It was a rainy day, 12/7/2016, when Cacaopod & I ventured into SF to judge truffles in TasteTV’s 3rd Annual Chocolate Truffle Artistry Awards. The rain meant some judges were no-shows, so I guess that means our opinions counted for more in the final tally, but I’ll still give you my take on truffles I tasted because not everything is written in the stars awarded.
Quite the spread
When Andre Crump, TasteTV’s CEO, rolled in boxes and boxes of chocolates, he announced we would be judging 38 entries in 2 hours. Thirty-eight entries included boxed sets (!) as well as single truffles. As the one CBTB chocolateer with the least capacity for sampling large quantities of chocolate, I was audible in my anguish. Andre encouraged us all that we could do it as he filled table after table with chocolate samples.
I did do it, with the strategy we use when the four of us CBTB-ers sample truffles: divide each truffle into quarters and share. Cacaopod & I ended up with plates of uneaten half truffles, since we were missing our other 2 CBTB-ers, but we accomplished the goal of sampling and judging 38 entries.
There were too many entries for me to remember them all now, so I will cover the memorable ones: some were memorable in good ways, others were memorable for being almost unmentionable (I’m looking at you, Phillip Ashley — we need to talk).
The chocolatiers we judged were from across the country, with one entry from Canada. Only three were local: Fera’wyn’s Artisan Chocolates, of Vallejo, flying noir of Oakland, and Rainy Day Chocolate of Sonoma County.
Racking up awards
Fera’wyn’s Artisan Chocolates submitted two entries: their 2016 Holiday Gift Set and the single flavor truffle, Willow.
We loved the gift set when we first saw it at the 2016 Fall Chocolate Salon, especially the Green Fairy Absinthe truffle that adds basil to the formerly taboo liqueur so it leans more to the herbal than the licorice side. The set also included other seasonal flavors like peppermint, gingerbread, and pumpkin. The gift set was a high achiever at the tasting, winning in every category: 4.5 stars for Best Exterior Design, Best Ingredient Combination, Best Taste, and Best Overall Truffle Artistry; 4 stars for Most Unique; and 3.5 stars for Best Packaging.
Willow is a pretty half-dome truffle with a swirly decoration and a strong blueberry taste from its combination of blueberry and elderberry balsamic; the addition of chartreuse liqueur gives it an extra punch. It also won in every category: 4.5 stars for Best Ingredient Combination, Best Taste, and Most Unique; 4 stars for Best Exterior Design and Best Overall Truffle Artistry; and 3 stars for Best Packaging.
Fera’wyn’s Artisan Chocolates are available online and at special events. Check their website and FB page for the latest info.
She’s so unusual
Flying noir, the Oakland-based chocolatier with a fine-arts approach to chocolate got 5 stars for Best Exterior Design for her box set. But that is to be expected because her pieces are handmade with a lot of unusual details, natural colors, and shimmery mica.
Flying noir’s box set also received 4 stars for Best Packaging, which is also deserved because each die-cut and folded black box is wrapped with a unique abstract painting and secured with a black band.
The set received 4 stars for Most Unique, which can seem like an understatement with flavor profiles that mix caramelized pumpkin seeds with wasabi sea salt or apple brandy, caramel and espelette chilis.
The ingredient list for a flying noir box set is always an education in unusual ingredients. This time I had to Google “Cachaça” (it’s a Brazilian spirit made from sugarcane). It was used in a mildly hot piece that included mole, ground pumpkin and sesame seeds, currants and “mysterious more.” It was like a sweet vegetarian mole dish wrapped in dark chocolate with a slight afternote of anise.
You can buy flying noir chocolates online, and at select locations, like Bi-Rite Market. Check their site for additional locations.
Almost too pretty to eat
The most-memorable-in-a-good-way chocolate came from a new chocolatier in Canada. The Gin & Tonic truffle from Cōchu Chocolatier of Calgary in Alberta was a very pretty brown and blue half-dome covered in bright blue, green, and white dots, like an abstract globe. Delightful to look at, it was even better to eat: a very delicious combination with a slight buzz but not overly boozy, that ended with a lingering chocolate aftertaste.
It was the best-rated truffle at the event with 5 stars for Best Exterior Design, Best Ingredient Combination, Best Taste, and Best Overall Truffle Artistry. It also received 4 stars for Most Unique and 3.5 stars for Best Packaging.
The other memorable piece from Cōchu was their Lychee Orange Blossom, which was super cool looking because it was stylized like a lychee nut. The taste was very light, mostly orange blossom and white chocolate, but it was the pinky-red spiky exterior that stood out and deserved its 4.5 stars for Best Exterior Design.
Sadly, Cōchu does not have an online store yet or any way to buy their chocolates except by traveling to Calgary. Check their website for future availability.
Following close behind Cōchu’s Gin & Tonic for most-memorable-in-a-good-way was San Diego’s Chuao Chocolatier’s Firecracker. This has got to be the best use of pop rocks in chocolate ever: They mix chipotle caramel fudge and sea salt with pop rocks, then cover it all in dark chocolate.
It’s fireworks in your mouth: crackling explosions with a little heat and a chocolate toffee taste. It definitely earns its 5 stars for Most Unique and Best Overall Truffle Artistry (plus 4.5 stars for Best Ingredient Combination and Best Taste). This ingenious combination also comes in a bar format, so you can indulge in it without springing for a fancy box.
And the box is fancy — big and red with a big red bow — it just screams gift and earned 4 stars for Best Packaging. Luckily, the chocolate inside is not gift chocolate, so your recipient will be doubly delighted.
And if your recipient seems too refined for this kind of chocolate hi-jinks, you could give them Chuao’s Wild Truffles in the same glamorous box.
The Wild Truffles reminded me of Charles Chocolates’ intensely chocolate paves (just heavy cream, butter and chocolate, dusted with cocoa powder) but with a shell that looks handmade. They won 5 stars for Best Taste.
Chuao’s full line is available online. They also have nationwide distribution, especially for their bars. Check their website for locations.
Other top vote-getters that deserve mention are La Châtelaine Chocolat Co. of Bozeman, MT; Bissinger’s Handcrafted Chocolatier of St. Louis, MO; and Chocolat Céleste of St. Paul, MN.
La Châtelaine submitted 2 single-flavor truffles: Christmas Pudding and Le Basque. Christmas Pudding had a dense flavor profile that included ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, currants and dates. For Americans unfamiliar with traditional English plum pudding, I’d liken this truffle’s flavor to a good fruit cake covered in chocolate. It earned 5 stars for Best Ingredient Combination, Most Unique, Best Overall Truffle Artistry; and 4.5 stars for Best Taste.
The Le Basque was more unusual to me in that it contained dried pineapple. It was dark chocolate ganache infused with pineapple and espelette peppers. It had a nice pineapple flavor that went surprisingly well with the dark chocolate, ending with a little heat. It won 4.5 stars for Most Unique.
La Châtelaine chocolates are available online or at their stores in Bozeman.
Old World elegance
Bissinger’s Handcrafted Chocolatier is a truly old-school chocolatier: They came to the States from France in 1845. Their elegant traditional chocolate boxes were awarded 5 stars for Best Packaging. They are beautiful, evoking a strong nostalgia for the Old World.
Bissinger also received 5 stars for Best Exterior Design for their softly triangular Blood Orange truffles that looked like big, fat candy corn with the colors tweaked to a more monochrome subtle palette. While these were the cutest, most unique looking of the 3 single-flavor truffles Bissinger submitted, I preferred the taste of their Lemon Meringue (4 stars for Best Ingredient Combination and Most Unique; 3.5 stars for Best Taste and Best Overall Truffle Artistry) and Passion Fruit Ginger Mango, which were both more distinctive than the mainstream flavor of orange chocolate.
Bissinger chocolates are available online and at select locations across the country, like upscale department stores. Locally, you can buy them at Draeger’s.
Chocolat Céleste’s Box Set had a big visual wow factor with a strong, simple color palette and shots of glitter. It deserved its 5 stars for Best Exterior Design and 4 stars for Best Packaging.
But it had 2 big problems: They did not submit enough samples for everyone to try more than one flavor in the box, and the enclosed menu was a simple listing of flavors that didn’t tell us which was which, so it was confusing as to what I was tasting.
Of course, I had to try one of the pretty glitter balls. I can’t tell you any more about it than it tasted yucky. Others were luckier in the samples they tried, but as to what flavors they tasted, they were as clueless as I was.
Chocolat Céleste’s chocolates are available online.
Speaking of yucky, I have a bone to pick with Phillip Ashley of Phillip Ashley Chocolates, Memphis, TN. My top 3 favorite foods are chocolate, peanut butter and collard greens. Two out of these 3 go great together; instead he went with the 2 least likely to succeed to come up with the truffle called “Delta Dinner” in his submitted box set.
Delta Dinner™ listed its ingredients as collards and cornbread. Because I love collards, I had to try this one first out of the box. It now ranks close to the traumatic experience of my big brother gifting me his long johns one Christmas when we were kids.
I could be clinical in my description and say it’s a little sweet and ends smoky, but honestly, this tasted worse to me than the “smoked cigar” caramel chocolate truffle I sampled at TasteTV’s 2016 Caramels Competition. Definitely one to spit out while cursing the maker’s name.
He redeemed himself with other flavors in the box, such as the Newton™, listed as fig & ginger and very reminiscent of Fig Newtons. The white chocolate Checkmate™ was straight-up, plain vanilla chess pie (nice, but I wish it had been lemon chess). I liked the Red Fox™, described as hot bourbon pecan, which had a just-right amount of heat and bourbon mix.
The big “huh?” for me (as opposed to the big trauma of earlier) was The Great Pumpkin™. If the rest of the meal includes collards, cornbread, chess pie, bourbon and pecans, we are dining in the South, and the pie filling should be sweet potato, not pumpkin.
But I’m probably just quibbling now. All of the pieces in the box set were very attractive and well made (4 stars for Best Exterior Design and Best Overall Truffle Artistry), and the chocolate was high quality. It could be a fun gift for your more adventurous friends who appreciate your wicked sense of humor.
The box set certainly deserves its 5 stars for Most Unique. But unique is one of those terms my Southern mother-in-law uses to comment on something she doesn’t care for without sounding judge-y. (Too late for me here, though.)
Phillip Ashley Chocolates are available online, at their store in Memphis, and at a few select retailers. Check their website for current locations.
Another Most Unique top-vote getter that was more memorable for weird than wonderful was Delysia Chocolatier’s box set. It was described as Asian inspired, so I was looking forward to something along the lines of SFBA’s Jade Chocolates or Socola Chocolatier.
I had to skip one of the 4 flavors in the box because it was Wasabi Raspberry, which they described as “spicy but sweet.” Since both Cacaopod and I think wasabi tastes like poison, I can’t verify that description, but I question why anyone would want to mess up “bittersweet chocolate infused with raspberry puree” by adding “traditional Japanese wasabi.”
Of the other 3, I found the milk chocolate Honey Sriracha too hot. I think Sriracha is tricky to add to chocolate: the garlic and hot pepper combine to overwhelm the chocolate. If you want a Sriracha truffle, I recommend Socola’s Flying Rooster, which I think is better balanced.
The one straight-up sweet truffle, Spice Orange, was nice, but I honestly didn’t taste the Asian spices in it that the description mentioned. It was the opposite of the Sriracha truffle: too subtle.
The most successful truffle in the box to me was the Seaweed Salad. It was interesting, weird, but tasty. The bittersweet chocolate was flavored with soy sauce and had an added piece of seaweed inside. It was kind of mysterious at first: savory and buttery, a very umami taste. The aftertaste was more pronounced: definitely seaweed salad. It shouldn’t have worked, but it kinda did.
In addition to its Most Unique 4.5 stars, Delysia Chocolatier’s box set received 4 stars for Best Exterior Design (they were all very pretty), Best Ingredient Combination, Best Taste, and Best Overall Truffle Artistry. I think they deserve those last 3 for the Seaweed Salad truffle alone. And I am thankful they didn’t send us their “Insect Collection”: truffles made with crickets, mealworms and grasshoppers.
Delysia Chocolates are available online or at their store in Austin, TX.
A different kind of unique were the Brazilian truffles, AKA brigadeiros, from tiny B of SF. Traditionally made with condensed milk, cocoa powder and butter, then rolled in chocolate sprinkles, brigadeiros could be described as sweet, shell-less truffles. Tiny B upscales them using organic condensed milk and organic dark chocolate, and rolling them in different coatings, such as nuts, depending on the flavor of the ganache.
Of the 3 samples submitted, the Pistachio & Sea Salt was the most interesting looking, with the chewy ganache rolled in the ingredients. I liked that it was less sweet than traditional brigadeiros I’ve had before, but it was not my favorite; it tasted healthy, not chocolaty enough for me.
The Dark Chocolate with Dark Sprinkles was much better and deserves its 4 stars for Best Taste. Again, it was less sweet than traditional brigadeiros, but the dark chocolate was chocolaty enough. It was almost fudgy, but very smooth and not grainy like fudge often is. We judges on the panel agreed that this is a dessert that should be paired with alcohol (maybe Cachaça?)
Tiny B’s brigadeiros have no preservatives. They recommend that you refrigerate your brigadeiros if you are not going to eat them in a few weeks, and they will stay fresh for 2 months longer. A note on the package says, “By the way, they are safe to eat for months even without refrigeration. They just won’t be as soft.”
Sounds like artisan chocolate for the earthquake emergency kit!
Tiny B brigadeiros are available online and at select local markets, like Bi-Rite. Check their website for additional locations.
Seleušs Chocolates of Kirkland, WA, had a flower theme in their single-flavor submissions. Their Wild Lavender Honey was extremely cute with its 2 little lavender flowers decorating the dark chocolate shell (4 stars for Best Exterior Design). Unfortunately, it was also flavored with lavender, which is quite a polarizing flavor. It didn’t work for me.
The Rosa Mundi continued the flower theme with a very rose flavored milk chocolate ganache covered with dark chocolate. I liked this one better, but I’m not really a flower eater.
Lucky for me, three’s a charm, and their last submission, Orange Blossom Honey, was much tastier. Orange Blossom doesn’t taste like orange, it’s still a flower, but it’s milder than lavender or rose. The piece was attractive too, topped with bee pollen. It won 4 stars for Best Ingredient Combination, Best Taste and Best Overall Truffle Artistry.
Seleušs also won 4 stars for Best Packaging for the miniature hat boxes each truffle came in. They were color coordinated with the flavors inside (Rosa Mundi had pink and white stripes down the sides with a pink-and-white Greek key motif on the label that attached the clear top to the cylinder). They would make cute party favors.
Seleušs Chocolates are available online, at special events and at select locations around Seattle. Check their website for more information.
Two more standouts
Two other individual submissions that won high marks at the judging:
- Tupelo Honey & Cardamom from Cacao Art, Miami, FL, won 4 stars for Best Exterior Design, Best Ingredient Combination, Best Taste, and Best Overall Truffle Artistry. Cacao Art chocolates are available online.
- Shot in the Dark, a dark chocolate & espresso truffle sprinkled with an espresso-infused sea salt & sugar blend, from The Chocolate Fetish, Asheville, SC, won 4 stars for Best Ingredient Combination, Best Taste and Best Overall Truffle Artistry. Chocolate Fetish chocolates are available online or at their store in Asheville.