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

3 peppermint bars

Good news galore @ the Holiday Chocolate Salon

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Lots of refreshing & uplifting news in our little corner of the chocolate world

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Three of us CBTB chocolateers attended the 2022 Fall Holiday Chocolate Salon, sponsored by TasteTV in November. It was a bustling event with 13 SFBA chocolate vendors interspersed among the booths. We weren’t able to visit them all, but the ones we did had lots of good stuff to sell & tell.

SFBA chocolate vendors at the show

Since I have a lot to share (as always), you can use this list to skip to your SFBA favs:

Rainy Day Chocolate

The first SFBA vendor we visited was one I had worried about during COVID. Rainy Day Chocolate had been exceptionally quiet with a dormant website and few events scheduled since the pandemic shutdown. So I was very happy to see them at the Salon with their bars, toffee, and bark.

Chris and his helpers
Chris and his helpers at the Rainy Day booth

We first met Rainy Day Chocolate at one of the Chocolate Salons, and the last time was at the Farmers Market in Petaluma, but that was all before COVID. They had seemed to be doing fine — developing new products regularly and improving their chocolate making skills — so I was surprised when they went stealth mode. A lot of times that is a harbinger of bad news.

Instead Jennifer & Chris Sund were both there along with their family and announced that they had just signed the papers for their first brick and mortar space in Forestville! Opening in Spring 2023, you can follow the developments on their Facebook page.

“We will be the first bean to bar maker in Sonoma County with their own storefront,” Chris said. Plus he told me they will have seating with monthly/quarterly chocolate themed dinners. They plan to offer classes and tours eventually.

Turns out there was nothing to worry about. Rainy Day just took a break during COVID, Chris explained, and started ramping up again for the holidays while their new space in Forestville moves forward.

At the Salon they had their award winning toffees, a special holiday bark, and some dark Belgian chocolate bars. I focused on the toffee.

Rainy Day Dark English Toffee
Rainy Day Dark English Toffee pieces size comparison

I love their toffee: Big slabs of English toffee liberally sprinkled with toppings. Opening a bag of their toffee releases a strong chocolatey, nutty, buttery toffee smell. And the toffees taste great: whether you choose the dark chocolate toffee covered in almonds or the milk chocolate toffee covered in toasted coconut and macadamia nuts. They are both good crunchy toffees made with quality ingredients for a balanced taste experience.

The dark chocolate in the English Toffee with Toasted Almonds and Himalayan Pink Sea Salt is delicious and the almonds add a great crunchy nuttiness. Himalayan pink sea salt is used as a flavor enhancer — the toffee isn’t salty tasting.

Rainy Day Milk Chocolate English Toffee
Rainy Day Milk Chocolate English Toffee

Their English Toffee with Milk Chocolate, Macadamia Nuts, and Toasted Coconut is equally good. Great milk chocolate taste with a good toasted coconut flavor. The macadamia nuts make for a nutty flavor after the initial stronger coconut.

Rainy Day Chocolate won Gold for Best Milk Chocolates, Silver for Best Organic or Fair Trade Products, and Bronze for Best Comfort Chocolate or Snack Product.

Rainy Day Chocolate is available online, at special events, and soon in their own place up in Sonoma County.

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Socola Chocolatier

Around the corner from Rainy Day, Socola Chocolatier 3-5 cup chocolatier had beautiful new packaging for their bars and truffles on display. They also had a new tea collection and were handing out samples from their Little Saigon box of Vietnamese inspired flavors, but co-founder and head chocolatier Wendy Lieu was nowhere to be found.

Socola bar display
Socola’s new bar packaging display @ the Salon

Turns out Wendy was in SoCal for Thanksgiving with family, but she had been busy before the Salon getting ready. The booth was packed with truffle collections, the big beautiful bars, and other confections like almond dragées.

Cacaopod and I skipped the samples because we had gotten a Little Saigon box at the last Salon. Chocfull however was game to try them, and like us loved the flavors, especially the Lychee, while finding the Vietnamese Coffee strong.

Socola Tea Collection
Socola’s new Tea Collection in their new boxes

The new tea collection was a 4-piece box of Socola’s tea truffles. This makes an excellent gift for my fellow tea lovers with the floral jasmine, the citrusy Earl Grey, the spicy chai, and the slightly bitter matcha. A nice variety of tasty flavors in pretty, well made truffles presented in one of Socola’s new elegant boxes. It also comes in a 12-pack of 3 truffles of each flavor.

I got some of the big bars too. There weren’t any new flavors, but the new boxes are awesome. They are very attractive, an understated design printed in taste enticing colors and gold metallic print, with a big cutout window for bar viewing. Plus they solve the only problem I’ve ever had with Socola bars: The prior clear bags had no support for the big bars so they often broke before I could gift them. These sturdy boxes eliminate that flaw while still giving a good visual of what the bars look like.

Socola Tea Collection
Socola’s Toasted Nuts Dark Chocolate Bar

I’ve raved about Socola’s Crispity Matcha White Chocolate Bar enough and I covered the Toasted Coconut & Black Sesame Milk Chocolate Bar in the spring Salon article — honestly I’ve covered a lot of these bars before — so I’ll just point out one more thing if I haven’t convinced you yet to try Socola’s bars.

The bars hit you on multiple levels: visuals, taste, aroma (the Toasted Nuts Dark Chocolate Bar smells like Christmas to me, like the bowl of salted nuts my grandfather always had next to his chair while we opened presents), and surprises like the pop rocks in the Strawberry Cream Soda. They are more than chocolate bars, they are experiences.

I am hardly Socola’s lone cheerleader. They did exceptionally well in the competition winning Gold for Most Delicious Ingredient Combinations, Best Milk Chocolates, and Best Comfort Chocolate or Snack Product; Silver for Best Traditional Chocolates, Best Dark Chocolates, Best Caramels or Truffles, and Best in Salon; Bronze for Top Artisan Chocolatier and New Product Award; and Honorable Mentions for Best Chocolate Bar and Best Dark Chocolates.

Socola chocolates are available at their factory store, online, and at special events.

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flying noir

Next to Socola was another veteran Salon vendor, flying noir of Berkeley. Decked out in their signature berets, head chocolatier Karen Urbanek and her assistant were handing out samples from their 3 current collections: vegan, tea, and the grand collection, which was 16 pieces from Karen’s ongoing poetry & prose series. It included my fav piece, the little bears dusted with ghost pepper sea salt, so I had to get the whole pack.

flying noir booth
flying noir booth

Since we hit their booth early, Karen was still finishing wrapping the boxes, so I got to pick the hand painted wrapper for mine. They were all so pretty, it was hard for me to pick.

flying noir boxes make good gifts for the art & chocolate aficionados in your life. From the creative ingredient combinations in hand decorated bonbons to the black butterfly closure box wrapped with hand painted art paper and secured with a flying noir branded black rubber band, they are like edible mini art exhibits.

flying noir box
flying noir box

The box included some new —or at least new to me — pieces, along with a lot of pieces I remember from the spring poetry & prose collection, like the chililico which combines chilies, licorice and orange zest, and the hawaj 55, which is a solid piece flavored with espresso and Yemeni coffee spices.

I like the variety in flying noir collections. They usually contain booze, nuts, teas, fruits, spices, and a range of couvertures and single origin chocolate. Most pieces have a layered flavor profile — they start one way and end up somewhere else, or the flavors combine for a unique and hard to describe (for me anyway) experience.

flying noir quaire
flying noir quaire

And there are often exotic/rare ingredients. Like the quaire which was made with Germain Robin Apple Brandy which the description notes is no longer made. What a loss because it made the piece smell like apples and brandy while giving it a buzzy mouthfeel and a little apple cinnamon flavor. The chocolate used was a 49% dark milk which had a nice light chocolate flavor that played under the brandy.

flying noir rangpur
flying noir rangpur

For the rangpur, Karen made pâte de fruit from rangpur limes, which I hadn’t heard of before. She combined the pâte de fruit with a vegan ganache in a coconut milk chocolate shell and finished it off with a single salted Kampot peppercorn inside. It was mostly citrusy chocolate tasting until a small hit of salt toward the end and a warm pepper aftertaste/feel lingered. Cool experience.

flying noir pecananon
flying noir pecananon

The pecananon had more usual ingredients: chocolate, pecans, and bourbon, but Karen included a couple of twists to make it special. First the bourbon was a smoked salted bourbon praslin, so the piece smelled a little smoky. Then she pulverized the pecans so the piece had the crumbly texture of a pecan sandy cookie. The piece had a subtle gianduja flavor with a 55% bittersweet chocolate; the bourbon was an aftertaste that left me with a little numbing of the tongue. Another interesting experience.

flying noir little red bears
flying noir little red bears

Of course my favorite experience is those 2 little red bears. flying noir should offer those as a thing unto themselves. If you know someone who likes spicy chocolate, they are a fun version with the ghost chili salt giving a little burst of salty heat before the delicious dark chocolate melts and extinguishes the heat.

flying noir won Silver for Most Delicious Ingredient Combinations, Best Organic or Fair Trade Products, and New Product Award; Bronze for Best Milk Chocolates, Best Dark Chocolates, Best Caramels or Truffles, and Best in Salon; and an Honorable Mention for Top Artisan Chocolatier.

You can buy flying noir chocolates online and at special events. You can also schedule a pickup at their kitchen. Check their website for details.

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The Xocolate Bar

This was the first time I’d seen Berkeley’s The Xocolate Bar scheduled to be at a Salon, so they were one of the vendors on my must-see list. And the first thing I noticed was the beautiful new packaging for their bars.

The Xocolate Bar bar display
The Xocolate Bar bar display

Like Socola, The Xocolate Bar used to sell their bars in simple clear plastic sleeves. And now it seems they both decided to take better care of their bars with sturdy cardboard boxes — plus delight us with attractive packaging. Bonus here: Owner/Chocolatier Malena Lopez-Maggi told us she designed the packaging herself.

They had 13 different types of bars at the show, and each had its own full-color all-over illustration. These would make wonderful gifts. In fact while they also had their truffles and molded chocolates at the Salon, Malena told us that with the new packaging the bars are now their most popular item.

Malena told us that most flavors available year round. Some are seasonal, like the peppermint bark which is only available during the holidays. Malena said that was because it’s so hard to make — but so worth it, she added.

Sold. We got one of the peppermint bars along with a selection of their other bars to check out. We also got the idea to do a peppermint bar competition with a couple of other vendors’ bars — more on that later in this article.

The Xocolate Bar bar display
The Xocolate Bar bar display

One of The Xocolate Bar’s bars that I’ve gotten before and liked, the Cardamom Crunch, is a good example of their liberal inclusion style. The thick bar was covered in crunchy nibs.

I liked the nibs, and the cardamom was a good supporting flavor. I thought the chocolate had a good flavor although pretty bitter for a 70%. And with all those nibs this is not a melt in your mouth bar; you gotta chew. That’s not a criticism just an observation. There are times when you want a crunchy chocolate. I would like to try this bar with a mellower chocolate though.

Cinnamon Spice bar
Cinnamon Spice bar

I don’t know if The Xocolate Bar uses different couvertures for different dark chocolate bars but I thought the chocolate used in the Cinnamon Spice bar was better, not as bitter. It was another chewing chocolate due to the inclusion of candied orange peel and ginger. It was really interesting too that depending on what inclusions were in the piece or not in the piece I was eating, the experience ranged from a very chewy orange chocolate to chocolate covered candied ginger pieces to cinnamon flavored chocolate. This was probably my favorite bar.

Candied Orange bar
Candied Orange bar

The Candied Orange and Candied Ginger bars were surprisingly different to me than the Cinnamon Spice bar even though they shared ingredients. These bars were thicker and the inclusions were moister. They were messier, shattering when I would break a piece off. I liked the chewy not-too-spicy ginger bar better than the sticky orange bar.

Again I thought the orange bar needed a different chocolate. Also it might be better with the drier orange peel used in the Cinnamon Spice bar, and maybe both bars would work better as thinner bars.

Arroz Con Leche bar
Arroz con Leche bar

I liked the milk chocolate Arroz con Leche but I had hoped it would be more of a riff on Nestle Crunch bars — like a cinnamon Crunch bar. It had lots of tiny crispy rice bits in the milk chocolate, but it was a spicy bar first: cinnamon, cardamom, and nutmeg with cinnamon the most pronounced. And the chocolate was bolder tasting than a 40%.

That’s on me though. I wanted whole puffed rice in a milky chocolate with a little spice. This is more like a crispy chocolate version of rice pudding.

The Xocolate Bar received Silver for Best Organic or Fair Trade Products, Bronze for Best Chocolate Bar and New Product Award, and Honorable Mentions for Top Artisan Chocolatier and Best Traditional Chocolates.

The Xocolate Bar recently reopened their store for indoor shopping and special events like craft nights and hot chocolate nights. They are also currently running a GoFundMe campaign to renovate and re-equip the place, which after being heavily used for 15 years needs a revamp. If you can’t get to their store, you can buy The Xocolate Bar’s chocolates online and at special events.

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Michael’s Chocolates

By the time we got to the Michael’s Chocolates 3-5 cup chocolatier booth — with holiday decorations by Mom — there were only a few boxes left of their special Dandelion Chocolate collaboration, but there was plenty of other chocolatey goodness like their award winning Lemon Burst bonbons and the best chocolate almond bars I’ve ever had, so I didn’t feel guilty in the least scooping up one of the limited edition Spirits & Craft Collections.

Michael and crew at their booth
Michael and crew at their booth

Head chocolatier Michael Benner has been making chocolates for Dandelion’s Advent calendar for several years now — including this year which required 13,000 individually wrapped chocolates from Michael’s Chocolates alone. (Other SFBA chocolatiers who participated in this year’s calendar include Deux Cranes, Farm Chocolate, Feve Artisan Chocolatier, Kollar Chocolates, NeoCocoa, Socola Chocolatier, and Topogato.)

Spirits & Craft Collection box
Spirits & Craft Collection box

The Spirits & Craft Collection is Michael’s 2nd Dandelion collaboration, using Dandelion’s 70% Camino Verde couverture and 4 locally made spirits (from distillers in Alameda and Healdsburg). For this collaboration, Michael had to make only (!) 2500 units to be sold in Dandelion’s SF locations, a popup in LA, and their shops in Japan and Las Vegas.

Without a break, he said he had been preparing for the Salon and spent the last 3 days making 3000-4000 bonbons. His only complaint was that since he had to stoop over to pipe them, his back was killing him. As someone whose nickname at the gym is Complancy I was amazed at his fortitude.

The Spirits & Craft Collection collaboration extended to the understated, attractive packaging: Michael’s signature black quilted box was wrapped with a label done by Dandelion that looked similar to Dandelion bar labels The menu inside was also designed by Dandelion in the same style.

As a former sommelier and now master chocolatier, Michael is the perfect partner for this collaboration. I think he chose great spirits that paired well with the chocolate and other inclusions. The 4 pieces were distinctly different so the comparison to tasting a flight of spirits was apt.

Lost Republic Bourbon Caramel Pecan Bonbon
Lost Republic Bourbon Caramel Pecan Bonbon

I’ve had different iterations of the Bourbon Caramel Pecan Bonbon before. (Michael also makes a bar version.) This time inside the metallic brown dome there was a pecan praline layer topped with semi-liquid caramel infused with Lost Republic bourbon whisky. The caramel had a light bourbon smell, and the piece was smooth not too sweet or boozy with a nice bourbon flavor that lingered. The ground pecans gave it a small soft crunch. A touch of salt at the end was a nice surprise.

Old Potrero Rye Whiskey Truffle
Old Potrero Rye Whiskey Truffle

Old Potrero Rye Whiskey Truffle is a classic Michael’s piece. The enrobed ganache is a smooth, full bodied rye whisky truffle. It was much more assertive than the first piece and had a delicious balance of rye whiskey and dark chocolate. I don’t know if Michael always uses this chocolate for this piece but I thought they were a good match. This is one piece in the collection you can usually get year round.

St. George Framboise Bonbon
St. George Framboise Bonbon

The ganache inside the purple domed Framboise Bonbon smelled like raspberry. Made with raspberry liqueur from St. George Spirits it had an immediate burst of raspberry flavor. The smooth ganache melted quickly and spread the sweet not tart flavor. It wasn’t a boozy piece, no alcohol tingle, it was just flavorful. Like the liqueur was providing a concentrated raspberry experience in chocolate.

Wright & Brown Hazelnut Espresso Praline with Barrel-Aged Rum
Wright & Brown Hazelnut Espresso Praline with Barrel-Aged Rum

The last piece, Hazelnut Espresso Praline with Barrel-Aged Rum from Wright & Brown, was an elegant enrobed square decorated with a single line drawn across the top. Inside the bottom layer of ganache held the rum infusion. It smelled great and had a light vanilla rum flavor. On top of the ganache was a mostly smooth nutty praline, but the espresso and rum were the dominant flavors. Like the other pieces, it was distinctly flavored with spirits but not boozy, no buzz just good flavored chocolate.

Michael’s Chocolates did great in the competition, winning Gold for Best Traditional Chocolates, Best Milk Chocolates, Best Dark Chocolates, Best Caramels or Truffles, and Best in Salon; Silver for Top Artisan Chocolatier, Most Delicious Ingredient Combinations, and Best Comfort Chocolate or Snack Product; Bronze for New Product Award; and an Honorable Mention for Best Chocolate Bar.

You can buy Michael’s Chocolates at their factory store in Oakland, online, at some local shops, and at special events. Check their FB page for upcoming events.

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CocoTutti

It was nice to see Elyce Zahn, head chocolatier and owner of CocoTutti 3-5 cup chocolatier manning the booth again with her husband John. At the spring Salon John was solo so Elyce could attend another event. (Without a storefront, they do a lot of events.)

While they always do a brisk business at the Salons, Elyce had the good news that now you can find their CocoQuintet bars and other treats at more retail locations. She told us their wholesale side is blowing up; it went from 4 accounts to 40 in the past year. She attributed the expansion to John, but when asked, he told me, “It sells itself. I just show up.”

True to form, the booth was well stocked with all manner of bars, tablets, toffee, and bonbons. Plus CoCoBooBoos: the chocolates that they sell at a discount because they were maybe lacking in visuals but still tasty. And Elyce had several new/newish samples to try.

Elyce at the CocoTutti booth
Elyce at the CocoTutti booth

The tablets are the newest line of chocolate at CocoTutti, usually large flat bars with lots of fruit arranged on top. Elyce give us a sample of the Strawberry, Mango, and Pineapple white chocolate tablet. It had an intense strawberry aroma but a more intense pineapple flavor that blended with the strawberry and creamy white chocolate as it melted. CocoTutti uses a Valrhona white chocolate that is so good Cacapod teased Elyce that he’s mad at her for making him like white chocolate.

Strawberry, Mango, and Pineapple tablet
Strawberry, Mango, and Pineapple tablet

I liked the intensity of the freeze dried pineapple and strawberry slices, but for some reason the mango was not as strong. We got a bar and found it depended on what fruit was in each bite; while the mango was milder than the other fruits, it held its own on bites that were mostly mango. An excellent bar.

The second contender in our 2022 Peppermint Bar Challenge appeared when Elyce offered us a sample of her new Pepper(mint)! bar. While it starts with similar ingredients to The Xocolate Bar’s Peppermint Bark, it adds peppercorns — real pepper — to a flavor whose name has always perplexed me. Peppermint doesn’t taste peppery. Icemint would make more sense.

So will this combo be an interesting juxtaposition? Righting a wrong? Find out in the competition below.

HOT Chipotle Ganache CocoQuintet
“HOT” Chipotle Ganache CocoQuintet

We also got the “HOT” Chipotle Ganache CocoQuintet which smelled chocolatey as soon as we opened the wrapper, always a good start. The dark chocolate was immediately hot and built becoming a smoky hot. The heat lingered but was never uncomfortable. It felt nice on my throat. Elyce recommended pairing it with a merlot or cabernet, but I thought it would make a nice hot chocolate drink itself.

Other samples of new treats Elyce had at the booth included a dark chocolate lemon, vodka, and olive oil bonbon, an orange chocolate tablet, and a rocky road confection. The lemon/vodka/olive oil was one of CocoTutti’s mini filled chocolates with a white/dark shell and an almost liquid puréed texture filling. It tasted and felt like lemon meringue with a little bite combined with dark chocolate. A light lemon flavor lingered afterwards. A unique combo.

The 74% custom chocolate mix with candied orange peel was a deeply chocolatey couverture combined with a good bitter orange. The orange was candied, but definitely bitter. If you like traditional bitter marmalades, this is a good interpretation in chocolate.

CocoBooBoos
Sample CocoBooBoos pack (this one was Almond Butter Crunch bar pieces)

The Rocky Road with Caramel Potholes was a charmer with its marshmallow/dark chocolate combo, a splash of chewy caramel and a stray walnut or two. I liked that the marshmallows were soft but still tasted like marshmallows. As with so many CocoTutti treats, it had a good balance of quality ingredients. “That’s how you do a Rocky Road,” Cacapod remarked.

CocoTutti won Gold for Top Artisan Chocolatier and Best in Salon; Silver for Best Comfort Chocolate or Snack Product; Bronze for Most Delicious Ingredient Combinations, Best Traditional Chocolates, and New Product Award; and Honorable Mentions for Best Chocolate Bar, Best Dark Chocolates, and Best Caramels or Truffles.

You can buy CocoTutti chocolates online, locally in some stores (check the website), and at events around the area and beyond. You can pick up chocolate orders at their kitchen, and Elyce offers classes at the kitchen too. She’s had a variety of people take classes already. Seeing my non-cooking skepticism, she said most recently some Google techies came and were loving it. She promises it’ll be fun.

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Kokak Chocolates

This was the first Salon Kokak Chocolates has been at since they opened their own place in the Castro District, SF, so I was interested to see how they were doing.

Carol Garcia at Kokak’s booth
Carol Garcia at Kokak’s booth

Kokak’s founder and head chocolatier Carol Garcia and assistant had a packed table in front of them, both product wise and people wise. We had to wait a bit before we could maneuver to the front, but we saw she had her award winning Pistachio Rose Love bar, Nuts About Cherries bar, and Tropical Caramels Collection. Plus hand painted chocolate pumpkin lollies, a hot chocolate mix, the Sweet Sixteen truffle collection, and more at the far end of the table that I never got to.

So it looks like things are going great for Kokak. Carol said they were but it’s not easy. Their profit margin is slim because premium ingredients are important and prices keep going up. I did notice that prices at the Salon were generally up a little, but I appreciate the emphasis on quality that these local vendors have. I hope others do too.

Manabi Liquid Gold
Manabi Liquid Gold hot chocolate mix

Cacaopod and I were most curious about Kokak’s new product: Manabi Liquid Gold sipping chocolate. Carol told us it’s a single origin hot chocolate that uses rare Nacional cacao from Ecuador. She told us it was the first domesticated cacao grown in the world(!). It disappeared for a while, she said, but then 6 cacao trees were discovered in Ecuador and propagated, so it’s available again.

It’s a 64% cacao chocolate that you can mix with either water or milk (they also have a hot chocolate mix with powdered milk in it). It’s not a powder, but little chunks of chocolate. There were 2 recipes on the pack, classic hot chocolate and European sipping style, basically a 1:2 ratio of chocolate to liquid or a 1:1 ratio (but I could be wrong because the directions were printed in gold type that was sooo tiny). We tried both recipes with milk.

The classic version was a mild flavored hot chocolate but I thought it was too weak unless you were going to add other flavors to it. Like peppermint or hazelnut might do the trick.

The thicker European style was the way to go. It had more chocolate flavor and a better mouthfeel. The texture was very smooth — all those little chunks of chocolate melted easy in heated milk. And it coated my mouth with a nutty chocolatey taste that lingered. Excellent sipping chocolate. I will have to get another bag to try it with water because one bag basically makes only 4 espresso cups worth of sipping chocolate and we have experimented ourselves to the end of this one.

The other new-to-us Kokak offering we tried was the Sweet Sixteen collection, which as the name implies is a collection of 16 chocolates. They make more than 16 flavors, but the box we got seemed like a good representation of their flavors with some from each of their flavor categories: Classics, Vegan, Fruit & More, Coffee/Tea & More, Pies & More, Nuts, and Liqueur.

The set included both dark and milk shells, and dark or milk ganaches or caramel inside.

Peanut Marshmallow
Peanut Marshmallow

I had to try the Peanut Marshmallow first because 1) peanut flavor and 2) the puffy clouds on sky blue decal was super cute. Inside the thin dark chocolate shell was a thin layer of marshmallow foam over a milk chocolate ganache. It had a tiny crunch with an immediate peanut flavor then marshmallow added to it. Adding the good dark chocolate couverture, it made for a very tasty combo.

Earl Grey
Earl Grey

The Earl Grey was so pretty with its Japanese print wave closeup decal, so I had to try that next. It had a thick milk chocolate shell and a milk chocolate ganache that smelled like Earl Grey. It tasted mostly milk chocolate then citrusy Earl Grey. It was a good Earl Grey flavor, not perfumy but distinctly Earl Grey, and the flavor lingered afterwards. I liked the balance between the chocolate and the tea, and it made me wonder if the thick shell was a conscious decision to balance the Earl Grey.

Strawberry Pistachio
Strawberry Pistachio

Next we sampled the vegan Strawberry Pistachio because I love pistachio but have found it often doesn’t survive in chocolate so I’m always on the lookout for a successful inclusion of this distinct but mild nut. This was a dark chocolate shell with a layer of strawberry jam over a nut base inside that gave it a little crunch. The taste started with Kokak’s delicious dark chocolate then strawberry then pistachio, yea! I could actually taste pistachio and I liked that it was the last flavor to develop and the pistachio and chocolate flavors lingered.

Vanilla Bean Sea Salt Caramel
Vanilla Bean Sea Salt Caramel

From the Classics selection, which included single origin dark and milk chocolates, I liked Kokak’s take on salted caramel, the Vanilla Bean Sea Salt Caramel. It was a liquid caramel inside a thick dark chocolate shell. It had a more vanilla forward taste than a lot of vanilla caramels I’ve tried and was not salty.

I enjoyed this collection which also included flavors like Pumpkin Spice, Chai, Gianduja, and more exotic flavors like Mango Lemongrass and Kalamansi Almond Pie.  One of the important things about Kokak Chocolates is that they make most everything that goes into their chocolates themselves — like the vanilla used starts from vanilla pods they scrap themselves — and they use real ingredients — like their Banana Caramel uses real bananas mashed into the caramel, not banana extract.

Kokak Chocolate received Gold for New Product Award, Silver for Best Milk Chocolates and Best Organic or Fair Trade Products, and Honorable Mentions for Most Delicious Ingredient Combinations and Best Traditional Chocolates.

You can buy Kokak Chocolates at their Castro district store/café, online, and at special events.

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Kindred Caramels

After talking rising costs with Carol from Kokak, at the next booth I noticed they hadn’t raised their prices. When I mentioned it to Jeri Vasquez, Kindred Caramels owner and chief confectioner, she said they were able to keep costs the same as before because most of the cost in making caramels is the labor so the rising prices of ingredients hasn’t affected them as much. So in a time of rising costs being a more labor intensive business is the way to go, I guess.

Jeri at Kindred Caramels’ booth
Jeri at Kindred Caramels’ booth

Jeri had the full line of Kindred’s current caramel flavors at the Salon, but no new ones. She said she makes one new flavor a year usually and was already working on a new one for next year.

We sampled a few of her smooth buttery caramels, including the Espresso (nice coffee flavor and no bitterness), Coconut (so coconutty, really good for coconut lovers), and the Marshmallow and Chocolate (soft little marshmallows and semisweet chocolate chunks peeking out of a caramel wrapper — all it needs is some nuts and it’s a rocky road caramel).

I don’t know how she comes up with new flavors every year, but Jeri did encourage us to make caramel mashups — 2 or more flavored caramels eaten together. It works well because her caramels are smooth and aren’t coated so you can smush them together to the extent you want. For example, when she adds chocolate to her caramels, she puts the chocolate inside the caramel instead of coating the caramel with chocolate.

Kindred Caramels received Bronze for Best Milk Chocolates and Best Caramels or Truffles.

Kindred Caramels are available in stores around SFBA (check their website for locations), online, and at special events.

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Brigadeiro Sprinkles

Brigadeiro Sprinkles was party headquarters for me this year. I got one box of their creative not-too-sweet brigadeiros for a thank-you gift and their brigadeiro filled panettone for a birthday cake. And they had other party/gift appropriate items too, all incorporating brigadeiro paste. As owner/chef Zeila Schappelle has told us before, she is making her treats for the American palate, but “everything with a Brazilian twist.”

Zeila and her assistant at the Brigadeiro Sprinkles booth
Zeila and her assistant at the Brigadeiro Sprinkles booth show off their brigadeiro spread gift box

At the Salon, Zeila showed us her new treats like chocolate chip cookies filled with brigaderio paste, brigaderio spreads, Panettone with brigaderio paste inside, and snack cakes in a cup. She came up with the cookies because  “Americans love chocolate chip cookies so I put a Brazilian flair on it.” And the snack cake in a cup was her solution to “when you want to eat something sweet but not a whole cake.”

Chocolate Cake with Tres Leches Brigadeiro Filling
Chocolate Cake with Tres Leches Brigadeiro Filling

I don’t usually think baked goods at the Salon, but we did try the snack cake. It’s pretty ingenious: a chocolate cake layered with tres leches brigadeiro paste and raspberry jam, topped with crispy rice pearls and packed in a reclosable container. It was a moist chocolatey cake and the brigadeiro paste was like a cream cheese frosting. The raspberry was a delicious sweet/tart addition and the crunchy pearls added another texture layer. Having it in the clear tub was nice because you could see the layers plus it kept the cake fresh. It is a generous serving — it took Cacaopod and I several days to finish, so we appreciated that we could reseal it and pop it in the fridge. Excellent idea, well executed.

We also got the Chocolate Chip Panettone with Brigadeiro Filling. This was a full sized panettone, the dessert bread with dried fruits which Zeila gave her twist with chocolate chips and chocolate frosting and a lot of smooth chocolatey brigadeiro paste inside. Opening the package it smelled great and it made a perfect birthday cake for our friend who liked having a less sweet option instead of typical birthday cake. Plus the creamy brigaderio filling in traditional panetoni bread made it decadent enough for a celebration and kept the bread from becoming dried out so nobody had to resort to making toast out of it before it was all eaten.

Persimmon
Persimmon

Of course we could not leave without a box of brigadeiros. This time the flavors included some unique ones like Persimmon which had a crunchy sugar shell and a subtle persimmon flavor in white chocolate; Sweet Potato which had a marshmallow inside semisweet chocolate, a chewy texture, and good sweet potato flavor that lingered; and Pumpkin Coconut, which Zeila had told us before is a classic Brazilian combo.

Pumpkin Coconut
Pumpkin Coconut

The Pumpkin Coconut was a white chocolate brigadeiro covered in orange sprinkles with a whole clove as the pumpkin’s stem. So cute. It was made with pumpkin purée and coconut and smelled like pumpkin and spicy cloves. It had a chewy coconut texture plus a little crunch from the sugar crystals. It tasted mostly of clove at first, then pumpkin and coconut. It reminded me a little of pumpkin curry. It’s a good mix.

Gingerbread
Gingerbread

Another excellent white chocolate brigadeiro in this selection was the Gingerbread with its little piece of candied ginger on top. It was rolled in gingerbread crumbs? Cinnamon sugar? Dunno but the ingredients listed molasses, lemon, cinnamon, ginger, and cloves.

All I know is that it had a classic molasses and gingerbread spices taste with lots of clove. It was so gooood.

Brigadeiros fall 2022 selection
Brigadeiros fall 2022 selection

The rest of the brigadeiros in the box were also good, with new flavors like Green Apple, Baily’s, Champagne, Noir Orange, Bark (peppermint), and Hazelnut Praline in chocolates from white to 70% dark and even a ruby chocolate one (Passion Fruit). With a variety of exterior treatments from the traditional chocolate sprinkles to crispy pearls, cocoa powder, and nuts, it was a colorful appealing assortment.

Brigadeiro Sprinkles received Bronze for Best Dark Chocolates, Best Comfort Chocolate or Snack Product, and New Product Award.

You can buy Brigadeiro Sprinkles confections online and at special events.

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Charlotte Truffles

A final peppermint bar contestant appeared at Charlotte Truffles’ booth. But first I got distracted by their eye catching Advent calendar which had 25 bonbons hidden behind illustrations of Christmas ornaments. Perfect gift for patient chocolate lovers.

Charlotte and assistant at Charlotte Truffles booth
Charlotte and assistant at Charlotte Truffles booth with the Advent calendar and holiday bonbon collection

Charlotte really got into the Christmas spirit this time with the calendar, a holiday themed bonbon collection, molded chocolate Christmas ornaments filled with treats, molded Santas, and two peppermint treats: the bar and a hot chocolate stick. She also had bars and bonbons for custom 8–16 piece boxes they were assembling for Salon attendees. When I commented on her bountiful booth, she jokingly said, “Tis the season of no sleeping.”

In addition to the hot chocolate peppermint stick, Charlotte also had a “Kiss Me, I’m Irish” stick made with Bailey’s Irish Cream. She recommended using that one in coffee for an Irish coffee twist.

I could not pass up the holiday themed bonbon collection, it was so cute! 4 holiday themed flavors in shiny colored half domes of dark chocolate that were stamped with Christmas cookie images. The box wrapper was a more grown up, elegant snowy pines at nighttime image, so it made the opening a fun reveal.

Cranberry Orange
Cranberry Orange

The blue dome decorated with a white pine tree was Charlotte’s Cranberry Orange Truffle which had a cranberry pâte de fruit dollop in the orange flavored white chocolate ganache inside a thin dark chocolate shell. The immediate flavors were orange and dark chocolate. Cranberry started as a subtler note that became more pronounced as the chocolate melted away. The ganache was smooth and the pâte de fruit was not a firm jelly but more liquid so it didn’t require chewing for the flavor to release.

Peppermint
Peppermint

The gold snowflake decorated dark red dome was Peppermint and it did smell very peppermint-y. It had a dark chocolate shell and a dark chocolate peppermint cream filling. The peppermint tasted very refreshing and was a nice balance with the dark slightly bitter chocolate. Cacaopod called it a grown up peppermint treat.

Gingerbread
Gingerbread

The gingerbread man on the white painted dome was of course gingerbread flavored. Another dark chocolate shell and ganache, the ganache was loaded with spices and laid on top of a thin layer of gingerbread cookie. It started out spicy! with ginger and clove dominant then mellowed out to a more holiday spice mix taste. I was surprised the layer of cookie bits wasn’t crunchy, and it was missing a molasses flavor, so this was more of a spice cookie flavor than gingerbread to me.

Eggnog
Eggnog

The last piece, the white snowman on a caramel colored dome, was Eggnog. Inside the dark chocolate shell there were visible specks of nutmeg in the white chocolate ganache. It smelled like nutmeg and rum, and tasted first of rum then nutmeg then creamy chocolate. I loved the nutmeg and rum combo in this piece. The nutmeg was the strongest flavor but it had a nice cream under taste like a good eggnog. Excellent piece.

Charlotte Truffles received Bronze for Most Delicious Ingredient Combinations, Best Dark Chocolates, and Best Comfort Chocolate or Snack Product; and Honorable Mentions for Top Artisan Chocolatier, Best Caramels or Truffles, and Best in Salon.

Charlotte Truffles chocolates are now available online (yea!), at the Menlo Park Farmers Market, and a few select other locations.

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Sonoma Chocolatiers booth
David Gambill & assistant at Sonoma Chocolatiers’ booth

Sonoma Chocolatiers

Sonoma Chocolatiers had a variety of their unique, all dark truffles and caramels at the Salon, plus some molded chocolates. When we stopped by they were busy handing out samples, answering tons of questions, and selling both ready made packs and custom assortments.

They did very well in the competition, receiving Silver for Best Caramels or Truffles and New Product Award; Bronze for Best Chocolate Bar, Best Milk Chocolates, and Best Comfort Chocolate or Snack Product; and Honorable Mentions for Most Delicious Ingredient Combinations and Best Traditional Chocolates.

Sonoma Chocolatiers’ chocolates are available at their store, online, at special events, and at Oliver’s Market, a Sonoma County supermarket chain.

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Z. Cioccolato booth
Staff @ Z. Cioccolato’s booth handing out samples

Z. Cioccolato

The staff at the Z. Cioccolato booth was busy handing out samples and offering deals on their fudge tubs in a variety of flavors. Z. Cioccolato received Silver for Best Comfort Chocolate or Snack Product, Bronze for Best Milk Chocolates, and Honorable Mentions for Top Artisan Chocolatier, Best Traditional Chocolates, and Best in Salon.

In addition to their North Beach store, you can order Z. Cioccolato fudge online.

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The Good Chocolate

The Good Chocolate had their full lineup at the Salon of bars, minibars, squares, and boxes. They received Bronze for Best Dark Chocolates.

You can find The Good Chocolate online, at special events, and at some local grocery stores, such as Hudson Greens & Goods.

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The Chaga Company

Not strictly a chocolate vendor, The Chaga Company, SF, makes drinks, powders, tinctures, and salts infused or imbued with chaga mushrooms which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. They have a couple of chocolate products, a hot chocolate mix and chocolate pieces infused with chaga. I missed them this time, but they have an online store and do special events. Check their Facebook page for where they will be next.

They received Silver for New Product Award, and Bronze for Most Delicious Ingredient Combinations and Best Comfort Chocolate or Snack product.

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Peppermint challenge

Peppermint was a popular flavor at the Fall Salon, which makes sense since it’s a flavor that all but screams Christmas. There were more peppermint options than I could take in, but we did get 3 different peppermint bars that Cacaopod and I shared with a couple of other chocolate lovers to compare. All 3 bars had a mix of dark and white chocolate and incorporated peppermint candy but they were all different taste experiences.

The Xocolate Bar Peppermint Bark
The Xocolate Bar Peppermint Bark

The Xocolate Bar Peppermint Bark

The Xocolate Bar Peppermint Bark was a long bar with white chocolate layered over dark chocolate and flavored with peppermint oil and lots of crushed candy canes. In fact it was crammed with peppermint pieces making for an appealing visual of abundance.

This was a more white chocolate than dark chocolate bar, very peppermint-y tasting, not as chocolatey as the other 2. And all that peppermint made it a chewing chocolate not a melting chocolate, but it had a good crunch and wasn’t bitter.

This was the favorite bar of the white chocolate lover in the group, and we all liked its crunchiness.

Charlotte Truffles Peppermint Bar
Charlotte Truffles Peppermint Bar

Charlotte Truffles Peppermint Bar

Charlotte Truffles’ Peppermint Bar  was a big bar and its mold of interlocking pyramids looks like snow capped mountains with its mix of dark and white chocolate. Bits of peppermint stick had been mixed into the white chocolate and scattered over the dark chocolate backside.

This bar had the simplest ingredients list of the group: dark chocolate, white chocolate, and peppermint stick. The peppermint bits were a good size to give the bar a bit of a crunch and as a fairly thin bar, the chocolates melted quickly giving the cooling peppermint dominance. It was truly a refreshing bar.

We did have to start off chewing a little, but then we could let it melt chewing the occasional bits revealed in the melting chocolate. The dark chocolate was stronger than The Xocolate Bar’s bar, and it tasted a little nutty. We thought it was a good classic peppermint chocolate bar.

CocoTutti Pepper(mint)!

CocoTutti Pepper(mint)! bar
CocoTutti Pepper(mint)! bar

The CocoTutti Pepper(mint)! tablet was a 74% dark chocolate swirled with 33% Valrhona Opalyse white and sprinkled with peppermint candy. But it had a hidden ingredient: pink peppercorns.

It smelled peppermint-y from the scattered peppermint candy bits and they gave a tiny crunch to the thick bar.

Peppermint was the first flavor then chocolate as it melted. It fills your mouth with chocolate flavor, and then you taste the peppercorn notes — but not too much. It was a good balance with the peppercorns giving it a savory slant to the refreshing peppermint.

This bar was harder than the others so it did take some chewing before it melted. Chocolate was the flavor that lingered. We labeled it adult peppermint because it was not too minty — the dark chocolate and peppercorns toned it down. This was Cacaopod and my favorite of the three.

Our small group approved of all 3 bars. The Xocolate Bar’s Peppermint Bark was the strongest peppermint tasting one and mildest chocolate one. Easy choice for kids, white chocolate lovers, and peppermint fanatics. Charlotte Truffles’ Peppermint Bar was a beautiful balanced bar that would make nice holiday gifts. And CocoTutti’s Pepper(mint)! tablet was an unusual grown up — and slightly spicy — take on the holiday candy.

After our little competition, only one question lingers: If peppermint is so refreshing, why isn’t it a summer flavor?

Want to know more?

You can see the whole list of award winners from this year’s Fall Holiday Chocolate Salon — plus the attendees’ list of award winners — on the Chocolate Salon site.

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Published December 31, 2022

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