Sunday, June 24, 2007

A Scharffen Berger Birthday, and Other Chocolate Travels in San Francisco

A man named Thor--an all-American entrepreneur from Oklahoma--once put me up in his Spanish-style house in Guatemala. I lived there for three months, overstaying my welcome by at least two of them. But my saving grace may have been the hot chocolate I made every morning--by whisking one-ounce bars of Scharffen Berger chocolate (boxes of which I carefully nestled into my suitcase every time I came back from the States) into milk.

The above paragraph was my original opening for an essay about the chocolate scene in San Francisco. But the swift movement from the birthplace of chocolate in Central America to the Scharffen Berger headquarters in Berkeley within two type-written pages required a kind of literary gymnastics that I simply was not flexible enough to execute. That is, it just didn't work. I don't know whether it's working now, but--since this blog allows for unsupervised self-aggrandizing experimentation--I'm giving it another shot.

More than two years have gone by since those Guatemalan days that started with Scharffen Berger (which Thor, who can forge his own pronunciation out of words in any language, called "Schnarffen Berger"). But that particular brand of chocolate has remained a constant in my life. A couple of months ago, a Scharffen Berger publicist called me in New York to ask if I'd like to come to Berkeley as a guest of the company. The question marked a moment of personal and professional bliss. And since the proposed trip fell on the same week in June as my birthday, I accepted as a gift to myself. (Of course, the ethics of taking free travel perks from a company that you purport to write about objectively are intensely murky--intellectual food blogger Kate Hopkins of Accidental Hedonist recently initiated a very informative discussion of the matter).

To Berkeley, I went. After arriving at the San Francisco airport with journalists from various and sundry magazines a couple of weeks ago, I checked in at the Claremont Resort & Spa's big white house on a hill. I cradled a chocolate pudding made by resident pastry chef Claus Olsen in one hand and my luggage in the other and headed to my room, where I proceeded to call room service to ask for a spoon (a somewhat dubious request so close to the Tenderloin, a friend later told me).

The meals over the next three days spread out the freshest seasonal, local ingredients and played with chocolate's overlapping flavors. Not since I left Latin America have I known such gracious hospitality, have I suspended so fully my concern about who's going to pick up the check. During a reception at the San Francisco Ferry Building, I shared wasabi tobiko-topped bivalves from the Hog Island Oyster Company with Scharffen Berger marketing exec Liz Kaplan (who's so passionate about her job that she let me call her at home and offered to pick me up from the train station when I came for a factory tour last year), and I stumbled into a chocolate and wine tasting with a couple of fulltime oenophiles. Next, the captively energetic Elizabeth Falkner of Citizen Cake (pictured) prepared a dinner of short ribs with "mole de arbol y Scharffen Berger chocolate" while the rest of us, like guests at any good dinner party, set the table while sipping a Mourvedre, Grenache, and Syrah rose from Vie Winery. When John Scharffenberger produced two bottles of a potent tea-infused liqueur called Qi, there was no turning back.

The next day, we all stumbled our way over bags of Ghanaian and Venezuelan beans and around vintage German machinery at the Scharffen Berger factory in Berkeley (the company produces and packages chocolate there and at the old Joseph Schmidt factory). Founder Scharffenberger (seated) talked about European history and cacao fermentation for a while before introducing his heir-apparent, Brad Kintzer (standing; "When I met Brad," Scharffenberger said, "he had the same interest in botany that I did, the same interest in geography that I did, and I thought, these are the skills that a chocolate maker needs."). And then we indulged in endless quantities of the Scharffen Berger 70%-cacao blend, whose all-encompassing flavor is elegantly described by one chocolatier I know as "it's fruit, it's earth, it's coffee, it's coconut."

I packed up and came home to New York at the end of the week. San Francisco is a chocolate travel hub, and I plan to return again and again. I've visited the Bay Area three times in the last year (and, thanks to all the readers and friends who voted for me, I came marvellously close to winning a trip to cooking school in nearby Napa). And I already have another ticket in hand--in July, I'll be speaking at the premiere San Francisco Chocolate Salon--about Chocolate in Central America.

(Thor, thanks for giving me a place to crash. A box of Schnarffen Berger chocolate is on the way.)