Saturday, April 19, 2008

The San Francisco International Chocolate Salon

The words "Chocolate Salon" conjure up images of quiet sophistication to me - French men in suits and women in little black dresses taking measured bites of chocolate and making careful notes while the chocolatiers squirm, hoping for a fine review. Maybe somewhere this European fantasy of mine exists, but it wasn't to be last Sunday at the 2nd Annual San Francisco International Chocolate Salon.

I love that Taste TV has brought the concept of a Chocolate Salon to San Francisco. Judging by the lines that snaked around the Fort Mason buildings all the way to the parking entrance, there is real interest among local chocolate lovers. On such an unusually warm day, hopeful attendees read books and socialized while waiting to be let into the two stuffy meeting rooms that were crammed almost shoulder to shoulder with people. No doubt the price was right - $20 for as much chocolate as you could snatch from over 40 fine local chocolatiers.

As a member of the tasting panel (not to mention 8 months pregnant!), I was grateful to skip the line and bring my Gourmet Walks tour guides with me. There were some unusual diversions - chocolate hair styling, chocolate body art - scheduled for Sunday morning, but I headed straight for the chocolate so I could somehow fulfill my duty of choosing winners for at least 15 different categories before my palate was hopelessly confused.

I met up with some old favorites, including several chocolatiers who were present at the Singles Chocolate Salon this fall: XOX, Sacred, the Xocolate Bar. But there were also many new participants, including big names like Scharffen Berger, Ghirardelli and Guittard. My favorite part was getting the chance to chat with many of the actual chocolatiers. I met the talented Christopher Elbow, whose Hayes Street shop is his first retail location to open outside of Kansas City. Art Pollard was there, of the much acclaimed Amano Chocolate, who won the "Best Dark" award both last year and this year. I enjoyed talking with Charles Siegel of Charles Chocolates, whose delicious chocolate covered matzoh I'll be sampling for tomorrow's seder. And finally, the founder of Choco-Luxe shared with me her plans to open a shop in the Haight this summer.

I sampled as much as I could, and made note of one smart strategy - two women brought tupperware containers to fully stock up on chocolate from just about every booth. Wise, but it just doesn't seem fair! In the midst of all the freebies, some of the chocolatiers were making sales, including Cosmic Chocolates and their sleeper hit: the Obama truffle. There is Obama's smiling face in blue cocoa butter, surrounding a creamy espresso and cognac ganache center. Very masculine - and no plans yet for a Hillary. Apparently Cosmic sees a big spike in orders every time a new primary hits. I was intrigued by a new company, Jade Chocolates, whose spectacular packaging is all organic and recyclable. They specialize in flavored chocolates using fine ingredients from Asia and the Pacific Islands. I tried the "Dragon's Breath" bar, composed of 65% cacao, roasted sesame seeds, lapang souchong and ground red chili. Too spicy for me, but fans of Katrina Markoff's Vosges bars may find these exotic bars appealing.

And the winners? It looks like Taste TV wisely wittled down the long list of categories to what is listed below. I found we agreed on everything except "Most Luxurious Chocolate" - a confusing category for the average chocolate enthusiast.

Best Dark Chocolate: Amano Artisan Chocolate
Best Milk Chocolate: Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker
Best Truffle: XOX Truffles
Most Luxurious Chocolate Experience: XOX Truffles
Best Dark Chocolate Bar: Amano Artisan Chocolate
Best Organic or Fair Trade Products: Sacred Chocolate
Most Gifted Chocolatier: Christopher Elbow Artisanal Chocolate
Complimentary Mention: Trader Joe's Bottled Water
Not an Award but Needs to be Mentioned: Obama Chocolates by Cosmic Chocolates

I was glad to hear that Taste TV plans on another SF Chocolate Salon next year, but with a few improvements - including a bigger space, and maybe raising the entrance fee. In the meantime, how can I get myself and 3 kids to the Salon Du Chocolat in Paris this fall?

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Review: In Search of the Heart of Chocolate

Can you be a chocolate addict? Can chocolate enhance your love life? Are the regulars who shop at Chocolate Covered more than just a little bizarre? These are the questions Sarah Feinbloom begins to explore in her "chocumentary," In Search of the Heart of Chocolate. The film was perfectly timed to be released on Valentine's Day, with chocolate tastings and discussions at the San Francisco premiere. And although I was out of the country that week, Feinbloom was kind enough to send me a copy.

The film's luxurious subject and humorous tone is far removed from the subjects Feinbloom usually tackles in her documentaries (e.g., child trafficking, youth violence, religion). While she could have focused on plantation slave labor or the rise of organic chocolate, she sticks to a more complicated topic - what is it about chocolate that provokes such passion, such intensity, such love? And the results are a lot of fun to watch.

After making the acquaintance of Jack Epstein, the owner of Noe Valley's Chocolate Covered, Feinbloom is introduced to a number of San Francisco chocolate aficionados whose interviews appear in the film. She intersperses clips of these interviews with slices of her own chocolate past and a bit of information on chocolate history and production. Feinbloom confesses that she is a chocoholic (and why we would trust this kind of film made by anyone else!) and dramatizes one pivotal event from her chocolate-laden childhood; her mother wakes her late at night and they sit at the kitchen table surreptitiously eating chocolate sauce with a spoon right out of the jar.

But rather than lecture us on her own chocolate preferences and habits, Feinbloom keeps us laughing by showcasing the quirky Chocolate Covered customers who seem to live for chocolate. Epstein, who admits he prefers greasy and salty foods like potato chips to chocolate, actually offers his own kind of "therapy" for customers who can't deal with the guilt or have no understanding of moderation when it comes to consuming chocolate. And although he encounters plenty of SF locals who can't go a day without chocolate, he is opposed to using the word "addict." I've read the studies too that show chocolate cannot be addictive, but Feinbloom's interviews do make me think twice.

Feinbloom introduces us to the "100 percenter," otherwise known as Richard, an ex-hippie turned serious chocolate connoisseur who approaches tasting chocolate with an almost scary intensity. As he suckles his 100% Domori (an acquired taste, he admits), Richard clues Feinbloom into the psychoanalytic qualities of this chocolate. He insists that the colors in his garden become brighter and more intense, as Feinbloom zooms in to capture this effect. Much like an interview on The Daily Show, Feinbloom need do very little but let her subjects talk. What we get is pure entertainment.

And then there is Suzanne, whose chocolate routine consists of eating chocolate in the morning, in the afternoon and at night. She begins by asking Feinbloom to sample one of her favorite dark bars, but it doesn't take long before she is pointing out the chocolate colored paints she favors and a new chocolate colored sweater - both testament to her obsession. She fingers the delicate brown beading on the sweater with as much care as the chocolate bars she buys nearly every day from Chocolate Covered. At the end of the interview, she says "I could stop though," but we all know the truth.

I encounter a wide range of chocolate lovers and fanatics on my Chocolate Tours, but never anyone quite as interesting as Suzanne and Richard. This is the gritty, authentic (and foggy) world of chocolate - a long way from the slick downtown boutiques we visit on my tours. Chocolate Covered is actually on the basement level, lacking artfully designed window displays or tables for late-night drinking chocolate parties. I thank Sarah Feinbloom for bringing us this nugget of San Francisco chocolate life.

If you're interested in watching the film for yourself, it's available for purchase on her web site for $19.99, plus shipping and handling. The film is 25 minutes long.
It will also be screened at the San Francisco International Chocolate Salon on April 13th. Feinbloom and I will both be members of the "Tasting Panel," and I'm looking forward to meeting her.