It has been 3 years since the last SF International Chocolate Salon. COVID protocols canceled the event scheduled in 2020, and things weren’t improved enough for a 2021 salon. Finally this year the much delayed 14th annual SF International Chocolate Salon was held April 2, 2022 in the Hall of Flowers in Golden Gate Park.
I was nervous about attending an indoor event with a lot of people. But I did want to see what’s new and find out how our local chocolate vendors have survived since COVID stopped our world from spinning.
It was a beautiful sunny day, one of those days out in the Avenues of SF that tricks you into falling in love with the place. (And then the fog rolls in to test your devotion.) It was also the first day that SF lifted mask and vaccine mandates, which we found out when we arrived. So plusses and minuses.
Overall, it was a wonderful event. I got to talk with a lot of people I have missed seeing over this long break, and I bought a lot of chocolate to sample. So I have a lot to share with you.
As always, there were more vendors than I could cover, so I concentrated on SFBA chocolate, which there was plenty of. TasteTV, which sponsors the chocolate salons, helpfully included a map of the floor so I could plot out my visit. And since there’s so much in this article, I’ve included this list so you can jump to any of the SFBA vendors directly:
- Brigadeiro Sprinkles
- Cacao’s Meow
- Charlotte Truffles
- flying noir
- Formosa Chocolates
- The Good Chocolate
- Kindred Cooks Caramels
- Michael’s Chocolates
- R & J Toffees
- Socola Chocolatier
- Sonoma Chocolatiers
- Z. Cioccolato
Also, SFBA vendors did very well in the judging. I included a list of their awards at the end of this article.
My first stop as soon as I entered was flying noir, and their booth was busy. They were selling the latest iteration of their poetry & prose collection and an all-vegan collection to an enthusiastic crowd.
Karen Urbanek, flying noir’s head chocolatier/artist, gave us a couple of samples and told us about how hectic it was preparing for this first big event since COVID. She had been painting labels at 2 in the morning, and warned us they might still be wet.
The hand-painted labels are a good example of flying noir’s approach to chocolate: unique pieces with a lot of creativity and handwork involved. And the last-minute assemblage gave me art exhibit vibes — cacaopod is an artist who also ran an art gallery for a few years, so I am very familiar with “careful — that’s still wet” admonishments.
Catching up since last time we met, Karen told us lots of different flavors have come and gone during COVID, so at the Salon she was featuring a new flavor, chililico, which blended chili, licorice, and orange in a milk chocolate ganache; and a revised flavor, matzuru, in which she had added lemon praslin to the matcha & gin-based piece.
She also told us they had moved to a commercial kitchen in Berkeley. She really likes the space, which they share with Pie Society (who make pies and cookies). But they will probably only be there for another year because the building has been sold, and the landlord only promised them another year. So flying noir might be flying somewhere else soon.
We got the 16-piece poetry & prose collection. Karen said that there are 16 pieces because she can’t do more than 16 different flavors at a time. And 6 pieces in the collection this time were vegan, like the pompom, a pretty, curvy pyramid painted with natural red and blue pigments and some glittery mica. It was a pomegranate flavored caramel/ganache combo, which translated to a sticky ganache that reminded me of pomegranate syrup. It was a well made piece with a distinct, slightly tart pomegranate flavor.
The new chililico was also a beautiful piece: a black dome swirled with copper. While I was skeptical, the licorice and orange zest combo absolutely worked. It was an enjoyable piece with a super smooth ganache, and heat building to hot at the end.
The revised matzuru was good too, with a thin leaf-shaped shell of dark chocolate around a dark green ganache. It was boozy with a metallic undertone, and there was a little bergamot/citrus shade to the taste.
My absolute fav piece in the box was the pair of wild red bears. Cute tiny molded bear twins were a shimmering rosy red color, but their flat backsides were sprinkled with a pinch of ghost chili sea salt. The experience was immediately hot then salty before the delicious dark chocolate melted.
So wise not to make these big. Ghost chili peppers are so hot, but this way it ended nicely: My tongue felt a little singed, but it wasn’t painful. High points for the restraint: The saltiness was just right and faded away, and the amount was also just right for hot ghost pepper.
To me the genius move was having the ghost chili salt sprinkled on the back, so when you put it on your tongue (it’s the flat side so obviously you would place it in your mouth this way) you get the immediate hot and salty sensations/taste which then fade as the chocolate melts. Excellent approach to spicy chocolate.
I liked most of the rest of the box. The marala looked like a simple square of ganache, but it was filled with almonds and orange zest. I could smell the almonds, which is saying something when they were competing with chocolate and orange. The textures were nice: a smooth chocolate ganache with small crunchy bits of almond. The flavors were all distinct; another excellent piece.
The kamsam was interesting. Inside a dark shell was a smooth milk ganache flavored lightly with brandy which hide a salted soft peppercorn. There was the immediate delicious chocolate, then a little salt, which continued as the heat from the peppercorn built up until it took over. I wouldn’t expect to be overwhelmed by a single peppercorn, but the heat from that one peppercorn brought tears to my eyes. I am no masochist, but I liked this experience.
A couple of pieces surprised me because they looked like filled chocolates but they were hard. The amma was full of hard ginger pieces. It had a ginger bite and didn’t melt in my mouth. It was more like a dry cookie, and not very chocolatey. Interesting though.
The other hard piece was the hawaj 55. It was a solid cylinder with a nice aroma, kind of like pumpkin spice. It tasted kind of like that too or like speculoos and strongly nutmeg. There was a little grit in the texture, but not unpleasant. The espresso made it taste darker than its listed 55%. The flavors lingered. Nice piece.
The rest of the pieces covered a range of flavor combos, with some teas, more alcohol based mixes, some more citrus, and one floral that I didn’t care for, but that’s because I don’t like rose as a flavor. The pieces were all attractive, well made, with intriguing combinations. A high flying collection to welcome us back.
You can buy flying noir chocolates online and at special events. You can also schedule a pickup at their kitchen.
Across the aisle from flying noir was CocoTutti , but noticeably absent was head chocolatier Elyce Zahn. Her husband was there and told us she was at a competing event: the Renegade Craft Fair at Fort Mason across town.
So I didn’t get to find out what’s the latest with CocoTutti, but they did have their usual extensive range of CocoQuintets (their filled bars), tablets, truffles, minis, and toffee. They also were selling chocolate molds for $1 a piece; and in another change, booboos (imperfect chocolates) were available for sale from start of event (we used to have to wait until after 2pm).
Even without Elyce’s dynamic energy, CocoTutti was doing brisk business at the Salon. I picked up a few bars — a couple of new flavors and one classic — and marveled at the synergy of this popular chocolatier and a crowd of long-suppressed chocolate lovers.
The limited edition Strawberry, Cherry, & Blueberry white chocolate tablet was pretty with large slices of dried strawberries, whole cherries, and blueberries scattered over top; and smelled like strawberries. It was a nice combination of a good white chocolate, that wasn’t too sweet, and the soft dried fruits. Each fruit had its distinct flavors, so it made for a nice changing experience depending on which fruits were in each bite.
The other 2 bars I bought were CocoQuintets, bars that are 5 connected filled chocolates, which makes them easier to eat and share than one long filled bar. They smelled so chocolatey when I took them out of their wrappers. They were also very eye-catching with bright colors stamped on the flat side of the bars. Usually Elyce hand paints the tops of the filled chocolate pillows, but I liked this new graphic look.
The new Blackberry Ganache was a dark ganache in a dark shell that had a strong tart berry flavor that ended very chocolatey. The Blood Orange Ganache is a classic CocoTutti flavor that she has made for over 10 years and for good reason. It’s a dark chocolate ganache blended with her own house made marmalade, which creates a sweet orange chocolate flavor. Recommended.
Since we were Salon judges, we also got CocoTutti judges bags in which Elyce included chocolates she wants to highlight. One piece was the Blood Orange as a truffle. Two other pieces, Liquid Vanilla Caramel and Strawberry Balsamic were returning winners, and there were 2 newer flavors in the bag too.
The liquid vanilla caramel in a dark chocolate shell was a simple but delicious combination. The smooth caramel was not buttery but also not too sweet. Instead it had a strong vanilla flavor that worked well with the chocolate. The Strawberry Balsamic Ganache was a ganache filled bonbon with a slightly jam-like texture and a good strawberry taste.
The newer pieces included Coffee by the Fire, which I sampled in last year’s white chocolate competition. It’s an interesting piece with smoked espresso flavored liquid caramel inside a white chocolate shell, so the savory inside balances the sweeter outside. The new-to-me piece was the Fresh Lemon with Olive Oil white chocolate truffle. It was lemony and slippery as expected from the ingredients. It was a sweeter piece, with a texture like a light cheesecake and a milky aftertaste.
You can buy CocoTutti chocolates online, locally in some stores, at special events, and at their kitchen. Check their website for details.
Back from the brink
At the booth next to flying noir, R & J Toffees had deals on their traditional toffee. We chatted a bit with co-founder, Joel Sakakihara, who told us business had been terrible during the pandemic, but things are picking up now. For example, their toffee is now available in some local Costcos since the end of last year.
Like a lot of other people I met that day, the Salon was the first time they were doing an event in 2 years. Joel’s son is not vaccinated, so he didn’t want to take the risk before. He told us they got grants and loans to get through the worst of these lean times.
We got a pack of toffee, and it was as good as I remember. Big pieces of thick toffee that’s easy to chew. Their toffee is not hard or sticky.
One reason their toffee is so thick is that there are whole roasted almonds inside. There’s more almond punch from the finely chopped nuts scattered over the thin dark chocolate coating both sides. Buttery, roasted nut flavors dominate. It’s not a very chocolatey toffee, but it’s good.
R & J Toffees are available online, in local Whole Foods and Costcos and some other local stores. They also sell their toffee at special events and festivals. Visit their website for details.
Reunited & it feels so good
At the corner booth, Michael’s Chocolates filled 2 tables with their bars, bonbons, and other treats. They opened their own chocolate shop last year, so they have more manufacturing capacity. They needed those 2 tables for all the goodies they brought to the Salon.
Michael compared the Salon to summer camp, where everybody hasn’t seen each other in a year so we are all extra excited and chatty. With so many regular vendors and attendees at these Salons, the reunions this time did feel like that — more emotional than usual.
Michael told us that the new store has made a big difference in their business/life. “We made it through Valentine’s Day, but it was terrifying. Before the store, we would only get a few Valentine’s orders. This year, the line was out the door. At 5:45, we had 8 pieces left. A guy came in and said, ‘I can’t believe you’re out of chocolate’.”
Michael said, “I can’t believe you’re buying chocolate at 5:45 on Valentine’s Day.”
Michael managed to save the day by putting together a lovely box of bars. And I expect he got himself another loyal customer.
Michael is currently enthralled with his new enrobing machine, which he is giving a workout as per his social media. And he was excited about making smashable eggs for Easter with all sorts of enrobed treats inside: gummi bears, marshmallows, malt balls, and other goodies. “We couldn’t do it before because we couldn’t ship them, but we can sell them in the store.”
He also had 2 kinds of bunnies in the works for Easter including the return of their signature sweater bunnies. Beyond Easter, he told us he was making strawberry cheesecake bonbons, and working on a Thai Coconut Lime bonbon that includes spices used in Thai soup along with kaffir lime, lemongrass, and coconut. “Ingredients like peanuts and coconut are so rich, so making it with spice will balance it.”
I asked about the dark chocolate ginger bar that they had at the store earlier this year but I didn’t see at the Salon. “We expanded our bar collection so much with the new space that I forgot about the ginger bar,” Michael explained. “We made it for the Lunar New Year because we were making dipped ginger pieces and had smaller pieces left over that I used to make the bar.”
I hope they put it in rotation because it had a distinct but not too strong ginger balanced with the dark chocolate. I like their dipped ginger, which has a nice jellied ginger texture combined with the crunch of sugar crystals. The pack were got at the Salon had good sized pieces covered with plenty of dark chocolate , so it tasted mostly chocolate at first, then the ginger built to a little ginger heat at the end.
The ginger bar was a nice variation. It didn’t have as much crystal sugar texture, instead it was a good chocolatey bar with a ginger overtone, so more about the chocolate than dipped ginger usually is. It was also a pretty red painted bar with a generous amount of candied ginger scattered over the back.
Someone asked about the bourbon caramel pecan bar vs. the bourbon caramel pecan bonbon. Michael explained that the bar has more caramel than the truffle, and he likes the ratio better. We’ve had the bar in a competition where it won several Golds and earned the highest rating. I recommend it, but I also love the truffle version. Like the bar, inside the truffle’s dark chocolate shell is a layer of liquid caramel on top of ground pecans (there might be something more to that layer but it’s definitely pecan).
Michael told us the origin story, “I wanted to make a turtle. I have to complicate my life so I had to do this. What would make caramel and nuts interesting? Bourbon and pecan are a classic Southern combination, but pralines are very sweet. [We are talking New Orleans pralines here, not European, so basically sugar, pecans, and butter.]
“I toast the pecans slowly for an hour so I don’t burn the fats, then mix them with our caramelized white chocolate — Dulcey from Valrhona, which has a shortbread flavor— it brings out the pecan flavor. If you grind pecans they just taste like nuts, so I went with coarse grind called ‘ancient’ — which just means ‘Oops we made a mistake, so we’ll give it a fancy name’ — to keep the pecan flavor.”
I think this is the best ever bourbon pecan chocolate. The initial taste was bourbon, which then balanced with the caramel, and a good pecan flavor developed as it melted, then lingered. It’s an amazing taste experience. But if bourbon pecan is not your thing, there’s still lots of other Michael’s Chocolates to enjoy.
We sampled the dipped orange peel, of which Michael told us he tried to make his own candied orange peel, but it wasn’t as good as the orange peel he uses now, which is imported from France. He described the French version as drier and chewier than others, and not super sweet. Combined with his couverture, it’s another recommended treat.
We bought the 6-pack Chef’s Collection. The box included a beautiful blue bonbon with a lighter blue swash. It’s a Coconut Rum bonbon that smelled strongly of coconut and somewhat of rum. Inside a milk chocolate shell was a white ganache that had a fine coconut texture. It’s good, mostly coconut then chocolate and a touch of rum, but not boozy.
The rest of the pieces were just as pretty and tasty. The metallic purple domed Amarena Cherry had a moist preserved cherry tucked into the top of the dark chocolate ganache inside a dark shell. It had a wonderful distinct cherry and chocolate flavor.
The Madegascar Vanilla looked like a green version of the cherry bonbon. The thin dark shell contained a soft smooth caramel that filled my mouth with a vanilla caramel flavor that was distinctly vanilla, instead of buttery. The dark chocolate came second and lingered.
The newish Earl Grey and Lemon is a 2022 Good Food Awards winner. Michael enrobed a layer of lemon marzipan and a layer of dark chocolate Earl Grey ganache with more dark chocolate. It had a lightly citrus taste — not strongly Earl Grey or lemon — with a light marzipan taste too. I don’t care for marzipan, but this thin layer was not enough to make me dislike the piece. It’s a very subtle piece, definitely award worthy.
The 2 other pieces were favorite flavors of mine. The silver speckled black domed Peanut Butter Crunch had a strong peanut butter aroma and good peanut butter taste in dark chocolate. And I liked its small crunch from bits of feuilletine mixed in the ganache. The black spotted red domed Passionfruit was full of tangy passion fruit flavor in a liquid caramel.
One of the many plusses of the new store is that they carry more bonbon flavors than they used to. All of the flavors in the collection at the Salon were available at the store too, plus about 10 others (including their other Good Food award winner, the aptly named Lemon Burst).
In addition to their new store, Michael’s Chocolates are also available online, at some local shops, and at special events, such as Chocolate Salons and pop-ups in local boutiques. Check their FB page for upcoming events.
Hot off the presses
Next to Michael’s was Formosa Chocolates. I missed Formosa at their first event, the November 2019 Chocolate Salon, because I had a scheduling conflict (pre-COVID, we kept ourselves pretty busy, huh?). So this time, they were a can’t-miss visit.
My fellow CBTB-ers who did attend the last Salon before COVID raved about Formosa’s peanut butter bonbon, but didn’t bring me a sample. They swore they asked (because peanut butter is one of my favs), but Formosa’s owner/head chocolatier, Kimberly Yang, was running low and couldn’t spare an extra sample. I was determined to score one this time.
Formosa had a packed table with chocolates in all sort of combinations and some swag too, like branded coolers and towels. It turned out that was because of lessons learned at the last Salon.
“This is our second event ever, and our 1st event since COVID,” Kimberly said. “The salon in November 2019 was the first. I only brought some samples and six 12-piece boxes, and sold out right away.”
When I asked Kimberly how business had been because of COVID, she said that they unexpectedly got a lot of national press (articles in Michelin, Bon Appetit, and Consumer Reports). “It saved us. The articles helped us a great deal, and gift recipients became our customers too.”
She also told us that they will have a production facility and store by the end of the year! It will be in Brooklyn Basin in Oakland (next to Jack London Square). Check their Instagram for developments later this year.
We got a sample pack of her Spring collection and a larger box of her regular collection — I was making sure I got her peanut butter chocolate this time. Lucky for me there was peanut butter in both boxes.
Unfortunately, on this sunny day, some melting occurred while chatting outside with Salon regulars. I lost half my Spring samples, but salvaged the rest. Including a cute gold luster dusted Peanut Butter Bunny! Inside the bunny-shaped thin dark chocolate shell was a very smooth, lightly flavored peanut butter ganache. I liked the mix, it tasted mostly of peanut butter plus good dark chocolate.
I liked the other 2 Spring pieces just as much. The appealing Robin’s Egg was painted like a robin’s egg: a blue dome with brown speckles. Inside the thin dark chocolate shell was a white ganache tinted tan with a clump of candied black sesame seeds on top. That clump gave the “eggs” a satisfying crunch and intense burst of sesame flavor.
The third piece was a dome decorated to look like a cartoon chicken face. This cute piece was the most unusual: Almond Cornflake. The ganache(?) inside was hard, so it was like a crunchy milk chocolate bar, except it tasted like cornflakes. It secondarily had a good almond chocolate flavor, reinforcing the crunchy chocolate bar experience. Cool idea: it had a feuilletine texture but a pronounced cornflake flavor. And this novel idea worked; it tasted great.
The box of Formosa’s regular flavors had a nice range of flavors in beautiful bonbons plus a cute upside-down coffee cup. The Formosa Coffee piece was dark with dark ganache inside, and had an immediate coffee flavor that faded into chocolate. It was excellent, their most chocolatey piece.
The other pieces included tropical fruit flavors (coconut & passion fruit, banana caramel), other fruits (cherry caramel, raspberry, blood orange speculoos), whiskey, salted caramel, single origin, and nuts (hazelnut crunch and ta-da! peanut butter). My tasting notes leaned heavily on the word, “excellent,” in describing these. They were all attractive and well made, and distinctly the flavor they were labeled. Even the single origin dark chocolate Guayaquil had a unique flavor, a tangy light chocolate.
The most unique one was probably the Blood Orange Speculoos. It was a wonky square dark chocolate shell painted orange and yellow with white speckles. Inside there was a dark chocolate ganache layer on a milk chocolate one. Crunchy cinnamon speculoos in the ganache combined with a distinct orange flavor to make an unexpectedly great combo, and the cinnamon orange flavor lingered.
I saved the Peanut Butter bonbon for last in my tasting. It was a simple triangular dark chocolate shell filled with a super smooth peanut butter ganache. It had a good roasted peanut flavor with a hint of salt. Cacaopod described it as gourmet Reese’s. I recommend it.
Formosa Chocolates are available online and at special events. You can also order for pickup in Oakland.
Our latest 5-cup chocolatier
Veteran SFBA chocolatier and Salon regular, Socola Chocolatier , was our next stop. Head chocolatier, Wendy Lieu, and her staff were super busy handing out samples and ringing up sales.
Wendy told us the pandemic caused some big changes for Socola. Corporate orders dried up, and the shut-down closed the café part of their business. They got rid of the espresso machine and pastries, so the café is probably gone for good.
Wendy had more things to consider than a lot of other chocolatiers: she has 2 small kids (no vaccine), plus employees to take care of, so she decided to focus on chocolate sales and the store. I think we can all be happy that she saved the chocolate!
Since I know most of Socola’s lineup, I tried a non-chocolate sample. The new mango passion fruit pâte de fruit was very aromatic and flavorful, with passion fruit first, then mango. It had a soft texture with a little crunch from the sugar coating. Socola makes several flavors of pâte de fruit, and now I think I must try them all.
They had a new bar, the Kheer white chocolate bar, which was a truffle flavor at the last spring Salon, and is Socola’s take on the Indian rice pudding dessert. It is a really interesting combination of spices, fruits, and nuts, and a good use of white chocolate.
We bought a Little Saigon box, which Wendy suggested because while it isn’t new-new, it was new to me. I was a little hesitant because it included a durian piece and a Sriracha piece, but if anyone can make those flavors work with chocolate, it would be Wendy.
The Little Saigon collection features 4 fruit pieces, 3 beverage pieces, and a couple of savory pieces.
Of the fruit pieces, I liked the passion fruit and guava pieces best. The passion fruit was a smooth white ganache in a dark shell and had a tart, intense passion fruit flavor. Definitely a single fruit infusion, it was not mixed with mellower mango or guava flavors.
The guava piece was layered with a slice of guava pâte de fruit on top of a layer of ganache so it had a cool jelly texture. I thought this was passion fruit at first because the tastes are similar to me, but this was not as tangy.
The lychee piece was made like the guava piece with the inside layers. It had a floral flavor like rose, which was better than I expected because I’ve only had canned lychee in heavy syrup before. I’m not a big floral chocolate fan, but this was mild and the chocolate was good.
I saved the durian piece for last because I was dreading the sulfur taste. The piece was a white ganache in dark shell with a sour fruit smell. It tasted pretty much as I expected: sulfur and tropical fruit in dark chocolate. It wasn’t bad though! The dark chocolate helped cut the sulfur enough for me — I think Wendy has an amazing ability to balance really disparate flavors — but just know that it doesn’t eliminate the sulfur taste entirely if you are sensitive to that. (And if you are one of those lucky people who don’t taste the sulfur, you can buy boxes of Socola durian truffles online.)
I liked all the drink-themed pieces in the collection. The Vietnamese Coffee was an enrobed dark chocolate square with a pinch of coarse ground espresso on corner, which gave a small touch of graininess to the smooth ganache. It was a very chocolatey piece, with a mild coffee flavor at end. I was surprised that I didn’t taste condensed milk in the piece and it wasn’t excessively sweet, which is what I expected. I prefer this version.
The jasmine tea truffle was a dark ganache enrobed in a dark shell. I could smell the jasmine like it was a cup of tea. It had a distinctly jasmine floral flavor that faded into the chocolate flavor but remained a subtle note and lingered after the chocolate is gone. It was another example of how well Wendy balances flavors. It wasn’t overpoweringly floral, but it was definitely jasmine tea flavored.
The cognac truffle was a pave: no shell and dusted with cocoa powder. I liked this simple approach for an alcohol based piece: The piece had a good cognac aroma and the flavor balance leaned toward the cognac. The smooth ganache started with a dark chocolate flavor (enhanced by the cocoa powder) but then the cognac flavor built up. The piece ended strongly cognac but not boozy, and both flavors lingered. Excellent.
The savory pieces were interesting : Pho and Sriracha. When I think of pho, I think of noodle soup, so I was wondering how Wendy would translate noodles into chocolate. But instead this piece used pho spices, forget the noodles. It smelled like pho spices and tasted like pho spices. It was interesting; it had a little heat; and it tasted like a piece by the very experimental flying noir.
The last piece was Sriracha, which I dreaded more than the durian piece because I have tasted some disgusting Sriracha chocolates in competitions before. Adding chilis to chocolate can work well, but vinegar and garlic too?
The piece was a dark ganache enrobed in dark chocolate with a little chili pepper decoration on top. It didn’t smell like sriracha, so far so good. It is a hot piece with the heat building to super hot. Still okay though. The heat had a good balance with the chocolate, and the garlic didn’t exert itself, thank goodness. A piece for those with a sense of adventure.
We also bought a few comfort treats, i.e., Socola repeats. The Toasted Coconut & Black Sesame Milk Chocolate Bar is very attractive. It’s a big bar decorated with big pieces of sliced, toasted coconut and black sesame seeds. The coconut gives it a good coconut crunch, and the ingredients are a good flavor combo: It tasted like strong toasted coconut + sesame + milk chocolate in that order. I love its crunchy texture. If you think you don’t like coconut, this is the bar to try.
We got my fav bar, the Crispity Matcha White Chocolate Bar, which was as good as ever, and another matcha treat, the Matcha Almond Dragées, which are a perfect combination of almond, white chocolate and matcha. They are not very sweet because the matcha balances out the chocolate. We love these crunchy whole caramelized almonds coated in matcha white chocolate, then rolled in matcha powder and confectioners sugar. If you think you don’t like matcha in chocolate because it’s too bitter, you have to try these or anything Socola does that includes matcha.
I don’t know why it took us so long —Socola has been around longer than our site, they have a unique and wide range of chocolates, and we love what they make — but Socola is our newest recommended chocolatier. It was unanimous: 5 cups! Our highest recommendation.
Socola chocolates are available at their factory store, online, and at special events.
What’s in a name?
Lots has happened since the pandemic hit, including a name change for a Salon veteran. Kindred Cooks has changed their name to Kindred Caramels. When we asked owner Jeri Vasquez about how they survived the pandemic, we also wanted to know about the name change.
They were probably the first vendor to get back to doing events. Jeri said they started with an outdoor event last summer, and they did a lot of events during the holidays. She said they were back to normal. But before the events resumed, she said that getting their caramels into grocery stores is what helped them through.
As for the name change, Jeri said when they started 8 years ago, “We thought we would bring in other women under our umbrella. But caramels took all of our time.
“Also, people think it’s my name, or that we make cookies,” she elaborated. “Now we are phasing out ‘Cooks’ from the name, and adding ‘Caramels’.”
We agreed it was a better name for the business, plus the name ‘Kindred’ works with all the different flavors of caramels they make.
Speaking of flavors, Kindred had a new flavor at the Salon. The Cherry Amaretto had a strong buttery caramel flavor first, then subtle cherry and amaretto later. It’s distinctive, and I liked it.
Whatever the name, Kindred makes some of the best straight-up caramels. Flavor is buttery and the texture is perfect: soft and chewy, never sticky.
We got a couple of other flavors that we liked before. The Mango Passion Fruit has a very good balance of passion fruit and mango in chewy caramel. And the Lavender & Meyer Lemon, which has a distinct initial lavender taste, but it’s a good one, it doesn’t taste like soap. The lemon flavor came in second along with the buttery caramel flavor. The lavender lingered, but it’s a light taste. I actually recommend this floral treat.
Kindred Cooks Caramels are available online, at special events, and at some local stores. Check their website for details.
The Good Chocolate, who make sugar free chocolate using all natural sweeteners, had their usual line-up of bars and squares, plus a couple of new items: mini bars in bags and deluxe gift boxes.
The bags contain 5 individually wrapped mini-bars of a single flavor, and are available in their 3 most-popular flavors: plain dark, salted almond, and Himalayan salt. In contrast with the casualness of the bags, the gift boxes were nice statement pieces: black boxes with the logo stamped in gold on the front and containing either 3 full-size bars or 6 squares.
You can find The Good Chocolate online, and at some local grocery stores, such as Hudson Greens & Goods. They have also started offering subscriptions to their bars, bags, and squares. Check their website for details.
Dark & mysterious
New to the Salon but veteran chocolatiers, Sonoma Chocolatiers, had a wide range of bonbons and caramels at their booth. They had a few premade options to buy, like a box of gourmet caramels, but they also had 22 flavors of chocolates, all darks, and were making custom boxes for attendees. With 2 people manning the booth, it was chaotic.
While filling a box for us, Marie told us she had been a chocolatier at Sonoma since 2018, and they had been busy during the pandemic. In fact, their best year has been the last year and a half she said.
We were happy to get a variety pack of a box, but it had a serious downside. There was no menu either in the booth or in the box. They had individual pieces labeled in the booth, but they were under glass, so we didn’t get good images. When we opened our box later, it was full of mysteries.
We recognized the Sesame Mint from a competition. It looked like a wedge from a Toblerone bar with a sesame seed covered ridge. It was a soft caramel that smelled and tasted strongly minty, with the sesame flavor at the end when crunching the seeds.
I also recognized the Salty Dark Nibs and Dulce de Leche pieces from that competition. The Salty Dark Nibs had a generous sprinkling of nibs on a shell mold. Inside was a soft caramel. I’m not sure if the caramel this time was flavored, or if it was the nibs, but it seemed to have a vaguely fruity taste, and despite the name it wasn’t salty at all. I liked the combo of crunchy nibs, dark chocolate shell, and almost liquid caramel in the 70% dark shell.
Dulce de Leche with Almond was a curved square painted with gold luster dust and accented with a blue petal design. Inside was a big piece of almond in a smooth caramel. The 3 main ingredients, dark chocolate, almond, and caramel made for a tasty piece.
Other pieces in the collection that stood out for me were the Salted Grapefruit which had a little crunchy candied grapefruit peel sliver on top of square of semi-firm grapefruit-infused caramel dipped in dark chocolate; the Meyer Lemon which contained a smooth ganache with a light citrus flavor and a bite of tartness; the Cherry Ginger, with more berry than cherry flavor in a smooth ganache with ginger heat towards the end that built up then dissipated quickly; and the Mint Heart, with a refreshingly minty dark ganache that was distinct but not too strong and lingered.
My fav was probably the Bourbon Chocolate Pecan, with pecans breaking through top of the dome. It smelled strongly of bourbon and tasted boozy with a good pecan flavor too that was balanced with the chocolate and lingered.
Sonoma Chocolatiers’ chocolates are available at their store, online, and at some local stores. And now at special events like the International Chocolate Salon.
Party in a box
First time Salon vendor, Brigadeiro Sprinkles, brought a variety of Brazilian brigadeiros and lots of energy to the Salon. Zeila Schappelle, chef and owner, was happy to give us a run-down on this must-have party treat.
“Brazilians don’t care about birthday cake,” Zeila said, “But you have to have brigadeiros for birthday parties.”
She told us that brigadeiros have to be the exact same recipe (chocolate, butter, and condensed milk for starters), and if you’re Brazilian, you learn to make them from your mom. She really liked learning how to make them, although she said it took a while to learn.
Brigadeiros are not truffles. Instead, Zeila said they are caramels and chocolates combined. And with that base, she makes a variety of flavors, which she tailors to the audience.
“Brazilians want specific flavors that Americans don’t like,” Zeila explained, “So I made these for American tastes. Like the Sea Salt Caramel, it’s my daughter’s favorite, and it won an award. I made that for American tastes. Brazilians like it sweeter.
“Different cultures like different things. Americans like dark chocolate. They like flavors like honey lavender. Brazilians don’t like that, but Americans love it. For Thanksgiving I made a pumpkin pie flavor, but I wouldn’t make that for Brazilians. They want pumpkin with coconut.”
She also does custom flavors. “If it can be done, I will make flavor for you. I’ve done it many times.”
The big box we got had 16 flavors in it that ranged from white to dark chocolate, and featured nuts, fruits, spices, and beverages. Zeila told us she “made all of these last night. I can’t have any more flavors at a time. I make it all myself. I coat them with sprinkles by hand – no machine can do it. I even made the menu card.”
It was important to make them all the night before, Zeila explained, because fresh is the best way to experience brigadeiros. And after trying these, I agree. These were softer than other brigadeiros I’ve had, with distinct fresh flavors. I also found these generally less sweet, so I can see how Zeila is adapting her treats to American tastes.
I liked the entire box. A few pieces were too sweet for me, but the flavors were good. And they were so cute! Little chocolate orbs rolled in different toppings and nestled in their individual holes in the box with a clear plastic molded cover — like rows of portholes or really big bubble wrap.
Zeila designed the box herself and got it made in Brazil in a custom color. She explained, “ All chocolate boxes are the same colors, brown or black. I wanted to do something different because it’s not chocolates.”
So she got a color she calls “living coral color. Brigadeiros look good against the coral, so they developed the color for me in 2019 when making the boxes.”
The process was hardly hands off for her: “It was too hard to ship the boxes here so I went to Brazil to pick them up and bring them back in 2 days. And I put the boxes together myself. My brigadeiros are 100% artisanal from product to packaging.”
For now, the business is a part-time thing. “I work in finance,” Zeila said, “But this is my passion that I want to become my job and leave a legacy to my daughter.”
Based on the box I got, I think that is an achievable goal. Right from the first bite, I could see these being a hit here because she toned down the sweetness and chose flavors Americans would like (thought I am intrigued by the Brazilian pumpkin coconut flavor she mentioned).
The first brigaderio I tried out of the box, Dark Raspberry, was a 70% dark chocolate infused with and rolled in dried raspberries. It had a good raspberry and dark chocolate flavor combo and smooth texture, like a high-end fudge.
The next one, Cappuccino, was so yummy: It had a small sugar crystal texture that was interesting, and a good espresso and milk chocolate flavor combo.
Two pieces expanded on the sugar crystal texture with crunchy sugar coatings. Two Lovers was a swirl of half semi-sweet and half white chocolate, which resulted in a nicely assertive chocolate flavor and fun crunch. Ginger had a distinct ginger flavor that wasn’t too spicy and was a good balance with the white chocolate in the piece.
I liked the other 2 fruit based brigadeiros. Strawberry was a very strawberry tasting white chocolate and not overly sweet. It was also super cute covered in round, pink crisppearls that gave it a crunchy texture.
Sicilian Lemon smelled and tasted very lemony. It was good but covered in tiny round yellow sprinkles that exploded off the piece and rolled everywhere. I recommend eating this piece outdoors for minimal cleanup.
I really liked all the dark chocolate pieces in the box: Spicy was very chocolatey and had a little chili heat at end but it didn’t linger. Dark Coconut was rolled in coconut flakes and had a light kind of fudgy texture with a nice flavor balance between the coconut and dark chocolate.
Bourbon was covered in cute chocolate curls and had a mild, not boozy, bourbon flavor. Noir was simply 70% dark chocolate rolled in dark chocolate sprinkles. It had a good flavor and thick, smooth texture. Samba was similar to Noir except it was rolled in cacao nibs, which added a fruity flavor.
The other piece I really liked, Pistachio, was a semi dark. It was covered with nuts, so while it tasted first of chocolate, the mild pistachio flavor was distinct and sufficient to balance the chocolate. The flavors were good and it was not too sweet.
Brigadeiro Sprinkles has an online store where you can buy chef collections or request specific flavors. And while fresh is best, you can put Brigadeiro Sprinkles brigadeiros in the fridge, unlike chocolates, for up to 10 days, and they will still be tasty.
Movin’ on up
Another first time Salon vendor, Cacao’s Meow Artisan Chocolate, Petaluma, brought their best sellers and some moving news to the event. After talking about how they managed during COVID, head chocolatier Randal Collen told me they were planning to move to an island off the coast of Washington this year.
I had recently tried their best sellers, and had been hoping to pick up some of their more unusual flavored single origin bars, but in preparation for the move, Randal said they were paring down their offerings, so they only had their signature bars for the Salon. I will have to check back after the move to see if they still offer the lemon mulberry.
Randal said this was their first event since COVID; they had done the Northwest Chocolate Festival before and planned to do it again this year. He said they were planning to do 1 or 2 more events this year.
While sales were down during COVID, Randal said they were better now, in fact he couldn’t make enough bars now to keep up. Since Cacao’s Meow is his “retirement gig,” they were going to keep it an online and special events business only.
He asked about my favorite flavor, which I said was the Maple Pecan, in which the finely chopping nuts helped with the mouthfeel because their chocolate is somewhat grainy. He agreed, saying people don’t notice the grain with the added nuts and berries. He could make it smoother, but as I suspected, he started in chocolate making with a focus on health, so the graininess is part of that (more flavonoids). He joked about it being too much work to grind it more, and he was getting too old.
In developing the business, he said he became an aficionado, and sourcing beans was a big part of that. He still samples other beans, but he is really happy using Brazilian Forastero cacao as his single single-origin because they taste the most chocolatey to him.
Another aspect to the business is that he has become an expert on laser engraving. “I’m making my own molds, and realized I can make individual molds for businesses, stores, restaurants. I can do it in-house: custom molds and custom chocolate.”
You’ve got mail!
Another must-visit booth for me was local chocolatier’s and first time Salon vendor, Charlotte Truffles. I have only seen her pieces in competitions before and have been impressed, so I wanted to meet her and sample more of her wares — and also find out where I could buy her chocolates.
Charlotte Truffles are beautiful hand-decorated bonbons with interesting flavors like Raspberry Yuzu and Rose Water Saffron. They also make bars, mendiants, and other chocolate treats. However, they only deliver in a small radius around Santa Clara, or you can arrange pick up at their kitchen or the Menlo Park Farmers Market. Some items are available at a few stores around the area too, but basically if you can’t get to the South Bay, you are out of luck.
Charlotte Truffles got a seed capitol investment last year, so I was hoping to hear that they were setting up an online store, but not yet. Charlotte Walter, owner and head chocolatier told me the seed money was for the commercial kitchen space they just moved to, to expand their production capacity, and open up shipping options.
She said they were working on getting a store, and — best of all — if you want to buy her chocolates now but can’t get to the South Bay, you can email her to order and arrange shipping! It doesn’t say that on the website, but she assured me that they can make it happen if you want to try her chocolates. I suggest that you do.
We got a box of 8 truffles and a sample of their bars, based on the booth staff’s recommendations.
We tried the On Point truffle first, which is simply 72% dark chocolate ganache in a dark chocolate shell. It was painted a pretty Robin’s egg blue with faint speckles. It had a thin shell and very smooth texture, and tasted very chocolatey. Delicious.
When we took the piece out of the box, we noticed that the menu card was placed under the chocolates. It’s a nice touch: As you pick up a truffle, you see which flavor it is.
We tried the unusual Raspberry Yuzu next. It was painted gold with red speckles and molded like someone had pressed a fork into the top of the bonbon. It smelled exactly like its name and had an immediate raspberry flavor. While I could smell the yuzu, it wasn’t a noticeable flavor, instead it served to amplify the tart raspberry in the dark chocolate ganache. Very flavorful.
The Mexican Hot Chocolate was a white painted dome with red speckles but it was more interesting inside. It looked like marshmallow on top of a layer of dark ganache, but it was even cooler: It wasn’t a chewy marshmallow, it was lighter — like the froth like on a cup of hot chocolate. It tasted great, with a little heat after the dark chocolate, cinnamon, and nutmeg flavors.
The other standout piece for me was the Sesame Praline. It started with an almond praline that Charlotte added toasted sesame seeds to. Inside the deep blue dome was a golden color praline with visible crunchiness. I loved the crunch and the immediate sesame flavor. It also had a distinct almond flavor and a good balance between the almonds, sesame, and chocolate. If you like the flavor of sesame seeds, I recommend it.
The rest of the box was good too. The combination of rose, cardamom, and saffron in the Rose Water Saffron was too strong for me, but it was a well made piece and if you like those flavors, you will probable like it.
The Kiss Me I’m Irish was cute: A bright yellow-green dome decorated with 3 white dots. It smelled chocolatey and had a good immediate Irish cream flavor in balance with the dark chocolate. It was not boozy.
The Vietnamese Coffee was a coffee-with-milk color lightly speckled with brown spots and smelled like coffee. It didn’t have a pronounced coffee taste thought, more of a darker chocolate taste from the coffee with a little sweetness and milkiness.
The last piece, Sea Salt Caramel, was a very soft caramel. It was a pretty lilac color and wasn’t salty like a salted caramel. But the caramel was a little too sweet for me.
Of the 4 bars we tried, only one was not my taste, and the one I was dubious about was fantastic.
The Creme Brulee bar was described as white chocolate with dry caramel. I wasn’t sure what dry caramel is, but it turned out to be a hard, crunchy caramel. This was so cool because the bar mimicked a Creme Brulee custard. The caramel was like the layer of brittle caramelized sugar on the top of a creme brulee, and the white chocolate substituted for the custard. Charlotte created a bar that captured the taste and experience of eating Creme Brulee. Brilliant.
The other bar I loved was the Gamut bar, which she made using coffee from a local roaster. The label explained that gamut refers to the spectrum of characteristics coffee exhibits. It’s a simple bar with just the 2 ingredients: dark chocolate and coffee. It smelled mostly of chocolate, but the taste was dominated by the coffee. It was mild at first, then it did seem to run a gamut from slightly bitter to fruity, and distinctly coffee chocolate all the way through. If you like coffee and chocolate you will love this.
The Between Two Rivers bar was beautiful with big pieces of dates, figs and walnuts arranged on the bar. The dark chocolate Charlottes uses for her bars in delicious, but it overpowered the inclusions. I felt the fig and date textures, but I only tasted fig when it was a big piece. I didn’t really taste the dates at all, only felt the texture. I experienced the same with the walnuts; the dark chocolate dominated. I think maybe the ratio is a problem, like it needs less chocolate for the other flavors to stand out more — or maybe a milk chocolate/milder chocolate would work better.
The only bar I didn’t care for initially was the Turmeric. It was also made with the same delicious dark chocolate and smelled good. It started out sweet, but then became bitter and powdery. It was better when I tried it again later: The ginger came out distinctly, the turmeric seemed to have mellowed, and it ended with a mild heat.
Charlotte Truffles’ chocolates are available for delivery in the San Francisco South Bay within 10 miles of Santa Clara; at the Menlo Park Farmers Market, Sundays 9-1 pm; and a few select other locations. And now by email! Check the website for details about the options or to email an order.
Cheers to fudge
The last booth we stopped at, Z. Cioccolato Fudge, had their full range of giant slabs of fudge including a new flavor.
Since fudge is usually too sweet for me, I was intrigued by their new “adult” flavor: Guinness. They explained that while it was made with real Guinness stout, it’s not boozy or beery tasting — they cook it so long that the alcohol evaporates. That proved true, it didn’t taste like beer or alcohol. Instead it had a malty, yeasty flavor I liked. But it was still too sweet for me. Maybe they can make a second iteration with nuts or something else that makes it less sweet and more “adult.”
As with other vendors at the Salon, I asked how Z. Cioccolato survived the pandemic. They told me they focused on online sales, and it went well: “Turns out people stuck at home really want fudge.”
You can buy Z. Cioccolato fudge and other candy treats at their North Beach shop or online. They also offer chocolate making classes.
SFBA chocolatiers, confectioners, and chocolate makers scooped up a bunch of awards at the Salon:
- Brigadeiro Sprinkles won Gold for Best Comfort Chocolate or Snack Product and New Product Award, and an Honorable Mention for Best Organic or Fair Trade Products.
- Cacao’s Meow won Bronze for New Product Award, and Honorable Mentions for Best Traditional Chocolates and Best Organic or Fair Trade Products.
- Charlotte Truffles won Silver for New Product Award, and Honorable Mentions for Best Chocolate Bar, Best Dark Chocolates, and Best Caramels or Truffles.
- CocoTutti won Silver for Top Toffee in Salon; Bronze for Top Artisan Chocolatier, Best Traditional Chocolates, and Best Milk Chocolates; and Honorable Mentions for Best in Salon, Best Chocolate Bar, Best Caramels or Truffles, and Best Organic or Fair Trade Products.
- flying noir won Bronze for Best Milk Chocolates and New Product Award; and Honorable Mentions for Top Artisan Chocolatier, Most Delicious Ingredient Combinations, Best in Salon, Best Traditional Chocolates, and Best Organic or Fair Trade Products.
- Formosa Chocolates won Silver for Top Artisan Chocolatier and Best in Salon; and Bronze for Most Delicious Ingredient Combinations, Best Traditional Chocolates, and Best Dark Chocolates.
- The Good Chocolate won Bronze for Best Milk Chocolates, and Honorable Mentions for Best Chocolate Bar, Best Organic or Fair Trade Products, and New Product Award.
- Kindred Cooks Caramels won Gold for Best Caramels or Truffles.
- Michael’s Chocolates won Gold for Best in Salon, Top Artisan Chocolatier, Most Delicious Ingredient Combinations, Best Traditional Chocolates, and Best Dark Chocolates; Silver for Best Caramels or Truffles; Bronze for Best Chocolate Bar and Best Comfort Chocolate or Snack Product; and an Honorable Mention for New Product Award.
- R & J Toffees won Gold for Top Toffee in Salon.
- Socola Chocolatier won Gold for Best Milk Chocolates; Silver for Best Traditional Chocolates and New Product Award; Bronze for Top Artisan Chocolatier, Best in Salon, and Best Chocolate Bar; and an Honorable Mention for Best Dark Chocolates.
- Sonoma Chocolatiers won Silver for Best Traditional Chocolates and Best Comfort Chocolate or Snack Product; and Honorable Mentions for Top Artisan Chocolatier, Best in Salon, and Best Caramels or Truffles.
- Z. Cioccolato won Silver for Best Comfort Chocolate or Snack Product.
For a complete list of winners, visit the San Francisco International Chocolate Salon site.