Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Chocolate in San Francisco

The San Francisco Bay Area--already an epicenter of fine dining, organic food production, and independent thought--is now decidedly one of the world's chocolate capitals. The San Francisco Chronicle recently published an overview of the burgeoning community of local chocolatiers, and a website where I'm pitching in these days called Sugar Savvy offered an insider's response. I met some of some of San Francisco's chocolate innovators during a 48-hour stopover earlier this year, and I have very fond memories of everything I tasted.

Charles Chocolates
The amiable chocolatier Chuck Siegel (pictured above) uses local, organic, and minimally-processed ingredients wherever possible in his line of blended chocolate bars and handmade bon-bons. He stuck around late one night, waited for me to get to his 5,000-square-foot Emeryville factory on a charming West Coast version of public transportation called the Emery Go Round, and was more than delighted to talk to me about his wife and two little girls, his recipe for fleur de sel caramels, and his suggestions for making hot chocolate. Food is a passion for the self-taught Siegel, and that's evident in the recipes he develops and the way he executes them. "If I don't like it, we don't make it," he told me. Nuts are something that he does like, and based on what I put in my mouth over those two days in the Bay Area I'd say he makes better chocolate-covered nuts than anyone else for miles. The key to his "Triple Chocolate Almonds" is the precise roasting time, and the trick to his signature "Peanut Butterflies" is using a sophisticated praline in the place of peanut butter.


Ghirardelli chocolate is as much a San Francisco icon as the trolley car. The company's been around since 1852, and the Ghirardelli Square flagship ice cream and chocolate shop has been open since 1895. With mega-stores trading on brand-name recognition in places like Las Vegas and Miami, Ghirardelli can't really claim to be an artisan chocolate-maker anymore. Still, the bite-sized chocolate squares are wonderfully nostalgic, and the new "Intense Dark" line of chocolate bars has introduced modern flavors (and high cacao-percentages) to loyal fans.

Like Ghirardelli, this historic company now located in Burlingame was founded by a European immigrant during the Gold Rush, but Guittard is unique in that it continues to be family-owned and operated. Guittard has long supplied American chocolatiers with couverture and other chocolate building blocks, but the company's high-end retail line, named E. Guittard after founder Etienne, is a fairly recent development. I was transfixed by the seductive flavors of the single-origin bars from Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Madagascar.

Joseph Schmidt Confections
Schmidt is a veteran chocolatier and a member of the first wave of artisan producers to set up shop in the Bay Area in the 1980s, along with Charles Chocolates' Chuck Siegel (whose first company was called Attivo) and Alice Medrich (who ran the now-defunct Cocolat). His egg-shaped truffles are distinctly American: indulgently large, very sweet, and filled with hard-hitting ingredients like raspberry brandy. Independent no more, Joseph Schmidt Confections is now owned by the Hershey Company (as is Scharffen Berger).

Recchiuti Confections
Michael Recchiuti is the ideal modern chocolatier. He's a champion of natural foods (his initial recipes were all based on trips to the farmers' market) and contemporary design (he collaborates with local artists on a project called "edible gallery"), and his flavors are subtle and perfectly balanced. While the chocolatier is well known for his playful s'mores kit, his grown-up ganaches infused with combinations like "Lavender Vanilla" and "Tarragon Grapefruit" won me over.

Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker
Scharffen Berger is the most controversial chocolate company in the Bay Area these days. Started by winemaker John Scharffenberger and physician Robert Steinberg in 1996, the company reintroduced classic European chocolate-making techniques to the United States, sourced ingredients from independent growers, and trusted that consumers would recognize the superior quality of the product. Scharffen Berger was the ultimate symbol for small, socially-responsible, artisan businesses. Then, in 2005, the partners sold out to Hershey. In a political sense, the company has compromised its principles. In a culinary sense, nothing has changed. The 70%-cacao bar from Scharffen Berger, with a combination of flavors that's more savory than sweet (it turns out that the man behind the recipe doesn't have a sweet tooth), is the chocolate that I prefer above all others. The executives at the Berkeley factory indulged me in a private tour. (The private part was the indulgence; operations at the Scharffen Berger factory are deliberately transparent, and anyone can register for a group tour.) Neither of the founders was in town on the day I stopped by, but they're still involved on a day-to-day basis, and they still work with their own sophisticated, Californian, independent-minded staff (including a marketing manager who takes home hazelnutty Gianduja bars to make pudding from her own recipe, and an energetic lab scientist who uses Steinberg's office on the factory floor as a spare room to test new shipments of cacao beans for mold). For the time being, Scharffen Berger chocolate is still produced largely by hand, based on recipes that are developed in locked conferences with Scharffenberger, Steinberg, managing director Jim Harris, and two rotating members of their team.

But I couldn't get to them all...
If I'd had more than two days to spend in the Bay Area, I would have sampled Cocoa Carcione, Cocoa Designs, Coco-luxe, Michael Mischer Chocolates, Richard Donnelly Chocolates, and Woodhouse Chocolate.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Emily, I just wanted to thank you for the lovely Blogging By Mail package! Reading your blog and seeing now that you're a wild chocolate enthusiast makes me particularly anxious to try out that artisanal bar! I too am a fiend for the stuff and love exploring chocolate in all its shapes and forms. A good reason to keep reading your blog! Thank you again!

12:08 AM GMT-5  
Blogger Libbycookie said...

Hurray! Love stumbling across this (via SHF announcement). The Bay Area is truly a good-living, good-eating center of the universe. In college at UC Berkeley, my friends and I truly lived on Guittard milk chocolate chips; they are fantastic in peanut butter or chocolate chip cookies, and can be bought in bulk at Cost Plus. Life is better w/a handful (or two) of Guittard milk choc chips..

2:39 PM GMT-5  

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