Wednesday, November 14, 2007

No Secrets at Charles Chocolate

I've read about those chocolate factories (usually French) where secrecy is paramount. If you're lucky enough to attain a visit, chances are the machines will be covered in sheets and you'll be wearing a blindfold. But not so with Chuck Siegel's factory tours of Charles Chocolates. The 8700 square foot Emeryville factory opened for tours in August of '07 and also features a Chocolate Bar and retail store. Siegel's thinking, which sounds great to me, is to "demystify the art of being a chocolatier" by exposing his work to the general public. This is akin to restaurant open kitchens that became all the rage over a decade ago. Right now, there is nowhere else you can go in the Bay Area to see chocolate confections being made by hand.

Unlike Scharffen Berger, Charles does not let participants don hair nets, touch the chocolate machinery and inhale that peculiar smell of chocolate liquor. That's understandable, since creating confections is less automated than making bars and the chefs are all very focused on their individual tasks. Instead, you'll stand behind tall windows and watch the process unfold as your guide explains each step. Since Charles considers itself an artisanal chocolatier, they make their confections by hand depending on what has been ordered. So your visit to the factory could be different every time.

On my tour (Wednesday at 11:30), the chefs were busy creating gourmet rice krispie treats, peanut butter butterflies and caramel logs coated in peanuts. (Unlike the Swiss, somebody loves peanut over there!) I saw ganache cooling and solidifying before being enrobed in chocolate. I saw the praline being piped into butterfly molds - somewhat tedious when you have an order of over 1000. And I saw vast quantities of caramel logs entering the enrobing machine and exiting coated in chocolate and peanuts. A nice feature of the tour is that your guide can pop in and get you a sample hot off the conveyor belt. You can also inspect the cooking area where chefs whip up everything from fresh lemon meyer marmalade to mint ganache as well as the tempering machines, which allow Charles to process up to 700 pounds of chocolate at a time.

The tour lasts about 20 - 30 minutes and is free. There are two optional tasting packages as well. I sampled the $10 tasting, which gets you 5 pieces of chocolate and a cup of thick drinking chocolate. High rollers can experience the $75 deluxe tour, and you'll go home with an extravagant take-home gift set. I loved the design of the store and appreciated its emphasis on chocolate, unlike Scharffen Berger's endless supply of baby t-shirts and Curious George books. But when I visited the store was empty. I don't know whether Charles can attract enough interest to their Chocolate Bar and tours given the somewhat out-of-the way location, but I hope they do. For the true chocophile, it's certainly worth a visit.