Friday, January 7, 2011

The Year in Chocolate: 2010

The Year in Chocolate
Bay Area 2010
1. Openings
Let’s start out with some happy news. Chuck Siegel no longer has a commute. Charles Chocolates opened a flagship shop in Westfield Mall this year, closing down all Emeryville operations. Even bigger news, Charles will soon be expanding into a 5000 square foot shop and kitchen that has even Mayor Newsom celebrating. On a smaller scale (a little bit grimy), fine chocolate made its way into the Tenderloin with the opening of Hooker’s Sweet Treats in June. All you salted caramel addicts, his version is among the best in the city. Suburban sidenote – Marin chocolate lovers will finally have somewhere worthy of a visit. Chocolatier Blue has leased space in Strawberry Village, with an opening slated for early 2011.

2. Closures
We were sad to say goodbye to the Maiden Lane location of Alegio Chocolate. Now it’s a trek to Berkeley for the avant garde Enrico Rovira chocolates and Claudio Corallo bars. (Tip: roommate Manika Jewelry is still open, and with Valentine’s Day just around the corner…) In June, Seneca Klassen announced the closure of its Fillmore Street Bittersweet shop, citing rent disputes. Though nothing beats a Bittersweet hot chocolate, Citizen Cake re-opening around the corner is yummy consolation. And finally, Mary Loomas of Saratoga Chocolates quietly closed her San Francisco location at the end of December (in the old and beloved Joseph Schmidt shop).

3. Comfort Chocolate
From the looks of the average Bay Area restaurant dessert menu, comfort desserts just never go out of style. High class donuts at the end of a meal – who can resist? There is a definite trend in comfort chocolate flavors, with toffee leading the way. Gourmet Walks guides are loving the Chocolat Moderne Kashmir Bar (55% dark with toffee, cardamom, cinnamon and cloves), Xocolatl de David 72% dark milk salted caramel bar and the Patric PB&J Bar (jelly flavor only comes from the fruity notes of the cacao beans). You’ll likely find all three at Fog City News. As for comfort truffles, consider the Norman Love Vanilla Cupcake truffle (Cocoa Bella) and Christopher Elbow’s new Maple Walnut (Elbow Hayes Valley).

4. Micro-batch
Smaller is pretty much always considered better in the world of chocolate, wine, beer and other artisan foods. The concept of micro-batch chocolate is not new. After Scharffen Berger paved the way, Steve DeVries took pride in being “100 Years Behind the Times” and creating micro-batches in 2005. Patric, Taza, Amano, Mast Brothers and Rogue soon followed. One tour guide’s favorite micro-batch chocolate from this year is Rogue Chocolatier’s Piura Bar – made from just 4 bags of cacao beans purchased from a small organic farm in Piura, Peru. Savor the taste….you might not find it again.

5. More of the Bizarre
While comfort chocolate flavors are big, we still haven’t seen the end of bizarre flavor combinations in both truffles and bars. Bacon is old news, though Vosges continues to milk the success of its Bacon Bar with even a bacon chocolate chip pancake mix! My top choice for weirdest flavor of the year was East Bay Michael Mischer’s barbeque truffle, often carried by Cocoa Bella. It tastes like a smoky barbeque sauce and chocolate. Try that one with a microbrew.

6. Extreme Pairings
Foodies once thought pairing chocolate with anything but port was a mistake. Local chocolate companies are now embracing unusual pairings and from our perspective, consumers love it (especially the young ones). This year Recchiuti launched boxes for Beer Pairings, Whisky Pairings and Spirits Pairings. His suggestion – a tarragon grapefruit ganache with absinthe. On the extreme side, TCHO even sponsored a tequila and chocolate pairing night. Ugh, I’ll pass on that one.

7. Revamped Packaging
Vosges is the queen of sexy packaging and, until this year, the only chocolate maker I know of with a picture of the owner/creator on the back. Patric Chocolate, based in Missouri, said farewell to its nondescript small brown bars and launched a splashy new wave-ish design with his photo on the cover. Yes, he has a purple face but I think that was the idea. And the titles of his bars almost sound like a teenager’s text message, as in “PBJ OMG.” I also want to point out Rococo’s beautiful new packaging, even though founder Chantal Coady neglected to include the name of the company on front of the bar!

8. Pies, etc.
Are you tired yet of hearing predictions on what will be the next cupcake? The 2010 consensus is the pie and chocolate will most definitely play a role. Mission Pie (so ahead of this trend) makes a yummy chocolate cream pie. But my favorite pie variation is the whoopie pie, the dense New England treat that is finally making its way to California. Susie Cakes is serving whoopie pies for birthday parties and even (believe it) weddings. When summer rolls in, be sure to check out Michael Recchiuti’s unique whoopie pies, laced with candied orange peel, coated in dark chocolate and filled with burnt caramel buttercream.

9. An Education
More and more local chocolate makers are opening their doors and kitchens for chocolate making classes. It’s not enough that we consume lots of gourmet chocolate; we want to learn how to make it! Coco-luxe charges $160/pp for a “Build Your Own Chocolate Bar” class and you’ll take home 6 tasty bars. (Birthday party blues? Kids 10 and up welcome) Saratoga Chocolates, Cocoa Delice and Charles Chocolate have all offered different types of classes in the past. At Gourmet Walks, you can combine a Chocolate Tour with a chocolate truffle making class from SOMA based Baking Arts. A full day of indulgence!

10. Newsworthy
The big story of 2010 is that the price of chocolate is expected to go up, way up. This will primarily affect candy bar companies who shall remain nameless – not the good stuff we regularly sample on our tours! And it is a reminder why it’s important to support small batch chocolate makers who are paying cacao workers fair wages or even sharing the profits. Closer to home, John Scharffenberger took a position as CEO of Hodo Soy’s gourmet organic tofu company, based in Oakland. (Psst…that is some good tofu!) And finally, TCHO is stirring up a battle vs. Guittard for a starring role on fine dessert menus around San Francisco and beyond.

To taste some of these trends, take a Chocolate Tour with Gourmet Walks! Offered Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays year round.