Monday, April 14, 2008

A Chocolate Affair to Remember

On an unseasonably warm Sunday in San Francisco, chocolate oozed and people sweated at the 2nd Annual International Chocolate Salon in Fort Mason near the Marina. Even though I’m not one of those crazy-for-chocolates people, I had so much fun last year that I decided to return again this year.

Last year the Chocolate Salon was over two days but this year it was shrunk to just one day. (I bet they probably got a lot of pleas from vendors who were overwhelmed from having to give out free chocolates for two days.) So I decided to get there early yesterday because I worried it’ll be crazy packing two-days of people into one day. There were already mass confusion when I arrived because no one knew which line was for tickets and which was will call. When it was finally clarified, the will call line (I pre-ordered my ticket online) was running slower than the ticket sales line. You can see the mass confusion in the photo above.

I give thumbs down to the poor organization by TasteTV, who sponsored and organized the event. They could have easily added one more person to check the names of people in the will call line. Or at least offered up a few pieces of chocolates for those of us waiting in line.

But most people in line were pretty considerate and pleasant. I think because they were all dreaming of the chocolates in store for them inside.

Once I got in and adjusted to the stifling air from the warm day and crowded room, I started talking to the vendors and snapping shots. Here are some of the highlights of the tables I visited and the chocolates I tasted.

The first table I saw was Schoggi, the Swiss chocolate maker who opened a store at Yerba Buena Lane in SOMA. They were offering up tastings of this dried orange dipped in white chocolate and milk chocolate. I like oranges, but not dried because the acidity is often too intense to eat alone. Dipping them in chocolate didn’t help. It didn’t taste awful, but it wasn’t a pleasant first taste. Luckily there were 30 more vendors to try.

I bumped into a friend who recommended I try the E. Guittard chocolates, the artisan line of chocolates made by the family-owned Guittard Chocolates of Burlingame. I’d never heard of Guittard Chocolates, but its E. Guittard line of chocolates uses all-natural ingredients. I tried the bittersweet and white chocolates and while they were nice, I didn’t find anything special about them. There was no rich depth or complexity in the flavors.

I knew I could count on some good chocolates at my favorite Poco Dolce of San Francisco, which I first discovered at last year’s Chocolate Salon. This year’s table was only offering three tastings from these small canisters. And I had to wait a bit because I felt like I was surrounded by a lot of chocolate-tasting newbies who wanted to take a bite and then stand in front of the samples contemplating the flavor. PUH-lease, take your bite and then move to the side. Anywho, I was calmed by Poco Dolce’s burnt caramel with fleur de sel. I left with an 8-piece box of their mixed flavors, which was $3 cheaper than the retail price at stores like Whole Foods. I’m going to have such a good week trying one flavor a night. ;-)

Among some of the first-time presenters at the Salon this year was this chocolate from Los Angeles called Marti Chocolatt. It’s made by a Filipino-American who uses her background to create flavors like Jasmine citron, mango caramel or buko pandan. Marti Chocolatt was experiencing the first-time vendor shock when all the samples they put out for display were gobbled up by guests. And it wasn’t even noon. So when I arrived, they were in panic mode trying to cut up more pieces. They were nice enough to cut me a piece of the mango (which was too sweet for me) and the banana (which was an interesting flavor but kind of unusual). All the chocolates by Tonet Tibay are ganache-like, so pretty much truffles.

I dropped by the Christopher Elbow Artisanal Chocolates table to say hello to owner and chef Chris, who I interviewed for my blog when he opened his store in Hayes Valley earlier this year. Chris says he’s still flying back and forth every other week between San Francisco and his home in Kansas City, Missouri, to make sure the store is running smoothly. His table definitely had the most beautiful chocolates on display, and he was offering samples of his Aztec chili-infused chocolates.

This is Dennis Kearney, the chocolatier behind Coco Delice Fine Chocolates, which is produced in Oakland. His chocolates have a French influence, so they’re ganache-filled candy using darker chocolates. Chef Dennis has been making his chocolates for about two and a half years and they’re mostly sold online and at stores like Whole Foods, The Pasta Shop and Bittersweet Café. One thing I liked about Coco Delice is its environmental consciousness. Most of their ingredients are purchased locally near their production facility in the Bay Area and their packaging is from recycled materials. Even their sample containers at the Salon were made from biodegradable plastic.

One of Coco Delice’s chocolates I tried was this Peanut Butter Cup. I feel like peanut butter is this year’s trend in chocolates, taking over from last year’s trend of salted caramel topped with sea salt. I saw a few tables that were offering up peanut butter-based chocolates. The flavor reminds me of my favorite candy growing up, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, and Coco Delice’s version comes very close in matching the flavor of Reese’s but with a more creamy texture.

Along with regular chocolates, there were a few specialty items such as this body frosting sold by Chocoholics Divine Desserts, a family-run business in the Central Valley. The body frosting is actually a rich chocolate that you apply on your body with a brush. The sampling I tried was surprisingly good, a nice rich chocolate taste. And no, I didn’t lick it off someone’s body. They gave out samplings in little plastic spoons.

Chuao Chocolatier is from the San Diego area and was started by a couple of brothers from Venezuela. So all the chocolates are from Venezuela, which has some of the best dark chocolates. The brothers infused the chocolates with a creamy ganache in a variety of flavors like Cabernet Sauvignon and Earl Grey. They were providing samples in these leaf-shaped mini-candy nibbles. While I liked the chocolate shell, I thought the ganache filling was too sweet.

Cosmic Chocolates is another Oakland-based chocolate maker and their chocolates are always really wild in color. They’re the ones who were selling the Obama chocolates with the face of the Democratic presidential candidate applied on top. It had a mix of ingredients but I couldn’t remember them all; I just remember it had espresso. So I joked that meant Obama had a lot of energy, but they didn’t get it. I also tried their dulce de leche flavor they were sampling and it was nice with a slight spicy ganache filling. But you know, at this point I was sampling so many chocolates I think some of the flavors were mixing together.

Here’s the Earl Grey truffles being sampled at the XOX Truffles table. San Francisco-based XOX has a store in North Beach and the flavors are all the creation of Chef Jean-Marc Gorce, formerly of Fringale Restaurant. The Earl Grey truffle was last year’s popular flavor at the Chocolate Salon and I can see why. It had a definite bergamot flavor, but not overtly sweet. They were melt-in-your mouth good but I find truffles with the dusted coating a challenge to eat. I also tried the lemon-ginger truffle, which was good but not as good as the Earl Grey.

The most colorful booth was this one by Sacred Chocolates of San Rafael. The guy in the psychedelic costume (OK, maybe it’s not a costume to him) is Steve Adler, the founder and chocolate maker of Sacred Chocolates. He makes all his chocolates raw, meaning he doesn’t cook the cocoa bean and even includes the skin. All the beans are organic. I tried it. I didn’t like it. But I give him credit for showing up in his business suit.

This is the Raspberry Chambord truffle from Moonstruck Chocolates, which has several chocolate cafes around the country including one in San Francisco’s Marina district and another in Walnut Creek. This was another chocolate that was too sweet for me. I also tried their Bailey Irish Cream truffle and it was a little better, not as sweet but creamy. (Although it didn’t taste like Bailey Irish Cream.)

Here’s the table for the San Francisco Toffee Company. Their candy reminds me a lot like Almond Rocha, which is that caramel brittle with the almond bits and chocolate coating. I don’t think Almond Rocha exists anymore, but if you have a craving for it, the San Francisco Toffee Co.’s version is pretty much a classier version of this childhood favorite. (What’s funny is the company started in San Francisco but now operates out of Seal Beach. I think they said they’re trying to make their way back to San Francisco.)

One of my favorite discoveries this year at the Chocolate Salon is the chocolates from Jade Chocolates, a small chocolate maker that just started this year. The owner and chocolate maker, Mindy Fong, gets dried mango from the Philippines and hand-dips them in chocolate. But she doesn’t stop there. She then creates them into these chocolate orchid creations. I thought the mango-dipped chocolates were all right, but what really got me were her genmai chocolate bars.

BTW, I took the above photo after I got home because a lot of my photos from the Salon were a bit shaky. I think I was all hopped up on sugar. I bought two of Mindy’s Genmai chocolate bars because it was such an interesting candy. I love genmai cha, which is the Japanese green tea with toasted brown rice. Mindy mixes the tea with the chocolate, so you get a candy bar with little bits of toasted brown rice. It reminds me of an Asian version of a Nestle Crunch. So good. Right now, Mindy’s hand-made (and hand-wrapped) chocolates are only sold online and at select stores around the Bay Area such as The Pasta Shop, Bi-Rite Market and Leland Tea Company.

The perennial favorite table at the Chocolate Salon is Charles Chocolates of Emeryville. This year Charles Chocolates offered up this peanut butter chocolate butterfly, which I think was the best version of the peanut butter chocolate I tasted at the salon. The peanut butter wasn’t overly strong and it had a nice nutty crunch to it. I loved it. They also had a papaya pate de fruit, which was nice and sweet but lacked a papaya essence. (And I should know since I ate lots of papaya growing up in Hawaii.)

Here’s Charles Siegel, the man behind Charles Chocolates, answering questions from the crowd.

So another year, another chocolate binge. Next year Taste TV is talking about finding a bigger space (um, you think?) but they’re also talking about raising the $20 admission price because of the popularity. I hope not. This is a chance for a lot of small, local chocolatiers to share their goods with a diverse audience, and it’ll be too bad to see their audience shrink because of economic forces. Chocolate for the people!


TasteTV said...

Thanks for the feedback and the great blog. We must have missed you in line. We sent people out regularly to give people in line samples of chocolate and water bottles from Trader Joe's. As this was only the 2nd year, we just couldn't know how incredibly popular it was going to be, but next year we will!
The Team at TasteTV (

Anonymous said...

thanks for the report. I'm going to find some of the chocolates you mentioned & try them myself!

Anonymous said...

he taste of chocolate is a sensual pleasure in itself, existing in the same world as we some knew... For myself, I can enjoy the wicked pleasure of chocolate... entirely by myself. Furtiveness makes it better.

I love chocolate. Have you ever seen a chocolate fountain? It is
wonderful! Check this out..

Anonymous said...

I was there too and wondered if you'd be going this year, but didn't see you around. I was confused about the lines initially as well. The place was certainly packed, and with the sweltering heat and all that chocolate, I felt quite sick and dizzy when I left.

I also liked the genmai bar from Jade Chocolates and some of the other tea-based chocolates. The bananas foster and the raspberry chocolates from Christopher Elbow were also good. And Poco Dolce was awesome as usual! Somehow the man from Sacred Chocolates reminded me of Willy Wonka. :P

It was a nice experience to sample a greater variety of artisan chocolates at the salon, but it definitely can't be an everyday thing!

Anonymous said...

wow that looks like so much fun! i really like green tea with chocolate it's a great tasting combination. the dried mango orchids looked so beautiful. great plst, I'm glad to be able to hear about the event without all the drama.

Anonymous said...

Crazed children sticking their hands on everything in sight, frazzled vendors and a mob mentality ruined this for me. I got shoved so much I felt like I was in a Metallica mosh pit.

agent713 said...

I tried dried mangos this weekend for the first time...unfortunately mine weren't dipped in chocolate. I love the orchid idea though.

This sounds like my kind of festival!

Unknown said...

Almond Roca is still around and has many flavors in their line. Also, Guittard is a big player in the chocolate world.

Anonymous said...

There are several local chocolatiers that make great tea chocolates: Sjaak's (green tea bar), Cosmic Chocolates (jasmine orange, hibiscus chai tea, & chamomile green tea truffles), and Torn Ranch (jasmine tea chocolates), to name a few.

Southern California companies Marti Chocolatt (mango jasmine), LUCA Chocolates (earl grey truffle), and Eclipse Chocolat (kyoto green tea bar, pear/jasmine blossom truffle, ginger honey green tea truffle) also offer tea blends.