With the last name of Sherwood and a training in French confections, La Forêt (The Forest) seemed to be an obvious name for Wendy Sherwood’s wonderful chocolate shop. But be forewarned, trying to find La Forêt can be a bit like getting lost in the woods.
When we first tried to find La Forêt, Google Maps told us it was on Austin Way in Napa, but while that could be one way of mapping it, when you try to find it, there is no Austin Way street where Google said it was. That’s because La Forêt is actually in the Browns Valley Market outdoor shopping complex, and while there is an entrance across Browns Valley Road from Austin Way, there is no Austin Way in the parking lot.
The other problem is that La Forêt is not visible from the street — or even from the main parking lot. It’s behind the yogurt shop and next to the dry cleaners. But never fear, even if we couldn’t see the Forest for the trees (or in this case the yogurt shop), we persevered and found this absolute must-visit shop.
La Forêt is a compact attractive shop with an open kitchen in the back where Wendy and her assistant Emily make all the treats in the store. It definitely had a French chocolate shop vibe and of course smelled great with all the chocolate magic happening in the back.
What, no truffles?
An unusual feature you might not notice at first is that there is no display case of truffles. Wendy told us that’s because freshness is important for truffles. So she doesn’t make truffles that might sit in a case until they are past their prime.
Instead, she does 4 seasonal truffle collections a year which you can order online, and when they are gone, they are gone. Wendy explained the collections’ concept to us: “Collections are more like a tasting menu or a chef’s choice menu. I usually do a theme for the collections. Last year I took a trip to France, so I did a France flavors theme.”
For another collection she partnered with a San Francisco artist to do a box of 10 colors with matching flavors. The menu insert was like paint swatches, and Wendy mixed cocoa butter colors to match the paint colors.
This year she is celebrating 10 years in business. So the 4 seasonal truffle collections starting with the Spring collection in March will contain pieces from the collections of each year she has been in business.
Limited edition chocolate is not that unusual (you can easily find bean to bar chocolate that is made from cacao from a particular plantation in a particular year similar to vintage wines), and many chocolatiers offer seasonal chocolates, but not as their entire line. La Forêt is unique in that their collections combine both concepts to maintain quality and creativity.
‘We’re not for everybody’
This radical approach obviously works for their business. They’ve been doing it for 10 years now. Wendy explained that their regular customers get it: It’s not chocolate on demand, it’s more like an event, and people are willing to wait to experience the collections.
And there is a lot involved in these events: First, Wendy develops a concept and its flavors, tests everything, and even then when everything has been worked out, “the seasonal collections take 10 days to produce, 1 day to pack, and another to ship.”
No wonder she doesn’t have a truffle case, and collections are for limited times only.
Fun shop where everything is delicious
But don’t worry if you miss ordering La Forêt collections online, both Wendy and her store are delightful, and there’s lots of wonderful chocolate and other traditional French confections in the store, so it’s definitely worth the trip. Wendy explained that confections are her background, so she makes marshmallows, caramels, and pâte de fruit, in addition to chocolates.
But chocolate is definitely the focus, and it was what started Wendy on her path to her own chocolate shop. Wendy worked at Michelin rated French Laundry as a pastry chef and credits the salted butter caramel truffles she made there for starting her business. After the head chef tasted them, he gave her free rein to do anything, so these chocolates are special to her and are the one truffle available at the shop.
We tried the Salted Butter Caramel Truffles, and we think they are special too. Right out of the box, they are exceptional: Shiny dark domes with a smattering of gold leaf on top. We had to stop and admire them before tasting them. When we bit into them, the chocolate shells were crisp and perfectly thin, and the couverture was really tasty chocolate. The caramel was soft and smooth, and the piece had a rich taste with a good balance of caramel and dark chocolate. High marks all around.
Could it be the chocolate itself?
Speaking of couverture, La Forêt’s chocolate is a house blend of French and American couvertures. Wendy learned chocolate making in France where the chocolatier made their own blend, so she took a lot of time to develop hers when she was starting her business. She thought everyone did that, only to find out later that most American chocolatiers buy a readymade couverture from chocolate makers.
I think developing her own unique couverture was worthwhile; it’s so good I can’t even explain it, but I’ll try. It’s dark, not bitter, not too sweet. Bars have a good snap, but the chocolate is not too hard. It melts in your mouth quickly, but lingers a bit afterwards. It’s a chocolatey chocolate, not fruity or fermented, but not savory either. And it balances well with the other flavors she pairs it with. Pretty close to perfect, I’d say.
Wendy has a lot of longtime customers, and they help in developing new products and flavors. She told us they are not shy about telling her, “I didn’t like that,” or “When are you going to make [X]?”
For instance, customers asked her for years to make toffee. But “it’s only within the last 4 years that I started selling toffee because I couldn’t come up with a recipe I liked.”
Now she is working on developing vegan chocolate. “It’s the new trend,” she told us. “A lot of people are asking for vegan and gluten free chocolate.”
A funny sidetone about La Forêt: It’s located in the same shop that the current owners of Vintage Sweet Shoppe started in, Wendy still gets customers coming in, remarking that they used to come there when it was VSS.
In addition to the salted caramel truffles, we can also report on the bars, chocolate covered honeycomb, orange sticks, and caramels we couldn’t leave the shop without.
La Forêt bars are very attractive chocolate squares wrapped in clear cellophane with a strap of handmade paper and sealed with a simple label identifying the flavor with a handwritten script typeface and including the ingredients. They would make a good inexpensive splurge/gift idea.
Each bar is divided into nine filled pockets. As one of our tasters said, it’s like nine truffles in one bar. The bars all had thin crisp shells made of La Forêt’s signature couverture.
The Napa Valley Cabernet Truffle bar was wrapped in a low-key luxurious wine-red rice paper wrapper. The creamy Cabernet infused ganache had a nice consistency and was very compatible with the chocolate. One of our tasters told me that he never got the wine and chocolate thing before but this bar made sense to him as one combined experience. And all of our tasters thought it was delicious and a real winner.
The other alcohol based bar we tried, the Cointreau and Orange Truffle, had a good dark chocolate taste with a subtle orange overtone. The soft creamy middle was a little boozy, but in a good way. And we all liked the vintage lithograph orange print on its paper wrapper.
The Salted Butter Caramel bar is basically the Salted Butter Caramel Truffle in bar form. It even has a gold leaf splotch on upper right square. A difference we noticed was that instead of a soft caramel inside, it was almost liquid. Otherwise, it was a good balance with the chocolate, not too sweet and a little buttery.
The Cranberry Cheesecake was a clever layered bar of dark chocolate, cranberry jam, cream cheese, and graham cracker. The cranberry jam had a distinct cranberry flavor without being too tart. The cream cheese was also a distinct flavor, and we liked the sugary crunch of the graham cracker bottom. This bar was a bit sweeter than the others, but we thought it was fun.
The last bar we tried, Peanut Butter Feuilletine, was good, but I though it needed more peanut butter flavor (the PB fanatic in me speaking). Instead, the bar seemed more French than the others with a subtle flavor underneath the chocolate. The feuilletine was nicely crunchy, and the piece ended salty, which I liked, and the salt didn’t linger.
Of the other confections we tried, the Orangettes were very fine, thin orange peels with a good texture, and neither bitter or too sweet dipped in dark chocolate. The orange balanced well with the just-the-right-amount dark chocolate shell.
The flavored caramels were also good: not too sweet, chewy caramels with distinctly buttery overtones. I especially liked the raspberry one with a light raspberry flavor and visible bits of raspberry in the piece.
The last confection we tried, Honeycomb, consisted of big irregular pieces of honeycomb toffee (or sponge candy as we called it where I grew up) covered in dark chocolate. If you like honeycomb, this is one to get excited about. Of course it has that wonderful La Forêt couverture enrobing the honeycomb in a thin shell. The light, crispy honeycomb breaks easily, becoming a little chewy in your mouth, and has a rich honey flavor. This is one to seek it out.
Walk in the woods
We were so excited on our Napa Valley chocolateering adventure to discover La Forêt. Wendy is a very talented, capable, French trained chocolatier with an artist’s sensibility, who is also down to earth and fun to chat with. The shop is worth the drive for access to her line of chocolates beyond her special collections. Her special collections are available 4x a year and online only. She also offers some of her popular chocolates online as well if you cannot make it up to Napa. However you find them, La Forêt Chocolate and Confections are worth seeking out.