It might seem strange that a beach town is home to an artisan chocolatier who has made the top ten list of several influential publications, but Santa Cruz, south of SFBA, has been home to Richard Donnelly’s award-winning fine chocolates for 25 years. And the most recent top ten list he was on is National Geographic Magazine’s The 10 Best Chocolatiers in the World, in the third edition of their Ultimate Guide for Travelers, released April 3, 2012.
Feeling the love
It’s not just the international jet set that likes his chocolate; locals voted Donnelly Chocolates their favorites in the Best of Santa Cruz Good Times 2011 contest.
We saw the love ourselves when we stopped by on a recent visit. The retail shop is small (the better to experiment and hand-make chocolates in the much larger kitchen in the back), and it was non-stop customers the entire time we were there.
Nevertheless, Richard Donnelly was happy to answer any and all questions, make suggestions, and hand us samples while serving other customers and greeting some like the long-time friends they have become. The store has a very laid-back, comfortable vibe, with prominent displays of hand-dipped chocolate bars vying for attention beside the more traditional display case of truffles and bonbons. There’s even a freezer case of hand-dipped ice cream bars, a gourmet spin on that quintessential summertime treat.
Folksy vs. refined
The balance between the experimental side with a wabi-sabi aesthetic (best represented by the hand-dipped chocolate bars) and the filled bonbons descended from European traditions (with a heavy representation of alcohol fillings) also extends to the experience of eating the chocolates.
Richard said they use 3 types of European couvertures, including Valrhona, matching the type to the flavoring/effect they want to achieve; and the chocolate shells are shiny & even-tempered. Flavored bars also have a nice snap. Traditional, high quality chocolate, as you would expect for the price.
But all that perfect chocolate is the platform, and the flavoring/fillings cover a wide range. Some, like “spicy pepper” are very flavor forward. Others, like “chewy coconut,” are about the texture. Then others you’d expect to be a blast, like the ginger, are very subtle with only a little bite at the end.
(And I have to admit, the bonbon I thought would taste weird did. Richard said, rose was a flavor that women like, but I thought it was like eating perfume and not in the edible-flower range.)
Little hot shots
Donnelly Chocolates offers a “flight” of liquid-center chocolates. While alcohol based, they were not what I expected, hollow chocolates injected with liquor/liqueur. Instead the flavored interiors start out solid and become liquid through a natural chemical process inside the chocolate — like individual mini aging barrels of spirits. As a result, the fillings we tried didn’t have a pronounced alcohol burn, while still having strong liqueur flavors. Warning: They can be messy — Richard told us we had to eat them in one shot —no biting or sharing.
We tried the Limoncello and Prévu, which is a new sparkling liqueur from France made from vodka, cognac, berries, herbs and spices. It wasn’t sparkling by the time I tried it, but it was a lighter, wine-like flavor, which Richard described as a sweet filling popular with men who don’t usually care for sweet.
According to Richard, the most interesting items they sell are the Spicy Pepper Chocolate Bar (“My favorite,” he said. “I put it in my hot chocolate every day.”), the Chinese Five Spice Dark Chocolate Bar, and the Fresh Ginger, Cardamom, and Chipotle Ganache-Filled Chocolates. But the biggest seller, he told us, is the dark chocolate sea salt caramel hand-dipped bar. I believe it: the dish emptied out while we were there, and Richard refilled it, all the while continuing our conversation without pause.
Only in Santa Cruz
I haven’t seen hand-dipped bars from other chocolatiers; they are short, chubby, slightly irregular bars, stuffed with various fillings. Cross-section samples of each bar are displayed in the case to help you make your choice.
We had to try the fast-moving Dark Chocolate Sea Salt Caramel. It’s all about the caramel: chewy, almost stick to your teeth caramel. The chocolate and sea salt are just there to deliver that caramel experience. They enhance it, but are definitely supporting players. I can see why it’s so popular. It is very satisfying if you are a chocolate-covered caramel lover.
We also tried the Chewy Coconut Log, which combines a fat finger of coconut with a dark chocolate shell and a dusting of toasted coconut. It’s a less sweet version of a Mounds Bar, with a way better chocolate shell.
“Dipped chocolate bars are a huge percentage of the business,” Richard said. “And they’re easier to make than truffles.”
Keep coming back
While Donnelly Chocolates have been around long enough to be an institution, the place has a very entrepreneurial feel to it. All the chocolates are handmade in small batches, so daily offering vary and new items appear regularly. When we were there, Richard told us he was ordering a new machine so they can make chocolates almost from scratch. Just short of bean to bar, Richard plans to start making some chocolates with Valrhona cocoa instead of the couverture, and making chocolates with sugar alternatives, including sugar-free sweeteners for diabetics. “People come in every day asking for diabetic chocolate,” he said.
They also sell hand-dipped ice cream bars, chocolate chip cookies, and cookie and brownie mixes. The ice cream for the bars comes from Marianne’s, another local institution, that’s been churning out great homemade ice cream for over 50 years. The bars are popular, and Richard said they are planning to move all ice cream bar production to Marianne’s to be able to increase production and get it into stores.
Go with the flow
If you’re thinking of giving Donnelly Chocolates as gifts, be warned: Packaging is minimal, with a DIY/small carbon footprint feel. Bars are wrapped in clear plastic sleeves, closed with the ingredient label. Boxes are simple white squares, unadorned except for a plain gold border. Product keys are B&W xeroxes of hand-drawn chocolates and descriptions. And when it’s hot outside, the cold packs Richard puts in your plain brown goodie bag are small frozen bottles of Kirkland water in their own plastic sleeves.
If you want to give them as gifts, I suggest you embrace the DIY, wabi-sabi nature of Donnelly Chocolates and decorate the packaging yourself. The box tops are little blank canvases (and already framed in gold), the clear bar sleeves lend themselves to sticker art, and you can tie them all up with pretty ribbons.
I think Mr. Donnelly would approve.
Richard Donnelly Fine Chocolates, 1509 Mission St., Santa Cruz, 831-458-4214.