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?

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