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

local Chocolate Yum

Local chocolate


My definition just got waaaay bigger

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Hall of Flowers
The 2017 Fall Chocolate Salon was held in Golden Gate Park

TasteTV’s 2017 Fall Holiday Chocolate Salon on Nov. 19, was at a new location this time, the San Francisco County Fair Building (AKA Hall of Flowers) in Golden Gate Park; and as usual, the event did not disappoint.

A high percentage of the vendors this time were local, which made me very happy to see. Chocolate is good business in SFBA from the looks of this event. Out of 20-some vendors, 15 were SFBA-local, plus a few who made me expand my definition of local.

Local toffee

The first vendor to expand my definition of local chocolate was Cowboy Toffee Company, when partner Dan McGinnis told me last year that local included everything in a 100-mile radius. While Oakdale is a little farther than public transit can carry me from Oakland, I was happy to use this new rule of thumb after trying their toffee.

When we stopped by Cowboy Toffee’s booth to see what was new, Dan’s wife and partner, Samantha, told us that they were preparing for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas in December. It was their first time, and Samantha thought it would be a “fun, interesting thing to do.”

But in addition to the Salon and the rodeo, she told us that her son was getting married the week before the rodeo; and they were doing the favors for the wedding too! Super busy seems an understatement.

Samantha and Dan
Samantha and Dan answering questions and handing out samples of Cowboy Toffee

New flavors on the horizon?

They had their regular line of toffees at the Salon, no new flavors (understandable), but Dan said that Cowboy Toffee will be starting a toffee club with exclusive member flavors soon. We look forward to it.

Cowboy’s regular line of toffees is a balanced series from white to dark chocolate with a great classic toffee (the Mustang) and unique flavor tweaks for the rest (like the roasted coffee and wood-smoked salt on the Chuck Wagon). And we have liked their inventive special toffees (like their Texas Rose, which uses rose petals instead of stronger rose flavoring, so I actually like this tricky floral). We can’t imagine what they will come up with next, but we know it will be tasty.

Cowboy Toffee Company received a Gold Medal at the Salon for Best Comfort Chocolate/Snack Product and a Silver for Best Toffee.

Check their website and FB page for more info on where to buy Cowboy Toffee and when the toffee club will be up and running.

Big, beautiful bars

Socola Chocolatier3-5 cup chocolatier had a well-stocked booth, as we would expect from a show veteran like Wendy Lieu, Socola’s co-founder and head chocolatier. Front and center was their expanded line of bars, which are quite eye-catching, due to their large size, generous toppings, and simple packaging: clear plastic sleeves, so you see every inch of the bar front and back. While the front of the bars look amazing due to the toppings, like whole berries or nuts; the backs are beautiful too, embossed with the Socola logo.

Socola Berry Bar
Socola’s well-stocked Mixed Berry Bar

I don’t know how much chocolate is in each of these big bars, because their weight is not listed on the packaging, but they are 4″x5.5″ and a decent thickness, so you get a good taste of chocolate even with the bars that are sprinkled with whole berries or nuts. I think they are a good value at $9 a bar regularly, but even better at the Salon deal of 5/$40.

I also like that Socola includes silica gel packs in the packaging to keep things from getting soggy. This might be an only-in-SFBA necessity because of our fog-filled lives, but it’s a touch we appreciate.

Bars I tried and can recommend include the Strawberry Cream Soda Bar, Crispity Matcha Bar, Raspberry & Pop Rocks, and Nutty Dark Chocolate.

White-chocolate convert

The Strawberry Cream Soda Bar has freeze-dried strawberries layered on top of strawberry pink-tinted white chocolate with the added fizz of pop rocks. It’s a very pretty bar, ideal for gift-giving. This is white chocolate done right: The tart strawberries cut the sweetness of the white chocolate enough that it made one of my fellow CBTB chocolateers exclaim, “Curse you, Wendy! You make me like white chocolate!”

The Crispity Matcha Bar is another one of Socola’s white chocolates done right. We first tried this at the last Salon and loved it. Definitely for matcha lovers with its pronounced, slightly bitter matcha green tea taste and powdery texture tempered by white chocolate, milk, and bits of crisp cookie.

The Raspberry & Pop Rocks Bar is similar to the Strawberry Cream Soda bar, but with freeze-dried raspberries generously sprinkled on top and the pop rocks in 72% dark chocolate. The big berries give it a burst of raspberry flavor at the start that lingers long after the bar is gone. And the pop rocks are a fun surprise after first tasting the raspberry and rich chocolate flavors.

Socola Nut Bar
Socola Nut Bar is a big bar covered with whole nuts

Bar food

The Nutty Dark Chocolate Bar features big whole roasted nuts, lightly salted, covering the dark chocolate bar. I love nuts in dark chocolate, so of course this is a favorite for me. One of my tasters said it reminded him at first of bowls of mixed nuts served in bars, because of the whole nuts and the unexpected salt, but he grew to like it, salt and all.

Other bars, which I didn’t try, included what I call the kids’ line-up: Cinnamon Toast Crunch (as in the cereal) & Milk Chocolate Bar, Cookies & Cream Bar (a white chocolate bar with big pieces of chocolate wafer cookie), and Pretzel & Potato Chip (I can’t even) Milk Chocolate Bar. If these flavors appeal to you, you should try these bars: the toppings are piled on in big pieces and generous portions; nothing subtle here — it’s like a kid’s dream chocolate.

Beyond bars

Socola also had their truffles, chocolate-covered confections, fruit pates, caramels, and more. We tried their brittles: a classic peanut and a pecan with pumpkin pie spice mix. The peanut was sweeter and a good nostalgia choice, but we preferred the toasted spicy pecan for its less sweet and nuttier taste. The roasted pecans and complexity of flavors make it a more grownup brittle.

Wendy alpaca shoes
Wendy takes Socola branding seriously: Look at those cute shoes!

Socola has a wide array of chocolates and candies; and they often bear the image of their mascot, Harriet the flying alpaca. This year, Wendy stretched the mascot display to some super-cute shoes, which on closer examination were not decorated with flying alpacas — or even plain alpacas — but actually fuzzy renditions of a llama:

Not that I know enough to split hairs like that, but Wendy knows her alpacas and llamas, along with a thing or two about chocolate, and set me straight.

Socola received 3 Silvers, including for Best New Product, and a Bronze at the Salon.

Socola’s chocolates and candies are available online, but for the full line including pastries, coffee and hot chocolate drinks, visit Socola Chocolatier + Barista on Folsom in SF. It’s also where you can pick up non-edible Socola items, like T-shirts and jewelry.

No branded shoes though, as far as I know.

Chocolate by the pound

At the last Chocolate Salon, we were surprised to find a longtime chocolatier and candy maker had added bean-to-bar chocolate to their mix, but we found it a welcome addition. Rachel Dunn Chocolates, of Giant Caramel Apple fame, now offers not only single-origin bars, but they were also selling their own 98% cacao baking chocolate at the Salon.

The Michael Dunn line of chocolate bars was created by Rachel’s husband, hence the name. It includes a changing variety of single-origin bars plus a 65% chef’s blend. And now it includes bags of baking chocolate discs, which they sell by the pound.

May and Karen
May and Karen of Rachel Dunn Chocolates were busy helping visitors and other vendors at the Salon

Super-fine chocolate

Rachel Dunn chocolatier May told us that their 98% baking chocolate is proving popular because they grind it so fine that the particles are 2 microns thick (a micron is one thousand times smaller than a millimeter). Normally, ground chocolate particles are closer to 20-30 microns. So this baking chocolate is smoother than most and “when the chocolate is melted, it drapes over anything beautifully.”

May was handing out samples of the 98% to taste, and said they recommend the 98% “for people watching their sugar intake. They can eat this chocolate.”

For me, it was too intense. I prefer their bars that have some sugar in them. At the show, they had a 58% from Costa Rica, which tasted like raisins with a wine-like aftertaste. They also had a 64% from Ecuador (very sweet, very raisin-y, with some honey and pineapple notes), a 65% from Madagascar (had a pronounced fermented flavor and not as chocolatey tasting as the others), and the 65% Chef’s Blend (the safe choice, a classic chocolate-y taste and not bitter).

Michael Dunn 4 bars
Time for a packaging upgrade

I like Michael Dunn bars, and I think they are a good value at $6.95 each, but I have 2 suggestions:

  1. Change to a thicker bar to have better mouth feel when melting in your mouth. These bars have distinct flavors but they are too thin to feel luxurious. A smaller, thicker bar could have the same amount of chocolate, but the experience would be improved.
  2. Redo the packaging. The current packaging is a clear plastic sleeve with a partial wrapper with a coat of arms printed on them. I find a disconnect between the simple sleeves and the complicated heraldic logo design. My suggestion would be that since the bars are plain dark chocolate, they don’t need to be displayed, so make a colorful package with the heraldic theme that completely covers the bar. It would make for a more gift-able bar, in my opinion.

Rachel Dunn Chocolates received a Gold Medal at the Salon for Best Comfort Chocolate/Snack Product, plus a Silver and a Bronze Medal.

Some Michael Dunn bars are available on the Rachel Dunn Chocolates website. I didn’t see all the ones we tried at the Salon or the baking chocolate, so if you are interested in these new products, try contacting them through their website.

Michael Benner
Michael Benner, new SFBA chocolatier, makes some amazing chocolates

New local chocolatier

I am always especially excited to see new chocolatiers at the Salons, and this time it was SF-based Michael’s Chocolates that I was looking forward to discovering. They did not disappoint.

We talked to Curtis Wallis, Michael’s husband and business partner, who told us the origin story of Michael’s Chocolates. I am not the fastest note taker, so I might have gotten some details wrong, but here’s what I heard:

Michael Benner graduated from the CA Culinary Academy, and worked the front and back of the house in restaurants for years until he got to the point where he said that if he had to wait tables anymore, he would freak out. So that Christmas, Curtis got him books on chocolate, which he devoured and helped him decide to explore chocolate as a career.

He went to the Ecole Chocolat graduate chocolatier program in Vancouver, then studied further in Las Vegas at Melissa Coppel’s Chocolate School, where he learned her technique for making chocolates that look like shiny marbles.

With that training, he started making chocolates and had his first sale a little over a year ago: Last October, he sold chocolates to his mom and Curtis’s mom, and the business was begun.

Now after 2 years of building the business, they are renting commercial kitchen space in Hunters Point through Eclectic Cookery.

Curtis Wallis
Curtis Wallis offers samples of Michael’s Chocolates’ Holiday Collection and Lemon Burst bonbons

Elegant Christmas chocolate

At the show, they were offering their Christmas Collection, 6 beautiful hand-decorated pieces with holiday flavors: Peppermint, Gingerbread, Olive Oil, Hazelnut Praline, Blood Orange, and Old Potrero Rye Whiskey. Plus their Lemon Burst bonbons, which were a finalist in the Good Food Awards this year. It was the first competition they entered, so they were very excited to be a finalist.

They source ingredients locally as much as possible and use chocolate from local chocolate maker, Guittard. The blood oranges and lemons come from local farms, and the spirits comes from Anchor Distillery in SF.

They hand-dip everything. “It’s a labor of love with a capital L,” Curtis said.

Curtis is especially proud of mastering the “whiskey wave” that decorates the Old Potrero Rye Whiskey bonbons. Everything about these chocolates is top-notch from the appearance to the thickness of the shells, the texture of the fillings, and the taste.

We loved “with a capital L” Michael’s Chocolates, but especially the Lemon Burst bonbons. Tasting the bonbons, we can see why they were a finalist. There were layers of milk and white chocolate inside the dark chocolate shell that marry well with the creamy lemon “burst,” so it’s not bitter and just sweet enough, kind of like dipping a ball of lemon curd in really good chocolate. These bonbons are straight-up delicious, with a lingering chocolate aftertaste. They have the perfect balance of light and flavorful.

Michael’s Lemon Burst Bonbons
Michael’s Lemon Burst Bonbons are accurately named

The Holiday Collection was also delightful. Each piece was interesting. The Gingerbread bonbon had a layer of dark chocolate ganache in a layer of white chocolate flavored with ginger and other spices. The ganache was slightly grainy, evoking the sugar crystals sprinkled on a gingerbread cookie. And it had a nice lingering aftertaste from the warm spices.

The Peppermint was a nice chocolate with a touch of peppermint. Enough to be noticed but just enough to taste refreshing and not overpower the chocolate. Like the Peppermint, the Old Potrero Whiskey was well balanced. It tasted like whiskey but it wasn’t strongly boozy.

The Hazelnut Praline was more assertive. Very crunchy with no mistaking the hazelnut for another nut. It worked for me. The Blood Orange was reminiscent of the Lemon Burst with its mild citrus flavor, but it wasn’t as creamy, and it had another taste hidden inside. Maybe cardamom?

The only piece that I didn’t love was the Olive Oil. I really like a more pronounced olive oil taste; this one was too subtle for me, although it did have a nice slightly herby taste and the green swirled dome was gorgeous.

Hello Gorgeous

Michaels box
For your consideration…

Did I mention how pretty these chocolates are? Excellent choice when you want to impress someone. And they are impressive on several levels. In addition to being beautiful to look at, whether it’s as a shiny airbrushed dome or a hand-textured square, the shells are the right thin/thick-ness. They don’t crush or crack easily, but they also don’t require undue pressure to give.

Taste-wise, the shells don’t overpower the ganache inside, nor do they disappear. Good balance like that is not easy to achieve. And the ganache flavors are great. Win win win!

Plus, the Holiday Collection box reminds me of a luxury handbag with its quilted texture and bold M logo. Very elegant.

Michael’s Chocolates killed it at the Salon, receiveing 4 Gold Medals, including Top Artisan Chocolatier, Most Delicious Ingredients Combination, Best Traditional Chocolates, and New Product Award; plus 2 Silvers.

Michael’s Chocolates are available in some local shops in Noe Valley and Oakland. Check their website for locations. And check their events page for chances to meet the maker as well as buy the bonbons.

Hometown candy

Oakland-based Tombo Toffee, which first came to a Salon this spring and makes amazing toffee in beautiful packaging, had their holiday trio at the Fall Salon: Pumpkin Pie Spice, Orange, and Espresso Toffees.

Tombo packaging
Tombo’s holiday collection in their beautiful packaging

Lisa Grantham, Tombo’s founder and candy maker, was manning the booth solo, so she only brought 3 flavors “to keep it under control.”

We’ve had the Orange Toffee before and enjoyed its subtle orange flavor that married well with the dark chocolate toffee and was sparked with an unexpected, but welcome dash of salt. This time, we tried the Pumpkin Pie Spice toffee.

Lisa told us she gets her spice blend from Oaktown Spice Shop, keepin’ it local as she does with most of her ingredients. It’s a very flavorful blend and the first thing we tasted when we bit into the toffee. Like the Orange, it has a nice saltiness and even a bit of smokiness, which made it more interesting.

You can buy Tombo Toffee is several sizes, but we think the Little Bits Bags are a great gift idea or a way to sample some of her more unusual flavors ( fennel? rosemary? green tea?) without a big commitment: $5 for a cute package of delicious dark chocolate toffee made with high quality ingredients.

Tombo Toffee received 2 Gold Medals at the Salon for Best Toffee and Best Comfort Chocolate/Snack Product, plus a Silver and a Bronze.

Tombo Toffee is available online and in some local markets. Check their website for locations.

Raphio packaging
Raphio single-origin bar packaging is not only attractive, but its inner flap is educational and the porthole window displays the sculptural geometric bar molding

Local enough

After some debate with fellow chocolate tasters at the Salon about what constitutes local, we decided to check out Raphio Chocolate, which is based in Fresno. I didn’t think they qualify as SFBA local, but after trying their bars, I’m willing to adopt them as local.

Raphio Chocolate makes single-origin and inclusion bars. It was started a few years ago by Elisia Otavi-Makmur to make chocolates that she would be happy to give to her children (the company name is a combination of the kids’ names, Raphael and Rio). Her husband, Yohanes, who is also a chocolatier, helps with the business. They opened a chocolate shop at their factory in December 2017.

Raphio chocolate bars are as organic as possible, gluten free, soy free, vegan, non-GMO, and made by hand with no peanuts or preservatives. Elisia wanted to make something healthy, but also delicious.

We talked with Yohanes at the Salon, and he led us though a tasting of their different single-origin bars.

We especially liked the 72% Peruvian (of course, because it’s a very fruity chocolate), but we also liked the completely different 72% Tanzanian. We found it to be an earthier flavor, more savory and lighter than the Peruvian with some toffee notes.

The single-origin bars are very attractive with a molded 3-D pattern of repeating cubes, which take the place of scoring lines for breaking pieces off the bar. The bars are large and a good weight, and have a substantial mouthfeel.

Check the math

We tried different strengths of their Ecuador chocolate, ending with the 102%. How, I had to ask, can there be a 102% ? That’s impossible.

Yohanes explained that they start with a 100% base, no sugar added, which they conch and grind for 72 hours. Then they sprinkle nibs on top of the bars — that’s the extra 2%.

So like me stretching the definition of local to include Raphio in Fresno, they are stretching the way we talk about cacao percentages in bars. And I’ll adopt that too, because 100% is too much for me, but the nibs help make it tolerable with their crunch. So if you want chocolate sans sugar, give this bar a try.

Raphios parents
The kids weren’t there, so we have to take their parents’ word that they eat dark chocolate

However, I wasn’t done with my questioning. They make chocolate for their kids, who are still quite young. Are the kids eating the 102% bar?

Yohanes shook his head and laughed. But he assured us they do eat the lower percentage dark chocolate bars, which I still find amazing since most small children I know would burst into tears if I gave them dark instead of milk chocolate.

Hide this one from the kids

Finally, we tried their Clementine Olive Oil bar, which was a nice twist on orange chocolate. It won a gold medal at the Salon, and deservedly so.

This is a sophisticated upgrade to your usual orange chocolate: It’s very chocolatey, the citrus is subtle, and the olive oil adds its unique slipperiness, but I didn’t taste olive oil. The inclusions are really there to add dimension to the chocolate, not to stand out. Interesting and satisfying chocolate bar — we highly recommend it.

Raphio Chocolate received 2 Gold Medals at the Salon for Best Chocolate Bar and New Product Award.

Raphio Chocolate is available online, at their new shop on Fresno, and at special events. Check their website for more info.

Local support

When we stopped by CocoTutti 4-cup chocolatier, Elyce Zahn, founder and master chocolatier told us that while she had new toffees for judging, she was “not selling toffee at the Salon out of respect for the toffee makers who are at the Salon today.”

Attendees had nothing to worry about though, there was still plenty of CocoTutti confections to try and buy from truffles to barks to their unique bars, CocoQuintets, where are like a connected set of 5 bonbons.

Chocolate gift baskets

There were also some interesting themed collections for holiday gifting. They included sets of fruit flavors, caramel and nuts, vegan, and a spicy collection on handcrafted wooden board that Elyce’s brother makes. In addition to the flavor options, the collections came in different sizes so you could find an appropriate gift for any chocolate lover on your list.

Elyce told us that she had 2 barks and 3 new bonbon flavors at the Salon. The new bonbons were a rose in white chocolate bonbon (the rose flavor was strong and the white chocolate was not overly sweet), a housemade curry five-spice bonbon (which I found an interesting light savory combo with the dark chocolate), and a reworked pink peppercorn bonbon (with a pronounced cracked pepper taste, but the sweetness of the other ingredients kept it from being too much).

CocoTutti barks
CocoTutti barks and toffees could be addictive

Casual chocolate

Of the 2 new barks at the Salon, I liked the Cashew Cherry Peppercorn Bark best, mainly because of the chewy cherries. But the Almond Raisin Raspberry Bark was no slacker with its equally chewy (but less unusual) raisins and bright shot of raspberry.

I also liked the not-for-sale toffees in judging bag: The English Toffee with White Chocolate, Szechwan Pepper and Salted Cashews had a good burnt butter flavor. The white chocolate makes it a fruity tasting toffee, but the nuts’ saltiness counters the  sweetness of the white chocolate. And the pepper provided a little heat at the end that lingered along with the toffee taste.

The Espresso Toffee with Dark Chocolate and Hazelnuts had a very rich chocolate taste that was deepened by the added espresso. This was definitely a strong espresso, not coffee, flavor. The roasted hazelnuts added a smoky note. This is an almost savory toffee with a nice crunch, but is also chewy. It’s a good mix of textures and flavors. We CBTB-ers would buy both of these toffees.

CocoTutti 3 bars
My current top 3 CocoTutti CocoQuintet bars

Supa Hot Fire!

We did bought some CocoQuintets, CocoTutti’s signature bonbon bars, in our favorite flavors.

The Ginger Caramel & Spicy Chili Peanut CocoQuintet is the ultimate truth-in-advertising label: The first taste is a bite of fresh ginger, 2nd is caramel, then hot spices and peanut. And the word Spicy is in red because it is so hot, it made me cry. If you really like spicy, including fresh ginger spicy, you will love this bar.

I love the Almond Butter Crunch bar too, with its cinnamon-first flavor. This is a genius addition to almond butter, which to me is a bland version of peanut butter. On top of this flavor shot, Elyce makes the filling crunchy, so the bar tastes and feels like a Snickerdoodle covered in chocolate.

The Raspberry Truffle is a longtime favorite flavor from CocoTutti with its burst of raspberry from both a dusting of freeze-dried raspberry on the outside and raspberry preserve inside the chocolate ganache, and the ganache’s texture like a super smooth seedless jam. (And Elyce makes the preserves she uses in her chocolates.)

CocoTutti raked in the awards at the Salon, receiving 3 Gold Medals (Top Artisan Chocolatier, New Product Award, and Best in Salon), plus 3 Silver and 2 Bronze.

CocoTutti is available online, at special events like the Salon, and at select stores. Check their website for locations and events.

Coracao Daniel
Coracao founder Daniel showing some Oaktown love with his Yum t-shirt design

East Bay easy

Our next stop was Berkeley-based Coracao Chocolate, makers of healthier candy bar alternatives. Founder Daniel Korson told us that these bars came about because he loved junk food, but couldn’t eat any refined sugar, so he reworks classic flavors with plain cocoa and good ingredients.

I’m not a classic candy bar person and I still eat refined sugar — as long as it’s in good chocolate — so these bars don’t really resonate with me. But if you stopped eating junk candy for health reasons, and miss it, these bars might satisfy your sweet tooth nostalgia.

And in another twist of modernization, they had a holiday first: the Peppermint Snowfriend, a gender neutral peppermint chocolate to inclusively satisfy your hankering for a peppermint patty.

Savory chocolate

Coracao 81%
Coracao is onto something with its 81% bars

Coracao had a new line of 81% stone-ground chocolate bars made from beans from Ecuador and Peru, sweetened with coconut sugar. The bars came in plain, almond, and almond & sea salt. They grind the beans for 24 hours, so while they don’t temper their chocolate, it was very smooth.

The plain 81% was too much for me: too raw tasting and bitter, but I liked the 81% Sea Salt, Almonds, & Dark Chocolate. Almond slivers and salt crystals are sprinkled on the bar. It has a savory taste with licorice overtones. The almonds and salt help; this is my favorite Corocao bar. I think leaning toward savory is good for them. If you want a less sweet chocolate, give this one a try.

Coracao received a Gold Medal at the Salon for New Product Award and 4 Bronze Medals.

In addition to ordering Coracao confections from their website, you can find Coracao bars in Whole Foods, Monterey Market, and the Berkeley and Temescal farmers markets.

On-site local

SF-based Dandelion Chocolate was hyper-local at the Fall Salon. They brought a small melanger, and had it grinding chocolate the whole time! Jessica demonstrated and explained how Dandelion makes chocolate while handing out samples from 4 of their single-origin bars.

dandelion Melanger
That’s an actual melanger on the left grinding cacao into chocolate at the Salon

The samples covered a wide range of locations, so the taste differences were very pronounced. The Dominican Republic bar tasted somewhat like tea, which Jessica said comes from the tannin found in the water where the cacao is grown. The Ecuador bar had notes of banana, and was very fudgy, with a deep chocolate flavor. The Tanzania bar was very fruity with notes of mango and stone fruit flavors.

The Madagascar bar was most interesting with a tangy flavor. Jessica explained that it was because of how hot it was when the beans were fermenting. Vinegar gets trapped in the beans, so it tastes like someone added red wine to the melanger.

Dandelion Chocolate received a Gold Medal at the Salon for Best Chocolate Bar, and a Silver and a Bronze Medal.

Dandelion Chocolate bars are available at their cafés, stores and online. Visit their website for locations.

Dandelion lineup
Dandelion Chocolate’s beautiful lineup

Welcome to town

Karen Flying Noir
Karen is on a winning streak lately with newsworthy and tasty new bonbons

Oakland chocolate artisan Karen Urbanek of flying noir, presented the opposite of local in her Out of Country collection, which she themed around the concept of immigration. The 6-piece set includes flavors from different countries, such as Yemen, Syria, Iran, and Sweden.

The set even got her some press in the New York Times, although it was for the political statement she is making about the current administration’s attempts to restrict travel into the US, not for the chocolates themselves.

We first tried the Out of Country collection at the 2017 Truffle Competition and loved it, especially the savory bonbons that included Middle Eastern spice combinations. And we are down with using chocolate to get people to do the right thing.

On a less serious note, Karen had a 12 Days of Christmas collection with pieces that that riffed off the famous song, such as a bonbon flavored with pear brandy and cardamom for “a partridge in a pear tree,” and a golden caramel with Hawaiian guava smoked sea salt for “5 golden rings.”

Crunchy chocolate

And she had a selection of new flavors to sample and judge, which included my new favorite coated nuts:

flying noir 4 piece
flying noir’s 4 piece judges’ set showcased some variations on a crunchy theme

Her Nocciotutti are Valencian hazelnuts enrobed in 74% chocolate 2x, then coated with sugar, salt, and Chinese 5-spice. Some gold mica painted on the nuts makes they look like they are gold ore. They are extra crunchy with a nice sweet chocolate hazelnut taste that ends with a light touch of 5-spice.

The other new piece she had at the Salon that I really liked was also crunchy.  The Blue Meadow Red bonbon was described as a “bittersweet ganache infused with fire roasted espelette peppers from Blue Meadow Farm in Anderson Valley & Pinot Noir sea salt in a sugar/salt/chili crust.”

The crust was delicious and unusual: thin and crunchy, with some mild heat. The ganache was very nice with the Pinot Noir sea salt adding a subtle savoriness like adding balsamic vinegar to chocolate.

A 3rd piece in the set, Fika (which is also in the Out of Country set) didn’t look crunchy, but it had a sugar crystal inside giving the darkly chocolate and slightly boozy bonbon an unexpected crunch.

Keeping chocolate longer

In addition to her usual creative flavors, always all natural colors, and her new political metaphors, Karen told us that she is working to make her bonbons stay fresh longer with her ingredient choices. For example, for the Alleppan in the Out of Country collection, she used a butter ganache, which lasts a long time. “I’m always looking for longer shelf life,” Karen said.

And for the 9 ladies dancing piece in 12 days of Christmas, that’s flavored with espresso and a Yemini spice blend, she used Medaglia D’Oro espresso powder. Water & oil don’t play well together, so she used dry instead of liquid espresso making for a more stable ganache.

Flying noir chocolates received 2 Silver Medals at the Salon, including Top Artisan Chocolatier and Best Traditional Chocolates, and 2 Bronzes.

You can buy flying noir chocolates online and at special events. Check their website for details.


Endorfin Sage
Endorfin White Sage

Endorfin Foods, the Oakland based bean-to-bar company, is known for their unroasted, ethically traded chocolate, that contain no dairy/soy/gluten/GMO/refined sugar. At the Salon, they had their single-origin and inclusion bars. We’ve tried their inclusion bars before — I like the popular Turkish Coffee one best — so this time we got a couple of their single-origin bars and a couple of new-to-us inclusion bars.

The single-origin bars are very simple, just cacao & coconut sugar. The limited edition Kokoa Kamili Tanzania 75% was very fruity — it tasted almost like bubblegum at first. It was grainy and didn’t melt in my mouth as quickly as I expect. It had a pronounced fermentation flavor, and the aftertaste was a savory carob flavor — not my thing.

The Dominican Republic 80% was smoother, but still not melt-y. It was also too bitter for me.

Mixin’ it up

Overall, I prefer roasted single-origins, so these single-origins are a “no” for me, but Endorfin inclusions are worth a try:

The Coconut Mylk with Wildcrafted White Sage is interesting: It’s coconut-y with a pronounced sage flavor that makes for a savory mild chocolate. It might help that the cacao percentage (52%) is less than the single origins. They add caramelized coconut and cocoa butter, along with the white sage, so it’s not bitter. It’s still unroasted, tho’, so it is a little grainy, and the chocolate taste is not as smooth as roasted chocolate is.

The Dark & Salty was more challenging: an 82% dark chocolate with added salt & cacao nibs. It’s not a melt-in-your-mouth chocolate, you really have to chew it to get it started. It’s a savory chocolate — I tasted notes of blue cheese — a little bitter and hard, due to the high cacao content. I think the cacao nibs and salt help.

If you are interested in healthier chocolate options, you might want to try Endorfin inclusion bars to start. If you find you like the taste and texture of unroasted chocolate, then give the single-origins a try.

Endorfin Food received a Silver Medal at the Salon for New Product Award.

You can purchase Endorfin’s chocolate online, including monthly subscriptions, which include limited edition chocolates you can’t buy otherwise. You can also find their bars in select locations. Check their website for current locations.

Rainy Day Family
Jennifer Sund brought a new generation and younger sensibility to the Fall Salon

Kid power

There was a buzz around the Salon about cookies. People were talking about some big, delicious cookies at a booth “over there.” We finally found it: Rainy Day Chocolate did indeed have some big cookies at their booth, and they were selling briskly.

We also saw dipped marshmallows in milk and dark chocolate and wondered what was up. When we first met co-owner Jennifer Sund at the 2016 Fall Salon, they were a new chocolatier selling single-origin truffles and truffles flavored with wine — very grown-up chocolate.

Jennifer acknowledged the change and told us she was “inspired by 8-year-olds,” and was doing dipped chocolates that kids would like, such as strawberries, marshmallows, and pretzels. She had both milk and dark chocolate versions, because “most kids think chocolate has milk in it.”

She did have some more adult chocolate, such as her 69% Belgian bars, including one flavored with lavender that she gets from a local supplier. And she told us she is working on a Zinfandel infusion. Both flavors are definitely not for kids. Heck, I’m old, and I can’t handle lavender chocolate.

Rainy Day Chocolate received a Bronze Medal at the Salon for Best Caramels or Truffles.

Sonoma fires

Noticing Jennifer’s Sonoma Strong T-shirt, I asked if the recent devastating fires had affected her and her business. She said they had a mandatory evacuation during which they managed to move a “literal ton of cacao beans in the back of our truck.”

She assured us that they are fine, even though it happened right before the busy chocolate season: “It’s affecting us considerably but it’s not impossible. And we are able to help others who were more affected.”

What she’s found harder have been the unexpected repercussions. “I took for granted the people I didn’t know,” she said. “Like people walking their dogs on the road that I don’t see anymore. This hit me hard.”

While Sonoma is still recovering, Rainy Day Chocolate is up and running. Their chocolate is available online, at events, and in some markets and cafés in the North Bay. Check their website for locations.

Too much?

Mike Z
Owner Mike Zwiefelhofer proudly displays the 7-layer peanut butter fudge

New to the Salon, but a long-time North Beach business, Z. Cioccolato brought their big-big fudge to the show for us to sample and buy.

I haven’t been to Z. Cioccolato’s shop in North Beach because I thought it was more of a tourist-y candy shop than a chocolate business, and I might be right, but they do make their own fudge in a wide variety of flavors and some chocolates too.

We met owner Mike Zwiefelhofer at the Salon, who told us that they were named one of the top 25 fudge shops in the country by MSN, and had been featured on the Cooking Channel. There’s even a recipe on the channel’s website for Z. Cioccilato’s peanut butter fudge pie.

Did he say peanut butter?

With that as background, Mike showed us their 7-layer peanut butter fudge and described what goes into each layer: The base is peanut butter fudge. Then Oreo cookie crumbles cooked in butter. Then caramel, marshmallow, and milk chocolate fudge layers. It’s topped with heath crumbles and drizzled with caramel & peanut butter.

Whew! As can be expected, it’s a tall fudge that is somewhat challenging to eat. Our tasters were overwhelmed, and most of the comments were along the lines of “Oh my god, that’s amazing,” but I could be wrong because they were usually talking with their mouths full.

We got the Dark Cabernet Sauvignon Chocolate Fudge and passed it around at Thanksgiving to rave reviews and no leftovers — even though there were homemade pies and cheesecake competing for sweet tooths. I think it’s a good fudge for adults, like a grainy sweet ganache, and not boozy at all. The wine seems added to enhance the chocolate, not be the main attraction.

The Coconut Walnut Milk Chocolate Fudge, aka California Earthquake fudge, on the other hand was all about the big crunchy walnuts and chewy coconut. The milk chocolate was secondary and not overly sweet. It’s a satisfying treat.

Z. Cioccolato received 2 Gold Medals at the Salon for Best Comfort Chocolate or Snack Product and New Product Award.

You can buy Z. Cioccolato fudge at their North Beach store (474 Columbus Ave, SF), online, and at special events.

All chocolate is local

My geographic boundaries got seriously stretched by the last vendor I talked to. Carmen from Valdivian Chocolate approached us with samples and gave us quite the education on Ecuadorian chocolate.

Valdivian is a bean-to-bar maker located in Ecuador that sources its cacao from local farmers. They use Forestera, which is the most widely grown cacao due to its hardiness and general good taste. Carmen pointed out big chocolate companies worldwide, like TCHO and Valrhona, use Ecuadorian Forestera. So basically, Ecuadorian chocolate is everywhere.

Close to home

What Valdivian is doing is different than others who use this ubiquitous chocolate. First, they are an Ecuadorian company that is working to elevate the reputation of Ecuadorian chocolate by working with small farmers who grow primarily Nacional Arriba cacao, which is considered the best tasting cacao in Ecuador.

Second, they are using beans from one cacao type but it’s been planted in 4 different regions. This means that they are getting different flavors from genetically the same beans due to the terroir.

Like other bean-to-bar makers, they keep the ingredients simple: Just cocoa paste, cocoa butter, and sugar. The bars are certified organic and kosher. And they are gluten- and soy-free.

The four single-origin bars they offer have slightly different percentages of cacao, from 72% to 78%. Carmen explained, “The percentage doesn’t change too much because we want to level the intensity to compare flavors.”

And compare them, we did.

Valdivian 74%
Valdivian 74% from Los Rios is pretty and delicious

Similar as siblings

The highest percentage one, the Esmeraldas 78%, is described on the package as having hints of taffy and cherry. While the initial flavor was fruity, I couldn’t say it was taffy or cherry, and I found the chocolate became somewhat bitter as it melted in my mouth.But that’s not unexpected with a high cacao percentage. The bar wasn’t sweet enough for me, and ranged into healthy chocolate territory: slightly dry and earthy tasting.

However, if you like high percentage chocolate, I think you will like this one because it is a well-made chocolate. You already like bitter, so what I didn’t like about it won’t matter, and otherwise, I think it does have a nice taste.

If the Esmeraldas is like an eldest sibling, the strong natural leader, then the Orellana 76% is like the middle child who resents the older sibling’s dominance: It was more bitter to me than the Esmeraldas. The package says almond and guava hints. Maybe the slight bitterness reads as almond to other people; I didn’t taste almonds. It did have a vaguely tropical fruit flavor, but it was more banana than guava to me. It also had a noticeable fermented taste. It’s hard to believe these two chocolate come from the same tree, so to speak.

The Los Rios 74% was much, much better. Like the pretty, more talented sibling that naturally stands out from the rest. The package says citrus and berry hints, and I think that is a good description. It was notably fermented, with a bright berry flavor. This was my favorite.

The Manabi 72%, which the package says has hints of citrus and raisin, was a smoother, fruitier chocolate. To me it was like the youngest sibling who goes along to get along. Very pleasant. I would call it good standard chocolate.

I think these bars are an excellent illustration of terroir. If you try them side by side, you really taste the difference that their environment made. Let each one melt in your mouth to experience their complexity and differences.

Tasting these different chocolates made me interested in where they came from. It turns out that the one I liked best, the Los Rios, comes from what is traditionally considered the best territory for growing cacao in Ecuador: the upriver regions of the Guayas River.

Esmeraldas and Manabi are on the coast of Ecuador, and Orellana is in the Amazon Basin: Beans from these areas have never been recognized for having the distinct Arriba flavor profile. As least as far as I could tell, this proved true even when Valdivian was growing the same Arriba cacao in these other places.

Valdivian Square
Each of these tabs in a Valdivian bar is almost 1-1/2″x1-1/4″. And there are 10 of them in each 100g bar.

Quality chocolate

Even with their differences, I think they are all good chocolate. All of the bars are well made with a good snap, good color, and a good thickness for melting in your mouth. They have a very smooth texture: a good mouthfeel. The 100g bars are scored into generously sized tabs: You get a nice, big hunk of chocolate to savor.

The bars are a deep dark brown color (I lightened it for the pic), and the embossing on each tab is very clear — you can read the small print easily like it was a coin.

Valdivian won a Silver Medal at the Salon for Best Organic or Fair Trade Products.

Cool graphics

Valdivian packaging is very attractive: The main graphics are cute and a little funky. Carmen explained to us that the graphics are inspired by Valdivia culture, which is one of the oldest settled cultures in the Americas. They are known for their pottery, especially Venus figures, which are thought to have been based on real people (like the terra cotta warriors of China) because each one has a different hairstyle. Hence the similar faces with unique designs surrounding the heads on the Valdivian packages.

Valdivian 4 bars
Four bars, four different hairstyles

Valdivian chocolate is available at some local specialty markets, such as Rainbow Grocery and Piedmont Market. Check their website for locations.

That’s all, folks!

Finally, I hit my limit of tasting and time at the Fall Salon. I didn’t make it to all the local vendor booths this time. The other local vendors at the show were:

  • Alter Eco, who won a Silver Medal at the Salon for Best Organic or Fair Trade Products.
  •  Basel B Inc., who won a Silver Medal at the Salon for Best Caramels or Truffles.
  • Kindred Cooks, who won a Gold Medal at the Salon for Best Caramels or Truffles.
  • Live A Lot chocolate bars, who won a Bronze Medal at the Salon for Best Chocolate Bar.

Luckily, there’s the International Chocolate Salon coming March 11, 2o18.

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Published January 24, 2018