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5th Annual International Chocolate Salon: San Francisco

21 Apr

When I first found out about the International Chocolate Salon I wasn’t sure what to expect.  I just like the word salon. In this case, because it implies that there is a conversation, an exchange of ideas and methods in the art of chocolate.

As I strolled down from the Marina to Fort Mason, I thought about how I was going to approach such an overwhelming situation. What does one do when they are surrounded by table after table of chocolate in all of its delicious reincarnations? What should I taste? Who should I talk to? How will I not get sick from eating too much chocolate? What will I do if I clean out my bank account after being seduced  by a particularly sumptuous looking bunch of truffles?

By the time I arrived at the Festival Building I had decided that I would focus on bars from single origin, bean to bar companies, I would pick three, and I would only taste dark chocolate. The only tasting dark chocolate idea lasted till the second table from the door. I saw salted caramel truffles.

The salon was in full swing when I got there at 11:30 am. The event was very well attended, but not so crowded that you couldn’t snag yourself a sample of whatever chocolate confection or creation may have caught your eye. Also, the exhibitors were generally very helpful and knowledgeable. In several cases I was able to speak to the chocolatiers and chocolate makers themselves.They were all happy to talk about their greatest passion: chocolate.

This is Neo Cocoa’s spread. The salted caramel truffles that were my downfall. I love the time the exhibitors took with their presentation.

And now for our feature presentation:

http://www.cacaoatlanta.com

Kristen Hard (above) is the owner, founder, and chocolate maker behind Cacao Atlanta. As  you may have guessed, the company’s boutique and production facility are located in Atlanta, Georgia, which is where Kristen hails from as well. She is also the first female chocolate maker in the United States. An important specification is that chocolate makers start with the unroasted bean, chocolatiers start with something called chocolate liqueur, after the beans have been roasted, shelled, and ground into a paste. The reason I was originally drawn to Cacao Atlanta was the bars, but one of the interesting things about Kristen, is that while most chocolate makers stick to making bars, she also uses the chocolate that she makes for her own line of truffles. She actually began her chocolate business by creating a variety of herbally infused truffles, which were  not only delicious, but also contained healing properties.She is now heavily involved in sourcing the beans for Cacao Atlanta. She has developed relationships with all of the growers that she works with and considers them to be her friends. Once she decides to buy from someone she goes and participates in the harvest. She is also focused on working with farmers to improve all aspects of the production process, such as fermentation. Recently, she has been assisting the University of the West Indies in developing a documented fermentation method.

Love Bar (Patanemo) Straight Up 75% from Venezuela is one of my new favorites. This bar has a smooth caramel intensity, cushioning your senses with just the right amount of sweetness, so that you only notice the rich cocoa flavor. I think it was Oscar de la Renta that said something to the effect of, “When  you make a dress for a woman, you want people to look and say, “What a beautiful woman!”  not “What a beautiful dress!”.”

The logo is a flying cocoa pod.

http://www.snakeandbutterfly.com

Caught in action, talking about bean to bar.

These are the owners of Snake and Butterfly. From left to right, Celeste Flores, her father Vince Flores, and the guy in the hat as Vince told me. It turns out his name is Ben Bulik and it turns out he does research and development for Snake and Butterfly. They are located in Campbell, CA and I fully intend to go and check it out at some point.

What initially caught my eye in this box of chocolate bars was the third one in from the left. I had never seen a bar from Belize before. However, I seem to be following a trend because I  tasted a Venezuela 75%. It was rich and savory in a way that I haven’t tasted in a chocolate before. There was just the slightest suggestion of citrus at the end. It was bold, yet soft around the edges.

http://www.madecasse.com

Brett (above) and  Tim, his friend in the New York office, started Madecasse after being Peace Corps Volunteers. Their term of service ended, but their lives had become intertwined with those of the people with whom they had been living and working. They knew that 85% of the worlds cocoa comes from Africa, but only 1% is made there. Brett and Tim decided to create a company that would produce in the beans country of origin, but still sell to consumers in the United States. As a result four times more income is generated for the workers in Madagascar than if beans were shipped for production.

I tasted their Madagascar 70% and it is one of the juiciest chocolates I have ever had. The taste of berries floods your mouth. I would say blackberries with a little cranberry tartness. The interesting thing is that the fruitiness doesn’t linger. It recedes and the flavor of pure cocoa lingers and cleanly fades away.

Here is a list of the exhibitors if you want to explore.

SLO Down Wines strikes a pose.

They featured their wine “Sexual Chocolate”, which also has one of the most entertaining wine labels you will ever read. Chip, in the hat, is one of the winemakers.

As it turns out there was also wine tasting! How do you make a good thing better?

There will be an International Chocolate Salon Part II

TCHO: San Francisco

11 Apr

TCHO

Pier 17: The Embarcadero @ Green Street

San Francisco, CA 94111

Monday to Friday 9 am – 5 pm

Saturday and Sunday 10 am – 5 pm

(415) 981-0189

Tours: Every day at 10:30 am and 2 pm

If you walk down to Pier 17 on the Embarcadero you won’t be able to miss TCHO, right next to a tug boat rental company. You would never know that this building is the home of innovation on several fronts. Founded by Timothy Childs, a former NASA employee on the shuttle program, literally a rocket scientist who turned to chocolate making, and Karl Bittong, a chocolate industry veteran who has been constructing chocolate factories for the last 42 years, TCHO was set up to succeed from the beginning. They sweetened the deal by bringing in the c0-founders of Wired Magazine, Jane Metcalf, as President and Louis Rossetto, as CEO. For anyone who has written a business plan, this is a management dream team. TCHO is the beginning of a socially conscious chocolate revolution that synthesizes the art and science of chocolate making while still maintaining environmental and human ideals by qualifying as a fair trade organic product by third party certifiers such as California Certfied Organic Farmers (CCOF) and Fair Trade USA. We can only hope that their practices will cause a ripple effect throughout the industry.

TCHO is a self proclaimed flavor based chocolate company. While the popular trend right now is to focus on the origin of the cacao beans, TCHO has chosen to focus on the primary flavors cacao beans are known to produce. They locate beans that manifest the chosen characteristic, such as chocolatey, citrus, fruity, or nutty and then develop the chocolate making process to maximize their flavor potential. Flavor notes are connected to the regions from which they come, so they usually have a pretty good idea where to start when they begin development.

One of the characteristics that makes TCHO so different from other chocolate making companies, is their scientific approach to the entire chocolate making process from pod to bar. TCHO has worked with farmers to innovate the fermentation and drying process by working with farmers to create a three tiered fermentation system, allowing for thorough fermentation and a mellowing of the cacao bean, and drying beds where beans are exposed to the air on all sides, releasing gases that would otherwise create a harsh or bitter flavor. Also, they have built flavor labs on location at the farms so that farmers can taste what type of product their beans are going to create.

Right now “chocolatey” is from Ghana, “citrus” from Madagascar, “fruity” is from Peru, and “nutty” from Ecuador. The jury is still out on my favorite.

TCHO has also produced a flavor wheel and they are in the process of developing “floral” and “earthy” chocolates. There are also several milk chocolates that are in the beta phase due to demand. They have also developed a line of baking chocolates because chefs and bakers were coming to TCHO asking if they could create a high quality baking chocolate so they could buy  within the United States instead of having rely on Europe. I got some. I will report back on my findings.

The tour guide, Tyler, told us that two of the indicators of a well tempered chocolate, thus having a wonderful mouth-feel and well balanced flavor, is the shine and snap of the chocolate when you break it.

 

I took the factory tour on Saturday. The first part of the tour was a very engaging presentation by Tyler. With the aid of a slide show you learn about the history of chocolate from its origin in the Amazon Basin to the process of fertilization of the cacao flowers performed by a midge, a tiny winged insect. A dried cacao pod is passed around as well as some beans. You get to see them up close. I like the tactile aspect of it. The most interesting thing  I learned about the growing process, is that the cacao pods begin to glow when they are ready to be picked. I’m not joking. It really happens.

The factory itself was not in production so it was a bit of a different experience than it may have been. Tyler said that it is usually extremely loud with all of the machinery going. We had the added benefit of being able to hear a description of what the machines do, while seeing them. The factory was actually moved over to San Francisco piece by piece and reassembled at Pier 17.

You are not allowed to take pictures on the tour so I snagged a few of TCHO’s so I could give everyone an idea of what the factory looks like inside. You have to wear hairnets and beardnets, when applicable, even when the factory is not in production. They are extremely serious about maintaining cleanliness. My favorite part came at the end when we got to taste the chocolate! If you want to, you can talk about the different flavors you tasted. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy. It is always interesting to hear what other people are experiencing. I recommend you try the hot chocolate. It’s amazing. Get one.

P.S. Bonus innovation. They developed an Iphone app so you can run the factory remotely from your Iphone!

Chocolate tasting intro

27 Mar

Chocolate tasting ABCs. This is going to be a very basic of outline of how to have a chocolate tasting.

1. Have no more than 6 different chocolates or take 15 to 20 minute breaks in between. Your taste buds will lose the ability to detect subtle flavors and you won’t experience the full flavor of the chocolate which all include a beginning, middle, and end.

2. Make sure your chocolate is room temperature. 65-72 degrees F. Too warm = melty, too cold = the full flavor will not be realized.

3. Break chocolate into 1/4 inch by 1/4 inch pieces. A small amount should be sufficient to experience all of the flavors in a high quality bar of chocolate.

4. Cleanse your palate! Use room temperature water as cold water reduces the effectiveness of your taste buds. Unsalted crackers can also do the trick if you are doing a tasting with particularly strong flavors.

5. Taste from light to dark since the flavors will become more complex and you will be more prepared to appreciate them. Taste buds will be primed and ready for intensity!

6. Having separate little plates is an obvious one, but here it is in the list anyway. Presentation is key. Not really, but it can make it a lot more fun and set the tone of your event. You can have a regional theme: The Americas. And a flavor theme: Fruity. Be creative. Also an excellent excuse to buy dishware, for which I have an affection.

7. Keep a tasting journal. Or just some way of documenting your responses, so you can remember and go back to your favorites and avoid the ones you weren’t so keen on. In my humble opinion, don’t worry about being overly fancy in your descriptions if you don’t want to be. People get weird about this stuff. The whole point is to eat some delicious chocolate and find your favorites, not show off your poetic stylings. However, if you have the skills show them off all you like. I attempt to avoid the pretense of the gourmand. However, some people just know their stuff no matter how insufferable they are.

Response categories

Aroma: sweet, sour, floral…

Texture: smooth, velvety, waxy, grainy (generally working to avoid this one unless it have nibs mixed in), creamy…

Flavor: I like the flavor wheel below from http://www.allchocolate.com. The descriptive possibilities are endless. The flavors listed on the wheel are just the tip of the iceberg. Run with it.

Duration: How long does the flavor linger in your mouth from start to finish? Is there an initial burst of fruity flavor or does it then mellow into a caramel, fading into a nutty finish? Or is it a less complex, but no less tasty, full on, deep, consistent cocoa flavor that leaves as it came?

Have fun!