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

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Wall-to-wall chocolate sounds like heaven, but you’d better pace yourself

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The Four Chocolateers of CBTB went to the 2010 SF Chocolate Salon in March, which was packed with local chocolatiers and some more far flung (Los Angeles, Utah, Altanta, Florida?).  With over 80 exhibitors in one day in one place, there was no way we could sample everything, so we focused on the smaller local chocolatiers whom we hadn’t met before and whose chocolates were not widely distributed (yet!).

The salon proved to be a good way for us to meet some wonderfully unique local personalities and try their uniquely delicious products. Unfortunately, this was also a situation where frustration is inevitable. There was no way we could try every local product presented that day. I counted 32 local chocolate vendors at this year’s Salon.

Some points I learned at the Salon:

  • Many of the local vendors have been in business 5 years or less.
  • Generally, they try to source their ingredients locally.
  • Almost all of them sell their wares online, so you can find them.
  • Many also sell at local farmers’ markets.
  • They offered show specials (like reduced-price truffles!) or seasonal specials (like peanut-butter bunnies) you won’t find elsewhere.
  • Local specialty shops and grocers, like the Pasta Shop and Draegers, shop the Salon so you might find some of these in stores near you soon.

Sweet torture

All the chocolatiers at the Salon offered free samples. I ate all the chocolate that I could eat — which amounted to about 12 samples in a couple of hours. By then I felt nauseous, and it didn’t matter how good everyone else’s samples looked, I was done. (And couldn’t eat another piece for the next 3 days, I was so done.)

Here are my impressions of a small sample of local chocolate:

The fun begins with Socola Chocolates.

Socola Chocolatier3-5 cup chocolatier: My first sample was from this very fun team of sisters headquartered in Oakland. I tried the jasmine tea truffle. Susan, the exuberant sister, explained that they source as much of their ingredients locally as possible, but they do import the tea they use in this truffle. It was a very nice, light truffle. As Martha, one of our Chocolateers described it, it’s a dark chocolate but tastes kind of milky.

But the chocolate is only part of appeal here. Michele, another CBTB Chocolateer, tried the Tamarind Tease, which includes toasted black sesame seeds with the tamarind puree flavoring this chocolate. She loved it so much that she bought some on the spot, which meant she also got a free surprise gift: a Socola yo-yo!

This booth was so much fun with Susan’s sense of humor, good chocolate and give-aways that we ended up wandering the rest of the show with our little Socola buttons of a winged llama pinned to shirts. With all their positive energy, it’s no surprise they swept the Attendees Choice Awards, placing in 8 categories with 2nd place finishes in Best Presentation and Most Exciting. They also received a 2010 Excellence Award from Taste TV (the Salon’s sponsor).

The Tea Room: Keeping to a tea theme, I sampled a couple of tea-infused chocolate bars. The chocolatiers at the Tea Room use steeped tea rather than powdered tea leaves to flavor their teas, which is unusual because water & chocolate don’t mix, so they had to develop their own process to solve this problem. The impetus was that adding ground tea leaves can give chocolate a gritty texture. A tea infusion eliminates the grit.

The dark chocolate with green Earl Grey tea didn’t work for me because the tea flavor was so mild that I didn’t even taste the bergamot, which is the whole reason to drink Earl Grey. It did win an honorable mention for Best Flavored Chocolate Bar, though.

I liked the Extra Dark Chocolate with Green Mate, Star Anise and Cacao Nibs much better. Maybe I didn’t notice the mate, but the star anise was a nice pairing with chocolate, and I don’t mind grit in my chocolate when it’s tiny, crunchy cacao nibs.

Neo Cocoa's Christine Doerr
Christine Doerr & her naked truffles.

Neo Cocoa: 2010 Master Award winner Christine Doerr makes truffles that concentrate on their inner ganache and leaves the shell behind. Since I generally dislike hard thin shells, this seemed like a genius move. Although portability could pose a problem with nothing to hold the soft ganache in, I don’t think these will get very far before they’re eaten anyway. I loved her take on citrus & chocolate in which she substituted lime for the more common orange. Seek these out!

Her Coconess Confections: Shelly Seward is a chocolate-making newbie: March marked her one-year anniversary as Her Coconess. But based on the amount of awards she won at her 1st Salon, including a 1st place award for her product line in the Best Comfort Chocolate Product, and a 2nd place Best in Salon, plus her very fun business sense, I think she’ll be around for a while. She makes her own vanilla-bean marshmallows for her award-winning Bittersweet Rocky Road, which was a nice adult version — not too sweet, balanced with a little salty in a good dark chocolate.

Jade Chocolates: The monster success story of local small chocolatiers, IMHO. Started 2 years ago and now in 70 stores including the Pasta Shop and Rainbow Grocery. In addition to being a 2010 Grand Award winner, Jade also received 22 other awards at this year’s Salon, including 4 Attendees Choice Awards. Luckily, you should be able to find a Jade chocolate bar somewhere near you.

This booth was mobbed, so I only managed one sample: Dragons Breath, a 65% bittersweet chocolate bar flavored with roasted sesame seeds, lapsang souchong, and ground red chili, which received a 3rd place award for Best Flavored Chocolate Bar. Unfortunately, I strongly dislike lapsang souchong (to me it tastes like I licked machinery), so this bar is a non-starter for me.

But with so many accolades, I’m not going to write Jade off. Maybe the Terracotta Bar, a 1st place New Product award winner, will win me over too.

Dolce Bella Chocolates: A focus on seasonal flavors with the unique twist that many of the fruits and herbs used are grown in the owner’s own garden. Can’t get more locally sourced than that. I tried a very lemony Meyer Lemon truffle, and was told that Dolce Bella uses white chocolate ganache for their fruit flavors because “White chocolate brings out the fruity flavors.”

Dolce Bella is a young company, in business 2 years, but they made an impressive showing at the Salon with 11 awards, including a Master Award. And they plan to open a café this summer in Saratoga with a patio where you can enjoy their wares surrounded by planters containing some of the ingredients you’re ingesting.

Anni Golding
Anni Golding & her “small indulgences.”

Gateau et Ganache: I loved the passion fruit bonbon from G&G. And judging from the awards (14 Salon awards, including a 1st place for Best Traditional Chocolates, and 3 Attendees Choice Awards) Anni Golding, the chef/owner/founder, is in the right business with her “small indulgences.”

G&G does French-style (yea!) bonbons, truffles, confections, and marshmallows, which makes sense because Anni studied in France. She also knows how to make French macaroons, which she might offer sometime in the future.

Anni’s focus in her flavors is to make chocolates that taste like what they are. As she explained, “I hate having to go back to the box to know what the flavor is.”

No chance of that with the passion fruit bonbon (unless you don’t know what passion fruit tastes like). It was the second flavor she created in her line (the 1st: raspberry/dark chocolate), and she chose it because “Growing up in Australia, it’s what I liked as a child.”

Anni’s other focus is “creating something good for you,” so she uses quality ingredients like organic local cream, and her flavors come from either infusions or purees. In addition to her own site, you can find Gateau et Ganache at Draeger’s Markets on the Peninsula and Piazza’s Fine Foods in Palo Alto. Highly recommended.

Sterling Confections' truffle logs
The proper way to serve a truffle log.

Sterling Confections: These triangular truffle logs are so pretty, they’d make a really spectacular dessert for a party. These hand-painted handmade bars are definitely not your casual, everyday dark chocolate. For one thing, they have to be kept cold because you serve them by slicing off wedges in which you can see the 2-3 flavored ganaches inside wrapped in the pretty outer coating. The chill adds a new dimension to upscale chocolate: One of our Chocolateers described it as very creamy, like eating an ice cream bar.

Sterling Confections received a Master Award plus awards for Best Gift Set and Best Presentation & Packaging. Maybe the Salon should add a Best Party Idea award for next year.

Coco Delice Fine Chocolates: Hybrids of Belgian-style molded chocolates, but darker and less sweet like French chocolates, these were one of my favs at the show.

Handmade truffles made in small batches using locally sourced ingredients and organic chocolate are all plusses, but what really sold me was that they made an excellent peanut butter bonbon (plus peanut butter filled Easter bunnies for the show). They like to do custom and seasonal flavors, but I think a good peanut butter/dark chocolate mix is hard to strike, and Coco Delice got it right. A good quality peanut butter that tasted like peanuts with the right amount of dark chocolate so you taste both flavors together. Excellent.

Coco Delice chocolates
Chef Dennis of Coco Delice prefers to make “simple, undecorated pieces that let the molded shapes stand out.”

Coco Delice won a 1st place individual Best Truffle award and another Best Truffle award for their product line, plus a 2nd place Best in Salon and an Attendees Choice Award in Best for Gifts. I don’t know which truffle got the gold, but if it were up to me, it would be for the peanut butter bonbon.

Sacred Chocolate: I’d never eaten raw chocolate before. For my 1st time, I tried Sacred Chocolate’s 77% whole bean. It wasn’t gritty (my fear) and had a fruity taste that expanded as it melted in my mouth.

The big buzz with raw is that it contains important nutrients that traditional processes remove. Sacred takes it one step further and leaves the skins on the beans to be stone ground together. According to Mike Zweibach, Sacred’s sales manager, the skins contain iron which women need. Including it makes sense since “72% of chocolate is bought by women. And the other 28% is bought for them.”

Sacred won a Best Organic or Fair Trade Product Line award and an Attendees Choice Award for Most Inventive (which might have been for Mike’s spiel).

I also tried the raw chocolate from Divine Organics by Transition Nutrition. I found this grittier than Sacred Chocolates. I was told that they grind the cacao beans for 4 days so you don’t lose the anti-oxidants and polyphenols. (I think it could’ve used 5 days because I encountered some mighty big nibs in the sample I tried.) Their Bliss Mix was a hit with my group, an organic, raw high-end trail mix of  pistachios, Himalayan raisins, mulberries, gojiberries, macadamia nuts, cashews, and cacao nibs.

Edible Love showmen
A show of love for fine chocolate.

Edible Love Chocolates: By the time I got to this vendor, I’d had my fill for the day. So I could only enjoy the show, not the samples. But the show is fun with top hats and a gypsy magic vibe. Edible offers classes which they will bring to your place, and with a background in street theater, it looks like they would create a memorable party, I mean, class.

I am disappointed that I didn’t try the truffles because they use fresh ingredients, no preservatives, and you just can’t find these chocolates easily. The creators remind me of relatives I’d only see once or twice a year at family gatherings, who always brought something delicious that I missed the rest of the year. If you get the chance, try Edible Love, then tell me about it, please!

A real crowd-pleaser, they walked away with 3 Attendees Choice Awards, including Best Presentation, along with their Salon awards.

Snake & Butterfly: Another local chocolatier whose wares I had to pass on through no fault of their own, but I did get to talk to them about their chocolate. They are another newbie chocolatier, selling online for 1-1/2 yrs., and are one of the few to go “from bean to bar,” meaning they start with the cacao beans instead of using someone else’s couverture chocolate to make their truffles.

They refine chocolate in small batches and are “one person removed from the source,” meaning their importer goes to the growers. They have a raw line of chocolates, use organic ingredients, and they also make handmade marshmallows.

They received an Attendees Choice Award for Best New Find at the Salon. And you can find them at the Campbell and Santa Cruz Farmers Markets, along with a few Santa Cruz locations like New Leaf Market and Barefoot Coffee Roasters.

vice chocolates
“Just Give In” Okay!

Vice Chocolates & XOX Truffles: Two of our recommended local chocolatiers were also at the Salon.

Kudos to Vice on their 13 Salon awards, including 1st places for their Dark Chocolate Bar with Fig & Anise and Best in Salon, and 2 Attendees Choice Awards. They also received overtures from local stores interested in carrying their chocolates, so they might soon become easier to find and enjoy.

And congrats to XOX for their Best in Salon and Most Luxurious Chocolate Experience awards. Next time you are in North Beach neighborhood or close by, be sure to detour to their store (754 Columbus Avenue) for some lovely handmade truffles.

Other local chocolatiers & chocolate companies that participated in the 2010 SF Chocolate Salon were:

Maybe next year we’ll be able to give them all a try!

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Published March 31, 2010