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

International Chocolate Salon 2017

Good for you


Is this a sign that the local artisan chocolate industry is maturing?

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As someone who writes about chocolate, I often hear people’s chocolate confessions. I am surprised by how many people think chocolate is bad for you and feel guilty about eating it. I think our local chocolatiers must hear the same assumptions and confessions, because 2017’s International Chocolate Salon theme seemed to be “Good-for-You Chocolate.”

A sign of maturity?

Maybe it’s just a sign that the local chocolate industry is maturing along with the rest of us, and like us, is paying more attention to what we put in our bodies, but almost every local chocolatier at the Salon this past March had some healthy option or angle to offer. The more straight-up candy makers on the other hand, not so much.

Of course, there were the chocolate makers who have been focused on health aspects from the beginning, such as Endorfin Foods, Firefly Chocolate, Alter Eco, and Cacoco. But even our 4-cup recommended chocolatiers at the Salon, CocoTutti and Fera’wyn’s Artisan Chocolates, whom we endorse for their flavors, quality and visuals, had vegan options. And then there is the “chocolate as food“ trend, which was also represented at the Salon.

With almost 20 local chocolatiers and candy makers at this, the 11th Annual International Chocolate Salon, there were lots of options, including ones that managed to combine healthy and tasty.

march 2017 International Salon crowd
The Hotel Kabuki in SF was crowded with chocolate lovers and healthy choices for the 11th Annual International Chocolate Salon

Drink to your health

Cacoco Rob
Rob Blume with Cacoco’s healthy drinking chocolate

My current favorite healthy yet tasty chocolate option from the Salon is Cacoco’s Firewalker drinking chocolate. After reading about the potential cough-suppressing abilities of chocolate, I drank Fire Walker when I had a cold with a cough. It didn’t cure my cold, but it did seem to temporarily quiet my cough.

I asked Rob Blume from Cacoco if they considered Fire Walker a cold remedy. He said that in addition to the health benefits of their unroasted chocolate, they add other health-enhancing botanicals to their drinking chocolates (Cacoco has 4 different drinking chocolates) that provide a range of heath benefits.

Delicious & educational

Rob sent me info about the other healthy ingredients in Fire Walker, which I was not familiar with. For example, Mucuna seed is an antioxidant that is good for kidney health, helps regulate blood sugar, and reduces stress, among other benefits. Rhodiola root is good for the respiratory and central nervous systems, regulates the immune system, and improves physical and mental endurance. And Reishi extract is an antioxidant that boosts the immune system, liver, lungs and heart, and does a bunch of other amazing things.

Continuing the healthy focus of Cacoco products, all of the ingredients in Fire Walker, from the cacao to the habanero are organic, except for the Himalayan salt. (But that’s only because salt is a mineral; it’s not carbon-based, so can’t be organic.)

Fire Walker is definitely a sipping chocolate: It’s thick and intensely chocolate with a warm habanero burn that felt good on my sore throat. Be sure to follow the prep instructions to get the full benefits (basically, add lots of chocolate to a little water and mix thoroughly).

You can order Cacoco products online or find them locally in grocery & specialty food stores.

Long-time health benefits

I didn’t spend time with the other healthy-chocolate OGs at the Salon this time, but they all had their full lines of products at the Salon, which include some personal favs.

Of Firefly Chocolate’s line of traditionally made chocolate (as in Oaxaca, Mexico traditions, not middle America traditions), I currently love the Wild Harvested Bay Nut bar, which has a unique smoky flavor from the nuts harvested from our local bay trees, and the Jar of Joy dark chocolate hazelnut spread, which is adult Nutella: full of healthy ingredients, including dark chocolate.

Firefly Chocolate products are available online and at a few select locations, mostly in the North Bay. Check their website for details.

In Endorfin Foods line of minimally processed chocolate, I like the Dark Mylk bars (alternative spelling because they use coconut milk, no dairy), especially the Turkish Coffee bar. Endorfin has the whole healthy chocolate program down: unroasted chocolate, no refined sugar, and free of soy, gluten, GMOs, and dairy. In fact, Brian Wallace, Endorfin’s founder, gave a talk at the Salon about the science of chocolate that included information about the nutrients in chocolate. (Just know that it can be good for you if it’s grown and processed correctly.)

You can purchase Endorfin’s Dark Milk Bars online, along with their other bars, subscriptions, gift boxes and drinking chocolate. You can also find their bars in select locations. Check their website for current locations.

Alter Eco was probably the oldest company at the Salon, founded in France in 1998 and headquartered in SF since 2005. Originally a fair trade-focused import/export business, they now manufacture sustainable chocolate that hits all the healthy, good-conscious notes: fair trade, organic, gluten free, non-GMO, no soy or artificial flavors. They have some new dark chocolate bars, of which I am most intrigued by the Dark Salt & Malt. Alter Eco bars and truffles are widely available in SFBA and beyond.

Chocolate to die for

CocoTutti’s Elyce Zahn
CocoTutti’s Founder & Master Chocolatier Elyce Zahn is always a blur of motion at these events

If you wonder what the big deal is about artisan chocolate, all you have to do is try anything from CocoTutti 4-cup chocolatier, and you will understand. CocoTutti has been one of my personal favorites since they started in 2010 because Elyce Zahn, founder and master chocolatier, combines interesting flavors, makes almost everything from scratch herself, decorates each chocolate beautifully, and keeps experimenting. I tend to make a beeline for her booth whenever I see her at an event. I recommend you do the same.

Elyce did not disappoint at this Salon. In addition to a line of 14 flavors for sale, she debuted 4 new truffle recipes and included one of the first flavors she ever developed in her unique CocoQuintet bars. Plus she was selling the raspberry jam she makes herself to use in her raspberry truffles and bars. I am in as much awe of her energy as her artistry.

Better than good

Of the new flavors, the Almond Butter Crunch with Cinnamon was the most addictive. It’s very satisfying along the lines of a peanut butter cup, but with a crispy texture (the “crunch” in the name) and a light cinnamon flavor that lingers. Adjectives our tasters used in describing it included “stunning” and “heavenly.” This is one to stock up on.

Her healthy option (she tries to have at least one in each line she offers) was Coconut Caramel (non-dairy/vegan). “It was designed for people who can’t have dairy,” Elyce said, “But if people don’t know it’s dairy free, they can’t tell it’s dairy free.”

She explained that she makes it with coconut cream skimmed from the top of coconut milk and toasted coconut, so the flavor is “really coconut-y.”

We agree. It’s really good, with a nice range of textures from the liquid caramel to the chewy coconut. It doesn’t seem like she made any compromises to make a healthy bar: The coconut-y-ness seems purposeful, instead of a weird extra taste I’ve been noticing in some other chocolates that are using coconut products to substitute for dairy or refined sugars. If you like coconut and chocolate, try this one — the addition of caramel takes it over the top.

Savoring savories

The other two new CocoTutti flavors, Curry 5-Spice and Pink Peppercorn, were savory. Elyce said she finds herself working with themes: “One year tea, another year booze, this year savory,” she said, because, “It gets boring if you keep doing the same thing.”

We could smell the spices in the Curry 5-Spice as soon as we opened it. Which I guess we should have known because Elyce said she made her own blend, so it was very fresh. The truffle had a dark chocolate flavor, even though it was only a 64%. Our tasters rated it from very good to excellent, noting that it was very herb-y, with a lingering licorice aftertaste.

The Pink Peppercorn was interesting: It was very peppery, but at the same time, mild – exactly like pink peppercorn. I also experienced a slightly numbing after-sensation, weird but not unpleasant. This would be a good chocolate for people who are hesitant to try spicy.

CocoTutti Florentine bar
CocoTutti’s delicious Florentine CocoQuintet bar is easy to enjoy by yourself or to share

All the right notes

The classic Florentine in the new form of a CocoQuintet bar is a perfect showcase of how well the CocoQuintet bar serves Elyce’s more elaborate flavor combos: The bar is 5 connected chocolate pockets filled with citrus-flavored liquid caramel, and the long flat side of the bar holds lots of chopped almonds. So the Florentine has a nice crunchy outside, and when you bite into it, liquid caramel oozes out (careful!). Afterwards, the mild lemon-orange flavor of the caramel lingers. And you still have 4 more pockets to enjoy.

Something to look forward to

We also got a sneak peek/taste of a CocoTutti work-in-progress. Elyce showed us a beautiful, iridescent green truffle that she is working on flavored with fennel pollen, roasted black pepper, and bacon. She described it as savory and not too bacon-y. She intends it to be paired with red wine.

cocotutti iridescence
Iridescent work-in-progress

It was almost too beautiful to eat — oh, who am I kidding, of course we ate it. It had a strong licorice flavor from the fennel in a dark chocolate ganache with a little crunch — from the bacon, maybe? It didn’t taste like bacon, instead we tasted the black pepper and fennel in chocolate, the bacon was just there to add a savory background. It’s a good flavor combo that I hope to see again.

Good deal

Finally, I have to say that CocoTutti had the best deal at the Salon: CocoTutti Boo Boos. If for whatever reason, Elyce decides a finished chocolate isn’t good enough to sell for full price, it becomes a Boo Boo. Maybe the decoration didn’t look pretty enough, the shell was too thick or too thin, or the ingredients were not perfectly scattered on the outside, whatever; it goes in a Boo Boo bag. The bags are substantially discounted: You get the equivalent of 16 full-sized pieces, normally $18, for $10.

We stocked up on Boo Boos (we had to wait, they don’t go on sale until later in the Salon), and I shared them with my dance class afterwards, who ranged from chocolate lovers to chocolate avoiders to I-only-like-milk-chocolate eaters. I think Elyce is on to something here because the responses were incredible. People were curious, and because the chocolate didn’t look precious, the hesitant ones were more apt to try something — and love it. Even people who thought they wouldn’t like dark chocolate or chocolate with alcohol in it were enjoying those very Boo Boos.

Boo Boos may have started as a way for Elyce not to waste finished but imperfect chocolates, but I think they could be the gateway to more people appreciating artisan chocolate.

CocoTutti products are available online and at special events (check their website for upcoming events they will be at). And CocoQuintets are available in some local stores; check their website for info.

Goody, goody

Our newest recommended chocolatier, Fera’wyn’s Artisan Chocolates 4-cup chocolatier, seemed to be exploring 2 different themes with their new products: healthy chocolate and nostalgia.

Joanna & David Whittingham, the husband & wife chocolatiers, make beautiful and cute chocolates with interesting flavor profiles. They always seem to have something new to try, while maintaining a long line of popular chocolates. That can make it hard to choose what to buy from Fera’wyn — trust me, unless you hate a particular food, you will like whatever you try at their booth and want to take it home with you.

Fera’wyn’s Turtles
Are Fera’wyn’s Turtles too pretty to eat?

To eat, or not to eat

In fact, as Joanna told us, some people love one of their products so much, they buy it with no intention of eating it: “Our turtles are freakishly popular,” she told us. “People buy them, but refuse to eat them because they think they are too pretty to eat. One woman bought them for her turtle: not for it to eat but to set around its cage as decoration.”

I find that funny, because while I think they are cute, I prefer to eat them than look at them. They are a more refined version of traditional turtle candies with caramel encased in a molded chocolate turtle sitting on top of a pecan half.

They come in dark or milk versions, and the milk chocolate turtles have a touch of ghost pepper salt: “Not to make it spicy,” Joanna said, “But to give it a savory aspect.”

I am not sure I believe the people who say they buy them for looks only. The turtles never last long at our house: good chocolate, chewy caramel, and a big pecan piece makes for a satisfying blend of textures and flavors, and a taste of nostalgia too.

Silky smooth

The new product at the Salon that also tasted of nostalgia was Fera’wyn’s Peanut Butter Silk. Joanna described it as “a really soft meltaway; it just dissolves in your mouth.”

The silks are not truffles; there’s no shell and they are not as firm as plain ganache. Joanna said they were fairly new; Fera’wyn’s has been selling them for less than a year.

“We also make a mint dark chocolate silk and a Kirsch dark chocolate silk,” Joanna said. “But I love milk chocolate and peanut butter together.”

Me too, so I was glad the Peanut Silk debuted at the Salon. They were super cute: little golden-brown owls and flowers, and each pack had a different assortment of shapes to choose from — another perk of buying artisan chocolates.

Fera’wyn’s Peanut Butter Silks
Fera’wyn’s co-owner Joanna Whittingham
Fera’wyn’s co-owner Joanna Whittingham passing out samples of the many joys that are Fera’wyn’s Artisan Chocolates

The silks were very smooth and peanut buttery, with a little salt lift at the end. Our tasters described them as “spot-on,” and loved them so much one of us was caught licking the wrapper.

We refrigerated the rest of the pack because they are so soft, we thought they might melt before we finished them. When we tried them again, we discovered that they are good cold — not as melt-y as at room temp, but we preferred that (not as messy); they even had a little snap.

Dark, red treats

The other new product was a Zinfandel truffle. It’s dairy-free/vegan: a dark chocolate made with coconut milk. Joanna told us they made it as a special request initially; then they decided to sell it. The ganache contains a reduction of the wine (Silverado Vineyards 2013 Zinfandel Soda Creek), in which “the Zin is reduced so much,” she said, “that it’s very tart – like a single-origin red fruit bar.”

We found that to be accurate: The first taste is tart, then a strong wine flavor, and it ends with dark chocolate. But note that it’s best on its own: When I tried a piece while drinking red wine, I couldn’t taste the Zin anymore; it was just a dark chocolate. (Learn from my mistakes.)

Fera’wyn’s Artisan Chocolates are available online and at special events. Check their website for the latest info.

The darker, the better

Basel B single truffle
Basel B’s big, bling-y bonbon

Another truffle maker with a healthy chocolate angle is Basel B Inc., maker of the most bling-y chocolates I’ve ever seen. He uses an 85% chocolate for his truffles, which means more of the health benefits of dark chocolate — if your heart doesn’t stop from the price tag of $10 for a single piece.

Basel told us the price increase is based on the actual costs of making his substantial chocolates, which first caught our eye at last Fall’s Holiday Chocolate Salon. The line, called “Darkness,” are the biggest truffles I’ve ever seen: over 1″ tall and wide with thick shells. That’s a lot of chocolate. Definitely not something you just pop in your mouth.

He explained to us that these big truffles are meant for pairing with wine and savored over time like a glass of wine. He also offers smaller blocky pyramid ones that are more about the fillings.

Basel B bites
While not as fancy as Basel B’s big truffles, I prefer these small blocks which show off Basel’s unique fillings more

Those are the ones I prefer because while I’m not a fan of the 85% shells (too bitter, thick and hard for me), Basel B Inc. has some tasty unique fillings. “They are all my original recipes,” Basel told us. “I’m working on the next line now and will have it hopefully in the next year. There will be more exotic fruits and layered fillings.”

More, more, more

He is also adding more flavors to his less-expensive line of marshmallow pops, and he told us that he is talking with investors now to get money to open a store in the area. This would be great because now you can only get his chocolates online or at events like the Salon. And since his chocolates look like beautiful jewels, it just makes sense that you could buy them at a retail establishment.

I also hope that with his own space, he would add lighter chocolates to his line. To me, the Darkness shells overpowers most of his fillings. The fruit fillings are a good example. I want to scoop them out of the shells and eat them alone. In combination with the thick dark shells, the more subtle flavors get lost.

Basel B pumpkin pop
Basel B’s Pumpkin Spice Marshmallow pop emulates the trendy ombré fashion look

I’d love to try the Mint Lemonade in a 72% shell. It’s like a mojito but with lemon instead of lime, so it’s a refreshing mint with a tart lemon aftertaste. I think a thinner shell of milder chocolate would balance with the tart flavor better. Same goes for the orange liquid caramel, blueberry, champagne & raspberry, and cherry & pecan: the fillings are the attraction and should be showcased.

The one chocolate we thought worked as an 85% was the Turkish coffee. It had a good strong coffee flavor that we thought was a good profile match for the darker chocolate.

Fun pops

Basel B’s marshmallow line is currently 3 flavors. We tried the Black Cherry and Green Apple & Caramel at the Fall Salon, so we got the Pumpkin Spice Marshmallow this time. They are large squares covered in white chocolate and dipped in orange-colored chocolate and dark chocolate to make a pretty ombré-esque striping.

As expected, it tasted like pumpkin pie, but unexpectedly with a texture similar to pumpkin pie. While a little too sweet for us older CBTB-ers, our young taster said he would treat himself to these once in a while. The only thing that would make him hesitate was the $7 price tag.

Basel told us that he is selling his Darkness line at wine events now, including the Pinot Days San Francisco event, June 3, at Westfield Shopping Centre, 835 Market St., SF. Basel B Inc. chocolates are available at the Velvet Raven café and at special events.

Coracao guys
Daniel & Sean with Coracao’s line of healthy bars

Healthy makeovers

Another chocolate company that uses high percentage chocolate for their goods is new-to-us Oakland-based confectioners, Coracao Confections, who have been making their “healthy takes on classic flavors” bars for about 8 years.

Everything they make is dairy-free, unroasted, organic, vegan, paleo friendly, with no soya lecithin, gluten, cane sugar, or GMOs. Whew! I think they have every healthy angle covered, including using 81% cacao dark chocolate.

We talked to Daniel Korson, one of the 3 founders, who explained that they use coconut sugar as the main sweetener in the bars, which gives them a caramel flavor. He also told us that the unroasted cacao in the bars gives them a different flavor profile than other chocolates.

We found this to be true; these bars don’t taste like other chocolates. I think if you are looking for a healthy alternative to traditional bars, these could work for you; but don’t expect them to taste like the originals.

Coracao bars
Coracao bars could replace your childhood favs

Healthy compromises

For example, Daniel told us that the Berkeley Bar is their version of Snickers. Berkeley Bars come 2 to a pack and are cute, chubby little bars with a good chocolate smell out of the box. But the taste and textures are different from the standard Snickers bar. The nuts are chopped more finely, and it’s missing the gooey caramel of a Snickers bar. We could tell that they are using good ingredients, but for us it’s almost there but not quite.

The Mint Fudge bar, we think, is their take on peppermint patties. The bar had a good mint chocolate smell, but it was too minty for us to eat. Maybe the bar mellows over time, and we just got a too-fresh bar, but we found the mint overpowering.

I think the stoneground Almond Butter bar is their answer to peanut butter cups, but hey, peanut butter is one of my top 3 foods, so I say no way, make a peanut butter bar. It should  also be noted that we found the almond flavor to be more of a sweet cooked almond flavor than the flavor of almond butter from a jar.

The most unusual bar, however, was the Caramel bar. The chocolate was grainy, as is often the case with unroasted chocolate, but the texture of the caramel was what was so unexpected: It had an almost marshmallow texture. One of our tasters dubbed it “Easter on the Beach.” If the chocolate was smoother, I could see enjoying this bar for that aerated caramel.

Coracao bars are available online, and at some local farmers markets and stores like Rainbow Grocery in SF. Check their website for more locations.

Live A Lot’s Giovanna
Live A Lot’s Giovanna Garcia and her healthy squares

Chocolate as food

Of course chocolate is a food, but when someone uses that phrase in their marketing, I think ‘chocolate as punishment.’ I fear it will be too grainy and raw tasting, with weird flavors coming from the healthy additives.

New chocolatier, Live a Lot, has only been in business since last June, so I am willing to cut them some slack for using that phrase. The sister team of Giovanna & Regina Garcia make “chocolate with a purpose,” according to co-founder & chocolate alchemist Giovanna, meaning chocolate with added superfoods to enhance health and well-being.

They use raw cacao sweetened with coconut palm sugar and powered with healthy additives like goji berries. Everything is gluten free, dairy free, refined sugar free, soy free, vegan, fair trade, and organic.

Giovanna told us their chocolate is sourced from Ecuador, and they stone grind it in Santa Cruz. She also pointed out that it is not totally raw; it’s unroasted, but fermented.

Meant to make you feel good

Their line of “Intentional Chocolate” is 3 bars with different superfood combinations. “Each variety tastes different,” Giovanna said, “But the effect is the main intention.”

Live A Lot chocolate
Live A Lot adds different superfoods to unroasted chocolate to achieve different effects

For example, “Revive” is intended to boost energy with its superfood additions of matcha, ginger and mucuna. To me, it tasted initially like chocolate frosting, but it ended tasting raw. One of our tasters said it was all on the upper end of the flavor register. He thought it needed some dark flavors to create richness.

“Ignite” is intended to enhance joy with goji, schizandra and cardamom. This one was richer tasting than “Revive,” and kind of peppery; but I just don’t like goji berry, so no go for me on this one.

“Unwind” is intended to reduce stress with medicinal mushrooms and mesquite. It did have an earthy taste to it with notes of wood, dirt, and mushroom – but not in an unpleasant way.

We didn’t notice any change to our well being after trying Live a Lot chocolate, but we probably had too small a sample to feel any effects. I’m not sure what the dose should be; each 2″-square bar is divided into 4 smaller squares, so they are easy to break into smaller pieces to enjoy, which is what we did to sample.

Live A Lot sticker
Live A Lot sticker

Inspiring chocolate

Live a Lot Chocolate has a good chocolate smell, but it does have that grainy, raw chocolate texture that I’m not down with; and the pieces melted a little in our hands before we ate them.

One of our tasters, who shares my dislike of raw chocolate, said, “I liked it more than I feared,” right before discovering a “Love Over Fear” sticker inside the box.

Live a Lot Chocolate is sold online, plus at events, some SFBA stores and yoga studios. Check their website and Facebook page for more info.

Traditional medicine in traditional chocolate

Socola Green Tea Bar
Socola’s Matcha Green Tea Bar is their take on matcha cookies

Salon veteran, Socola Chocolatier,3-5 cup chocolatier was also emphasizing health, but in their own unique way with their TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) chocolate collection. This set of 4 dark chocolate truffles features Chinese medicine botanicals representing the 4 seasons and are way tastier than any TCM I’ve ever had before.

Green is good

Because I had recently tried the  Socola TCM Collection, I instead opted to try their new green tea bar. Wendy Lieu, Socola’s co-founder and head chocolatier, told us it’s a white chocolate bar, flavored with matcha green tea (which is full of health benefits), and packed with crunchy feuilletine crumbs (I doubt anything that tastes like an ice cream sugar cone has any health benefits to tout). She said she was going for a matcha green tea cookie experience in a bar.

Socola’s booth had something for everyone — even these Sockolas if you weren’t in the mood for chocolate

I like the look of it: It’s a big, light green bar made in a custom Socola mold featuring their mascot, Harriet, the flying alpaca. It’s enjoyably crunchy, the first taste is white chocolate, followed by matcha; the sugar-cone flavor of the feuilletine crumbs comes last. I think it would make a good gift for your white-chocolate-loving friends.

Chocolate fashion

Socola had a packed booth with something Socola for everyone: In addition to the new TCM collection and green tea bar, they were also selling their Tea, Signature, SF, and Catalyst Collections, plus bars, barks, truffles, pate de fruits (lychee or mango passion), Easter candies, T-shirts, and socks(!). I bought myself a Socola T decorated in flying Harriets and other Socola hieroglyphics.

You can find most of Socola’s offerings online, but for the full line including non-edibles and limited editions, you need to find them at events or, better yet, visit Socola Chocolatier + Barista on Folsom in SF.

Goldilocks bonbons

Melissa Santos of Cadence Chocolates
Melissa Santos of Cadence Chocolates discussing her approach to chocolate

Melissa Santos of Cadence Chocolates has been selling her hand-painted truffles for a couple of years now, but this was the first time we’ve seen her at a Salon. Based in SF, she uses fair trade, GMO-free Guittard chocolate and some organic ingredients for her bonbons. And like the other traditional chocolate artisans at the Salon, she makes some vegan flavors.

Intriguing flavors

Cadence has a wide range of chocolates from the simple (61% dark chocolate) to the complex and unusual (Cracker Jack white chocolate, Tequila Jalapeño, Fernet & Coffee). Since Cacaopod & I were judges at the Salon, she gave us a box of 4 judging samples (all vegan), but we thought they were too tiny to get a good feel for her bonbons. We bought a box of her full-size bonbons to get a better idea and shared them with our tasters. The chocolates are very pretty, and they had a good chocolate smell, but the flavors ranged from too subtle to too strong.

Cadence Chocolates
Cadence Chocolates are a pretty package

For example, the Thai Tea and Hibiscus Rose bonbons were too subtle and mostly tasted like chocolate. The Hibiscus Rose was slightly tangy (which we attribute to the hibiscus) and ended with a raspberry note. We didn’t taste rose at all.

On the other end of the scale were the Cinnamon Milk Chocolate and Olive Oil bonbons. The Cinnamon Milk Chocolate smelled like cinnamon, but the taste was too strong, and got stronger as we ate it. One of our tasters said it was like eating a cinnamon stick. Similarly, the Olive Oil was too much, instead of a light taste and slippery feel, it seemed like the olive oil was just poured in. Too much of a good thing both times.

I was hoping I’d like them more because I generally love olive oil chocolates and I was intrigued by Cadence’s darker milk chocolate. Melissa said that her milk chocolate is “actually 2/3 milk and 1/3 dark.”

Not too strong, not too subtle

Cadence’s Negroni bonbon, however, was just right. Based on the cocktail, it had an alcohol smell, and tasted very boozy. It’s got gin, Campari, and vermouth, tweaked with juniper berries. Adding chocolate to that cocktail is genius. It was the best bonbon in the box.

We also liked the Sunflower Seed Butter, which stood out with a strong sunflower seed flavor, and a texture that was not too grainy.

You can’t find Cadence Chocolates in stores yet. Melissa told us she is mainly doing events and selling her chocolates in the DeYoung Museum during the holidays. You can also buy them online.

Better than Snickers

Another young chocolate company, Rainy Day Chocolate, seemed almost like healthy chocolate slackers: They make mostly dark chocolate truffles and use some organic ingredients, but their focus is not really on the healthy aspects of chocolate so much as handcrafting single-origin truffles and developing their own unique flavored truffles.

Jennifer from Rainy Day Chocolates
Jennifer Daly was happy & busy handing out Rainy Day Chocolates samples at the Salon

I say, give ’em a few years; they’re still young. I predict that they too will be offering vegan, botanical-enhanced, non-something chocolates at a future Salon.

For now though, co-owner Jennifer Daly is just super-happy to be working on something she loves. She showed us how much has changed since we met her at the Fall Salon. “Our packaging is better,” she said. “And we have new designs on truffles. It’s amazing compared to where we were a year ago.”

She said they are also developing their own events. “We had our first chocolate night recently, with some chocolate history and tasting,” she said. “You get to really taste and get to know where the chocolate comes from.”

She’s still excited by this approach to chocolate, since she doesn’t come from a craft chocolate background, and as she says, “I loved my Snickers.”

Rainy Day Zebra
Rainy Day’s Zebra truffle is aptly named

New flavors, local sources

Right now, she is working on new flavors to fill out their line. At the Salon, she had their fanciest truffle, the Zebra, which is a 69% Belgian dark chocolate ganache, covered in white chocolate, then dark and finally drizzled with white. She also had their new Toffee and Hazelnut, which feature Heavenly Taste Toffee and Firefly Chocolate’s Jar of Joy dark chocolate hazelnut spread, both local suppliers. And she said that she has a Minted Raspberry coming soon.

I find Rainy Day Belgian truffles very fudge-y tasting, but what I’m really interested in is their single-origin truffles: How will the unique flavors that come from different terroir taste in a truffle?

Unfortunately, there were no single-origin truffles this time. Jennifer told us that they had some difficulty getting single-origin chocolate in time for this Salon, so she only had their Belgian couverture truffles this time. She said they were considering expanding to local chocolate suppliers for single-origin chocolate, which makes sense since they try to source their other ingredients locally too.

Rainy Day Chocolate is available online, at events and in various stores and eateries in Santa Rosa and the North Bay. Check their website for locations.

Do you miss Scharffen Berger?

We do. Scharffen Berger is close to our hearts at CBTB, because we first formulated this blog over hot chocolate at their cafe when they were still in Berkeley making their chocolate next door (and had the best-smelling bathroom in the world as a result). While the Scharffen Berger label still exists, it has lost some of its appeal since it was bought out by Hershey’s and left town.

But now we have a new incarnation thanks to Rachel Dunn Chocolates. They debuted a bean-to-bar line at the Salon that Rachel’s husband, Michael Dunn, developed and that they have been making for a year now with some Scharffen Berger expertise.

Michael Dunn bean to bar line
The new Michael Dunn bean-to-bar line is your Scharffen Berger replacement

The seven bars in the line all require different roasting temps and times, and the people roasting Michael Dunn cacao beans are from Scharffen Berger. And that’s not the only thing old school about these bars: Their melanger is from Venezuela and date  from 1901. They are proud to be making chocolate the old fashioned way, and doing it all themselves.

Rachel Dunn
Rachel Dunn, longtime chocolatier and fellow chocolate crusader

Michael wasn’t at the Salon, but long-time chocolatier Rachel was, and we got to chat with her about the new line and the rest of the Rachel Dunn Chocolate Experience. While they offer a wide range of chocolates, candy, and chocolate-covered items for sale, Rachel Dunn Chocolates are probably best known in SFBA for their chocolate-making classes.

“The classes are very hands-on; you can ask questions and do the recipes,” Rachel explained, “I have 35 years of doing it; so we offer classes, where you can go home afterwards and duplicate the recipes.”

She saw a need for this kind of class because so many people wanted to know how to make chocolates, and “where do you go for real information?”

So Rachel’s a bit of a crusader for chocolate (maybe she could write a chocolate blog?) and believes in empowering people with the knowledge and experience to make their own. At the same time, she and her company keep moving ahead as this new bean-to-bar line shows.

No balancing act

The seven bars in the line are all single origin from different places. I think single-origin bars are really tricky. A blended bar has a consistent flavor profile because the chocolate maker can balance the bitterness of one bean with the fruitiness of another, etc. But bars made from a single type of bean can taste quite different, depending on the weather and soil where it grew.

This is their attraction, but also their danger: Bad weather, pests, pollution, and other agricultural problems more greatly affect single-origin chocolate. I have tasted some weird single-origin chocolate.

So I approached these bars with some trepidation, and asking Rachel which was her favorite — so I could figure out where to start — was no help: “My favorite flavor all depends on my mood,” she said.

But she told us that they did blind tastings with 1,000 people of the bars. Rachel told us they did each tasting as a hot drink and a bar because the flavor experience is different for both. And they provided no packaging or information about the chocolate to prevent any bias in the outcome.

“The 58% Koko Kamili Tanzania was the hands-down favorite,” Rachel said. “In both the hot and room-temp versions. It was almost unanimous feedback. People might say they like dark, but most really prefer milk.”

Singular success

We got several of the bars to compare, including the Koko Kamili, and I am happy to report that I think the Michael Dunn single-origin bars are successful. The modest packaging clearly displays the origin info and gives you a good look at the bar itself through clear cellophane. The bars are molded in a series of tabs, which I liked: They were easy to break into uniform pieces.

At the same time, these bars don’t appear to be machine manufactured; there was an inconsistent thickness between bars, and some bars had a little curve to them. But these were small inconsistencies, and I liked them — they seemed natural and handmade, kind of like the variations you get when you buy lumber.

We started with the 58% Maya Mountain Belize. We liked its fruity, natural sweetness. It was not overpowering; it was pretty satisfying.

The 58% Kokoa Kamili Tanzania was a very different bar with a stronger fermented taste. It was more tangy/sour with a tropical fruit flavor. The sour flavor came on quickly, but it got better as it melted. We liked its complex flavor.

The 70% La Victoria Estate Ecuador was a pleasant bar with lots of different notes as it melted: raisiny, citrus-y, vanilla-y, and slightly roasted.

Looking to try single-origin bars?

If so, Michael Dunn single-origin bars would work. They are not elitist; they are very accessible, very Scharffen Berger. These are not difficult bars to like. They have a nice consistency, the flavors we tried were all tasty, and they are a good value: $6.95 for a 2-oz. bar. These were one of my happy finds at the Salon.

Yellow Rose of Texas

We were happy to see one of our fav toffee makers at the Salon. Cowboy Toffee Company is planning to move out of SFBA and settle in Texas, and I worry that means we will see less of them, their good humor and their amazing toffee.

Cowboy Toffee boxes
Cowboy Toffee Company won’t have to change much in their branding when they move to Texas

Toffee maker Dan McGinnis, AKA Garth Pitt as his wife & partner Samantha calls him, told us that they were in serious negotiations for a space in Cisco, Texas. “It’s a cool town with a nice history,” Dan explained. “A guy who lived in New York City moved there. He wanted to buy a bank but couldn’t; so he bought a hotel. His name was Hilton.”

Maybe Cowboy Toffee will find a similar opportunity for fame and fortune there.

If negotiations go well, they could be moved as early as June. I’m sure they will do well there — they certainly won’t have to change their name or branding. They have promised that they will still do some events in SFBA. I hope so, and I recommend that if you do see them at events, try some of their unique toffees.

A flower grows in Texas

They debuted a new toffee at the Salon. Texas Rose is a dark chocolate toffee with rose petals, bee pollen, and Fiori Di Sicilia Vanilla, which Dan described as a little tart because the vanilla has bergamot (the citrus fruit that flavors Earl Grey tea) in it.

It’s sweet and chewy; the citrus notes stand out, while the rose flavor is more subtle. I suspect that’s due to using rose petals instead of rose extract, so it’s a good choice if you don’t like strong flowery flavors. This is a very pretty toffee scattered with dried rose petals and bee pollen, and the bergamot is a good match with the dark chocolate toffee.

Texas Rose Toffee
Dried rose petals and bee pollen sprinkled on Cowboy Toffee’s Texas Rose Toffee make an attractive topping

Wide-open range of toffee

Cowboy Toffee also had the rest of their line which includes something for everyone, and which we arranged as a toffee flight for tasting from white chocolate to dark & spicy.

Trigger is their white chocolate toffee, which had a rich flavor for a white chocolate. In fact, we were surprised by how well it worked with the toffee. This was the sweetest toffee in the flight, but not overly sweet like I expected it to be.

S’mores is a milk chocolate toffee. It’s sprinkled with graham crackers and toasted marshmallows. We especially like the chewy, long lasting marshmallows on this one.

Chuck Wagon is my favorite: A milk chocolate toffee sprinkled with coffee grounds and smoked sea salt. Nice layered flavors start with coffee, then sweet toffee, then salt and smoke until the end. Just be advised that you will probably end up with some coffee grounds in your teeth afterwards — just like real cowboy coffee!

Mustang is their classic toffee. It’s the right texture, with a good balance between the semisweet chocolate, sweet toffee, and crunchy almonds. As one of our tasters said, “These guys know their toffee.”

Finally, Ghost Town is their surprise toffee. It’s a dark chocolate toffee with almond, ghost peppers and salt. It is hot and salty, but it’s sneaky: It slowly reveals itself as you eat it. The heat is not overdone, but it finishes strong and lingers.

No matter where they land, Cowboy Toffee will still have their online store, and should also be at some SFBA events. Check their website for more info.

New kid on the block

Tombo Toffee Lisa Grantham
Lisa Grantham adds unexpected flavors to traditional toffee to make her Tombo Toffee

Oakland-based Tombo Toffee was new to the Salon this year. They use unexpected flavors (rosemary? lavender?) in seemingly traditional toffee and put it in a simply elegant bag that understatedly screams “special gift just for you!”

We talked to Tombo founder and candy maker, Lisa Grantham, about her “traditional candy with a modern twist.”

Lisa told us that she was inspired by flavored chocolates, and that her toffee ideas “come from my own creative cooking philosophy: What’s the worst that can happen?”

Rosemary was the first flavored toffee she made. “I love making Marcona Almonds with rosemary and sea salt, and I love chocolate covered almonds,” she explained. “So if almonds and rosemary go together, and chocolate and almonds go together; why not try combining them?”

That served as inspiration for the company, which has been in business 1-1/2 years. They primarily sell online and at a few local outlets, but Lisa is looking to branch out. “The Salon is our first real event,” she told us. “We’ll see how it goes to determine if doing more events makes sense, but based on everything so far, I’m almost certain that we will.”

Understatedly unconventional

She didn’t have the Rosemary toffee at the Salon, but she did have 2 other flavors we wanted to try: Orange and Peppermint. “Orange is our newest flavor,” Lisa said. “We’re just introducing it this morning. Orange and chocolate is such a classic combination, we couldn’t resist putting our twist on it through our toffee.”

We liked it. Tombo Toffee is thicker, more conventional looking toffee, and this one had a nice subtle orange flavor, with an added surprise of salt.

We also liked the Peppermint: It’s a nice toffee, with a crisp texture; and the peppermint flavor was very subtle. We were concerned about mint in toffee — but it was refreshing, it didn’t scream peppermint.

Tombo Toffee packaging
Tombo Toffee had the most appealing packaging at the Salon

What’s in a name?

Lisa also gave us some background on the company name and branding. A friend designed the distinctive packaging, and “my son came up with the name because it’s fun to say,” she said. “In fact, ‘Tombo’ means dragonfly in Japanese. Apparently, Samurai would draw dragonflies on their quivers before going into battle in hopes their arrows would also fly straight and fast.”

So the logo is a dragonfly, but there’s more: “My son’s name is Fletcher, which means arrow maker,” Lisa said. “The small, crossed arrows on the packaging are in reference to him.”

Sounds like Tombo was just meant to be.

Kindred Jeri
Jeri of Kindred Cooks keeps coming up with fresh new flavors while keeping up the quality of their caramels

Kinda, sorta chocolate

Local candymaker, Kindred Cooks Caramels, is a Chocolate Salon regular, even though their main product is not chocolate at all. They make soft caramels in a wide range of flavors. They had 2 new flavors at the Salon, one of them with chocolate in it.

A lasting passion

The Mango Passion Caramels are made with mango and passion fruit extracts, and the tropical fruit flavors hit you as soon as you eat a piece. I am often disappointed in passion fruit chocolates because the flavor fades quickly. It seems like if I don’t eat it right away, it just tastes like chocolate.

These caramels don’t seem to suffer this problem. They tasted just as fresh & fruity weeks later as they did at the show.

Kindred Cook Caramels
New flavor alert

Chocolate update

The other new flavor, Almond Caramel with Chocolate and Toasted Coconut, surprised me because the almond flavor was sweet almond, like marzipan, instead of the roasted almond I expected. It was the predominant flavor in a lovely soft chewy caramel, with bits of toasted coconut and a dash of good chocolate.

There were differing amounts of chocolate in each piece, a definite sign of handmade goods, so Jeri Vasquez, Kindred Cooks’ founder, made sure to give me a piece with a lot of chocolate in it.

Jeri told us that the Salon was the first-time launch for these flavors. If they prove popular, we should see them at future Salons and other events.

Kindred Cooks Caramels are available online and in some Peninsula and South Bay locations like Draeger’s. They are often at special events like the Chocolate Salons and San Jose Made.

More good-for-you chocolate than is probably good for you

As always, the International Chocolate Salon did not disappoint. And as usual, there were more chocolatiers and candy makers than I could visit, talk with, and sample their wares — even though I focus on local businesses. So while the jury might still be out on how healthy chocolate can be for you, at least the local chocolate industry looks healthy from here.

11th Annual International Chocolate Salon award-winning SFBA chocolatiers & candy makers

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Published May 3, 2017