Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Sugar-free Chocolate

I often get inquiries from customers on my Chocolate Tours about sugar-free chocolate. While I tend to stay away from anything labeled "sugar-free," "fat free" or "low carb," I do know that Fog City News offers the best sugar-free selection I've seen in San Francisco. Up until last Wednesday, I hadn't a clue whether the bars even tasted like chocolate. Something about the use of malitol as a sweetener still makes me hesitate.

The Chronicle's weekly "Taster's Choice" was dedicated to sugar free bars. They sampled 11 varieties, most from Fog City News, and came up with two winners: Michael Mischer and Charlemagne. Surprisingly, third place went to Godiva, not a typical favorite of chocolate connoisseurs. If you hit Fog City sometime in the next week or so, you might even get a free sample.

Check out the full report on SF Gate.

Friday, December 14, 2007

What is it about a British Candy Bar?

Every so often I meet someone on my Chocolate Tours who has no interest in the "fancy stuff." Unimpressed by a Recchiuti burnt caramel truffle, bored by a Scharffen Berger bittersweet nibby bar, appalled by a Richart carrot coulis - he wants something sweet. And most Americans have grown up equating chocolate with sugar. After all, if Hershey's contains less than 10% cacao, it's no mystery what's in the rest of it.

But we aren't the only country addicted to sweet candy bars. A visit to the newly opened Fiona's Sweetshoppe in Union Square reminded me that the British candy bar is in no danger of being steamrolled by the artisan chocolate movement. Curly Wurlys, Milky Bars, Crunchies, Mars Bars, the Cadbury Flake - Fiona carries them all and they are selling. This miniature shop is really dedicated to candy first and foremost. Fiona, a British MD on leave, is surrounded by glass jars of candy with the most beguiling names: "liquorice broomsticks," "coconut mushrooms," "sherbet strawberries," and "toffeed brazils." It is an expat's paradise; in my short visit I witnessed several women pop in for particular tastes they enjoyed from their childhood, but can't find anywhere else in San Francisco.

This summer Kim Severson at the NY Times reported on the obsessive pride many Brits have for their kind of candy bars. They turn up their noses at Hershey, pointing out a waxy taste that will never match rich, creamy British bars. Both have plenty of vegetable fat, sugar and artificial flavors, but the owner of Tea and Sympathy claims that the British use fewer stabilizers and that's why their bars taste better.

Before I left the store, Fiona offered me a "Fry's Turkish Delight" bar - something I remembered from the British novels I used to curl up with as a child...Ah yes, the Chronicles of Narnia! Edmond is seduced by the White Witch when she offers him as much Turkish Delight as he can eat. (Liesl Schillinger wrote a funny piece for Slate on this titled "The Lion, the Witch and the Really Foul Candy") Now that's a bargain that wouldn't go far with any American child, for whom flowers and chocolate just don't mix. The Turkish Delight bar is simply rose flavored jelly surrounded by milk chocolate. Just one sniff convinced me to repurpose it as a 6th night of Chanukah gift for my husband, who said it tasted like soap. Old chocolate habits die hard.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Produce Aisle Meets Chocolate Box: Richart's Festive Garden

Gingerbread, peppermint, cranberry...Ah, the comforting but predictable flavors of the holiday season. "Mais non!" says Michel Richart. The "Festive Garden" holiday collection that debuted last week at Richart includes potato, celery root, tomato, carrot and corn. Despite its old school origins, Richart prides itself on pushing the envelope with flavor and form. But this time, have they gone too far?

On Friday evening I attended a Tasting Party at Richart's Union Square boutique. Francophiles and chocophiles enjoyed glasses of port and zinfindel while trying to decode the new flavors laid out for sampling. Like the Petit Richart collection, the Festive Garden chocolates are all exactly the same size, but it takes some pattern recognition, color matching and French translation to figure out what exactly you are going to eat.

I must confess that when it comes to chocolate, I am not a swashbuckling adventurer. Chocolate falls into the dessert category, and I like my desserts sweet. Some of the notorious Vosges bars (with bacon, curry and wasabi) are still languishing in my cupboard uneaten. But I did enjoy some of the milder flavor combinations from the Festive Garden:
* Caramelized celery root coulis on a bed of ganache flavored with mild spices
* Pear coulis on a bed of cassis de Dijon ganache (Dijon the town, not the mustard!)
* Pumpkin coulis on a bed of chamomile flower ganache

My least favorite was the "tomato on a bed of basil ganache." Even though I stopped by the party before dinner, I still wasn't quite ready for an appetizer! After trying the "kalamanzi in soy milk ganache on a bed of carrot coulis," one of my companions noted "it was like someone hid the baby food in my truffle." Yet my French friend could not get enough of these chocolates, dashing back for just one more sample when the saleswoman disappeared momentarily. Although these flavors have not scored highly for clients on my San Francisco Gourmet Chocolate Tour, the manager of the San Francisco boutique assures me that overall customer response has been quite good.

The Festive Garden collection costs $74.50 for the large 37 piece box and $33 for the small 16 piece collection. At an average of $120/pound, Richart is likely the most expensive chocolate in San Francisco. But where else can you find a little kalamanzi in your chocolate?

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

A Chocolatey Walk down Chestnut

On a sunny weekday morning when parking is plentiful, try taking a walk down Chestnut Street and sampling the Marina's best chocolate boutiques. Last week I began with a cup of the "Venetian hot chocolate" at the Emporio Rulli Gran Caffe, at Chestnut and Scott. This stuff is thick and rich, though the brand of chocolate used is reportedly "top secret." The Rulli empire (with locations now in Union Square, Larkspur and SFO) offers some tempting pastries too, but I suggest holding off because there are many more chocolate delights to be sampled.

Walk a couple blocks down Chestnut and pop into Moonstruck Chocolate Cafe. Moonstruck is based in Portland, Oregon and has been around since 1993. With another location in Walnut Creek, the cafes feature Moonstruck's full line of scrumptious looking truffles and a wide range of hot and cold chocolate beverages as well. I sampled Moonstruck's most famous item, the "cream cone." The mini cone is dark chocolate and the ice cream is a French silk cream decorated with pastel icing. These chocolates are decidedly American; in fact Moonstruck is quite proud of having been the official chocolatier for both the 78th and 77th Academy Awards. (And what number are we on now, anyway?)

Cross the street and you'll find a relative newcomer to the Chestnut chocolate scene - Luvbox. This shop is a bit mysterious. They say they don't make their chocolates here, but that they use several different Belgian "suppliers." Yet doing a Google search on the company name led me nowhere. In any case, they offer a range of fresh chocolates and truffles, plus pre-packaged bars and gifts. Their bars mimic the Michael Mischer packaging - a clear plastic box with whole nuts on top of the chocolate This tiny store, decorated in gold and crimson, makes you feel like you are inside a precious jewel box. I especially enjoyed the lemon ganache and the orange chocolate truffle from Luvbox.

And finally, if you've still got a taste for chocolate, I recommend circling back to Scott Street and lining up for Kara's Cupcakes. This adorable shop (perfect for little girls who adore pink) offers at least a couple chocolate cupcakes every day, including the "chocolate velvet," the "Ghirardelli chocolate" and the "vanilla chocolate." At $3 a piece, each cupcake is moist and beautiful. Kara, a Tante Marie cooking school graduate, is especially proud of the local ingredients used in her cupcakes. In fact, I've never seen a place go so far as provide a color coded map outlining exactly where each ingredient was sourced, from the "diamond crystal salt" in Newark to the Clover dairy products in Petaluma. The chocolate she uses includes Ghirardelli, Scharffen Berger and (sometimes!) Callebaut.

Our San Francisco Gourmet Chocolate Tour covers downtown San Francisco right now, but it's possible we'll add a Marina tour in the future. We may even combine it with a wine tasting at Bin 38 or Nectar. Email me with your thoughts!