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Chocolate by the Bay: A Review of the 2010 San Francisco Chocolate Salon

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"Your love is better than chocolate, better than anything else that I've tried…" With all due respect to Sarah McLachlan, some of the chocolate at the 2010 San Francisco Chocolate Salon (produced by Taste TV) would have put anyone's love to the test. As the slice of dark chocolate dissolved on my tongue, releasing the aroma of Earl Grey tea, I turned to my photographer: "I’m sorry, I think I need a moment alone…" Less than twenty minutes into our exploration of my personal version of paradise, I had found the first of several chocolates that reached near-orgasmic perfection.

Of course, I would expect paradise to have better parking, more prominent signage, a more efficient and prompt entry system, and maybe some music. However, once we sprang for the $20 for valet parking (still a bargain by San Francisco standards) at the Fort Mason Center and braved the incomprehensible queue that snaked past the rippling, green bay and began moving fifteen minutes after the posted entry time, the promise of chocolate hung ripe in the light morning fog.


The Bread Project Booth inside the Fort Mason Festival Pavilion

 

The vaulted ceiling and resonating cement floors of the Fort Mason Center Festival Pavilion gave a deceptive sense of emptiness to the event; tables and booths initially appeared tiny and sparse; forlorn islands in a sea of light. "This will be fast," we thought. We thought wrong. The building's dimensions did indeed deceive, and the Chocolate Salon accomplished something I would have thought impossible — it provided more chocolate than even I could bear to sample.

Chocolate lavender gelato. Ali’i Kula Lavender Farms has to win mention for distance travelled, and for reinforcing my secret belief that lavender is always a good thing. Sharing booth space with the Maui Visitors Bureau near the entrance, Ali’i Kula provided a tropical, soothing, and very purple starting point for our explorations. Located on Maui, Ali’i Kula Lavendar organically farms over forty-five varieties of lavender. Offering walking tours daily and collaborating with local businesses to source ingredients for their over seventy-five products, Ali’i Kula works to keep business "sustainable within the community."

Local sourcing, organic ingredients, fair trade, and sustainability seemed to be the themes of the day for the 2010 San Francisco Chocolate Salon. If the food pendulum has swung from the industrial to the artisan, nowhere is this more evident than in the field of chocolate. Start-up companies, artisan chocolatiers, and independent wineries vastly outnumbered any large corporations. Chocolate and food as a form of philanthropy and philosophy was also widely explored.

The Bread Project stood forth as an example of chocolate on a mission. The mission of The Bread Project is to promote "self-sufficiency among low-income people in the Bay Area by providing the job training and supports needed to obtain and retain employment in the food industry." White-coated Bread Project members dotted the exhibit hall, assisting with ticket scanning at the entrance, doling out samples of a pretty darn good chocolate cranberry cookie, selling loaves of chocolate Easter bread, smiling, and answering questions for curious journalists. The Bread Project provides culinary job training for individuals coping with stigmatizing challenges such as criminal records, addiction, or homelessness. As the young man who patiently answered our questions pointed out, the food service industry is generally more accepting of such life-altering setbacks than other areas of the job market. The Bread Project provides not only skills training, but also career counseling and training in job-seeking skills such as resume-writing and interviewing. The Bread Project also follows-up with graduates for twelve months after graduation.

Feeling better about the prospects for humanity, we drifted over to a nearby table with an intriguing sign. The Winetime Bar claims to contain more of the compound Resveratrol than fifty glasses of wine. Ok, I like wine, but definitely not fifty glasses at one go. Let’s try this bar thing. The Winetime Bar had the texture of a high-end energy bar, much like the chocolate varieties of Luna bars. A slight crunch hinted at the presence of nuts; sparks of tang spoke of dried fruit; and there was chocolate — yes, definitely chocolate. While the spokesman for Winetime acknowledged that there were no studies supporting the bioavailability of Resveratrol in bar form, he stated that they are marketing it merely as a “healthy indulgence.” Okay, find me a glass, I’ll drink to that. Bottom line, at 190 calories a bar, I can see this as a good snack, but it won’t replace either my glass of cabernet or my bar of premium dark chocolate.
Both of these indulgences were readily forthcoming.

My "special moment" came at the Tea Room booth. Tea and chocolate, two of the most perfect things in the world, and some genius came up with a way to combine them. The mad-scientist genius of the Tea Room’s Tea Fusion bars is the combination of steeped tea into the chocolate. Normally, water (tea) + chocolate = mess. However, these bars were beautifully textured, luscious chocolate with a perfect tea aroma. We were only told that the process is a trade secret. This, of course, set off speculation pulled from vague memories of distilling tea in college chemistry lab. I’m willing to chalk it up to magic.


Alter Eco Chocolate Bars

 

For slightly more virtuous, but equally indulgent, chocolate, we wandered to the Alter Eco booth. Alter Eco sources the ingredients for its product line from organic farmers, dealing directly with growers and grower-owned co-ops on a fair trade basis. Alter Eco's chocolates are made by a family-owned confectionary in Switzerland. A 72-hour "conch" time, the process of stirring the chocolate over heat to obtain ideal consistency, allows Alter Eco to avoid the use of soy-lecithin as an emulsifier. Additive questions aside, the consistency of the Blackout dark chocolate bar, and of the Midnight Crunch, a dark chocolate quinoa crunch bar, was silky, lacking any greasy after-effect. The Midnight Crunch — think Crunch Bar for real people — has serious addiction potential. The quinoa provides a greater resistance, and better crunch, than any puffs of rice.

And the wine. The Winetime Bar people had some serious competition in the form of the real thing. Lacking the confidence and coordination to taste and spit in a crowded hall while clutching a notepad, I limited my tastings to a few of the most interesting-looking alcoholic offerings. Since I am a sucker for a cool label, first up was Punk Dog Wine, pouring Sophie’s Romp, a Napa/Sonoma blend Cabernet. Sophie’s Romp is named for the owners' Welsh Corgi, a "bratty little dog." Like its namesake, this is a big, bold, brash wine — fun and flamboyant. Punk Dog also makes a wine not poured at the Salon. The Riddle is a mystery blend; the riddle involves guessing the blend. The answer is printed on the cork. Okay, I know my next party.

 

Speaking of parties, or of a quiet evening with a book, or of almost anything that doesn’t require intelligent thought, hard alcohol was also well represented. Unable to resist the Girl with the Pearl Earring, we paid a visit to the Vermeer Dutch Chocolate Liqueur booth and were well rewarded. Made with Blue Angel Vodka, Dutch chocolate, and cream, it is chocolate milk for grownups. Not overpoweringly sweet, it reminds the drinker of its 17% alcohol content with every sip. And, boy, would it be good in coffee. Or on the rocks. Or…

Tastes of the Blue Angel Vodka were poured as well. I am not a vodka expert by any means, but according to the company, Blue Angel is an American grain vodka. While I’m not sure I would drink it straight again, this is probably personal preference and not an indictment of the product. Other attendees who seemed to have a wider breadth of vodka experience appeared to be favorably impressed.

Impressions. The San Francisco Chocolate salon was all about impressions. From the straightforward and product-focused to the sublimely over-the-top, we saw homemade, professional, educational, scientific, entertaining, whimsical, and downright wacky displays. Guittard went for the educational approach as befits its venerable status. A chocolate tasting wheel (similar to a color wheel) was displayed along with large, color photographs of the cocoa bean harvesting process. I had always envisioned the beans growing on bushes, in the manner of coffee beans. Instead, we learned that the cacao pod, a football sized, melon-like object, grows directly from the trunk of the tree. The beans are found within the pod, tucked into the white flesh. We also learned that the flavor of chocolate is influenced by the origin, type, roasting (or not — I'll get to that in a minute), and processing of the beans.

An alternate chocolate production process was presented by a purple-robed giant with butterflies in his hair.

 

Okay, the giant part may be a slight exaggeration, but he easily towered over everyone in the room. As for the robes and the butterflies, I couldn't invent those if I tried. Sacred Chocolate, New-Aged to the point of retro in its display, was one of two raw-chocolate producers whose wares we sampled. "Raw chocolate?" you ask. "I thought chocolate had to be roasted. Don't they at least have to melt it or something?" Apparently not. In the production of raw chocolate, the whole cacao bean is stone-milled like flour for four days. However, instead of turning to powder, the bean is pulped into a butter, much like the result of grinding peanuts. The resulting chocolate is intense, but even the minimally sweetened bars were not bitter. I tried several of the company's flavored chocolates, but the chocolate itself overwhelmed the other flavors, rendering them nearly indistinguishable.

As a side note, the other raw-chocolate company, Divine Chocolates, had a less flamboyant feel, but won my heart for the best trail mix ever. One bite of the cashews used in the mix, and I realized that I had never tasted a cashew before; this was the real thing, and all others are sad imitations. Also, the inclusion of dried mulberries into the mix is pure inspiration.


Divine Chocolates' mix
 

Proving once again that all brilliant culinary concepts come from Midwestern State Fairs, Southern California chocolatier Christopher Michael offered samples of what may be the most inspired confection ever — bacon covered in caramel, sea salt, and chocolate. Don’t mock it on the ingredient list alone; this is pure, addictive yumminess. Think about it: smoky, chewy bacon, the sweet pull of caramel, the spark of salt, the aroma of chocolate. I’m pretty sure that scream was my metabolism crying out in horror, but I don’t care. This product, which Michael plans to call Mr. Pig (Miss Pig, a chili-spiked version, is forthcoming), begs to be snacked upon. Trained as a savory chef, Michael "stumbled into chocolate" five years ago on a trip to New York.

While Christopher Michael may have my vote for the most unique product, the stage set by Edible Love Chocolates stood out as the most unique experience. Edible Love Chocolates is what happens when a street performer becomes a chocolatier. Only in San Francisco, you say? Possibly, and San Francisco is all the better for this sort of quirk. Beneath a tangerine and magenta sari draped tent, a sort of side-show, magic act, snake-oil sale (I mean this in a good way) was taking place. The line from the Edible Love Chocolates booth snaked into the main aisle throughout the day. One could imagine stepping back a century to see the crowd gathering at the edge of town before the top-hatted, velvet-coat-clad merchant and his lovely, bespangled assistant. The man beneath the top hat, Philippe Lewis, used to perform as a stilt walker with the Mystic Family Circus. When he began to create chocolates, he naturally segued into a "chocolate ringmaster" persona, having people perform small tasks in exchange for chocolate. Today, Edible Love Chocolates creates, in addition to some fabulous truffles, chocolate experiences: chocolate making classes, truffle parties, pairings, and wedding favors. Lewis is all about the experience.


Philippe Lewis and the Edible Love Chocolates Booth

Just as we felt surfeited on all things chocolate and had decided to take our leave, I spotted chef Elizabeth Falkner (Citizen Cake, Orson) of Food Network fame heading to the back to give a presentation. My kids are serious Food Network Junkies; I turned to Mel: "Do you mind, can we go watch?" Falkner's presentation was simple and entertaining. She recapped one of the courses served at Orson on Valentine's Day — chocolate bonbons paired with various aromatics and offered to a blindfolded partner. Drawing three eager volunteers and applying blindfolds ("I call this bon-bondage"), Falkner proceeded to show the changes to the palate when visual knowledge is removed. While the blindfold demonstration was interesting, the real take-home lesson was that almost anything (parmesan, anyone?) can be paired with chocolate if one is fearless enough.

Fearlessness and chocolate. That was a good enough message for me. We left the 2010 San Francisco Chocolate Salon satisfied, inspired, and a little caffeine- and sugar-buzzed.

All photos courtesy of Mel Welcher, 2010

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About Christy Corp-Minamiji

  • http://lazarocooks.blogspot.com/ LazaroCooks!

    Funny and informative article. A joy to read.