With the creative food energy that lights the fuse of Northern California cuisine, it's no surprise that so many robust chocolateurs have been driven to produce an assembly line of fine products to choose from. California is one of the largest manufacturers of chocolate and chocolate confections in the country, and the gold-rush spirit lives on in the discovery of a new sort of nugget composed of milk, dark or white.
Northern California is home to Nestle, Guittard, Blommer and Scharffen Berger — four of the 10 companies in the nation that import and roast their own beans for consumer and business sales. In addition, nearly a dozen chocolate candy makers perform their magic in the Bay Area, molding, shaping, twisting and melting the dark gold into something sublime.
"It started as a traditional thing," says chocolate maker John Scharffenberger. He points out that in the 1800s, in the days before refrigeration, European immigrants like Etienne Guittard needed a temperate climate to work with such a sensitive medium, plus good port access. While modern conveniences like air conditioning and dehumidifiers have allowed chocolate makers to keep a working kitchen cool and dry, not having to pay for the devices keeps production costs low. But making chocolate isn't just about a smooth bottom line. Says Scharffenberger, "Tradition is everything. Geography is strong. Things get started and they stay that way."
Joseph Schmidt adds that the Bay Area is host to "a lot of people with the entrepreneurial spirit, and a lot of people who love good food." Good chocolate goes along with the good life, and here, there are plenty of trained palates willing to pay more for something better than a Krackle.
Good weather and a hungry audience both prompt fine quality and good-tasting sweets, but in truth, it is the personality of the chocolateurs — characters who couldn't imagine doing business anywhere else — blended into every bite that makes the difference. The people behind the beans are what makes Bay Area chocolate truly unique.
Fit for a Queene
"It's a personality business," says Jeoffrey Douglas, owner of the Castro's Faerie Queene Chocolate, an often-overlooked hole-in-the-wall between Market and 18th that was dipped into its location over 10 years ago. And Douglas' shop is just dripping in personality. Though the place isn't much larger than a box of chocolates, it's filled with cherubs and rippled-curtain decor that scream of camp Victoriana; Douglas quips that it looks like a "sissy store."
Douglas, cherubic in his own right, fills the space with his long white beard and his own flavor of outgoing personality. The precious leftover cubic feet are home to a well-stocked case of 70 types of housemade fudge and truffles with names like Lou Rawls' Balls, Britney Spheres and Chocolate Slut Brownies. And crammed in there for good measure are two tiny tables for high tea and the secret, two-person kitchen cubbyhole where house specialties are produced.
Douglas claims his great-grandfather brought home his family's fudge recipe from a Yankee prison camp during the Civil War and that since then, his family has been making this coveted fudge as a "rite of passage." While he prefers a grainier fudge, he knows that "my customers would never sit still for that," so he instead opts for a creamier recipe. Though he produces it in exotic flavors such as jalepeño, rose, Meyer lemon and violet, the best-sellers are plain chocolate fudge and butterscotch-caramel pecan.
Faerie Queene's fare is available only in the store, but it sells a lot of product to tourists and residents alike, whether single truffles, small quantities of fudge for personal consumption or boxes of truffles, the most popular gift item. "Whatever it is," says Douglas, "we can make it look foofy."
Tastes Like Schmidt
But what if you need your good chocolate foof outside of San Francisco? Then, much more likely, you'll want to give the gift of Joseph Schmidt, the S.F.-based chocolateur with distribution to 3,000 accounts in gourmet shops and major department stores like Macy's, Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue nationwide, plus upscale shops throughout Japan, Canada and the United Kingdom.
Schmidt's is the perfect gift chocolate because the product is as tasteful as it is tasty. Ample and colorful ribbons decorate gorgeous boxes, many of which are hand-painted or shaped into unusual designs. And what's inside will not disappoint: While Schmidt's chocolate is imported from Belgium, making it of the highest caliber, all fillings, designs, artistry, sculpting and packing happen in the Schmidt factory kitchen in the Mission District.
Schmidt's is a complex chocolate, with all the usual suspects of fillings and flavor, such as various mints, liquors, nuts, caramels, creams and fruit filling their Belgian-style chocolates and truffles, plus the stunning mosaics — colorful tiles of filled chocolates. But Schmidt truly shines in sculpting his chocolate to resemble shoes, telephones, windmills, human torsos, life-size tables and flowers in an edible vase, all conceived by the man himself in such accurate detail that, if they were made of clay, they would end up at SFMOMA rather than the candy shop. "The beauty gives attention to my creativity," Schmidt says. "If you make something very pretty, then people have high expectations, and when you do it out of chocolate, people really get excited." Adds the warm and gregarious chocolateur, "People say it's too pretty to eat, but then they eat it."
No candy makers will give away all the cream and cocoa of their success, and Schmidt, a former baker who founded Joseph Schmidt Confections with partner Audrey Ryan in his garage 10 years ago, won't reveal how he applies the breathtaking colorful and geometric patterns that adorn his sweets. The company's current kitchen, its third, is the first one large enough to hold the 160 employees who produce an annual output of 1.5 million pounds of chocolate.
Despite the vast catalog of seasonal packages and chocolate sculptures, the company's truffles in hand-painted boxes remain the most popular gift item. And at under $30 for such a luxury, it's an affordable, attractive and sumptuous present.
Herb-y, Fruity, Recchiuti
Jaded chocolate connoisseurs who yawn at the standard offerings of nut and cream will revel in the unique essences that lace Michael Recchuiti's (say "reh-KYOO-tee") small-batch chocolates.
Recchiuti's confections are absolutely of the finest quality possible, produced in his small Dogpatch kitchen by his full-time staff of only nine. "We're going through very intense growing pains right now," says the pastry chef turned chocolateur, who notes that within the next year, he hopes to acquire larger equipment, an S.F. retail storefront and perhaps a larger production space to keep up with the current demand for his product. "I feel very limited by our small equipment," he adds.
But, oh, what he's able to do with what he has. Every piece of his chocolate confection is smooth, creamy and multifaceted — once you've eaten a piece of Recchiuti chocolate, your mouth reverberates from the impact. And forget about boring: Every flavor, from the fierce ginger heart and kona to the highly alluring infusions of
lemon verbena, star anise and pink peppercorn or tarragon grapefruit, offers a unique gallery experience. And everything that goes into his confections — each graham cracker, dried fruit and toasted sesame seed — is prepared in his own kitchen.
Recchiuti is as experienced in the kitchen as he is in the business of gourmet food, and the distribution of his confections reflects this savvy. Williams-Sonoma, Red Envelope, Dean and Delucca and Neiman Marcus all carry his handiwork, as do many independent gourmet stores across the Northeast. For those buying for their own pleasure, his chocolate bars and small bags of chocolate, or his house-made chocolate-covered graham crackers, are a memorable treat. But to be remembered to others, give the rust box or the green box, each with eight pieces for $20, or the black box, a combination of both for $40.
Scharffen Berger: Well Done
Another affordable luxury in one's life is the gift of Scharffen Berger. A mere $16 buys a ribbon-wrapped collection of eight tiny bars of some of the deepest, darkest chocolate ever to tempt the American palate, while a couple bucks will purchase one ounce of the finest chocolate produced this side of the Mississippi.
Scharffen Berger is a speck on the national chocolate-making map: The shop takes one year to produce what Hershey cranks out in a single day. And to make this underdog chocolateur story more colorful, his is produced through antique, Wonka-esque small-batch factory equipment purchased from defunct factories in Scotland, Spain, Germany and the former Czechoslovakia. You can view the machinery and the chocolate-making process during his free factory tours (reservations can be made through the company Web site).
Here, you'll find not fancy confections or a plentiful variety but, as on a good wine list, a short menu of the very best, balanced to perfection. That's because co-owner John Scharffenberger came to the world of chocolate from the sparkling-wine industry in 1995; thus, the idea of importing, blending and producing a superior product was already in the bottle. This cool, bold attitude of the man behind the chocolate comes through in every bar. Like a fine wine that complements a meal, Scharffenberger is busy in the community, and he modestly says, "There's a lot more to me than making chocolate." And, like good wine, his chocolate is subtle, prevalent and dependable.
Unlike other Bay Area chocolateurs, who buy chocolate in bulk to make their own candies, Scharffen Berger makes its own chocolate from the bean. It produces a very dark, bitter brew; our favorite is the Nibby bar, infused with the crunch of roasted, unsugared pieces from the center of the cacao bean. Disputing the popular belief that Americans like only milky and creamy chocolate, Scharffenberger boldly notes, "No one had been exposed to good chocolate before. Nowadays, it's not like people only like Coors or Wonder Bread or Yuban coffee or Fords. Blame it on Chez Panisse or the wine industry, but things coalesced here to make the Bay Area the central place of good food and new food."
The World of Chocolate
Need to bite into the world of Bay Area chocolate? Here's a short list of delicious ways to blend in.
RoCocoa's Faerie Queene Chocolates
415 Castro St., S.F.
Joseph Schmidt Confections
3489 16th St., S.F.
Available at the Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market and fine gourmet and retail locations locally — Real Foods, Whole Foods, Dandelion, Sue Fisher King, Bi-Rite, and online at www.RecchiutiConfections.com
754 Columbus St., S.F.
Stocks vegan soy truffles!
255 Grant Ave., S.F.
Preston's Candy and Ice Cream
1170 Broadway, Burlingame
Aida Opera Candies
1375 Burlingame Ave., Burlingame
4632 Telegraph Ave., Oakland
417 Miller St., Mill Valley
Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker
914 Heinz Ave., Berkeley
Guided tours are conducted Mon.-Sat., 10:30 am and 2:30 pm — reserve places online at www.scharffenberger.com/factory/onsite_tour.php
The Ultimate Chocolate Tasting and Tour
Combines a tour of the Scharffen Berger factory with a lesson in the history of chocolate and practice with recipes specially developed by Alice Medrich
Sur La Table, Berkeley
Sur La Table, Berkeley
Signature Chocolate Desserts, taught by Kurt Baguley
Sat., June 22, 10 am
Sat., Sept. 7, 1 pm
The pastry chef at Don Giovanni teaches this class in dazzling chocolate desserts; menu includes the Bostini Trifle, Chocolate Lava Cake and Bittersweet Chocolate Budino
California Culinary Academy
Offers a chocolate, confectionery and show-pieces module as part of its Professional Baking and Pastry Arts Program
Ghirardelli Square Chocolate Festival
Sat., Sept. 7 and Sun., Sept. 8, 12-5 pm
This year's festival marks the seventh edition of this annual charity event. In addition to chocolate tasting in any shape and form you can envision, there will also be an ice-cream-sundae eating contest. The prize: the winner's weight in chocolate.
Rivers of Chocolate
End of March, early April
The Mountain Winery, Saratoga
This all-star event, an annual fund-raiser for Social Advocates for Youth, is not to be missed by any chocolate lover. It features some of the most outstanding chocolate displays from throughout Northern California as prepared by expert chefs.