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

chocolate Deluge

Chocolate Deluge


We were awash in the El Niño of chocolate at the 2016 International Chocolate Salon

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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.

Chocolatiers were already getting swarmed 1/2 hour after the Salon opened.
Chocolatiers were already getting swarmed 1/2 hour after the Salon opened.

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).

endorfin Box
After the chocolate is long gone, Endorfin’s tasting box will still be there for you.

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.”

Sarah Mardaraswala of R & J
Sarah Mardaraswala of R & J hands out samples of their popular toffee.

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.

Marzipan aficionado Kristian Salvesen displays Nuttyness’s bars in their new packaging along with the coming-attraction Marzibons.

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

Wendy and Jessica Socola Chocolatier
Socola Chocolatiers Wendy and Jessica


We stopped by Socola Chocolatier3-5 cup 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.

Socola’s San Francisco collection is a cute set of 4 different flavors decorated with iconic SF scenes, but watch out for Alcatraz

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

Liam Cacoco
Liam and Cacoco’s colorful new packaging

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).

Karen Urbanik shows off flying noir’s Baby Dino Egg
Karen shows off flying noir’s Baby Dino Eggs

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.

flying noir Way South collection
flying noir’s The Way South collection features the glittery Rica (upper left)

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.

NeoCocoa Christine
NeoCocoa’s owner & landlady, Christine Doerr, has lots to smile about this year.

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.

NeoCocoa Marshmallows
I need a steady supply of these marshmallows

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.

NeoCocoa Hazelnut Squares
NeoCocoa Hazelnut Butter Milk Chocolate Truffles contain a surprise on the bottom

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

Jennifer and Omega of Firefly
Jennifer and Omega of Firefly connect us with the spiritual side of chocolate

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!

Firefly Salve
Firefly Salve smells great: chocolate with a hint of peppermint

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.

Daniel Cowboy Toffee
Dan McGinnis of Cowboy Toffee supplied us with unique samples and a definition of local we like

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!

Matt's Heavenly Toffee
Matt’s Heavenly Taste Toffee was super-popular at the Salon

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.”

CocoTutti Crew
CocoTutti’s capable crew hands out bite-size samples of their tasty hand-crafted truffles/bars

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’s3-5 cup chocolatier 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.

Ferawyn Bunnies
Cute little Fera’wyn bunnies filled with their popular Limocello ganache

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.

Ferawyn bourbon
Fera’wyn’s Bourbon truffle gets an upgrade

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. Cacaopod 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.

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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Published April 19, 2016