolates was doing brisk business in their holiday truffles and their perennially popular limoncello and caramel coffee chocolates.

This year’s holiday treats included pumpkin pie spice, mint frost, and gingerbread. The gingerbread was the best, with molasses flavoring the white chocolate ganache and a piece of crystalized ginger in each truffle to give it some zing. The pumpkin pie spice was sweet and maple flavored. David explained, “I used maple whiskey, so it seems sweeter than it really is.”

The mint frost is a simple refreshing mint melt-away with a dusting of confectioner’s sugar. David said his goal with the mint was to “not be overpowering; I try to be subtle with flavors.”

This year, Fera’wyn’s husband-and-wife team of David and Joana Whittingham, made the event even more of a family affair with David’s parents visiting from Australia to help not only at the booth, but in the kitchen too. Even after a long night of prepping for the show, Paul Whitingham, father of the chocolatier, was mixing with the crowd, offering samples and pointers. For their Naga Chili, he said, “It works well with wine, because it’s complex. You taste the chocolate first; it’s when you swallow it, is when the big burn comes!”

In addition to ordering chocolates on their website, you can also buy Fera’wyn’s chocolates at the Walnut Creek Farmers’ Market on Locust Street , Sunday mornings. [UPDATE: Fera’wyn’s has moved to North Carolina.]

Cool chocolates

Another mint chocolate — and one that I recommend for mint lovers — was at Charles Chocolates’ booth. It’s part of their winter season collection, which also included a maple truffle (maple syrup reduction in the ganache and maple sugar candy sprinkled on top), pecan fleur de sel caramel, orange zest truffle and a cinnamon spice truffle.

Charles Chocolates Mint Almonds
Charles Chocolates Mint Almonds

Chuck Siegel, the Charles of Charles Chocolates, explained that the mint oil in his peppermint crème, which is the same oil he uses in his mint chocolate almonds, is made with Mitcham mint from England. “ It’s the cleanest tasting mint I’ve ever had,” he said. “I tried to make my own oil, but it was awful.

“They (Mitcham) are a mint farm – they make candies to promote their mint. I convinced them to sell the oil to us. We’re the only ones,” he said, in his self-deprecating way, “but maybe because no one else has asked.”

Charles Chocolates are carried by a lot of vendors, but to get their full line, you have to either buy online or visit their shop & factory in the Mission.

Speak softly, carry big flavors

Gate Comme Des Filles
Alexandra Whisnant of Gâté Comme Des Filles talks about foraging for ingredients.

Another modest chocolatier at the event, Alexandra Whisnant of Gâté Comme des Filles Chocolats, impressed us with her very fruity passion fruit and Meyer lemon chocolates. And also with her path to chocolatier — she’s the only chocolatier I know of with an MBA earned with the intention of going into this business.

Alexandra started her food career at Chez Panisse, making pastries for a couple of years. After that, she bounced between the U.S. and Paris (“Don’t try to get it straight,” she advised), during which time she got her MBA from Cornell University. Then, “I got sidetracked into business consulting for a while,” she said.

But she got back to chocolate (lucky for us), and in 2012 started doing pop-ups at cafés in Paris. “Then I got a space in the back of a chocolate shop in the 5th Arrondissement,” she said.

“I thought up the business name in Paris. It’s about treating yourself, spoiling yourself, and it’s kinda girly too. Like my chocolates – they were even more girly than this when I started.”

Close to home

In 2013, Alexandra came back to San Francisco and moved the business here. She makes her ganache-filled chocolates without preservatives and using seasonal, locally sourced (“as much as possible”) ingredients, so each week there’s something new on the menu.

And she takes locally sourced to its highest level: “I forage for ingredients,” Alexandra explained. ”My sister has a lemon tree, and 3 friends have passion fruit vines. I get coffee beans from Highwire in Rockridge, and honey from the bees on top of the San Francisco Chronicle building.”

 Bars serving alcohol & otherwise

Westland Whiskey bar
Westland Whiskey bar by CocoTutti

Two show-veteran chocolatiers introduced their new lines at the show, and both were bars.

CocoTutti 4-cup chocolatier, known for their artistic and flavorful bon bons and caramels, debuted their “CocoQuintets.” Basically 5 connected pillows of chocolate, the bars at the show were filled with a liquid caramel of Westland Whiskey from Westland Distillery, a small-batch distillery in Seattle.

“We were doing chocolate at a Yelp event,” explained Elyce Zahn, CocoTutti owner and chief chocolatier. “And met Anchor Distilling Company, who was there. They asked us to do tastes of their different spirits — because they can’t always serve alcohol, but they can serve chocolate. So we did the whiskey bar for them [they distribute Westland Whiskey]. And now there are eight spirits that I’m working with.”

Elyce of CocoTutti
Elyce Zahn of CocoTutti arranges samples of her popular florentine.

We have to say the idea of putting high-quality spirits into good chocolate is brilliant, at least as created by CocoTutti. The bar is a hand-painted miniature work of art, and when you break off a pillow and put it in your mouth, you taste the whiskey flavor but there’s no burn. Then the melting chocolate in your mouth makes the whiskey taste linger, so you can appreciate it. I think this is a great way to market these high-end, small-batch spirits.

The bars aren’t in full production yet; Elyce said they were still waiting for more bar molds to arrive. So they are not listed for sale on their website yet, but you might be in luck if you attend one of the events CocoTutti will be at this season. Check their website or follow Elyce on Twitter.

Balancing yin with yang

Neo Cocoa
Christine Doerr of NeoCocoa offered samples of their new Caramelized Crepe Crunch bar.

The other local chocolatier at the show who was branching out into bars was Christine Doerr of NeoCocoa. NeoCocoa is known for their award-winning shell-less truffles, so chocolate bars seems like a big change — from no shell to all shell in a sense.

Christine explained that she was diversifying the line with the chocolate bars to “get something with a longer shelf life,” which means more distribution options for NeoCocoa. But there’s also the fun part of it: “Getting into some different tastes.”

NeoCocoa has a lot of lovely flavors in their shell-less truffles. I especially like the Zested Lime and Mocha Cinnamon. But the bars do offer an opportunity for not only new flavors, but new textures.

Neo Cocoa bars
Neo Cocoa’s bars are so new, their real packaging wasn’t ready in time for the Salon.

We tried the Pistachio and the Caramelized Crepe Crunch bars. Both are high cocoa-content dark chocolate bars, not very sweet, but very satisfying if you like dark chocolate. Pistachios are mild-tasting, soft-textured nuts, which made for a nice contrast with the tempered dark chocolate, but the Caramelized Crepe Crunch is my favorite.

The many sweet crunchy bits of Pailleté Feuilletine (the proper name for these caramelized crispy crepe pieces, which Christine decided against as the bar name because most of us — including me — don’t know what it means) in each bite of dark chocolate beg to be chewed. This makes total sense to me because the very dark chocolate doesn’t make for a melt-in-your-mouth bar. Chewing is the way to enjoy this bar.

NeoCocoa chocolates are available online, at local high-end grocery stores, and at events like the Salon.

faux bear rug
Socola’s 2014 Holiday Collection is called “ On a Faux Bear Rug.”

3 places at once

We caught up with the very busy Wendy Lieu of Socola Chocolatier,3-5 cup chocolatier who were at the Salon while at the same time, their café/store was open, and they had a booth at the SF Vintners Market for the weekend.

Wendy told us that things are going great since opening their new place on Valentine’s Day. “We are hiring more people,” she said. And the store is no longer the lone storefront in the new building they’re in: “The sandwich shop on the corner has opened, along with a gym next door. It’s like we have body guards next door in the gym,” she joked. “Plus, they lift heavy things for us.”

With so much happening, she didn’t have a new product at the show. “We’re working on production now,” she said. But they did have a full table of options, including their 2014 Holiday Collection: “On a Faux Bear Rug” with 4 seasonal flavors, including a hazelnut praline which includes the now-familiar crunch of feuilletine.

If you can’t make it to their shop (which would be a shame because it’s adorable), you can get Socola chocolates online (they have a special “buy 3 or 4 boxes, get another box free” promotion until Dec. 14).

flying noir chocolates
flying noir chocolates resemble raku pottery.

Fiery art

Chocolatier Karen Urbanek of flying noir, makes chocolates that look like miniature pieces of handmade raku pottery with their hand-painted designs of colored cocoa butter and shimmery mica (an edible mineral). This makes total sense when you find out that she is also a practicing fine artist, who talks about making chocolate like she would talk about making art.

“My chocolates are like a composition – just like a visual compostion,” she said. “And I want them to be perfect. I’m very fussy about what I do. But if a piece has a bubble, I might paint it with gold. It’s like a technique for repairing ceramics; you don’t want to waste the energy you put into it.”

And like an artist, she knows that the quality of her supplies affects the final product: “I use the finest ingredients I can find,” she explained. “I buy my dark chocolate directly from a fair trade cocoa cooperative. It’s all organic, single origin. I use local ingredients from farmers markets and Berkeley Bowl, and there are no preservatives.

survival Kit
flying noir’s survival kit

“I make small selections so you don’t feel guilty about eating them quickly,” she said, since there are no preservatives. She also offers a chocolate survival kit, which is a set of chocolates sealed in a tin. “It’s long lasting because there’s no ganache. It can keep for a year.

“I create my own recipes, and I strive for nuance. I do everything myself, including the packaging,” which is very pretty with a hand-painted band on each box, so they make for a unique gift.

You can buy flying noir chocolates online, at special events like the Salon, or at their commercial kitchen space in Emeryville.

Drinking chocolate

Tea Room Drinking Chocolate
The Tea Room’s Drinking Chocolate comes in every flavor in their extensive line of tea-flavored chocolates.

Finally, at the Salon we found 2 different versions of tea & chocolate. Show perennial, The Tea Room Chocolate Company, who are known for their tea-infused chocolate bars, unveiled their line of drinking chocolate at the Salon.

We tried the Mate & Cacao Nibs 72% Extra Dark Chocolate Shavings Drinking Chocolate. The first thing we noticed when we opened the package was that the chocolate is not a ground powder, it’s a variety of pieces of chocolate, from the size of a grain of sand  to mini-chips.

This means that you have to stir the chocolate into the hot water/milk/half-and-half much more than you do with other chocolate drinks. If you’re lazy like me and don’t stir it enough, the drink starts out tasting thin, even with the max. 3 Tbsp. of drinking chocolate suggested in their recipes, because the chocolate doesn’t dissolve enough.  At the end, it finally turned into a thick drinking chocolate.

This might be too much work for me, but I did like the taste by the end, and the star anise in the mix adds a subtle licorice flavor.

You can find The Tea Room chocolates online, at specialty food stores across the country and the world, and locally at Chocolate Covered, Whole Foods in Potero Hill, and Berkeley Bowl.

The Tea Room chocolates
The Tea Room had their whole range of chocolate bars, drops and drinking chocolate at the Salon.

We also checked out Tipsy Tea’s chocolate-themed teas and complementary-flavored sugars. Owner Angela McAllister has given the teas clever names like Earl of Chocolate (bergamot infused black tea with cacao nibs) and Triple XXX Peppermint Tea (peppermint herbal tea with 3 kinds of chocolate: cacao nibs, dark and milk chocolate). The sugars are flavored with rose, lavender or vanilla to coordinate with the teas. For example, Angela suggested using the rose sugar to sweeten the Earl of Chocolate tea.

But as the company name suggests, the focus is on using tea to create cocktails. They don’t have a website as such, but Angela posts recipes for tea cocktails on their Facebook page, and sells the teas and sugars on Etsy.

We tried the Triple XXX Peppermint Tea. I was leery—I prefer black teas, and this one smelled strongly of dried peppermint—but when I made it according to Angela’s instructions (this is another tea that requires frequent stirring), I found it a nice, mellow peppermint with a hint of chocolate.

Now to check Facebook for which wine or spirit I should add to make Triple XXX a tipsy tea.

Local chocolatiers at the salon:

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Published December 4, 2014