Published on May 19th, 2011 | by Gina0
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.