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

General's Residence

The raw and the cooked


Found some new favorites at the Fall Salon, including the location

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The Generals Residence at Fort Mason
The General’s Residence at Fort Mason was the new location for the Fall Chocolate Salon.
Great space: Look at those lovely floors. And comfy chairs!

The 6th Annual Fall Chocolate Salon, Sunday, Nov. 15, was held in a new, more comfortable venue. The General’s Residence at Fort Mason is a little hard to find, but once inside, it’s an attractive vintage space with lots of windows overlooking the Bay, and it had the one thing that’s been missing from most chocolate salons: seating! This time, it was easier to spend more time at the event because we could rest our feet and chat. We hope this becomes the location every fall.

As always, it was a smaller event than the spring International Chocolate Salon. With 30+ vendors, only 13 of them were local chocolate makers/chocolatiers/candy makers, so I could easily meet all the SFBA vendors and try almost everything I wanted. There were other great chocolate vendors there, like Amano Artisan Chocolate and Marco Paolo Chocolates, plus other complementary product vendors, like wineries and perfume makers.

We were happy  to see some new local chocolate vendors come to the show (Alexander’s Patisserie, CaCoCo, Firefly Chocolate, and Heavenly Taste Toffee), and to meet some new-to-us vendors (R & J Toffees and Kindred Cooks).

There was a nice variety of chocolate too, ranging from the raw versions by Endorfin and CaCoCo to the cooked: a lot of brittle, toffee, and caramels (from CocoTutti, Fera’wyn’s Artisan Chocolates, Heavenly Taste Toffee, Kindred Cooks, NeoCocoa, and R & J Toffees). Sprinkled in the mix were artisan chocolatiers (Alexander’s Patisserie, CocoTutti, Fera’wyn’s Artisan Chocolates, flying noir, and NeoCocoa), larger chocolate makers (Alter Eco, TCHO, and The Tea Room Chocolate Company), and the very health-conscious bean-to-bar maker, Firefly Chocolate.

Kasie Epperly
Kacie Epperly (left) assembles a box of her pretty chocolates with help from her fellow patisserie co-workers.

On with the show

The very first chocolatier we talked to was Kacie Epperly of Alexander’s Patisserie. This new patisserie opened a year ago in Mountain View, and in addition to its full line of French pastries and macarons, they also carry a line of truffles in 25 flavors, ranging from classics like Fleur de Sel Caramel, through tropical fruits, teas, and an extensive selection of alcohol-enhanced flavors, to the more unusual like honey fennel pollen and hemp seed with almond praline. Kacie developed all the flavors, which include one seasonal Chef’s Special. At the salon, the special was Pumpkin Spice.

Kacie’s truffles are tasty, beautiful hand-decorated orbs. Depending on your point of reference, they resemble planets or superballs. Nestled in their slots in simple black boxes, they would make a stand-out gift. However, Kacie told us that these truffles have no preservatives, so they are best enjoyed within 1-2 weeks of purchase, so we CBTB-ers enjoyed our show purchases all by ourselves.

Alexanders bonbons
Alexander’s Patisserie chocolates make an eye-catching gift box.

What we liked most about these truffles is their freshness, the flavors are bright, and you know what you’re tasting. They start with a good base of Valrhona chocolate, which  enhances the flavors Kacie adds to the truffles.

We especially liked the “Gin Me Up Scotty,” which is very refreshing with its mix of lemon, cucumber and gin in a milk chocolate ganache and dark chocolate shell. And the Chef’s Special, which was a buttery, gingerbread-flavored caramel, that wasn’t overly sweet. The Honey Fennel got the most divided comments of our group: Some liked its fennel taste a lot, others thought it too herb-y or a little bit like soap.

Alexander’s Patisserie (209 Castro Street, Mountain View) does not have an online shop, so you must travel to Mountain View to purchase Kacie’s truffles. They are open Tues-Sun, starting at 8am and are open through dinnertime, so we encourage you to find the time to visit and try their chocolates yourself.

Healthy hot chocolate

The next chocolate we tried went in a different direction. CaCoCo is a raw chocolate maker based in Santa Cruz, which co-founder Tony Portugal described as “Willie Wonka meets Indiana Jones.”

CaCoCo uses an heirloom variety of cacao to make 3 different drinking chocolates, two 65% versions and an 80% version. Tony described the mostly-organic ingredients: “It’s cacao powder, cacao butter, coconut crystal sugar, vanilla and salt. Some are infused with herbs and spices.”

They make their chocolate without roasting. After grinding and mixing the ingredients together, the resulting mass is “formed into a huge brick, which we then grind into a powder.”

We liked the wabi-sabi aesthetic of CaCoCo’s drinking chocolate as much as we liked its taste.

The powder is not a fine grind like most cocoas and chocolate drink mixes we’re accustomed to. Instead, it is a beautiful mix of different size chunks and finer grinds, which means that to make a cup of drinking chocolate, Tony advises to follow James Bond’s instructions, “It should be shaken, not stirred.”

We tried all 3 varieties of drinking chocolate, but found the 65% versions too sweet. Surprising to me that I preferred the 80% because I usually find anything above 75% too bitter — especially with raw cacao. But the 80% has a rich, chocolately taste with a nice, thick texture. It reminded me of European drinking chocolates. It’s definitely for people who like dark chocolate (like me).

We bought a package of the 80% and made it ourselves. The printed proportions seemed wrong: 5 tablespoons of chocolate to 2 ounces of hot water, but I followed them exactly. I didn’t quite go James Bond on it. Instead, I used my handheld milk frother to meld the rough chunks and water together.

It worked beautifully, and my cup was every bit as thick, creamy, and delicious as the sample at the Salon. If you want to eat raw chocolate for its health benefits, but want it to be tasty, I can recommend CaCoCo.

CaCoCo drinking chocolates are available online and at natural food stores, mostly in Santa Cruz.

Endorfin Packaging
Endorfin displayed their new packaging at the Salon

More chocolate you can feel good about

Endorfin, the almost-raw chocolate vendor at the Salon (they don’t roast their beans, but they do ferment them), didn’t have their drinking chocolate when we stopped by their booth because they had sold out after doing a vintners event the same weekend. So we couldn’t do a straight-up comparison with CaCoCo, but we remember enjoying Endorfin’s hot chocolate at a previous Salon.

At this show, Brian Wallace, Endorfin’s founder and chief chocolate maker, showed us their new packaging, which extended the shelf life of their bars, and sampled a new product, Bliss Butter, a combination he described as “cashew, coconut sugar, and cacao nibs stone ground with the melanger I use for grinding our cacao. I grind it smooth, then add cacao nibs, flax and chia seeds. It has a kind of cookie dough flavor. You can spread it on apples, bananas, and toast.

He recommended putting it on ice cream, “It turns into a shell like Magic Shell®. It firms up and you can crack it with a spoon.”

Endorfin bars
That’s not a misspelling on Endorfin flavored bar packages.

We didn’t get to try it with ice cream, but it is a more interesting treat than any cashew butter I’ve tried before, with more flavor (hey, it’s got chocolate mixed in) and a slightly crunchy texture. It’s not available on their website yet, but keep your eye out for this new treat.

We tried a couple of Endorfin’s flavored bars, which are labeled “Dark Mylk Chocolate,” which was a head-scratcher for me until Brian explained, “We start with 60–70% cacao and add coconut milk, so it’s dairy free. The ‘mylk’ spelling is because it’s non-dairy. Federal regulators prohibit calling something ‘milk’ if it’s non-dairy.”

The coffee drinkers among us loved the Turkish Coffee bar; the coffee made it taste like a darker chocolate. Brian said it’s their most popular bar, and that “people were grabbing them by the handful [to buy].”

The Passion bar got a more mixed reception. Most of us thought the ginger and rose were nicely balanced, but some thought the ginger overpowered the rose and was too harsh. With both bars, the texture was smoother than most people expected from raw chocolate.

Endorfin has an online store where you can buy their bars, monthly chocolate subscriptions, and bulk chocolate supplies.

Jonas Ketterle, Firefly Chocolate
Jonas Ketterle makes Firefly Chocolate in a traditional Mexican-inspired way.

Traditional techniques

Firefly Chocolate is a new chocolatier we met at the salon. Jonas Ketterle, Firefly’s Founder & Chief Chocolatier, just started selling his 85% cacao bars in June. While his bars aren’t raw, he focuses on the health aspects of chocolate, which he calls, “an amazing superfood.”

He spent 3-1/2 years learning the art of chocolate making, which he described as “making dark chocolate that people love by picking the right bean and roasting it to eliminate acidity.”

He explained, “I roast at low temperature. You don’t need a French roast, but I believe fire is part of the alchemy of making chocolate. I learned to make chocolate in Oaxaca, Mexico the traditional way and that includes fire roasting.”

He uses organic cacao that he sources from a cooperative of 300 farmers in Belize. The chocolate has a fruity taste. His sweetener is coconut palm sugar. He currently offers 6 different bars, which he designed for different occasions, such as his Spicy Chai: “It’s great in the morning; I melt it into a drink.”

Of the flavors I tried, I liked the Coconut best, which was smoother and sweeter than the other flavors. Jonas explained that it was because of the added coconut, which adds lots of fat and sweetness without added sugar. This bar isn’t widely available yet.

The other bars we sampled were too bitter for me (my sweet spot: 55-75% cacao). And in general, we thought the bars would be better with more cocoa butter and some added vanilla. The Maca, which Jonas described as a superfood that he recommends eating when you’re going to be active and that has a malted flavor was interesting, but I bet it would be better combined with the coconut bar. Good thing he’s contemplating a whole line of coconut bars.

Firefly bars are available at The Scarlet Sage Herb Co. in SF, some select stores, and online.

Landing on her feet

Next to Firefly at the Salon was the recently uprooted flying noir, who lost their kitchen this year when Coco Délice closed, where they had been renting space.

Chocolatier Karen Urbanek told us that while things were a bit chaotic these days, they had found a place to land: “We’re moving to Oakland near the airport [how appropriate!]. We will share a commercial kitchen with Nuttyness. They are building out a space. They also rented from Coco Délice, but they moved out in January. The space is close to finished, and we should be moved in in December.”

flying noir box
Some boozy bling in a box, courtesy of flying noir.

She’s looking at the forced move in a positive light: “At the new space, I will have a table I can call my own 24-7.”

While all of that has been going on in the background, Karen has continued to make her hand-decorated-with-natural-colors/ingredients chocolates, experimenting with new flavors and textures, a line of boozy chocolates, and a drinking chocolate flavored with tropical fruits. “Everyone gets excited when I mention booze,” Karen explained when describing her new line of chocolates flavored with unusual spirits.

Of the ones I sampled, I liked The Few the best. It’s a dark chocolate ganache flavored with Few-brand bourbon and encrusted with a textured shell of sugar & salt. It’s a sweet, crunchy, then boozy treat (Karen said it’s about 15% booze, and she recommends eating this line of chocolates quickly because she’s not sure how long it will be before the taste fades). I also liked the Brasilao, which had a nice burst of lime in a milk chocolate ganache mixed with cachaça, a spirit distilled from sugarcane.

You can buy flying noir chocolates online or at Bi-Rite Market.

Painted pillows

CocoTutti bar
CocoTutti proves that both the front and the back of a bar can be beautiful.

Another very artistic chocolatier at the Salon was Elyce Zahn of CocoTutti 4-cup chocolatier, who had 5 different flavors of her bonbon/bar hybrids (CoCoQuintets) at the Salon. The bars are basically 5 attached bonbons, which she developed for people who think a box of chocolates is a gift for someone else, while a bar is a treat you can buy for yourself. She has been putting her most popular flavors into bars for about a year now, and while she still has some kinks to work out, the bars themselves seem to be accomplishing her goal. I know I treated myself to a couple of bars.

Like her individual chocolates, Elyce hand-decorates the bars which is proving challenging due to the small spaces between the flavor-pillows and those little pillows themselves. She’s experimenting with application methods, such as airbrushing through cheesecloth or stamping colors on with tiny sponges.

What’s also interesting visually is that the backside of her bars are often interesting too because that’s where she applies the textured bits to the bars, such as the peanuts in the Thai chili/ginger/peanut bar or the freeze-dried, ground raspberries on the raspberry bar.

We tried the raspberry, Pink Pigeon Rum, and peanut butter bars. We loved the raspberry (but we always have), with its bright raspberry balancing the chocolate. If you like fruit and chocolate, we think this is the perfect after-dinner treat. We also liked the rum bar, which mixes the rum into a creamy chocolate caramel, which made for a flavor experience that started with chocolate and ended with a nice lingering rum aftertaste. The peanut butter was a nice, straightforward classic combo of milk chocolate and homemade peanut butter, but I’d really like to try that in a dark chocolate sometime.

In addition to the bars, CocoTutti also had a seasonal dark chocolate bark flavored with a housemade 5-spice mixture and sprinkled with roasted pecans and dried cranberries, which was so tasty we came dangerously close to just inhaling it.

You can find CocoTutti chocolates online and at a lot of chocolate/food-oriented events. They will next be at the KPFA Winter Crafts Fair, 12/19 &12/20, at the Craneway Pavilion in Richmond. A perfect chance to get some special holidays gifts (including for yourself).

Real food wrapped in chocolate

Another local artisan chocolatier we saw at the Salon who will also be at the KPFA Winter Crafts Fair is Fera’wyn’s Artisan Chocolates

Autumn Brittle
Fera’wyn’s Autumn Brittle will make you forget traditional brittles.

We talked with David Whittingham, Fera’wyn’s co-chocolatier/owner with his wife Joanna, and he told us that in addition to selling online and at the Walnut Creek Farmers Market, they are doing more shows: “We just came from the NorthWest Chocolate Festival in Seattle.”

They had a range of their truffles at the show, from the ever-popular Limocello and extra-hot Naga Chili to the seasonal Pumpkin Pie, Gingerbread and Mint Frost, plus the enigmatic purple-swirled Willow, which David revealed is made with blueberry & elderberry balsamic plus chartreuse. It makes for a very blueberry experience.

One of the things that Fera’wyn’s does to make their truffles stand out is that they often incorporate ingredients that give texture, not just flavor to their ganaches. For example, the Gingerbread truffle has real gingerbread inside and the Pumpkin Pie truffle contains “actual pumpkin puree, which gives it a nice texture,” David explained.

We agree. So many things nowadays are pumpkin-pie-spice flavored (often with artificial flavors) that it’s nice to have something not just flavored but actually closer to the real thing. The puree texture is different than a typical smooth ganache and does make the truffle seem more akin to an actual piece of pie (but with chocolate, so it’s even better).

It’s not chocolate, but we love it

But what we are really excited about from Fera’wyn’s isn’t a chocolate item at all: Their Autumn Brittle is a pumpkin/sesame seed brittle that we fell in love with. It is crunchy, but not dangerous to your teeth, and it has a nice spice mix with the seeds giving a more subtle flavor than the typical peanut brittle we grew up with.

Its also visually appealing with a cute stamped design on the pieces, and it’s packaged in a pretty wrapper. This is brittle adults can appreciate. Among the people who tried our sample, everyone like it — even those who don’t usually eat brittle. It’s worth seeking out for gift-giving or for yourself.

Heavenly Toffee
Matt Elkins and his line of heavenly toffee.

Local candy

This leads us into the not-strictly-chocolate portion of the event. There were several more-candy-oriented local vendors at the show, and we tried them all.

Grandma started it all

Matt Elkins, the owner/candymaker of Heavenly Taste Toffee, told us he started his business a year ago using a “third-generation recipe that Grandma invented, and Mom has made it for the holidays for 35 years.

“I use Guittard chocolate, real butter, real sugar — none of the fake stuff.”

He currently offers 8 flavors with plans for more. He told us his favorite is the white cherry pistachio, but the most popular is the dark almond toffee. The one we liked best was the espresso toffee with biscotti, which had homemade almond biscotti ground and spread on top of the dark toffee.

You can buy Heavenly Taste Toffee at several local farmers markets and retail outlets or order it online.

Family tradition

We also met caramel maker, Kindred Cooks founder Jeri Vasquez, who started the business 2 years ago and currently offers 8 kinds of caramels from the traditional to the bacon-flavored.

Jeri explained that she started the business using a “Traditional recipe handed down to me: it’s generations old. I always made it for the holidays, but the list kept getting longer and people begging, ‘Don’t drop me from the list.’ It became ‘If not now, then when?’ so I jumped in. And now, the caramels sell themselves.”

We tried her caramels that were flavored with chocolate: Bacon with Chocolate and Sea Salt with Chocolate. They both have a very soft texture, but still chewy. Of the 2, we liked the more classic sea salt best, which makes sense since she told us her regular caramel with sea salt is her best seller.

Over the 2 years she’s been in business, she’s expanded her line of caramels: “We now have spicy hot, vanilla chai, and bacon. The next flavor will be espresso, and I plan to rotate flavors because people always ask for what’s new.”

R&J Toffee
Understated packaging shows off R & J Toffees.

Kindred Cooks caramels are available in specialty stores and online.

Toffee to die for

The candy discovery of the event for us was R & J Toffees of San Jose. Although they have been at other food events (and were featured in a KRON4 piece on a previous salon along with Elyce Zahn of CocoTutti) and been in business for almost 9 years in San Jose, this was our first time trying this toffee. We are so glad we didn’t wait any longer.

R&J makes one product only: their Premium Almond Toffee. It is so good, I can see why they don’t bother with anything else. It is a delicious traditional-looking toffee (although more almond-encrusted), full of chocolate and almond flavor with a long buttery aftertaste.

Better with age

We asked Sarah Mardaraswala of R&J why their toffee is different from others we’ve tried: “We age our toffee before we sell it for 8-9 months to give it a strong toffee, buttery taste.”

I am used to vendors at the Salon urging me to eat my purchases quickly because they use no preservatives. Sarah advises the opposite for their toffee because aging it further will deepen the buttery toffee flavor: “You can freeze for up to a year, and it keeps in the fridge for 8-9 months.”

R & J Toffees was a big winner with everyone we shared samples with. Everyone loved the buttery aftertaste, and a lot of people were surprised that such an unassuming-looking product could be so addicting. The only way anyone suggested it could be improved would be if they did a salted version.

Not only did everybody enjoy it, they wanted to know where they could get it themselves. Sarah told us that they do salons and festivals frequently, and it’s also available online, in local Whole Foods and the Ritz Hotel in Half Moon Bay. Visit their website to find other locations.

We can highly recommend R & J Toffees as a treat for yourself, and — with its long shelf life — as a gift you know will be enjoyed and appreciated.

NeoCocoa Marshmallows
NeoCocoa Marshmallows are irresistible.
Neo Cocoa Toffee Nib Brittle
Neo Cocoa’s Toffee Nib Brittle is a nice twist on tradition.

Neo candies

Combining toffee and brittle into one addictive treat is NeoCocoa’s Toffee Nib Brittle. Maybe it’s the addition of nibs, but we really enjoy this variation — it’s got a satisfying crunch that’s not as hard as brittle, and the nibs are a great substitute for nuts (especially if you love chocolate). If you don’t like nuts, try this toffee treat instead. Christine Doerr, Neo Cocoa’s founder/chocolatier told us her toffee is a Good Food finalist. Winners will be announced in January. We wouldn’t be surprised to see this win.

Neo Cocoa has a line of chocolate bars. Christine debuted a gingerbread bar at the show. “I make gingerbread, crumble it up & mix it into milk chocolate. It’s a take on cookies & milk,” she explained. “I decided on milk because dark chocolate overpowered the gingerbread.”

Our crew agreed that milk was a good choice for this bar that had a nice crunchy texture that reminded us of rice crispies. We also liked the balance of spices with the milk chocolate; it did have a very gingerbread-y taste.

Christine also makes marshmallow confections. Her seasonal choice at the Salon was a Marshmallow Cranberry Orange truffle, which featured an orange-flavored marshmallow sandwiched between 2 slabs of cranberry ganache and doused with cocoa powder (Neo Cocoa truffles aren’t encased in chocolate). This was a good reminder of the season with so much flavor from the tart cranberry and orange fruit.

But our favorite Neo Cocoa marshmallow treat are the big chocolate-covered marshmallows. The chocolate is a delicious dark chocolate that makes the perfect thickness shell over the soft pillows of marshmallows. Christine told us, she likes them so much, she eats them like apples. One of our CBTB chocolateers described them as “portable chocolate mousse.”

Neo Cocoa chocolate is available online, and at local chocolate hotspots like Bi-Rite Market, La Cocina’s kiosk, Star Grocery, Chocolate Covered, and more.

Big-business chocolate

Finally, at the Salon were 3 local-but-large companies with their chocolate wares: TCHO, Alter Eco, and The Tea Room Chocolate Company. We didn’t try the Tea Room bars this time, but they had their entire range of tea-infused bars at the Salon. We did sample TCHO and Alter Eco bars.

Bigtime bean-to-bar

TCHO is a big wheel in the local bean-to-bar industry. They have done a lot nationally to raise awareness of single-source chocolate making, but at the Salon, we found we actually liked their blended milk chocolates best.

TCHO has expanded from simple bean-to-bars to “futuristic, fun” bars.

They offered a tasting range starting at 99%, which they sourced from Ecuador & Peru: Yuck. If you survive that, you proceed down the chocolate range from 70% to 46%.

It wasn’t until we hit the 53% Cacao, a mix of beans from Peru & Ecuador that we found something memorable. It’s a lush, fudgy, dark milk chocolate. Their best-selling Mokaccino is also a good milk chocolate, same mix of sources, that uses local Blue Bottle Coffee for the mocha taste.

What’s new with TCHO is flavored bars, which they’ve offered for about 1 year. At the Salon, they had Strawberry Rhubarb Pie, which includes crunchy pieces of pie crust in milk chocolate; TCHunky TCHOtella with hazelnut, sea salt, and hazelnut butter; and Galactic Gelato, which adds mint astronaut gelato (anyone remember astronaut ice cream? Same thing) to dark chocolate.

We tried the Galactic Gelato because it seemed like the most unusual and found it a cool mint chocolate with chewy/crunchy bits of freeze-dried gelato. They told us that next year they will be expanding the line of futuristic chocolate in fun flavors, so look for them.

100% organic, down to the wrapper

OK, maybe 100% is a stretch, but the fact that Alter Eco packages their truffles in compostable wrappers made of eucalytus and birch that decompose in 60 days was a definite talking point at the Salon to differentiate their product. Because the fact that they are also organic, fair trade, non-GMO, gluten free, and soy free is not so unique anymore, I guess.

Alter Eco doesn’t manufacture their chocolates in SFBA — they are Swiss-made chocolates — but they are attuned to Bay Area sensibilities. In addition to the aforementioned attributes, Cat Gieser, Alter Eco Marketing Coordinator, explained to us that their truffle ganache is made with the trendy superfood coconut oil and most of their bars are vegan.

They had their full line of bars at the show, including the newest Brown Butter and Burnt Caramel bars (definitely not vegan). And they probably had the best deal at the show: 4 full-size bars for $10 total. We like Alter Eco bars. They don’t make us swoon, but they are a solid choice if you’re concerned about sustainability but also wants something that tastes good and is reasonably priced.

alter Eco bars
Alter Eco had quite the show deal: 4 bars for $10.

You can find TCHO, Alter Eco, and The Tea Room Chocolate Company products in places too numerous to mention, across the country and beyond.

Chocolate history lesson

In addition to meeting all the local chocolate vendors at the Salon, we also got to hear an entertaining presentation by Jessica Ferraro of Bar Cacao on craft chocolate (think bean-to-bar), which — while the scope was international — did mention some local makers, including Dandelion and the still-missed trail-blazer Scharffenberger.

Jessica gave a short history lesson on the recent boom in craft chocolate and handed out samples of some of the chocolate to reinforce her points. She gives these talks around town, sometimes including a tour of local chocolate makers. She’s an entertaining speaker and worth checking out.

Latest tours of local chocolate scene

We also gave a presentation at the show, DIY Chocolate Tours of the Bay Area. This was an updated version of the presentation we did at last year’s International Chocolate Salon featuring new and updated tour stops from our DIY tour suggestions.

We have been asked to give this presentation again at next year’s International Chocolate Salon, March 5, 2016, but if you can’t wait, you can plan your own local chocolate tours using our DIY tour suggestions.

Local chocolatiers’ Fall Luxury Salon awards:

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Published December 10, 2015