If you had asked me when I was 5 years old what I wanted to eat if I could eat anything, I probably would have said, “Candy.”
Fast forward many decades, and that was kinda exactly what I had for lunch yesterday — albeit really nice artisan caramels, mostly chocolate-covered and with exotic (and un-kid-friendly) flavors like rosemary, blue cheese, single malt Scotch, and cigar. There was a table full of caramels, and I was going to eat them all.
No picky eaters allowed
I didn’t think up this meal myself. I was invited by TasteTV and the International Chocolate Salon to be a judge at their 2016 Caramels Competition. I’ve been a judge at their SF salons before, but that is a somewhat relaxed process where I can try whatever I like as I wander around vendor booths that are giving away free samples. This, however, was my first time judging at a sit-down affair with veteran judges who weren’t my fellow CBTB chocolateers.
There were 9 judges around the long table @ 1pm, when Andre Crump of TasteTV rolled in the boxes of caramels. There were 10–15 selections in all, from chocolatiers as far away as Boston, Vancouver, and San Diego, and a few closer to home.
To the 5-year-old inside me, trying all that candy looked easy-peasy, but the adult me wasn’t so sure. I usually have my crew to share the task to prevent sugar overload. Also, I usually skip anything that doesn’t appeal to me. That behavior was not going to cut it this time. Then one of my fellow judges told me that last time he did this gig, it was twice as much chocolate. I asked how he survived. His answer: “Focus.”
He meant he needed to focus to keep track of all the chocolate, so he could remember and judge them fairly. I realized I was out of my league because my priority was physical survival.
We tried the caramels in roughly alphabetical order of their makers, so we started with some fairly straightforward chocolate-covered caramels that began life as cute bees, but got kinda roughed up and melted flying down from Canada. Safe transit was a problem for several of the competitors, with some busted boxes and tossed-around treats. The bees would make cute gifts, if they can work out their packaging and transportation issues.
We then moved on to 2 mainstream trendy flavors: a maple and uncured bacon caramel and a passion fruit caramel, both in 72% dark chocolate. The twist on the bacon caramel was that the caramel was very grainy — turns out it was because the bacon was ground up in the caramel. The passion fruit twist was that while it was very fruity, it also tasted a little unripe. Not a bad thing, it was like eating a slightly green banana, but definitely unusual.
Things got seriously weird with the “smoked cigar” caramel chocolate truffle, which tasted just like I imagine a cigar would taste like, based on memories of the scent of my grandfather’s cigar as I sat behind him while he drove my sisters and me to dancing school (aah, the good old days of no seat belts and casual second-hand smoke). I think if you know a chocolate-loving cigar smoker, this would be the thing to give them. But nobody else.
That taste was immediately topped, however, by the BBQ Brisket caramel chocolate truffle, which I found inedible. I like Michael Mischer’s barbecue chocolate, but this went beyond BBQ sauce and seemed to throw in every side dish at a barbecue too. I don’t have the words to describe what this tasted like.
Maybe it tastes better with beer, but I don’t drink beer. If you ever try this caramel and can describe it in real words, let me know. For now, I’m sticking with the 5-year-old’s vocabulary: Yucky.
The next caramel/truffle was a dulce de leche, and I was so happy to have a normal flavor, I won’t hate on it being white chocolate (cough, not really chocolate, cough). It was pretty and sweet, and helped me get past the ghost of barbecues past.
I finally got a totally enjoyable caramel next: Fera’wyn’s Artisan Chocolates’ turtles are very cute milk chocolate-covered chewy caramels perched on half a pecan each. Supposedly some have ghost pepper chili salt, but I didn’t feel the heat. What I did taste was a nicely balanced mix of good chocolate, not-too-sweet caramel and pecans. These could be addictive.
We also had a Cointreau-flavored caramel from Fera’wyn’s, which had a nice subtle citrus flavor that ended with a mildly peppery aftertaste.
Does beet reduction count as a vegetable?
Things continued in a delicious streak with the next two gems from Gem Chocolates: a caramel made with a beet reduction and orange, and a rosemary caramel with sea salt flakes. Both were shiny, almost glowing pieces that resembled jewels.
Their savory flavors were distinct, although the beet was more subtle, and beautifully balanced with the caramel and chocolate. The rosemary was a strong top note that lingered, while the sea salt flakes on top were a nice salt flavor — noticeable, but not too salty — and the flaky texture was nice too.
The next competitor’s caramel was a true old-fashioned chocolate covered caramel. It was big and very chewy, but not too sticky, with a super-thick coating of chocolate. Popping one of these whole in your mouth means you are not talking for at least the next 10 minutes (as someone at this event can attest to). Unfortunately, it was salty — like it was trying too hard to be hip, when it should have just stayed old school.
I loved the next 2 caramels by Luxx Chocolat: The Citrus & Savory was a lemon caramel and fresh basil ganache layered in a thin dark chocolate shell. It was a little grainy, but had a nice basil flavor ending on a sweet citrus note, and the shell was the perfect thickness and darkness to compliment, not overwhelm, the inside flavors.
The other caramel I liked from Luxx, is a bit of a head-scratcher. It’s called the Black & Blue, but if you look at the photo, it looks more like Army camo.
The ingredient list might be the name inspiration: a dark chocolate filled with a vintage port-flavored caramel and a blue cheese ganache. But I think maybe they are going with the black-and-blue-dress meme with the visuals. Whatever the name or the decoration, I liked this cheesy treat. The first taste is chocolate, but then the blue cheese takes over, there’s some sweet caramel, and it ends with a little salt. A nice savory caramel.
Luxx submitted a 3rd caramel, Cinnamon Buns, described as creamy cinnamon caramel studded with Georgian pecans and an icing ganache. Truth: It tastes like a cinnamon bun dipped in chocolate. The first taste is very cinnamon-y, then the sweetness overtakes everything. I could not handle this one’s tooth-aching sweetness, but if you LOVE cinnamon buns, you gotta try it.
The next 3 entries by McCrea’s were straight-up chewy caramels in twisty cellophane wrappers. No chocolate, a little sticky, but not a deal-breaker.
Of the 3, I liked the Black Lava Sea Salt best. It was not too sweet, kinda buttery and just enough salt. Tapped Maple had a distinctively maple flavor, but not cloyingly sweet like maple candy.
I didn’t care for the Single Malt Scotch at all. Definitely voted with my inner 5-year-old on that.
Their packaging was killer — capped tubes with simple, elegant graphics. Nice substantial packaging that stands up to shipping, decorated with easy-to-read, good-looking labels, and containing grown-up flavored caramels: Good gift item for many occasions and recipients.
Shaken, not stirred
The caramels from Mink Chocolates seemed totally aimed at the gift market with the swirly-tentacle logo graphics on the box and the 60s-inspired cocktail-shaking redhead on the caramels.
The grapefruit-flavored liquid caramels were enrobed in a super-hard dark chocolate, which was a good thing because the package got a bit banged up in transit. A weaker chocolate might have made for a messy presentation, if the runny caramel fillings had broken free from their chocolate casings.
Lucky for us, the chocolate held firm and we got to enjoy Mink’s “organic, edible, fresh chocolate art.”
Biting through the hard chocolate, you immediately get the grapefruit flavor of the liquid caramel. That lasts a bit because it takes a while for the chocolate to melt in your mouth, so the last taste you get is chocolate.
I don’t know if this is common idea for caramels, but I did like how using a super-hard chocolate delivered the liquid caramel’s flavor first before you taste the chocolate.
The next competitor’s caramel was described as smoky BBQ soft caramel topped with bacon praline. This was a nice chewy caramel, but the bacon was a minor flavor — I think making it a praline took away its smoky meatiness. Instead it was just a sweet crunchiness added to the chocolate and caramel flavors.
Oakland Chocolate Company submitted 2 types of caramels to the competition: Walnut Cashew Caramel Turtles and Caramels Macchiato. OCC works with Jamaican cacao farmers in a coop association to help small farmers there get a fair price for their cacao. OCC roasts the beans and makes their own couverture chocolate, which they use to make their bonbons and other treats, like their turtles.
The turtles were adorable with the nuts arranged around the caramel to resemble the shape of a turtle, then all hand-dipped in chocolate, with more handiwork to indicate a shell, and topped with a sprinkle of salt. Super-cute, but I didn’t like the chocolate used. I think the handmade aspect is very appealing — it’s clear that lots of care and attention went into making these — but the chocolate taste was disappointing, so these were non-starters for me.
Their Caramel Macchiato, on the other hand, was very tasty. In addition to using Jamaican chocolate, they also used Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee. The caramels had a nice coffee flavor that was strong, but not bitter. And the chocolate tasted good, so I’m not sure if adding the coffee performed some kind of alchemy that transformed the chocolate, or if it was a different chocolate altogether.
Not done yet
It took 2 hours to try all of these caramels, take notes and talk about them, then ultimately judge them. By the time we were done, I was a little sick from all that sugar. I know I will be taking a short hiatus from chocolate now, but I did it: I had an all-caramel lunch. My inner 5-year-old’s bucket list has one less item to cross off.
After all that chocolate tasting and careful judging, we had one more treat: One of the other jurors brought a bottle of milk chocolate wine from CV. I’d never had chocolate wine before, so even though I was a little nauseous, I had to try it.
CV’s milk chocolate wine is quite tasty: It’s a blend of red wine, chocolate and cream that you serve chilled. It tastes like chocolate milk but with an alcohol warmth. It reminded me of Kahlua, only chocolate instead of coffee flavored. Do not leave this drink unattended around children — they will not care if it’s wine, it’s dangerously delicious.
After that, they turned us loose, and I went out into the SF afternoon breeze enjoying a major sugar rush. I do wish I could have continued the 5-year-old’s fantasy day, but this adult had to get back to work.
See the list of winners on International Chocolate Salon’s website.