Monday, April 27, 2009

Rogue Chocolatier

He's 24, doesn't have a driver's license and considers himself a bit of a rogue. As in, "operating outside normal controls" - not a thief. Meet Colin Gasko, a true bean-to-bar chocolate manufacturer based in Minneapolis. He doesn't do what is normal and easy in the chocolate world, such as buying couverture, re-melting it and adding bizarre ingredients. Without the funds to purchase expensive European chocolate making equipment, he buys what he can, tinkers with it and improvises. And when it comes time to delivering these bars, he'll jump on his bicycle if he can't hitch a ride. Normal, no, but this process results in some very fine chocolate.

Gasko got his start while working at Whole Foods and realizing he could make chocolate just as good as what they sold. Like many new American chocolate makers, he took to the library to read up on the physics of chocolate production. (No joke -this happens!) Despite the new wave of small batch chocolate makers in America, we've heard it's still a very difficult craft to learn. If you just call up Guittard or Ghirardelli, will they show you their tempering machine? Not likely. That was the impetus behind several of these guys (and it really is all guys) starting the Craft Chocolate Makers of America. No word yet on whether Rogue Chocolatier will be invited to the club.

We picked up our Rogue bars at Fog City News on a recent Chocolate Tour. Gasko has three 70% cacao bars currently for sale in San Francisco: the Sambirano (Madagascar), the Hispaniola (Dominican Republic) and the Rio Caribe (Venezuala). Since these are all single origin, I wish he included a little more information on the packaging about the beans and plantations he uses. But I applaud his no-nonsense tasting notes, where he has assigned each bar 3 simple flavors. My favorite was the Rio Caribe, with notes of coffee, blood orange and nuts. The bars retail for $6.99 and make a very pretty gift set for chocolate connoisseurs.

It takes Gasko 30 hours to make one batch of chocolate, and an additional 15 to mold and package that batch. One might imagine a business consultant suggesting he make larger batches or at least hire a "man in India" to help with the wrapping. That might be normal but we are, after all, talking about a rogue. Let us know what you think about these bars by leaving a comment here or sending us an email at

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Dragee: then and now

What confection sounds more glamorous than the French dragee (dra-jay)? I envision myself lounging on a divan, with a kir royale in one hand and a bundle of the classic sugar coated almonds in the other. Though dragees have been popular in Europe since the Middle Ages, we are finding new interpretations of them right here in San Francisco - beginning with Recchiuti's collection of chocolate dragees in peanut butter, cherry, almond and hazelnut.

The term "dragee" comes from the French verb "drague," meaning to dredge. After extravagant medieval banquets, the dragee (originally simply a spiced lump of sugar) was offered to aid in digestion and freshen the breath. In the traditional version, the roasted almond center is dredged in sugar, layer after layer, until the final shell is polished smooth. Just as Aix-en-Provence is known for their calissons, the French city of Verdun would lie in obscurity if not for the dragee. Verdun (in the Lorraine region of Eastern France) has been making dragees since the 13th century.

If you've ever flipped through the sumptuous photos in Martha Stewart Weddings, you've seen bundles of pastel colored dragees presented as wedding favors. Because the almond is technically a seed, it has long been associated with fertility. And so dragees have come to symbolize fertility, prosperity and good luck - what we all wish for the bride and groom. It's even been said that the contrast of the sweet shell and the bitter nut illustrate the "for better or worse" of married life.

Dragees are not without political controversy, especially here in California. Public health advocates have questioned the advisability of downing the metallic dragees popular in cake and cookie decorating. The metals used may contain mercury, and even if they didn't, I'd worry about losing a tooth! Since 2003, metallic dragees have been banned for sale in California - but easily available online. This brings me to the superiority of chocolate dragees...

If you live in the Bay Area and are looking to add dragees to your Easter table, I have some suggestions. For the classic style, head straight to Richart or Teuscher. Both spots, located on the same Sutter Street Union Square block, are favorites on our Chocolate Tours. But for something a little more inventive, visit Recchiuti in the Ferry Building. My favorite are the slightly crunchy "Peanut Butter Pearls" (you won't find these in Europe) and the "Cherries Two Ways" which are positively addictive. If you can't decide, his "Asphalt Jungle" is a combo pack. One of my favorite online options for dragees is the Cocoa Room. With flavors like "amaretto tiramisu" and "pumpkin spice," these trendy confections can double as artwork when displayed in glass jars.

What is your favorite place for a dragee fix? Let us know here, or at