Bittersweet Cafe Field Trip

October 15, 2009

Bittersweet Cafe, Danville, CA

Bittersweet Cafe, Danville, CA

A recent customer visit for my real job took me by Danville, a small suburb east of the Oakland/Berkeley area. For a while, I have been wanting to visit Bittersweet Cafe, and remembered they have a location there. Am I ever glad that I made that little detour! The San Francisco area is packed full of places to find artisan chocolate, (Fog City News and Chocolate Covered, for example), and Bittersweet is another top-flight chocolate retailer with a well-educated staff and an astounding selection of the good stuff. All this luxe chocolate goodness is delivered in a friendly, welcoming coffeeshop atmosphere, which strikes me a good tactic for luring unsuspecting, Hershey’s consuming, chocolate neophytes.

Part of Bittersweet's Inventory

Part of Bittersweet's Inventory

Bittersweet’s owners are dedicated enough to the concept of artisan chocolate that they not only make their own micro-batch chocolate, they are planting cacao in Hawaii with the hope of making tree-to-bar chocolate. Their selection of artisan chocolate spans the range from classic European producers, South American companies, and most of the new American startups. The shelf you see here is maybe one tenth of the bars they offer, and if you look closely, you can see Amano, Taza, Patric, Rogue, and Divine. The bar at the bottom left is the storied Amedei Porcelana, the world’s most expensive chocolate (that’s a $16 bar you see…for 1.75 oz) and 30 Rock punchline. (For the record, I bought two bars, and think it generally deserves it’s reputation. It’s not the most complex chocolate I’ve had, but it delivers a nearly thermonuclear chocolate wallop with very little bitterness.) All the chocolate is tagged with reviews written by store staff, who were also nice enough to offer me free tastes of many bars.

Bittersweet makes a few of it’s own bars, and I got their Sambiran, a 70% Madagascar origin dark chocolate. Bittersweet describes it as a very light roast, and that’s no lie. It’s a riot of bright citrus and brandy notes, with some lingering coffee flavors. My first taste out of the wrapper delivered a quick, punchy succession of flavors, but that effect calmed down a little when I resampled the chocolate after a few days. My wife who loves 99% and 100% bars and typically is not a fan of lighter chocolates was pretty addicted to the Sambiran. (“Please move this, or I’m going to eat the whole bar”) My only quibble is that the chocolate was not finished as well as it could be. The tempering was imperfect, with a bit of bloom on the edges, and the overall texture is a bit gritty, indicating a somewhat uneven particle size. Still, I get the sense that, stylistically, Bittersweet is aiming for the White Stripes, not the London Philharmonic.

Bittersweet has three locations (San Francisco, Danville, and the home store in Oakland.) I can’t imagine how the founders manage to pack running three stores, sourcing cacao, planting in Hawaii, and making chocolate, but the results are certainly delicious.


Another Artisan Confection: Honey

October 13, 2009

Last Saturday, I got the chance to go watch some folks extract honey from a set of backyard hives. It’s not chocolate, I thought that people obsessed with making chocolate might be interested in seeing how the most ancient confection is made. Chocolate is a brand new invention (dating from about 250 C.E.) compared to honey (eaten since at least 2100 B.C.E.) Like chocolate, there are dedicated artisan honey producers making specialty honeys.

Artisan honey is distinguished by the species of flower the bees extract nectar from. There are honeys from apple blossoms, red sumac, basswood, clover, lavender, among others. Like chocolate, the character of the agricultural product determines the character of the final product. (Apologies to any serious honey experts that might be reading this…I’m sure I’m missing lots of detail here, especially on the complexities of bee husbandry.)

Uncapping honeycomb

Uncapping honeycomb

Like refining chocolate, extracting honey is a fragrant, messy process. The process starts by kindly asking the bees to vacate the box they are living in, then taking out the frames that the bees have used to build honeycombs. You then use a hot knife to “uncap” the honeycomb, cutting off the wax caps of the comb. The resultant mess of honey and wax can be heated to separate the honey and the wax, but most of the honey is recovered from the main body of the comb in the next step.

The uncapped frames are loaded into a centrifugal extractor.

Extracting honey

Extracting honey

(If you are lucky, you can get a three year old spaceman to come by and help spin the combs in the extractor…what they lack in arm strength is made up in enthusiasm.)

There’s an enormous amount of honey in even a small set of frames. Our hosts extracted more than ten gallons of honey from a single hive box.

Honey ready to jar

Honey ready to jar

Once the honey is extracted, it’s poured into a bucket with a coarse filter cloth to take out the remaining small chunks of wax. The bucket has a valve that makes it relatively easy to jar, and you have a finished, very delicious, product.

Many thanks to Thomas and Jenny for inviting us over, and for the great honey. It really takes some dedication to keep three beehives (and their thousands of sting-prone residents) in your backyard!

Time to start thinking about pairing dark sumac honey with chocolate….


Black Mountain Chocolate

October 4, 2009

Updating the artisan chocolate maker list is getting pretty hectic. The next entrant is Black Mountain Chocolate of Asheville, NC, founded by fellow UC Davis Chocolate Technology grad Dave Mason. He’s been busy, and is now selling single origin chocolate sourced from Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, and Venezuela.


Battle Madagascar Chocolate!

September 30, 2009

As part of my quest to get people to eat better chocolate, I’ve been giving CacaoLab Chocolate Seminars at some small events. It’s not hard to get people to show up and eat some free chocolate, and are interested in hearing about what cacao is, how it’s made into chocolate, and about the obsessives that work to perfect this craft. (Once I’ve cleared the rights to an image, I’ll post the presentation.) Almost everyone has had chocolate, but most would be willing to believe it was pumped out of wells drilled in the Sahara. At the last chocolate seminar, after the talk about cacao, I gave a little coaching about how to evaluate chocolate on a few sensory axes (initial taste, aftertaste, and texture), then staged some head-to-head battles between chocolates from different cacao origins.

The audience fell to the tasting job with gusto, nibbling and taking notes on an evaluation form. Each chocolate was rated on a 1-9 scale for initial taste, aftertaste, and texture. The goal was to evaluate how the newer American craft chocolate makers hold up against the legendary European warhorses. (I’m not making any claims for the science here, but I think there are some worthwhile conclusions.) The first battle was a three way Madagascar competition, pitting the American makers Patric and Amano up against the aristocratic French Valrhona Ampamakia bar. (Here’s a review from the studied palates at Seventy Percent.) The sample size was pretty small, with 11 completed evaluations, but the results were pretty remarkable. From the raw numbers, Amano scored an average of 21.4 points, Patric was second with 20.9, and Valhrona was third with 19.6. Patric got the best overall initial taste score with an average of 7.3, and tied with Amano for aftertaste at 7.1. Amano slightly edged Patric on the texture score, with 7.2 vs 7.1.

Looking at the numbers and the subjective comments on the evaluation forms (15 forms had subjective comments), Amano scored consistently solid numbers across the testers. Patric and Valrhona were chocolates that people either loved or didn’t: both of these chocolates had perfect ratings from different people. Tasters consistently noted that the Patric had strong “fruity” notes (7 of the 15 forms), and five of the tasters noted that the Valhrona was “smooth” and “consistent.” The tasting was not blind, and the boxes were next to the samples. The fruit note was so pronounced in the Patric chocolate that one taster came to me and said the test was unfair because the Patric contained plums! This tester had tried the chocolate, and gone back to check the box, and saw “plum notes”, and drew the conclusion that fruit had been added. To be fair, two respondents named the Amano as their favorite chocolate of the six that were made available for testing.

I’ll be compiling and posting the results of the other two taste comparisons (Venezuelan cacao and dark milk chocolates) later on. The most important overall conclusion is how much people have to learn about the potential of chocolate. In the audiences that I’ve talked with, I estimate that less than 5% have had artisan chocolate, and tend to be surprised at the variety and complexity available. (And, at the seminars, at least a few people run off to order bars from the maker’s websites….that is, the ones that haven’t pocketed bars off the testing table!)


Chocolatier, chocolatier, or chocolatier?

September 28, 2009

My wife and I managed to sneak away from the house and kids for a few hours this weekend to a small wine and chocolate event in San Francisco. Mindy Fong, a classmate from the UC Davis Chocolate Technology Course, was showing her new Jade Chocolate line at the show, and I was excited to see what she’d been up to since the course. She’s combining chocolate with Asian ingredients to create some really unique (and tasty combinations.)

Mindy Fong and Jade Chocolate

Mindy Fong and Jade Chocolate

Her chocolate covered edamame have a nice, subtle interplay with the crunch and saltiness of the soybeans against the chocolate. She’s got a spicy bar, and a really great rice and tea bar — it’s a Hershey’s Krackle that’s grown up, done some yoga, and now works at a hedge fund. In short, much richer and sophisticated. Highly recommended.

Given that this is a snooty Artisan Chocolate blog, I’m compelled to ask the abstract question here. Is Mindy an artisan chocolatier? To the non-cacao obsessed, this sounds like a pretty goofy question — of course! An artisan is a skilled crasftsperson, she’s spent countless hours matching chocolate to rice, chili peppers, and wheat tea, pursuing her vision of what Jade Chocolate should taste like. If you take a look at this forum discussion on Clay Gordon’s encyclopedic site The Chocolate Life, it’s not that simple. The chocolate community has a seemly unquenchable Aristotlean imperative to order and name the members of the chocolate community. There are chocolate MAKERS (who take beans and make plain chocolate), and chocolatiers (who take chocolate and other ingredients to make confections.)

Chocolate makers have enormous investments in the time, equipment, and travel budgets required to wrestle a cacao bean into quality chocolate. It’s an expensive, painful process. No one outside of the lurkers on chocolate blogs really understand the chocolate process, so these folks feel like they need a way to tell the public that (1) chocolate is not delivered from heaven in the form of neatly wrapped bars, and (2) not everyone that says they make chocolate has to deal with the issues that they do. I’m pretty sure that’s a losing battle, because I think the chocolate process is just too complex, and the gradations in who is a genuine chocolate maker are just too subtle.

Looking at this from the bewildered consumer’s perspective, they want to know that there’s a justified reason that they should spend $9 on an artisan chocolate bar instead of $0.75 for industro-chocolate from a vending machine. There are two powerful reasons to do this: taste and consequences. One, chocolate that is made respecting the diverse agricultural nature of cacao just tastes much better. Different beans taste very different, and a careful hand on roasting and conching can coax worlds of complex flavor out of that diversity. Two, chocolate and the way it is made has monumental effects on people’s lives. Artisan chocolate makers like Steve DeVries and Shawn Askinosie spend a signficant fraction of their lives with cacao farmers, and source in a very responsible manner. Industrial chocolate funnels “product” through a commodities exchange that hides the distasteful nature of bulk cacao production. (see Carol Off’s rather disturbing Bitter Chocolate….more on that book later.)

An artisan should be characterized by an ability to extract and control flavor, and also a level of responsibility for their materials. I think there’s a pressing need to recognize the level of dedication required to make chocolate from the bean (or even more, from the tree.) However, the most important, basic, fact that needs to be communicated is that there is a community of chocolatiers dedicated to making a more delicious, more diverse food with a conscious dedication to how that affects the people that live in the narrow zone of the world that can grow cacao. Arguing too strenuously about the gradations will just yield confusion.

Go forth, find great chocolate, and grill the maker on what it is and where it came from!


New York Chocolate, High and Low

September 26, 2009

My non-chocolate job has the upside of getting to do the occasional trip to New York City, which is a pretty chocolate rich place. Most people passing through New York see the two monuments to industrial chocolate, the Hershey’s and M&M’s palaces on Times Square.

The Times Square Hershey's Store

The Times Square Hershey's Store


The Hershey’s store, amidst all the logo’ed merchandise and containers of Whoppers, has a small display of Scharffen Berger and Dagoba Bars. (Both companies are owned by Hershey’s.) Dagoba seems to definitely be going in the direction of chocolate + other ingredients, like the Chai, Lemon-Ginger, and Lavender-Blueberry bars.
Mars Store in Times Square

Mars Store in Times Square


The Mars store is even bigger (three floors of merchandise, and a machine for making customized M&Ms in any color you like.) You aren’t going to find the word “cacao” anywhere in this place.

The rotating Disco M&M is pretty entertaining, though.

Proceeding a few blocks to Rockefeller Center, you can find an outpost of Maison du Chocolat, a chocolate amusement park of an entirely different sort. Here the chocolate is showcased in an expanse of polished marble, glass, and wood. The Maison offers a wide array of confections, and seasonally pours a hot chocolate that seems to have extra Essence of Luxury mixed into it.

Put on your sunglasses before checking out the next picture of a display case at Maison. It’s a glittering box of the Tamanaco single-origin ganache palets. Extremely good chocolate mixed with some extremely good cream.

It’s artisan chocolate of a different sort that I usually discuss here, but, just for the record, I won’t mind if anyone got me this box for Christmas. Don’t count on me sharing it either!

A $75 box of palets at Maison du Chocolat

A $75 box of palets at Maison du Chocolat

I obtained three single-origin bars here, and will be doing a review soon.

Grabbing a cab, I proceed to the home of Pierre Marcolini chocolate, 485 Park Avenue. To my shock, the place has been renamed to Borne Confections, but inside, it looks like the same Marcolini shop to me. According to the shop staff, the shop is under the same ownership, but they changed the name to allow them to sell some other brands. I didn’t actually see any non-Marcolini chocolate in the store, just some other non-chocolate confections. A bit like going to a car dealer and not finding any non-Ferrari automobiles. The store had the shelf I was looking for, the set of Marcolini single-origin chocolates…..(I’m lucky this isn’t a photography blog. The labels are fuzzy in this picture, but all of the labels on the middle shelf are dark chocolates from different origins, including Venezuela, Ghana, Brazil, and Mexico.)

The Marcolini Motherlode

The Marcolini Motherlode

A Cacaolab associate had sent me marching orders to obtain a ridiculous amount of these bars. I think he’s pretty close to getting a tattoo of a Marcolini bar on his shoulder. We were both pretty excited to see that the Tabasco cacao made famous in the Marcolini limited edition bar of a few years back had returned, and the Fleur de Cacao bar was still available. As I was writing this post, said associate just IMed me with a one word review of this bar: “INSANE”. He recovered from his reverie long enough to elaborate: “That fleur de cacao is definitely the best chocolate i think i’ve ever eaten. It’s got some serious cinnamon/nutmeg, but the main sensation i get is that it’s almost like eating a big piece of candy…..except it’s made out of insanely good chocolate.”

While it’s not my favorite chocolate, it extremely good, especially since Marcolini gets a very archetypical chocolate flavor to shine through in these bars. There’s not the complexity of some of the more exotic chocolates, but it’s the best “luxury” chocolate I’ve ever come across. Somehow, I’ll make it through the hardship duty of eating and reviewing the eight bars I managed to save for myself. I might share, but you’ll have to ask nicely!


The X-Men of Chocolate

September 24, 2009

I’m an unapologetic zealot for the cause of small-batch artisan chocolate, so I was pretty excited to see that six of my favorite American makers have banded together to form the Craft Chocolate Makers of America. The news page of the site features a positively superhero-esque group portrait of the folks out there fighting every day against the typically not-very-dark forces of mediocre chocolate. You can’t go wrong ordering a bar from any of these makers.