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.

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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….


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!