A place to find local artisan chocolate you might not have considered is local grocery stores and other retailers who support local business. Oliver’s Market is a Sonoma County grocery chain that, depending on the store, carries Sonoma County & Napa Valley-made chocolate.
Of their 4 locations, we visited 2 on our July 2019 wine country chocolateering expedition: Cotati and Stony Point. Even though it’s the original location, the Cotati store was a bit of a bust: The only local chocolate was their house-brand bars made by Le Belge Chocolatier. The only other SFBA chocolate they carried was Alter Eco, which is widely available nationwide and is not artisan chocolate.
Stony Point was a more promising option. In addition to their house-brand bars, they carried selections from local Farm Chocolate Craft Confections, Volo Chocolate, and Sonoma Chocolatiers (which included different options from what’s at their own shop), plus SFBA Endorfin, TCHO, Alter Eco, and originally-SFBA-but-now-national brand Scharffen Berger. We bought samples of all of the local chocolate, including some of the house-brand bars, to try.
Farm Chocolate Craft Confections started strong with an attractive box: a brown & turquoise color theme with a Celtic-inspired logo/graphic and a turquoise ribbon tied around the brown box. It listed the four flavors included, but when we opened the box, there was no legend to match the pieces to the descriptions. Except for the very obvious chocolate-dipped fig, we had to look online to figure out which piece was which.
On their website, they describe their chocolates as “one-of-a-kind rustic luxury, inspired by, and rooted in, European aesthetic,” and the pieces are very rustic/handmade looking. Unfortunately, for the Cognac Fig dipped chocolate, that didn’t translate to appetizing. We thought it would look better if it was entirely covered in chocolate because the dried fig visual was a bit of a turn-off.
Covering it entirely in chocolate might also help with the texture. The dried fig was hard, which I didn’t like. The fig was stuffed with cognac flavored ganache, which had a strong smell and very boozy taste, which was a good thing. But the outer shell had a sugary texture and easily broke off the fig, plus the flavors didn’t integrate well. The only part I really liked was the cognac ganache.
We wanted to try the next one for the name alone, Hazelnut Krokant. Turns out krokant is German for brittle, and man, it lived up to its name. The inside was super hard, and combined with the chocolate coating made it seem like the piece was a very hard toffee. We thought the flavors worked together better than the Cognac Fig, with a nice hazelnut ending, but the outside chocolate had an unexpected grainy texture — similar to the Cognac Fig, but finer.
We thought the Grey Sea Salt Caramel was misnamed. When we tasted it, we discovered it was a lavender caramel and not salty. Lavender is one of those flavors that people tend to feel strongly about, either pro or anti, so I think that should be upfront in the name. It turned out to be a chewy caramel with a sugary, grainy texture and strong lavender taste. Again, the texture of the outer chocolate was odd, but this time it was powdery.
The final piece in the box, Espresso Praline had a soft, light golden colored filling. Like the Grey Sea Salt Caramel, we thought the flavor didn’t match its name because there was not enough espresso in the piece to have an espresso flavor. It seemed more like a simple chocolate ganache.
We liked the concept of this box better than the execution. The 4 fillings had their own distinct textures: dried fruit, crunchy brittle, firm caramel, and soft ganache. It was a nice range, but we thought better chocolate for the shells would make these a choice we could recommend.
We also tried Farm Chocolate’s Fig Pistachio bar, but didn’t like it. The chocolate itself was a problem again, and I’m not sure if it’s the concept didn’t work, but the combo didn’t taste good to us.
Favs & nibbles
Sonoma Chocolatiers is an interesting dark-chocolate-only chocolatier that is just up the road from Oliver’s Stony Point location, but if you aren’t going all the way to Sebastopol, you can find a few of their greatest hits at Oliver’s, plus something you won’t see at their own shop.
I’m not sure if Sonoma Chocolatiers’ offerings vary at Oliver’s cheese counter, but we spotted their popular salted caramels, lavender caramels, and P.B. & Heaven chocolates, which were described to me as their take on peanut butter cups, at the counter. What we hadn’t seen before were their Nibbles: 80% chocolate pieces in plain or orange flavor.
We got a box of the orange Nibbles to try. They were attractive dark pyramid-esque pieces, but we were disappointed because they weren’t very orangy. Maybe the dark chocolate overwhelmed the orange because the pieces tasted simply chocolate. There was a brief taste of orange in the middle, but it went away, and there was no orange aftertaste. This was shocking to me because my experience with Sonoma Chocolatiers’ truffles and caramels was that they were very flavorful. Luckily, we were headed up to Sebastopol on this trip, so I could check whether my initial experience was still valid.
Chocolate for serious connoisseurs
Next to Sonoma Chocolatiers’ display at the cheese counter were some eye-popping giant disks of chocolate. Containing 1 pound each of single origin chocolate in differing percentages, they are labeled for kitchen use because they are definitely the opposite of “bite size.”
The big wheels are from Volo Chocolate, a bean-to-bar maker in Windsor, CA. What is unusual about Volo (besides the wheels that look like you could use them for bench pressing) is that they do flavored single origin bars.
We bought a six-pack of their single origin bars to sample. We did not know what we were getting because the box didn’t have a window to see what’s inside or a description of the bars beyond “6 assorted bars.” Very mysterious, but as chocolate bloggers we recognize our duty to discover what’s happening in the world chocolate-wise and were willing to take the risk.
Upon opening the package, we discovered 6 full-sized bars wrapped in different, beautiful abstract art wrappers. The art on the labels is by fabric artist Katherine Shannahan, who is related to Jeff and Susan Mall, the chefs turned chocolate makers behind Volo.
There was also a menu on the inside of the lid, which I think they should put on the outside of the package so people can see what they will be getting. Out of the 6, only 1 did not list any flavors beyond “deep dark chocolate,” but the ingredient list on the back of this bar included the uncommon additions of salt and cinnamon for what was supposedly a plain bar.
We discovered salt and cinnamon were included in all the bars. This is because the Malls are making what they describe as Mexican style chocolate, which in addition to these unusual ingredients in a plain single-origin bar also means they roast their beans more.
This combination, along with less sugar than typical, and maybe the terroir where the beans are grown, makes for more savory chocolate. To us, the result was not always satisfying. But then single-origin is often less chocolatey tasting because instead of looking for a balanced, expected chocolate flavor, the makers are doing what they can to let the beans taste like themselves. The bars looked well made, maybe not as shiny as other bars, but they had a good snap and mouthfeel, melting nicely with a slightly grainy texture.
Trying the 73% Deep Dark Chocolate bar, which was sourced from Guatamala, I didn’t notice the cinnamon as much as the salt. The chocolate itself is totally on the savory side with notes of butter and mushroom, and a slightly metallic aftertaste. This is more of a bar for a chocolate connoisseur to savor than a bar to eat to make you feel happy. It’s more intellectual than emotional.
The rest of the bars were flavored; some worked better than others with the single origin cacao, salt, and cinnamon base. The 2 62% dark milk bars, unfortunately, didn’t work for us.
Salt was the top note in the 62% Dark Milk Chocolate Sea Salt + Brown Butter bar with beans sourced from Haiti. The bar was salty all the way through, ending with a bitter salty aftertaste. The butter was the second note, and the chocolate was overwhelmed by the salted butter flavor. It also had a powdery milk aftertaste/texture before the bitter salt ending. We decided salt and milk are not a good combo in dark chocolate.
The 62% Dark Milk Chocolate Brown Butter + Roasted Almonds Butter, sourced from the same place, added chopped almonds to the bar, which helped. It was still salty, but without the metallic aftertaste. These bars are seriously savory for being labeled milk chocolate.
The 65% Chocolate Mocha Flying Goat Coffee + Cream, again sourced from Haiti, worked the best for me. It smelled good, had a smooth texture, and was the most chocolatey tasting, although salty. It was a little buttery at first, and we could taste the coffee. It had caramel overtones, but was a savory bar, not very sweet and tasting a bit like malted milk. There was a little cinnamon at the end, but that died quickly, overrun by the salt. After the salt, there was a lingering chocolate aftertaste, so if you are interested in trying these bars, I’d recommend starting with this one.
The 70% Chocolate Caramel Crunch Salted Toffee + Cream, also using Haitian beans, was disappointing to me because the toffee didn’t include nuts. The chocolate had a more savory non-chocolatey taste, which I have to ascribe to terroir based on the other Haitian bean bars. The more pronounced flavor was salted caramel, and the texture included some crunchy bits, which one of our tasters described as similar to stone ground Mexican chocolate. This one kinda worked for me, but I still wish it had nuts in it.
Finally, we tried the 73% Chocolate Orange Dark + Candied Orange Peel. Like the other 73%, the beans were sourced from Guatamala, and this one had large thin pieces of orange peel and sugar granules scattered over it, which looked attractive. I liked that I could smell the orange peel across the table when the bar was opened. The bar tasted of chocolate and cinnamon initially. So far, so good. But the crystalized orange peel was crispy hard, and the chocolate did not have any other orange flavor in it, so the flavor experience varied depending on how much peel was in each bite. The salt also seemed unevenly distributed, and pieces with less salt tasted better. We thought the salt was unnecessary in this bar, especially when it lingered at the end.
I wanted to love Volo Chocolate because they are artisan, local chocolate makers with obviously a lot of knowledge, love, and skill in the culinary arts. Plus the wrappers are beautiful, and the bars are well made. But I found the bars more of an intellectual exercise in chocolate appreciation than a fun, exciting experience I want to share with others. I think maybe different beans and less salt could win me over, though.
Don’t bet against the house
A local brand I can recommend was also the least expensive of the local choices: Oliver’s house brand chocolate bars made by Napa Valley’s Le Belge Chocolatier are French style chocolate made using Belgian couverture. The wrappers are not as beautiful as Volo’s, but are attractive enough with glamour shots of the bars’ main ingredients on a black background. And the bars cost half as much as Volo’s.
Granted, these are not single origin, but a mix of beans designed to have a reliable flavor profile, so the cost of ingredients is lower. But if you are just looking for a decent local bar for yourself or as gifts for local chocolate enthusiasts, these are definitely an option. The bars themselves are well made with a nice mold featuring an attractive cacao pod image embossed on every other square. The bars have a nice sheen to them and a good snap. We bought 4 to sample.
The darkest bar we tried, the 64% Dark Chocolate Espresso, has crunchy coffee bean bits for flavor. This is not a chocolate to start by melting in your mouth. It’s a chewing chocolate; otherwise you don’t get the espresso taste, and the gritty texture is unpleasant. But if you chew it first, then let it melt, the espresso grind becomes a fun crunchy texture, the bar tastes like espresso, and it has a lingering chocolatey taste.
Trust me on this one. When I let it melt in my mouth, it tasted like pencil shavings at first while the bits scraped the inside of my mouth. It took a while for the flavor to develop but it got better toward the end. When I tried it again and started it by chewing, no problem; it was a big improvement in the experience.
The other chewing chocolate bar we tried, the 31% Milk Chocolate Sea Salted Almond was a good milk chocolate bar with chopped roasted almonds. It started a little too salty, but the crunchy salt didn’t linger. The bar had a good balance, with the sweet milk chocolate countering the salt, and the finely chopped, roasted almonds adding a savory taste and nice texture.
The bar we all loved was the 54% Dark Chocolate Mixed Berry. It smelled berry fruity even through the packaging. When we sampled it, we tasted blueberry first, then the other berries: raspberry and blackberry. We thought it was remarkable how we could taste the 3 different berry flavors, instead of a more homogenized “berry.” The freeze-dried raspberry bits added a very pleasant crunch. We all agreed that it was some of the most intense berry flavors we’ve had combined with chocolate, and it had a nice berry aftertaste.
We also bought a 54% Dark Chocolate Champagne Strawberry, but we didn’t get to try it in the traditional way. We took it with us on vacation and ended up melting it to use as birthday cake icing. It melted well, and while we couldn’t appreciate the champagne in its reduced form, the icing was smooth and chocolatey, and the little strawberry pieces in it were a nice extra.
I don’t know the story of how Oliver’s Market got Le Belge Chocolatier to make their house bars, but I think they made an excellent choice. Competent chocolate, good flavor choices, and reasonable prices ($4/3oz. bar in July 2019). And unless you order online, I don’t know where else you can find Le Belge chocolate. An advantage to ordering from their website is that you can choose from their full array of chocolate: bars, truffles, and tablets (squares). But for instant gratification, Oliver’s Market is the only option I know.
NOTE: Local chocolate at Oliver’s Market is found at the cheese counter, except the house brand bars are on the candy aisle.