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

Jade Chocolates at Salon

Breaking news at the Chocolate Salon


Guaranteed I found out something about SFBA chocolate that you didn’t know

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The 9th annual SF International Chocolate Salon was held March 15, 2015, at Fort Mason Center, SF. While I know it’s a long, exhausting day for the chocolatiers (as one veteran said, “I’m getting too old for this,”), for us CBTB chocolateers, it was the most fun salon yet with lots of new items to try and news to catch up on.

As always, we focused on SFBA chocolatiers, and while there seemed to be even more non-chocolate vendors this year (vintners, snack producers, jewelers, perfumiers, and fine artists!), there were almost 20 local chocolatiers and candy makers, which is still more than I can do justice to in a day. But I tried.

sea of people
You had to wade through a sea of people at this year’s San Francisco International Chocolate Salon.

We started early, and already lines at some booths were long, and it didn’t get any better as the day wore on. But the salon is a great chance to meet the people who are making the chocolate you like while trying new tastes and getting deals on the perfect gift for everybody (including yourself): artisan chocolate!

It seemed like every chocolatier at the salon had new items to showcase, some of which have become new favorites for me, like NeoCocoa’s Nibby Brittle, CocoTutti’s Cherry Cheesecake Bon Bons, Socola Chocolatier’s Anna Banana chocolates, and Ghost Pepper Cioccolato from new chocolatier, Pieces of Chocolate. And there was lots of other great chocolate at the salon, so on with the show:

Globe-spanning Asian flavors

We started at Jade Chocolates’ booth and chatted with owner/chocolatier Mindy Fong. Mindy’s minions hadn’t shown up yet, so she was handing out samples herself of her new truffle, Lychee Rose Green Tea. The truffle, like most of Jades’ chocolates, uses Asian-inspired ingredients and has a very distinct flavor. This time it was the lychee flavor first with a subtler rose flavor following, so the name has definitely got the order right.

Jade Box
Those mah jong tiles at the top left are cool Mint Meltaways. The bright green chocolates are sweet Kalamansi Lime.

Other nice unique fruit flavored truffles Mindy had at the show included Lilikoi (a variety of passion fruit) and Kalamansi Lime (which tasted like a sweet lime). We bought a box of Jade truffles so we could try all 15 flavors, which include fruit, tea, herbs, spices, nuts, and seeds.

We liked them all: If you like mint chocolate, you’ll love the Mint Meltaway with its perfect balance between mint and chocolate. If Indian spice mixes are your thing, try the Cardamom Chai with cardamom flavor from beginning to end with a little cinnamon in the middle and a ginger spike at the end. Cookie Crunch is full of crunchy Speculoos bits — it tastes just like the spicy cookies, but better because it’s covered in chocolate!

I could go on about Jades’ truffles, they are all full-flavored with smooth creamy ganaches (although some have chewy or crunchy bits as mentioned above), but better yet, go to Jades’ new retail shop in the Richmond District to try them for yourself. (Also available online.) Mindy told us the shop is keeping her busy, and she’s there every day, so you might even get a chance to talk with the head chocolatier herself.

Spring chocolate

Fera’wyn’s Artisan Chocolates was celebrating the season with a “green theme at the show,” chocolatier David Whittingham explained. “There’s Matcha Green Tea; and Spring Colada is white chocolate with coconut, spiced rum, and pineapple — our version of piña colada — and Irish Coffee.”

Ferawyn Bunnies
Fera’wyn Bunnies make a cute gift. And each bunny is 2 separate chocolates tied together with a ribbon.

I liked how the Spring Colada ends with chewy bits of coconut. David explained that they do the same idea with their Caramel Coffee flavor by adding nibs to the bottom of each chocolate.

But this time I had to try their Naga Chili, which contains 3 types of chili including ghost pepper. David said, “People fall into 2 camps — either they feel the heat intensely, or we’ve been at an event where someone was just eating them one after another.”

Our experience was in the 1st camp with the heat starting in the middle and lasting afterwards. David gave us Irish Coffee chocolates afterwards to cool the heat, which had a strong vegetative overtone to us, but he swore there was nothing in them that tasted like that. He even conferred with Joana, his wife/fellow chocolatier, and she confirmed that the samples were strictly Irish Coffee. We decided it must be a trick from the extreme heat of the Naga Chili.

I also want to mention Fera’wyn’s pretty, new “Butterfly Storybook” packaging. You can glimpse the chocolates inside through an embossed cut-out butterfly on the front of the white box. Nice gift idea (but I ended up buying some of their super-cute Spring Colada bunnies for gifts instead).

Find Fera’wyn’s online.

Busy bees

When we stopped by show-pro CocoTutti, we talked with one of owner/chocolatier Elyce Zahn’s hostesses, who was handing out samples and was a font of info. Didn’t get her name though, since she was wearing Elyce’s name tag. She was promoting the new CocoTutti bars, “CocoQuintets,” that debuted at the Fall Chocolate Salon.

This time, “Liquid Vanilla” and “Strawberry Balsamic” flavored the liquid caramel in the bars’ 5 pockets. Although they were 2 separate bars, Elyce’s imposter confirmed that the goal with the bars is to have each pocket a different flavor. “It would be good for those who don’t want to commit to one flavor,” she suggested.

CocoTutti Bon Bons
CocoTutti’s Maple with Granola bon bon made me like a granola treat, but the Brandy Cherry Cheesecake (top left) is the one I really loved, bringing back childhood memories of holiday cheesecakes.

CocoTutti also featured 3 new bon bons at the show. Brandy Cherry Cheesecake with house-made cheese and dried cherries soaked in brandy was great. It smelled like cherry cheesecake and had a tangy cheese flavor backed by bits of cherry and graham crackers. But this is one of those chocolates you should eat as soon as possible. When we tried it again a week or so later, the tangy flavor was gone and it was more of a straight-up cherry flavored chocolate. Still nice, but not cheesecake-y anymore.

The flavor of the new Maple with Granola made with house-made granola was more consistent. It smelled like maple syrup and had a strong maple flavor with chewy oat-y granola both times we tried it. I usually avoid granola, but I trust Elyce’s sensibilities, so I tried this and loved it. Maybe chocolate really does make everything better.

For the 3rd new bon bon, Asiago Rosemary, the real Elyce warned us that these are first-round versions and she wants to make it smoother next time. We had to agree, the rosemary was too strong for the cheese to balance it out. So I’ll look forward to next time.

When we had a chance to chat, Elyce had a lot of news to share, starting with CocoTutti’s Best of Show win and 2nd place People’s Choice the week before at the 2015 Oregon Chocolate Festival in what was the first year the festival was open to non-Oregonians. After the SF Chocolate Salon, CocoTutti would be taking a break from events: “We’ve been at a show or event every weekend since mid-October.”

But Elyce would still be busy, and possibly moving. “The kitchen where we’re at now has new owners, who are going to make it a non-gluten kitchen,” she said. “It will have natural cooling by opening the doors on either side of the space so we won’t have to worry about the tempering anymore. [In preparation,] we will be closed for 2 weeks for a thorough cleaning.”

I asked if there was any news on the retail front because if you don’t see Elyce at a show, it’s hard to find her full line or latest offerings. She mentioned that you can now buy her mini’s (tiny bon bons) on her site, plus she’s selling full-sized pieces to local hotels. And with jam season coming soon — you do know she makes her own jam for her fruit bon bons — “any overstock we will be selling in jars.”

Best news of all: “I’m working with SCORE (small business mentoring service) now on getting me into stores and checking the viability of the bars [CocoQuintets].”

For now, your best bet to find CocoTutti wares is online or at special events (follow Elyce on Twitter to see where they will be).


Christine Doerr
Christine Doerr explains the business.

Talking to Christine Doerr of NeoCocoa about the difficulties small chocolatiers have getting their wares to market, she was full of gratitude to La Cocina, the food business incubator that helped her build her business and make connections to local markets. She said they were key in getting Neo Cocoa widespread distribution locally; and even though she has graduated from their program, they still provide support, such as selling Neo Cocoa products at their kiosk at SF’s Ferry Building.

At Neo Cocoa’s booth, we sampled the Mocha Cinnamon truffle, which gives you the experience of eating a mocha drink, complete with a dusting of cinnamon on top. It’s nice with a blast of cinnamon first, then the smooth chocolate/espresso mix.

In addition to the truffles, Neo Cocoa also had their bars that debuted at the Fall Salon — Dark Chocolate with Pistachio, Caramelized Crepe Crunch, or Salted Caramel & Roasted Almonds, and Milk Chocolate with Caramelized Peanuts or Caramelized Crepe Crunch & Hazelnut Butter. While the Pistachio is the most popular, try the Dark Chocolate Salted Caramel & Roasted Almonds too, which is a strong dark chocolate with crunchy almonds that’s not too sweet and ends with a little salt.

But most exciting was the Nibby Brittle. Christine told us, “It’s very new. We don’t even have packaging for it yet. It has alder wood smoked sea salt and nibs both inside and outside.”

The nibs inside get toasted as they cook in the brittle, Christine explained. “And I used brown sugar instead of white, so it’s not sweet. It’s more of a savory thing. The best thing is that it doesn’t stick to your teeth.”

In addition to not sticking to my teeth, it also doesn’t require extraordinary jaw strength to bite a piece, which is why I usually avoid brittle. And it wasn’t super sweet — another reason I avoid brittle.

With a coating of bittersweet chocolate that’s hit with a little salt and sprinkled with nibs, the thin layer of brittle is sweet with a nutty flavor from the toasted nibs. It could become addictive.

Neo Cocoa is available online and at retail locations around SFBA.

Toffee talks to me

Close cousin to brittle, toffee can suffer from the same problems of too sweet, too hard and too sticky but not the toffee from Toffee Talk’s Catherine Hughes. She uses only natural, high quality ingredients in her toffees, and she knows how to balance the different textures and flavors to make some top-notch candies.

At the show, we talked to Ellin Purdom, Toffee Talk’s social media director, who was very excited for 2 reasons:

“Martha Steward just blasted about us yesterday,” Ellin told us. “She said our Spring Ribbons tin makes a good hostess gift for Easter.”

And the second reason Ellin was excited is that she was looking forward to retiring from her day job at the end of the month to focus on Toffee Talk. “And we’ll see where we can take it.”

Toffee Talk Pecan
Toffee Talk’s Pecan Toffee reminds me of Southern toffee, but thicker.

Ellin gave us samples of all 5 flavors Toffee Talk is making now: their original Almond, plus Peanut, Pecan, Red Walnut, and their new Almond Pretzel.

Ellin explained that the new Almond Pretzel “is our traditional Almond Toffee with pretzels on top. Originally we developed it for Pixar and called it the ‘Pixar Pretzel.’ They finally released us to sell it.”

Since I don’t care for pretzels, I gave it to the kids next door. They ate it up and pronounced it “yummy.” (They also polished off the peanut version.)

The other 3 versions, almond, red walnut, and pecan were my favorites: good slightly grainy texture, not too hard to chew, and not too soft to get stuck. They’re also not too sweet with a good balance between crunchy and chewy, and a good mix of nuts, chocolate & buttery caramel.

Each is distinctive: The nut flavor of each stands out, and the Pecan Toffee is like a thick version of Southern toffee I usually only get once a year when I go back East for the holidays. It’s a wonderful find.

socola Bar
Socola’s “party in your mouth” bar

Biggest news at the salon?

When we stopped by Socola Chocolatier’s3-5 cup chocolatier booth, owner/header chocolatier Wendy Lieu was sitting down while her assistants were handing out samples. The reason became clear when I got closer: She’s pregnant! And the baby’s due in May.

Kudos to Wendy for even coming to the show when she probably just wanted to put her feet up, but she made me even happier with a new flavor she christened “Anna Banana” at the show: a peanut butter and banana truffle. I liked its strong peanut butter and chocolate balance followed by a subtle banana flavor.

I also enjoyed the Raspberry Pop Rocks bar, which Wendy describes as “a party in your mouth.”

The first taste is the whole freeze-dried raspberries, and the raspberry flavor lasts all the way through the chocolate, which ends with chewy bits crackling in your mouth. A fun bar for sure.

I was excited to see Marou chocolate bars at Socola’s booth. Marou is the first artisan chocolate maker based in Vietnam making single-origin bars sourced in Vietnam. Wendy said they have been carrying the line for a while now. You can buy them and all of Socola’s chocolates at Socola Chocolatier + Barista in SF.

A cup of endorphins

Brian Wallace
Endorfin founder and chief chocolate alchemist Brian Wallace & company promoting their hot chocolate at the Salon.

The appropriately named Endorfin Chocolat was spreading smiles with their Spanish Style Hot Cocoa. It’s probably the healthiest version of hot chocolate around, but don’t worry: It’s rich and flavorful.

The difference between Endorfin’s drink and other hot cocoa/chocolate drinks is radical: They start with raw cacao paste instead of cocoa powder, so it’s full of cocoa butter and not thin and watery. But at the same time, it’s not thick and sweet like sipping chocolate, which I like but can only handle every once in a while (like on a vacation in Paris).

They add almond milk and coconut sugar to the cacao paste, then heat and serve: A non-dairy, vegan, unroasted chocolate drink that tastes good.

They were selling the cacao paste and coconut sugar in separate sacks, so if you prefer a different type of sweetener, you could mix your own recipe. They were also selling 10 different flavored bars and 2 confections, including dried persimmons, and their monthly chocolate subscriptions, which are modeled after CSA (community supported agriculture) boxes.

Brian Wallace, Endorfin founder and chief chocolate alchemist, explained to us why they use unroasted chocolate, “It’s for flavor and to make it as healthy as possible. Cacao is the most anti-oxidant food in the world, but roasting reduces nutrients.”

He also told us that Endorfin chocolate is free of dairy, soy, gluten, GMOs and sugar. “Our milk chocolate is a dark milk that’s 50% cacao plus coconut cream or milk, instead of dairy.”

The problem with dairy in chocolate, he said is that “the caseins in dairy bind all of the anti-oxidants and make them not bio-available.”

Instead by eliminating dairy, sugar, soy and gluten, “Our bars are good for paleo diets; they are good for both vegan and paleo diets.”

Endorfin Chocolat products are available online and at the Jack London Square Farmers Market.

Not too big, not too small

pieces of chocolate pieces
These ghost pepper “pieces of chocolate” chocolate pieces are about the size of a postage stamp.

New local vendor, pieces of chocolate, sells exactly what they say: pieces of chocolate. But these chocolates are engineered to maximize the tactile aspects of chocolate appreciation.

Chef Michael Barnes designed his own series of molds after observing that “other chocolates are too big. It’s like eating caviar with a soup spoon.”

And he didn’t like that chocolate bars are flat. “The tongue is not a flat surface. It’s got lumps and bumps,” he said. “So I’m creating something to match that, something that feels good on the palate and makes you want another piece.”

To achieve that, he designed his “Cioccolato” pieces to be “bigger than an M&M, and smaller than a Hershey’s Kiss.”

Speaking of M&Ms, they were another inspiration for his chocolates. “I went to a wine and chocolate tasting,” he explained, “And the wine maker placed a bag of M&Ms on the table.”

The initial surprise and disappointment gave way to seeing a business opportunity: chocolates for wine tasting. So Michael offers wine and chocolate tastings at his Danville shop that “doesn’t look like a chocolate shop,” and includes wine suggestions on the labels of his chocolates.

pieces of chocolate
“pieces of chocolate” are sold in glass jars to maintain freshness.

Michael brought 2 of his 11 varieties of Cioccolato to the show: The espresso, molded to resemble the swirly top of a cappuccino, and ghost pepper, molded in the shape of a pepper.

We definitely liked the size and shapes. They feel right, even fun, as they dissolve in your mouth. The espresso was a nice little salted buzz, but the ghost pepper was more interesting with the dark chocolate sprinkled with ghost pepper-infused sea salt. As Michael explained, “You get the heat immediately, then the fat diffuses the heat.”

This was the opposite effect from Fera’wyn’s Naga Chili, which started with the chocolate taste and ended with lingering heat. It was quite interesting to see how different techniques influence the same ingredients.

And since Michael is focused on wine pairings, he suggested that the Ghost Pepper Cioccolato is “good with chilled wine. It goes with everything from Chardonnay to Gewürztraminer wine.”

Another unique aspect of pieces of chocolate’s wares is that they are sold in glass jars. According to Michael, this gives them a 9-month shelf life as long as you keep them someplace cool. “Store it right next to your red wine,” Michael suggested.

“pieces of chocolate” are available online or at their Danville store.

A spoonful of caramel

Vincent Flores, AKA The Big Cheese, next to Snake & Butterfly’s big beautiful truffles.

Snake & Butterfly was back at the Chocolate Salon after taking a break for a while, during which they opened a shop in Campbell. According to co-founder Vincent Flores, they came back to the salon to showcase their expanded line.

They had hand-painted truffles and caramels, plus “caramel in a jar” at show. Their brightly colored truffles and caramels were the biggest at the show. We tried the Blueberry Balsamic and Peach & Passion Fruit truffles. They both had a good chocolate shell, and sweet, very fruity ganaches.

But it was their “caramel in a jar” that was more interesting to us. We tried the fig balsamic, which was a great flavor combo with the balsamic vinegar holding down the sweet so you really can eat this caramel by the spoonful. The consistency is thicker than a sauce, but the Snake & Butterfly crew suggested that you can heat it up to make it a sauce, or thin it with cream or butter. “It’s also good spread on toast points with cream cheese or as a glaze on cooked pork belly,” Vincent suggested.

You can buy Snake & Butterfly’s complete line online or at their Chocolate, Coffee & Gelato Lounge in Campbell.

Keepin’ it real

Karen Urbanek demonstrates hand-painting her chocolates using only natural dyes and colors.

After the big, bright truffles at Snake & Butterfly, flying noir’s hand-painted chocolates seemed subdued. But that is on purpose.

Chocolatier and artist Karen Urbanek uses natural dyes and colors for her chocolates. “I’ve worked with natural dyes and colors all my life,” she explained. “Synthetic colors are too bright. A lot of companies now are looking at switching to natural colors.”

Maybe to emphasize the natural colors she uses, Karen was painting a set of nestled arcs of chocolate (that looked sort of like the rings in a cross-section of a tree trunk) as she talked. In addition to natural dyes and colors, Karen also uses a mineral, mica, to give some of her pieces a shimmery finish.

flying noir’s chocolates are available online or you can arrange pick-up at her Emeryville kitchen.

artist Ali Walker
Artist Ali Walker was offering calorie-free chocolate with her painting of a cacao pod.

Chocolate-themed art

At the front of the space, there was a chocolate-themed art exhibit, which I think would be more interesting if they solicited entries from more artists. The best piece, I thought, was the chocolate skull that was featured in last year’s exhibit.

I’m sure there would be a lot of chocolatiers and artists interested in creating chocolate art if they knew about the event and had time to prepare.

The more interesting art news at the salon came from an artist and a photographer sharing a booth at the show. The artist, Allison Walker, was painting a picture of a cacao tree from a photograph she’d taken at the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers as we watched.

She and photographer Nadine Priestly were displaying and selling other plant-based images, but I hope that if they return next year, they have more chocolate-themed imagery for the salon.

More local chocolate news at the show

Quail Point Logo
I think Quail Point’s logo is one of the cutest California-themed logos around.

As usual, I couldn’t try everything at the show or talk to every chocolatier.  I did chat briefly with Dan Galvin, owner and chocolatier of French-style Quail Point Chocolates because I wanted to know where the name and logo came from. Dan said, “Quail Point is where I live so it seemed like the easy choice.”

(Although a similarly named vineyard took exception and threatened to sue, so maybe not so easy.) The logo was recycled from an earlier venture, so mystery solved.

Quail Point is another quality chocolate maker whose wares have been hard to find. Dan told me that he’s been making chocolate for 15 years now, but “I still have a day job.”

He started off making chocolate part-time for corporate clients and that’s still the main focus. “Retail is fill-in work, and we use it as market research,” Dan explained. The job they did for Pixar this past holiday season exemplifies this.

Their big news: their online shopping cart is finally up, and you can order Quail Point Chocolates online.

Formerly local, still artisan

We were surprised to see a Scharffen Berger booth at the salon, since the Berkeley-born business was bought by Hershey 10 years ago and moved to the Mid-West. But the representatives at the booth wanted to emphasize that Scharffen Berger, while owned by Hershey, is a “separate artisan chocolatier.”

They had their line of bean-to-bar chocolates at the salon, including a featured single-origin bar from Peru. The reps said that Scharffen Berger continues to do these limited edition bars as they did in the past, noting that this one would only be available a few more weeks. Then the next single-origin bar featured would be from Brazil.

Learn to cover things in chocolate

Rachel Dunn Chocolates had their chocolate-covered peppermint cookies and giant apples at the show. I couldn’t believe how large the apples are. I was told they are 2-1/2–3lbs. each. They also sell smaller 1-1/2 lb. apples, which they call, “babies.” William Torres, one of the reps at the booth said, “The apples are grown especially for us. They are left on the tree a little longer.”

That is some strong tree.

In addition to the chocolate-covered items, they were offering a show special on chocolate making classes with Rachel at their chocolate factory in Concord. William explained that in the class, each student makes a tray full of dipped fruits, salted caramels and other chocolate covered treats that they can take home afterwards.

You can sign up for classes or order Rachel Dunn chocolates online.

Interests: Chocolate

Finally, we stopped by the Chocolate Meetup booth to find out what they offer. The people manning the booth told us that it was started by TasteTV (the folks that bring us the chocolate salons), and they try to meet at least every other month, but can meet twice a month if something really awesome is happening.

They said they’ve done tours of Charles ChocolatesandDandelion Chocolate, and have had chocolatiers give presentations. They also hold chocolate potlucks where participants get to take home the leftovers.

Their events are usually in SF, but they have gone to Palo Alto to The Chocolate Garage and did a tour of The Oakland Chocolate Company.

If you are interested in meeting up with fellow SFBA chocolate lovers, sign up for Meetup then search for chocolate near San Francisco, CA.

Thanks to all the local SFBA chocolatiers and candy makers who made this year’s International Chocolate Salon such an interesting and fun event. Can’t wait to see what you all think up for next year’s salon.

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Published April 10, 2015