Monday, January 19, 2009

A Chocolate Report from the Fancy Food Show

I spent today turning down mildly flavored bottled waters, organic margarita mixes, acai goji energy bars and sea salt everything - only to focus on chocolate bars and confections at the Fancy Food Show. Almost every major chocolate manufacturer was represented, from bean-to-bar manufacturers like Republica del Cacao to truffle makers like Joseph Schmidt. Naturally, sampling was a part of the experience and, like guests on our Chocolate Tours, I learned to control my portions and squirrel away what I could for later.

Rather than list the "best" chocolates I tried today, I've synthesized the experience into the top 7 trends in gourmet chocolate right now. For the most part, customers seem to be buying into these trends - especially when the quality is high, the price point reasonable and the packaging impressive:

1) Nibs
Scharffen Berger has been selling nibs for many years now, but newer companies are now either mixing nibs into bars, coating nibs in chocolate or roasting nibs and selling them straight up. Nibs are everywhere! Sweet Riot, a 3 year old company formed primarily around the sale of nibs, offers 3 chocolate coated varieties, all at 140 calories a recyclable tin. This marketing driven company ("cacao, culture, cool") is proud of the fact that svelte celebs like Eva Longoria and Sarah Jesica Parker snack on the nibs and stay, well, svelte. Other Fancy Food participants with note-worthy nib creations were Amano (who now sells 6 origin-based varieties of roasted nibs) and Coco-luxe (debuting their new Roark bar, studded with nibs). The name is based on the protagonist in Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead. The skyscraper on the packaging pays homage to his devotion to architecture (and himself, of course).

2) Spice
There is no holding some chocolate makers back when it comes to adding heat to chocolate. At several Fancy Food chocolate stops, I was happy to have gourmet crackers from the next both over to cleanse my palate and offer some relief. One of the hottest I tried was the Chuao Firecracker bar. Founded by two Venezuelan brothers, Chuao Chocolatier is no stranger to the spicy side of chocolate. Another best selling bar is the Spicy Maya, with pasilla chile, cinnamon and cayenne pepper. The Firecracker bar has pop rocks(see trend #7), chipolte and salt. The least appealing spicy/exotic bar I sampled was the New Tree Thyme and Flax seed. For me, the thyme and flax completely overpowered the chocolate. But I kind of believe, just like there is a person for everyone, there has got to be consumer for every kind of chocolate bar. Just not me, thank you.

3) Toffee
While some go for spice, others love chocolate confections that hearken back to childhood. This widespread love of toffee may coincide with the popularity of comfort desserts (like sticky toffee pudding) in San Francisco restaurants, compared to ground-breaking savory treats from pastry chefs like Boris Portnoy and Elizabeth Faulkner. The best toffee I sampled today was from Cary's of Oregon, which, lucky for us, is also available at Cocoa Bella. I was happy to see that some chocolate makers, including SF's Poco Dolce and Vosges, are experimenting with toffee bars. After noting that their Toffee tiles topped the sales charts, Poco Dolce just unveiled 4 new toffee flavors. The Double Espresso variety was tasty and a welcome pick-me-up after hours of grazing. And those familiar with Vosges know that Katrina Markoff would not settle for classic toffee. Her Red Fire Toffee contains ancho and chipolte chiles, ceylon cinnamon and red fire pecans. Hot? Yes, but it won't make your eyes water.

4) Organic

Everybody's doing it, but who is doing it well? Green and Blacks and Dagoba were well represented. The best all-organic filled chocolates I tried were Jim Shepherd's Lille Belle Farms. We love sampling his unique Smoked Blue Cheese truffle on our Chocolate Tours at Cocoa Bella, as well as the Fresh Mint ganache. At the show, I tried his juicy Cherry Cordial as well as his new spicy almonds. And as for organic chocolate bars, Vosges again impressed with several new all-organic varieties. This fanciful Vosges packaging is starting to look like something I'd pick up at my yoga studio, right next to the overpriced ghee. I liked the Peanut Butter BonBon (something like the Ghirardelli filled peanut butter squares, only with big flakes of salt), but if you're part of the artisan salt backlash, then stay clear. I also liked the Habana bar, subtly filled with Ecuador plantains. The Enchanted Mushroom bar (with such a promising name!) tasted dry and dusty, and I was not convinced by the label's suggestion that the Reishi mushroom is going to make me live longer. I'll go to my acupuncturist for Chinese herbs, not my chocolate shop!

5) Chocolate and Wine
We run Chocolate and Wine Tours every Friday, so we know about the popularity of chocolate and wine. In addition to the San Francisco Chocolate Factory's Cocoa Vinosa, several other companies have put together some unique chocolate and wine offerings. A company called Sweets had samples of their new chocolate wine sticks. Once I looked at the ingredient list and saw "corn syrup" and "palm oil" I declined a taste. And then a company with a name appealing mainly to oenophiles, Brix, has created 8 oz slabs of chocolate to match with specific wines. They don't make their own chocolate, but instead blend with a Ghana bean (not so unusual) that has the "red fruit tones" critical for a good wine pairing. I was skeptical of their milk chocolate bar, which they said could pair with pinot noir, port, ice wine, rose and burgandy! With claims like that, I'm considering ordering some to try on our next few tours.

6) Single Origin
Yes, this has been the buzzword for some time now. Even Scharffen Berger, whose founders believed that blended was better, has introduced a Maker's Series of Single Origin bars. Remelters are getting in on the single origin action, and using the term to lure buyers into their Fancy Food booths. I sampled from Chocolove and Vermont's Lake Champlain, among others. The origin I was most excited to learn more about at the show was Hawaii - the only U.S. state that grows cacao. I sampled from The Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory, located on the big island. And on Oahu, Malie Kai Chocolates. Both offer tours - the perfect experience to fold into your next Hawaii getaway!


7) Pop Rocks

I was surprised when I sampled Christopher Elbow's Pop Rocks bar recently at Cocoa Bella. This is taking exotic chocolate to a new level, I thought! But now it seems Pop Rocks is the go-to wacky new ingredient for a host of chocolatiers. I tried the Chauo Firecracker bar (noted above) as well as a delicious new creation from Cosmic Chocolate in Oakland. A perfect Valentines gift, their "Champagne and Rocks" bar is 64% cacao with, you guessed it, champagne and pop rocks. Classic French chef Francois Payard has even dabbled with pop rocks and chocolate, though he calls it a "guilty secret."

What do you think about these trends? Let us know at info@gourmetwalks.com, or comment here on this blog.

1 comment:

Jeanne said...

The first time I saw anyone use Pop Rocks in a finished product, it was when Mother's came out with some cookies in their Circus bag. That cookie was so much fun to eat. I'll be happily transported back to my youth with Pop Rocks in chocolate. And I love the varieties of toffee coming to the market.