Whenever I travel, I always google the local chocolate scene. Below I share my chocolate discoveries from great desserts, small chocolate shops and unusual places to buy great chocolate. Please share any of your favorites by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org
As I walked into the exhibit hall, which turned out to be the ENTIRE convention center, I marveled at the sheer size of this event. The San Diego convention center is one long building, and this show spanned the entire length with more than 1,100 exhibitors in over 210,000 sq ft. of exhibit space spread out along 52 aisles with 10-20 stalls on each side of the aisle. Of course most of the participants were not chocolate purveyors, but there were over 160 offering chocolate in some form. More than 30 selling truffles, 41 selling bars and over 100 offering combinations of chocolate with nuts or toffee. Unlike the Chocolate Show in New York, this is open only to those in related businesses and the press, and the exhibitors are not permitted to sell any product at the show. Instead there was an overwhelming amount of food to sample, each booth offering tastings of their products. I must admit I was not expecting this much food, and came to the show having just finished brunch!
I decided to take a methodical approach and start at one end of the hall and work my way down row by row. Most of the Chocolatiers could be found greeting the assortment of visitors ranging from discriminating chocloisseurs to those who just love anything chocolate. Once of my first stops was at Coco-luxe from Sausalito, CA, where the founder, Stephanie, was warmly greeting patrons. Coco-luxe offers confections with seasonal or themed designs on their chocolates that tell you what is inside. Pictures of gingerbread men, banana splits and oranges slices were a few of the decorated items offered. Several rows over was Chocolate Grove from Australia, focusing on macadamia nuts, enrobed fruits such as muntries and riberry and truffles imbued with local spices such as lemon myrtle and wattleseed. Delicious and quite unusual!
Several of the chocolatiers were so passionate about their products I couldn’t help but feel inspired. Rose Ramos-Benzel of L’Estasi Dolce was one of these, bubbling with excitement and love for her art. L’Estasi Dolce is from Monterey, CA and has been known for their wine truffles such as champagne, pinot noir and cabernet, but recently they have expanded to offer an Asian-fusion line. This new line has exciting pairings like praline ginger, mint ginger and my favorite, mimosa. Worth a mention, though not strictly chocolate, is Browinepops. Delightful treats the size of a golf ball, the brownie is placed on a stick and dipped in chocolate. They can be decorated to accommodate a celebration and come in tempting flavors like Missouri mud, toffee and mocha.
The phrase go big or go home could certainly be the motto for Sweet Shop USA based in Fort Worth, TX. In true Texas style, these chocolate truffles are easily the size of a golf ball! They are beautifully handmade, each with some signature hand-marking to denote it’s filling. Having tasted quite a few samples by this time, I was grateful they were offering modest sample pieces that could actually be eaten in one bite. Beautifully colorful packaging is the perfect accent to these colossal confections.
At these shows I have found some of the chocolatiers, usually the bigger names, are a bit arrogant and uninviting, while others are warm and inviting. Jacques Bergier was the latter, inviting me into Leonidas’ area in his melodic French accent where he enthusiastically offered me samples of his favorites, which included a wonderful tiramisu cup. It was clear from his descriptions of the various offerings the he loves sharing fine chocolate and implored me to visit him at the Madison Avenue store the next time I’m in NY. A true pleasure speaking with Mr. Bergier, I will most certainly put Leonidas on the list for a Maker of the Month interview.
Among the success stories of people who are professionals in non-culinary disciplines that cross over into the wonderful world of chocolate is Nicholas Proia, owner of Brix. Nicholas is as enthusiastic as anyone I’ve met in the chocolate business. He was brimming with pride and zeal for his product, and immediately launched into the story of how his product came into being. He and his friends enjoy sharing nice bottles of wine, and used to meet after dinner to sample various bottles accompanied by fine cheese. Deciding that they needed a more healthful accompaniment for their tastings, the group began sampling different chocolates. The more artisan bars were so complex in flavor that they conflicted with the flavors of the wine. The more mainstream confectionary chocolate was just too sweet and left an undesirable taste. Nicholas set out to create the perfect chocolate to enjoy with wine, and has developed three Brix for just that purpose. Each Brix bar is almost the size of a brick, about an inch thick and is meant to be eaten by chipping off chunks. The quality of the chocolate used is apparent when you see how cleanly the chocolate breaks. Each bar is meant to pair with certain wines, and has tasting notes on the lable.
Growing weary with blisters on my feet, we were 3 hours in having walked briskly up and down 75% of the aisles. Kim’s Chocolates caught my eye, with a beautiful red backdrop showcasing their traditional Belgian chocolates. Their collection was vast including pralines, marzipans, palettes, fresh creams, ganaches and house specialties. They were gracious enough to offer me a hand selected sampling which you can expect to see on our review page very soon. The pure dark palette that I tasted was sublimely smooth, dark and delicious.
Dagoba is well known for their organic and fair trade chocolates. They have a most unique collection of flavors and focus on the purity of their offerings. There is clearly a passion to what they do, and they were quite affable, chatting with me about the culture prevalent at Dagoba. In the vein of all-natural, Bissingers of St. Louis, Missouri has been hand making chocolates in the US since 1845. The Bissinger family was named Confiseur Imperial by Emperor Napoleaon, and continues to use these same recipes today.
There were a few celebrities to be seen amongst the fray – as I came around one corner, there sat the Barefoot Contessa happily signing cookbooks and looking exactly as she does on the cover of her books. I also met Julie Pech, author of The Chocolate Therapist, A Users’s Guide to the Extraordinary Health Benefits of Chocolate, a book that attempts to discuss the various aliments chocolate can cure, complete with supporting evidence and a bit of humor.
As I rounded aisle number 52, I was relieved to see there were no chocolatiers at the end of that row, and I was able to save a few steps here at the end. The last aisle was lined with wonderful cheeses from around the world, all there for the sampling. Deliciously fresh mozzarella from Italy and decadently creamy brie from France – yum! There were other chocolatiers exhibiting that are not mentioned here for various reasons, but those with an interesting story and those who so clearly embody a love for the all-mighty chocolate made this show such a treat. You will hear more about some of those mentioned in future Maker of the Month features. I learned a few valuable lessons at this show; wear comfortable shoes- there’s a reason the show floor is open more than one day, and don’t eat a bite of food before coming to the show – it’s like a gourmet Costco on Saturday, times 1000!
Chocolate Show, New York
Saturday, 10 November 2007
I spent the last two days at the 10th annual Chocolate Show in New York. This is the US sister show tof the Salon du Chocolat in Paris. The show runs Friday - Sunday, but the difference in the crowd from Friday to Saturday is remarkable. Tickets were $10, so it attracts a wide selection of chocolate enthusiasts. There are basically two things that happen at the show...there are 65 exhibitors, nearly all chocolatiers of some sort, and most providing free samples of their wares. I chuckled at the many people I saw walking around with their one plastic bag, dropping in every sample they could get their hands on. How would you even know what you were eating??
The second aspect of the show are the demonstrations. Some of the exhibitors, like Michael Antonorsi of Chuao, provied demonstrations of one or more of their specialties. There are also demos by notable pastry chefs from New York and beyond like Gina DePalma of Babbo and Jacques Torres (who is both a notable pastry chef and also a chocolatier) of Jacques Torres Chocolates. The demostrations ranged from Milk Chocolate Caramel Truffle with Hawaiian Sea Salt to French Chocolate Walnut Tart Scented with Orange. In all cases the room was treated to a sample of whatever was prepared in the class.
The night before the Show opened, there was a fashion show where most of the clothing was at least partially comprised of chocolate. These outfits were on display for viewing throughout the show. When your feet were weary from collecting samples, you could take a break in the Chocolate Lounge. In the Lounge one could sample one of the various pairings of chocolate with cognac, port, wine etc. and rest your feet. Barnes and Noble had a large table with all books chocolate, and there were 30-60 minute book signings by cookbook authors such as Andrew Shotts (Making Artisan Chocolates), Aundrea Lacy (Brownie Points) and Jaques Torres (Dessert Circus).
Many of the participants are familiar to most people, such as Michel Cluizel, Green & Blacks, Guittard, Dagoba, Lindt and Chocolove. Perhaps less well known but equally wonderful: Amano, Charles Chocolates, Chuao, Cosmic Chocolate, Knipschildt Chocolatier and Oliver Kita.
The Chocolate Show hosted several international participants including Mary's of Tokyo, who provided the most affordable and beautiful chocolates at the show, and also the only live truffle making demonstration at their booth. Coppeneur of Germany and Chocolate Mathez of Paris also joined the show, providing tasty samples of their well traveled chocolates.
In closing, I leave you with the highlight of the show for me. While all of the classes offered tricks of the trade as well as professional instruction, Jacques Torres provided one of the most entertaining classes of the show. His project was a life-sized chocolate turkey in a chocolate pen complete with chocolate straw and homemade marshmellow eggs. All parts were made in class and explained in detail how to re-create them at home. The most interesting was the straw - white chocolate drizzled over an enormous upside-down bowl of ice. The water causes the chocolate to sieze, but it is piliable like spaghetti so you can bend and shape it. His French accent and playful personality was evident from the moment the class started, exemplified by a little joke he told while making the marshmellows....What is the difference between men and chocolate? Chocolate satisfies you every time. He finishes with a smile and says with an eyebrow raise "And I sell chocolate".
The Aussies Know Chocolate Cake
Friday, 31 August 2007
If Outback Steakhouse is any representation of Australian food, then I'm on the next plane! I have long been a fan of Outback's steaks and especially their apple cinnamon oblivion, which surprisingly enough has kept me from ever trying the chocolate cake. Last night I just decided I had to take a piece home. WOW...it was really quite good. At six layers, it is a tall cake topped with chunks of brownie, and they cut a generous piece. The cake itself was very moist, dense enough to satisfy but not so heavy as to overwhelm. This complimented by modest layers of the mousse-like frosting which were almost unnecessary the cake was so good. The frosting was just thick enough to please if you are the kind that likes a big bite of chocolatey goodness every so often. Not a hint of greasiness or crunch of grainy sugar...very smooth and melts in your mouth. The chocolate flavor of the overall dessert was perfect - not too sweet, but definitely quenched my thirst for deep chocolate. With a scoop of vanilla ice cream, it could be the perfect meal! Good as that cake is, between the deadly spiders and the great white sharks, I'm not likely to relocate anytime soon. But the next time you just want a good piece of chocolate cake remember....Outback Steakhouse is Australian for yummy!
San Jose Gem - Spencer's
Saturday, 26 May 2007
Spencer's for Steaks is located in the Doubletree Hotel just off First St. in San Jose, CA. First St. is the main drag for Silicon Valley and as you drive down the street, you will recognize many names. It is surprising, but there are very few good restaurants in the area - many if you're willing to drive 10 minutes, but unless a double-tall Frapaccino is a meal for you, there's not much. I have dined at Spencer's several times, and it has always been pretty good. This time I saved room for dessert, and I am certainly glad I did! I don't remember what they called this chocolate creation - no dessert menu with fancy names, just a nice dessert tray that tempts you with the tallest piece of apple pie I've ever seen, a strawberry shortcake which should be called a tallcake, and a pot of creme brulee big enough to bathe in. Of course you know what I ordered....I did forget to ask them to hold the fru-fru raspberry puree that seems to be the restaurant staple, but was pleasantly surprised when it arrived uncontaminated, adorned soley with a large scoop of very creamy vanilla ice cream.
The "cake" was as much ganache as it was a cake. It was near 3 inches high, formed like a cheesecake, though there was no hint of anything cheesecake in it. No discernable crust, and no dry edges that would allow me to reduce the edible portion...just pure fudgy decadence. It was lightly sweetened, and just the right amount of chocolatiness...perfectly complimented by the ice cream, but moist enough not to need it. The was smooth without being the least bit greasy, melting cleanly and leaving no waxy coating in your mouth. I was full from the delicious cheese-filled hashbrowns and prime filet mignon, but there I sat, having one last bite after another...I did show restraint though...there was a small bit remaining on the plate when we left.
Spencer's is a few blocks from the San Jose Airport, which is undergoing a decade-long rennovation. There is no food worth eating in the airport, and it's well worth taking a later flight to enjoy an enjoyable meal and a fantastic dessert!