Friday, February 27, 2015

Choc-a-lot! San Francisco’s International Chocolate Salon serves up sweet treats

Chocolatique offered samples of these hatching chicks, hand-painted, then brushed with edible gold to add luster in a four-day process. Mel Welcher/Courtesy photo

April 29, 2011 |

By Christy Corp-Minamiji

It is possible — though just barely — to eat too much chocolate. However, there are worse martyrdoms.

Pearly salt fog, lapping waves, the chatter of seagulls, the smell of chocolate, the silky glide of that chocolate across the tongue — these are the sensations of the San Francisco International Chocolate Salon. Though the lofty ceilings and ethereal light of the Fort Mason Center Festival Pavilion dwarf the exhibitors’ tables, one can lose much of a day in this show.

Too much chocolate?

Even for a pair of devoted chocoholics, the array of cocoa-based products presented at the April 17 San Francisco International Chocolate Salon posed a challenge. Several samples into the morning, my photographer Mel Welcher and I seized sample cups of “Bacon Caramel Corn” at the Plumeria booth.

The woman next to me muttered, “Can you taste the bacon? I think I’ve had too much chocolate.” as she walked by. Too much chocolate was indeed a danger, but oh, what a danger!

While Taste TV, the producer of the Chocolate Salon, advertised “over 70 participants,” in their promotional emails, Mel and I agreed that the actual number of exhibitors (primarily chocolatiers and wineries) was reduced from last year, and in fact, the judges’ ballot held the names of only 43 companies. Downsizing notwithstanding, there was plenty of chocolate to go around.

Chocolate diversity

Bars, truffles, caramels, discs, drops, marshmallows, wine and vodka: You name it, if it could contain chocolate or accompany chocolate, it was there. Chocolate came in almost any form, and was processed in almost any manner.

Traditional blends, roasted in house, single-varietal chocolates (yes, cacao comes in varietals like coffee or grapes), stone-ground chocolates, minimally processed chocolates: from comfort to haute, chocolate-covered Oreos to chocolate-dipped, goat-cheese stuffed figs, we saw it and tasted it. (Well, sadly not the figs; Goat Milk Candy was out of samples when we stopped by.)

Some of the ingredient combinations offered might horrify a purist, but for flavor-seekers or those of the “I’ll try anything once” school, the chocolate permutations were a thrill. Although a chevre truffle at Marti Chocolate (not to be confused with truffled chevre) was a sad disappointment, the lime with tequila truffle from Gateau et Ganache made me smile wide enough that my photographer asked if I wanted to be left alone.

“It’s like a tiny margarita inside chocolate!” I answered.

Other unorthodox combinations that worked surprisingly well include a favorite of mine from the 2010 Salon, a peppered rosemary orange truffle from Dolce Bella, and a tamarind “unprocessed” chocolate from Momotombo.

Chocolate nouveau

Once upon a time, all truffles looked more or less identical: round nuggets of rich ganache among which visual variation was limited to dipped or rolled, drizzles of white or contrasting chocolate, or the occasional stray espresso bean dotting the top like a pompom.

Today, however, chocolatiers produce sculptural jewels. Hand-painted, molded confections nestle in their boxes like gemstones or porcelain ornaments.

Amano displayed rack after rack of chocolate gems, flavored only with fresh fruits and herbs, while Chocolatique produced what may be the cutest chocolates ever — hatching chicks, hand-painted, then brushed with edible gold to add luster in a four-day process. I ate my chick in three bites.

Roughing it

Though the precious was well represented from elegant to cute, chocolate also showed its rugged side. Taza displayed its stone-ground, minimally processed chocolate in thick disks designed for melting as drinking chocolate or simply for breaking and nibbling. Here, we also found the robust side of flavor.

Though spice/chocolate combinations date back to the Mayans, these “hot” chocolates have definitely expanded in the last few years. Taza had a wide array of chili- and cinnamon-accented chocolates. The Guaillo Chili Mexicano disk that I sampled had an earthy heat that complemented the intensely gritty flavor and texture of the stone-ground chocolate. This was not chocolate for sissies.

Over at Pure Dark, macho chocolate continued to make an appearance in the form of sample chunks broken from their thick slabs with an implement resembling a truncated, stainless-steel pitchfork. The 70 percent slab with nibs and coarse sugar had a granular texture and slight berry overtones.

Partnering with Pure Dark was one of the day’s speakers, Candice Kumai, known on television and through her website as “The Stiletto Chef.”

Sweet treats

Though Pure Dark’s display may have leaned toward the rough-and-tumble, both model-turned-chef Kumai, and her new cookbook “Pretty Delicious,” were all-girl. She demonstrated two recipes from the book: “Chocolate Banana Bonbons” and “Homemade Chocolate-Peanut Butter Crunch Cups.”

Kumai’s table décor may have been shabby-chic floral, but I didn’t see any men shying away from the peanut butter cups with their heavy-duty chocolate shells.

Her presentation and cookbook lean toward the informative girl-chat, touting an indulgent-sensible attitude toward food. Kumai said she wanted to show people that you could have a “healthy and fun, and still lean and lovely lifestyle.” Too good to be true?

Perhaps, but Kumai addresses the need for a change in attitudes toward food: “It’s not about dieting anymore. It’s about making a lifestyle change.”

Throughout her presentation and sprinkled through her book are references to FWBs — “foods with benefits.” Kumai says, “Everything you eat should give back to you in one way or another.”

If you tire of chocolate

While chocolate, with its high antioxidant levels, is an ultimate “FWB,” there were plenty of other giving foods at the Chocolate Salon. From Plumeria’s exotic caramel corns (I could taste the bacon, and I still maintain that the seaweed caramel corn would pair well with beer) to Leonardo e Roberto’s Gourmet Blends (“Oh thank God, olive oil!”) and Nicole Lee’s rainbow of macaroons, the non-chocolate was well-represented.

The 2005 Estate Cabernet from Eden Canyon won my happy face as the representative poured it from a carafe marginally smaller than my youngest child in answer to my request for a Cab on the “bolder, spicier” end of the spectrum.

The perfect ending to the day? A chocolate-free late lunch at the Ferry Building, sipping clam chowder and watching barges pass before Treasure Island as whitecaps kissed the waters of the Bay.

Upcoming Luxury Chocolate Salons in Northern California are scheduled for June in Napa and November in San Francisco. See for updates.


The local scene

One need not leave town to find artisan chocolate. Davis supports a burgeoning chocolate industry. Anchoring the local chocolate scene are five chocolatiers: unique, but united by a single trait — passion.

European master: Ask Albert Kutternig, chef and owner of Konditorei Austrian Pastry Café, what led him to make his chocolate truffles, and you receive mild disbelief and a simple answer, “There’s something hanging on the wall, and this is a master’s degree …”

In Europe, Kutternig says, the provision of truffles by a pastry shop simply reflects good training. Don’t be misled. Chef Kutternig is far from blasé about his truffles. Discussing his selection of chocolate (Guittard) and flavoring liqueurs (Grand Marnier, Cognac, strawberry, and rum) Kutternig’s confidence shows in the passion that drives his work.

“I am passionate about everything … even cleaning … Everything goes hand-in-hand.”

Amateur turned entrepreneur: “Amateur” derives from “lover,” and Kate Hutchinson, owner of Ciocolat, is the ultimate amateur who turned a whim into a career. “I loved chocolate. I saw this place was for sale, and I thought it sounded like fun,” she said.

She describes the two-day, laborious process of hand-crafting truffles as if recounting a party. Her enthusiasm carries into sourcing ingredients: Callebut chocolate from Belgium and fruits from the Farmers Market (chocolate-dipped figs, anyone?). Hutchison’s passion for chocolate, and for Ciocolat, manifests in a love of flavor.

Raw enthusiasm: Five minutes with Joy Jaco-Pope and Taylor Pope of Joy and Taylor’s Raw Chocolates confirmed my private view of chocolate as medicine. The couple began their foray into raw chocolate after determining that the sugar in processed chocolate contributed to Joy’s headaches.

Now, they purchase heirloom cacao from Ecuador and, using raw agave as a sweetener, produce chocolate packed not only with intense flavor, but thanks to low-temperature processing, with antioxidants.

Joy and Taylor speak of their business as a vocation. “Why are we being called to this kind of work? Life is short. You need to do what you have to, no matter what.”

Joy and Taylor’s Raw Chocolates can be found at the Davis Food Co-op.

Girls with cause: The Yummy Dummy Chocolate Company members spend their days not in boardrooms but in junior high and high school classrooms. Stream, Risa, Bay, Sedona, Rachel, Rowan and Sara began Yummy Dummy five years ago, producing 37 bars in a 12-hour day.

With their girl- and parent-engineered equipment, they now manufacture 750 bars (marshmallow, almond, espresso, cherry and toffee) in six hours. Yummy Dummy, which sells its chocolate at the Farmers Market and through its website (, donates all proceeds to charity.

A local favorite: The Candy House of Davis hand-makes its pyramid-shaped truffles as well as its fudge and chocolate-dipped fruits. One of its hallmarks is chocolates shaped like people’s hobbies — pick up a solid chocolate guitar, piano, violin, keyboard or tennis racket . The Candy House owner, Osman Sunny Maiwandy, has designed colorful lotus bowls made by forming 85-degree chocolate over a balloon … a true work of art.



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