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Published on May 19th, 2011 | by Gina

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Glorious Cacao at the SF International Chocolate Salon

Judg­ing by the stun­ning stylis­tic range of con­fec­tion­ers, con­fec­tions, and con­fec­tion-eaters at April’s San Fran­cis­co In­ter­na­tion­al Choco­late Sa­lon, choco­late has sur­passed love as the lan­guage that knows no bor­ders. There were chefs in pressed whites chop­ping sam­ples; wom­en tart­ed up bur­lesque-like, push­ing choco­lates with sexy names; lit­tle girls talk­ing breath­less­ly about their fa­vorite fla­vors; a man dressed as the kind of per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of choco­late, a twirled brown mus­tache, a caramel tie, and a rich dark co­coa suit coat; a gym-coach look­ing guy in a po­lo shirt, word­less­ly deal­ing chunks of fudge on pa­per nap­kins. Salty, sweet, and spicy choco­lates, choco­lates with sky­line el­e­gance, choco­lates that looked like they’d been picked from the sole of a dirty sneak­er, tiny paint­ed discs of choco­late fin­ished with the care and pre­ci­sion of an In­di­an minia­tur­ist.

Per­haps if you had to pick a sur­ro­gate to taste all the var­i­ous won­ders on dis­play at the Fes­ti­val Pavil­ion, you wouldn’t want some­one who gets a chest rash from eat­ing but­ter and whose di­ges­tive tract makes spooky, ocean­lin­er sounds at the mere men­tion of a glass of milk. Ful­ly ap­prised of my own short­com­ings (I can on­ly safe­ly eat dark choco­late), I re­cruit­ed a milk-eat­ing veg­e­tar­i­an co-taster to try what I could not. Here were some of the most in­ter­est­ing picks:

Lan­dru Choco­lates from Newark, CA had an al­most over­whelm­ing se­lec­tion of truf­fles, caramels, tof­fees, and fudges, but my fa­vorites were the Peanut But­ter and Jel­ly Caramel (evoca­tive, but not lit­er­al), and the Salt and Pep­per Caramel. Sea Salt was ba­si­cal­ly sprin­kled on ev­ery­thing at the Sa­lon, but with the ad­di­tion of pep­per Lan­dru gave their caramel a kind of whole-meal ap­peal. I could eat those caramels for din­ner.

Seat­tle’s Goat Milk Can­dy Com­pa­ny had love­ly pre­sen­ta­tion–com­pa­ny lit­er­a­ture in a clear-day blue with a loopy white font, con­fec­tions crum­bled invit­ing­ly over the table­top–figs stuffed with goat cheese and coat­ed in smooth, dark choco­late, and fla­vored goat cheese-filled choco­late truf­fles stud­ded with nuts. When we ar­rived at the table, a sam­pler was frown­ing as he probed his teeth with his tongue. He’d tried the apri­cot truf­fle. And how was it? “It tastes like goat cheese,” he said, “and apri­cot.” Mys­ti­fied by his lin­ear re­view, we tried the cher­ry-or­ange and hon­ey truf­fles, and al­so found them to be a lit­tle un­in­te­grat­ed. The goat cheese was pow­er­ful and pure, with that won­der­ful musky farm taste that some peo­ple hate, but the ad­di­tion­al fla­vors some­how didn’t min­gle on the palate with the musky taste.

New Tree Bel­gian choco­lates was one of the larg­er names rep­re­sent­ed, but the earnest tes­ti­mo­ni­als of three sug­ar-buzzed lit­tle New Tree reps gave the com­pa­ny a warm feel. The girls talked to us about their fa­vorite fla­vors (Gin­ger and Laven­der) and the ben­e­fi­cial an­tiox­i­dants oc­cur­ing nat­u­ral­ly in dark choco­late. The range of fla­vors was fun and imag­i­na­tive (Chili Pep­per, Thyme, Pink Pep­per­corn, and Cin­na­mon), and the qual­i­ty of the bars them­selves was top notch–smooth, rich, not over­ly sweet.

The wares at San Fran­cis­co’s Co­co Tut­ti were among our fa­vorites, and their Flo­ren­tine caramel was a stand­out among stand­outs. Ghosts of cit­rus, won­der­ful, del­i­cate tex­ture–col­laps­ing gen­tly in the mouth but with nice, crisp lay­ers for tex­ture. Oth­er fla­vors were de­li­cious and imag­i­na­tive, too: Brown Sug­ar-Roast­ed Hazel­nut, Roast­ed Al­mond, Or­ange Con­fit, and Pep­per(mint).

The art de­co skyscrap­ers at J Truf­fles were in­cred­i­ble feats of de­sign, pyra­mids with scal­lops and ridges and peaks that made them look fit for a man­tel, and too love­ly to knife in­to. But we had a job to do. We tast­ed the Mag­ma, which had a crisp dark choco­late lay­er over dark choco­late ganache, with a won­der­ful­ly rich mouth­feel and just a hint of fruit. Al­so on of­fer were Co­conut Macadamia, Rum Raisin, Creme Brulee, and Cher­ry Pra­line. These truf­fles would make beau­ti­ful gifts. I might want to lease of­fice spacein one.

Al­so in the beau­ty queen cat­e­go­ry were Ster­ling Truf­fle Bars, thick, tri­an­gu­lar ba­tons of choco­late truf­fle hand-paint­ed with bright, pho­to­genic de­signs that looked more like tex­tile pat­terns than food. The truf­fle fa­vors were on the deca­dent, rich end of the spec­trum–Cap­puc­ci­no Liqueur, Hot Fudge Sun­dae, Ba­nana Hon­ey Caramel, Dou­ble Hazel­nut Caramel. This kind of stuff makes my fill­ings throb from sweet­ness, but the fla­vors were rich and round, and the bars them­selves were lit­tle works of art.

The fair trade Mex­i­can choco­late at Taza from Mas­sachusetts was my stand­out fa­vorite, al­though I made the choco­late rep­re­sen­ta­tive groan when I asked him if he had any­thing to do with Taza tea. “It’s TAZO tea,” he told me. I’m a tex­ture freak, and the sug­ar in these choco­lates was el­e­gant­ly grainy, like fine white sand from an is­land beach that you sort of don’t mind in your lip balm. The rep told us Taza skips the last step of the choco­late pro­cess, where the sug­ar melts and blends. The fla­vor se­lec­tion most­ly cov­ered spicy tastes–smoky chipo­tle, gua­jil­lo chile, cin­na­mon, vanil­la bean, yer­ba mate–which worked beau­ti­ful­ly with the rough tex­ture of the choco­late.

San Fran­cis­co’s Ki­ka’s Treats fea­tures snap­py pack­ag­ing and a cute car­toon mas­cot who shares a lit­tle DNA with Made­line. Orig­i­nal­ly from Brazil, Ki­ka makes crunchy gra­ham crack­ers and short­breads dipped in choco­late, but her spe­cial­ty is a Brazil­ian hon­ey cake, pao de mel, a dense, spicy cake coat­ed in dark choco­late. Some­how it’s com­plete­ly ve­g­an, and still moist and de­li­cious. SF Week­ly award­ed Ki­ka’s Treats Best Cook­ies in 2009, and most of their in­gre­di­ents are lo­cal­ly sourced. Five per­cent of net prof­its go to La Coci­na in SF, a non­prof­it that helps low-in­come en­trepreneurs start food busi­ness­es.

The sto­ry of Made­casse Choco­lates is what makes it so spe­cial. While 85% of the world’s co­coa comes from Africa, on­ly 1% of choco­late is ac­tu­al­ly made there. Made­casse sources and pro­duces all of their choco­late in Mada­gas­car, and have made sig­nif­i­cant head­way in start­ing a sus­tain­able in­dus­try there. Made­casse’s sto­ry is laid out in a book they had on dis­play. The rep showed us what a co­coa pod looks like–white and bloat­ed, 40 beans in­side each. Lac­tose tol­er­ant as­so­ci­ate said it looked like a gi­ant grub. All the bars were de­li­cious and pure-tast­ing, not over­ly cute in their fla­vor­ing, dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed pri­mar­i­ly by per­cent­ages of co­coa. My fa­vorite, though, was one of their few fla­vored bars– the Sea Salt and Nibs, which re­leased lit­tle bursts of salt on your tongue like mild pop rocks.

Gar­den Cream­ery Sor­bet from No­va­to had bowl-lick­ing­ly good dairy-free sor­bets kept creamy with co­conut milky. French Press Cof­fee, Dark Choco­late, and Thai Iced Tea were each in­tense­ly creamy em­bod­i­ments of their fla­vors.

Nicole Lee Fine Choco­lates from San Jose was a fam­i­ly-run busi­ness of­fer­ing truf­fles and bars, but their stand­outs were col­ored mac­arons, done in col­ors so in­tense they made the sur­round­ing world look some­how dimmed–black­ber­ry, macha green tea, vanil­la olive oil, pis­ta­chio, ly­chee rose. How did they get such rich­ly sat­u­rat­ed, al­most car­toon col­ors? The ma­tri­arch rose from her fold­ing chair to tell me, “We buy dyes from France.” Ah. Lead.

One of the most in­ter­est­ing stands was the last. Lac­tose tol­er­ant as­so­ci­ate was get­ting jit­tery and anx­ious from too much sug­ar, and I was start­ing to feel para­noid that I’d in­gest­ed dairy. But San Le­an­dro’s Tea Room choco­lates, made from ac­tu­al brewed tea, were so in­ven­tive that we each jeop­ar­dized our health in the name of good jour­nal­ism. There was Rasp­ber­ry Rooi­bos choco­late, Jas­mine, Earl Gray, Mid­night Mocha, Maya Pep­per Chai, and my fa­vorite–Black Masala Chai, which had a warm, gin­ger­bready taste. Such nat­u­ral­ly com­ple­men­tary fla­vors–tea and choco­late–it’s a won­der com­bin­ing the two isn’t more com­mon.

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