Tuesday, October 5, 2010

North Bay Chocolatiers

I came across this great article in the latest Special Wine Issue of NorthBay Biz Magazine. TeamBuilding Unlimited includes many of these chocolatiers in our Foodie Scavenger Hunts in Sonoma, Marian and Napa. This is such a great article. Be sure and include some of these chocolate shops or chocolate locations in your next visit to the North Bay (San Francisco Bay Area).

Chocolate on Top by Alexandra Russell, NorthBay Biz Magazine, October, 2010 Issue

Throughout the North Bay, you can find a number of individuals blending, dipping, rolling, molding and otherwise creating custom chocolates.

In an issue dedicated to all things wine, it seemed only fair to give a bit of space to another delicious indulgence. Throughout the North Bay, you can find a number of individuals blending, dipping, rolling, molding and otherwise creating custom chocolates. Some are fledgling, one- or two-person operations, others are well-established storefronts. What they all share, predictably, is a belief that chocolate makes everything better. Are you going to argue with that?

“I began dipping things in chocolate when I was in my 20s,” says Trishia Davis, proprietor and “head cutie” of CutieCakes Bakeshop, “random things—potato chips, cookies, fruit…everything I could think of. Then one day, I saw a picture from Europe of a Belgian bonbon. It was artistic and breathtaking; I’d never seen anything that had been so painstakingly created and that was meant to be a treat for the eyes as well as the taste buds. I wanted to do that.”

Obviously, this is a woman destined for a life of chocolate, but it took some time for the stars—or are those sprinkles?—to align properly. In the meantime, Davis enjoyed a career in real estate and, in her spare time, read, studied and experimented with all things sweet and delicious. (“My neighbors loved me,” she laughs, “because you can’t possibly eat that much chocolate by yourself.”)

She now rents time in a commercial kitchen in Sebastopol and sells her treats at local farmers markets (look for the bright pink awning). “My vision is ‘dessert in the hand,’” she says. “I make small treats—cakes, cookies, pies, tarts, chocolates and caramels. A small reward can make a big difference.”

In 2009, Davis herself was rewarded when her coastal caramels (chocolate-covered butter caramels topped with sea salt) earned a double gold medal, her cherry cordial Devotion truffles earned gold medals, and her coffee-infused Apres truffle earned silver at the Harvest Fair competition.

With a background in geothermal development and international environmental policy, David Gambill may seem an unlikely chocolatier, but the truth is, like Davis, “I’ve been playing with chocolate forever,” he says. “I used to have chocolate parties, where I just made everything then invited my friends to come over and eat as much chocolate as they wanted…and I would make hundreds of truffles every Christmas and give them away as presents. Everyone started telling me I should sell chocolate.”

In early 2008, Gambill returned to Sonoma County from Washington, D.C., (he lived here in the 1980s when he worked at the Geysers), armed with a business plan. “It was time to make chocolates,” he says. Gambill took classes at SRJC to refine the business plan while, at the same time, honing his inner Wonka through online training and a brief apprenticeship with a chocolatier in the South Bay.

He started selling his truffles at local farmers markets and had made some inroads with local groceries when he visited Infusions Teahouse in Sebastopol to ask if they’d be interested in selling his sweets. The owner said yes and then asked Gambill if he wanted to buy the teahouse. Crazy, right? Not so much: “A tea-and-chocolate place had been part of my original long-term business plan,” he laughs. “So I did.”

Now available in more than 50 stores in Sonoma County, with hopes to expand soon into Marin and San Francisco, Gambill plans to build a production kitchen at the teahouse before the end of the year. With almost 70 flavors of caramels and truffles, a line of teahouse cakes and baked goods in development, and a five- (sometimes six-) day-per-week cooking schedule, it’s a needed addition.

Sonoma Chocolatiers won more medals than any other chocolatier at last year’s Harvest Fair, and has also taken second place in the Bohemian’s Best of the Bay readers poll in 2009 and 2010 (the first place winner, he points out, was primarily a chocolate importer).

Sacred Chocolate in San Rafael was founded by longtime raw food advocate Steve Adler after he read Naked Chocolate by David Wolfe (who then became a founding partner of Sacred Chocolate). “It was really the first published book on the subject of raw chocolate, and the deep study that went into it really blew me away,” says Adler. “Before that, I hadn’t realized that, all things considered, chocolate is probably the greatest food on the planet.

“It’s an amazing delivery method,” he continues. “Why not make it enjoyable to eat your vitamins, minerals and supplements along with chocolate? A lot of our bars are medicinal in nature. We’ve managed to combine some of the top herbs and super foods from around the world into chocolate—and really make them taste good.”

One choice, designed for “people who like more exotic flavors—maybe those more into the health and medicinal qualities of chocolate,” says Adler, is called Amazonian. “It really has the core medicine of the Amazon jungle in it: purple corn, jungle peanuts, cashews, acai berries, things like that. Because there are so many ingredients, you can let it melt in your mouth, and different flavor notes will show up for more than five minutes.”

Another interesting blend is called Immuno Mushroom, which contains 10 different medicinal mushrooms and has, according to Adler, “an earthy, woody flavor.” The consumer favorite, though, is Mylk, a dairy-free mimic of milk chocolate (whole, raw coconut is ground with the cacao to create a sweet and creamy product). The company also produces Truth truffles and a line of stoneground nut butters.

Unlike the other companies profiled in this article, Sacred Chocolate processes its own cacao beans—a time-intensive and painstaking process, especially when adhering to the tenets of the raw food movement. Using his Stanford engineering degrees (BS in mechanical engineering and an MS in aerospace engineering), Adler devised a way to produce a low-temperature, processed chocolate bar. This affords him other digressions from the norm as well.

“We’re a true bean-to-bar manufacturer, which is different from being a chocolatier,” he explains. “Chocolatiers are limited to the sweetener the chocolate already contains when they get it, which is usually processed white cane sugar—what I consider the ultimate drug of the human race. The problem is, chocolate is so bitter, very few people will eat a 100 percent cacao bar. That means sweetener is a necessary evil, so the goal becomes to make the healthiest choices we can.” These include maple sugar, coconut palm sugar and alternative sweeteners like enulin, erythritol and stevia. Because of these choices, many Sacred Chocolate offerings are low on the glycemic index (making them a safe choice for those with blood sugar concerns); all are dairy- and gluten-free.

Another unique addition is the skin (or husk) of the bean. “We believe there are a lot of vital nutrients in that husk,” says Adler, who adds that the beans he uses for these bars undergo a thorough washing process. “We’re not using the typical dirty cacao beans available on the open market, which have been fermented in piles. Our beans are so clean, they look like almonds.”

In Glen Ellen, Betty Kelly and her daughter, Caroline, run a more traditional operation—albeit with a Wine Country twist.

“In the late 1990s, I thought I’d like to get more involved in the whole ‘food and wine’ and hospitality milieu, which was really starting to take off,” says Betty. “I have a legal background—no restaurants, no hospitality, nothing related—and Caroline was still in high school.”

Undaunted, Betty started looking at businesses for sale, and that’s when she came across what, in 2000, would become Wine Country Chocolates. “When we bought the business, as part of the purchase, we got training from a master chocolatier,” says Betty. Once trained, it was time to move the business from its roots in the East Bay and change the name to one more identified with the pair’s Sonoma County home. This meant renting a kitchen while they experimented and tweaked the recipes, eventually developing their own techniques and flavors.

“Our truffles are creamier than most,” says Kelly. “We’ve taken the ratio of cream to chocolate to the absolute limit, which makes them very difficult to work with. We can’t roll them in a ball and drop them in cocoa powder like many other chocolate makers do. They’d just ooze back out.” Instead, Kelly had a machine specially designed to accommodate her “soft and flowy” ganaches by keeping them cold through the coating process. The customer response has been well worth the extra work.

After a few years at farmers markets, constantly fielding the “Where’s your shop?” question, mother and daughter decided there was enough community support. Another quick look around brought the thought, “‘There’s plenty of wine and cheese, but not enough chocolate.’ Then we thought about all the wine tasting rooms and decided to open a chocolate tasting room.”

That original shop in Jack London Village, which now houses a small production kitchen, has since been joined by one on the Plaza in Sonoma. Each day, the Kellys offer small tastes of two ganaches (truffle fillings) as well as three variant cacao percentages, from 38 percent milk chocolate all the way up to 72 percent extra dark. “We like to educate people on the different kinds of chocolate,” she says. Also like a winery, Wine Country Chocolates has a Truffle Club, which sends out samplers either monthly or bimonthly, depending on how you sign up.

Using rack card advertising at local hotels and visitors centers, the Kellys attract many tourists looking for a break from the wineries. They also supply logoed or custom-flavored chocolates wholesale to a number of wineries and hotels (“one bottle of strong red wine makes 60 truffles,” she says)—though she’s hesitant to name names, because, she laughs, “I think a few pretend they’re making them!”

Wine Country Chocolates creates custom chocolates for other types of businesses and events as well. “We do custom molds for several local hotels, businesses and corporate accounts, as well as for wedding and special events,” says Kelly. “It’s surprisingly inexpensive to have a mold made with a logo on it. We also make chocolate business cards and host private, after hours chocolate-making events for small groups.”

The notion of family business is nothing new to John Anderson and his wife, Tracy Wood Anderson, proprietors of Woodhouse Chocolate in St. Helena, where they work side-by-side with their daughters, Christina and Caroline, and Tracy’s mother, Chris Wood. Sous chef Laura McIntyre rounds out the team. “We both come from families where the husband and wife worked together,” says John. “When we met in college, we realized our temperaments were such that we’d be able to work together—and we sought that. We worked together at the winery and, when we sold that, we looked for another career where we could continue to work together.”

The winery he’s referring to was S. Anderson Vineyard, which his parents started in 1971 and the family sold in 2002 (it’s now part of Clif Lede Vineyards). “We’d reached a point where, the part of our souls that needed to make wine had been fulfilled, and it was time to move on to the next thing,” says John.

The Andersons’ next thing actually took them backward, to a business they’d considered years earlier. “In 1983, when we were studying our semester abroad from college [both attended the Claremont Colleges in Los Angeles], my wife and I first experienced European-style—particularly Belgian-style—chocolates. We enjoyed it so much that we actually considered that when we graduated from college, we should go into the chocolate business…but back then, we had the hat trick: no experience making chocolate, no business experience and no money.”

So instead, John went to work and Tracy earned a culinary degree and became a pasty chef at Domaine Chandon. Eventually, both ended up at the winery. In 2000, they went to see the movie Chocolat and were reinspired; what followed were years of research in techniques and equipment, courses in chocolate making at Barry Callebaut in Montreal and UC Davis, and, like everyone else interviewed here, lots of trial and error in the kitchen.

“However I describe Tracy is going to sound overly confident and solicitous,” says John, clearly still smitten, “but she’s an incredibly talented chef who can take on a project and make it happen.”

Step inside the Woodhouse Chocolate shop, and the European influence is immediately apparent. The d├ęcor—high ceilings, butter-colored walls, crystal chandeliers, wall tapestries and fine china accents—is based on a favorite Parisian hotel dining room. “It’s their color palette and everything,” he says. “We wanted to portray, in the surroundings, the elegance, beauty and quality of what people were getting in the chocolate.”

In addition to truffles, caramels, toffees and bars, Woodhouse has established a reputation for molded confections—people, vehicles, animals and toys—that recall the craftsmanship of a bygone era. “The figures have helped set us apart,” agrees Anderson. “You see them all over Europe, but not here. [And even when you do, they don’t typically have the] decoration work ours do, where we’re actually hand-painting the inside of the molds to make the object look decorated.” Think shimmering, multi-color scales on a fish or reptile, or perfectly detailed World War II-era airplanes, for example.

“One comment that tends to come up is that our chocolates look ‘old fashioned,’” says Anderson. “And, in fact, they do—by design. We’ve chosen to be very classic in our presentation. We want our things to appear timeless. Some people think this makes us appear less than cutting-edge…. Well, a Rolls Royce may not be cutting-edge, but they’re awfully nice.”

There are many popular chocolate-and-flavor combinations—peanuts, mint, coffee, caramel. The real fun comes, say the chocolatiers, in expanding the possibilities and devising unique combinations that challenge and delight.

“I like taking a flavor I remember from childhood, or that I like in another setting, and turning it into chocolate,” says Davis, mentioning her Devotion truffle (based on the sweet cherry cordials she remembers from childhood Christmases at her grandmother’s house) and Birthday Girl (which she created for the Santa Rosa 20/30 Club to mimic a Mudslide cocktail).

Wine Country Chocolates’ Betty Kelly often lets customers’ requests dictate development. “We generally add things that people ask for,” she says. “The last truffle we added was lemon tart; it’s chocolate ganache with lemon curd, so it’s really lemony with a bright, fresh finish. I’m really proud of that one.”

“There are some flavors you have to have,” acknowledges Gambill. “Beyond that, I think of other flavors I enjoy and combine them, like rosemary and goat cheese, or mango and coconut. Sometimes I’m inspired by other truffles I’ve heard about or tasted—then I radically reinvent them. Or sometimes, an idea just occurs to me, and I experiment until I figure it out.” His truffles choices include smoked chipotle, fig and cardamom, and multiple tea infusions (naturally).

Anderson agrees that you must keep certain standard chocolates (“people get very angry if they’re not available,” he laughs), but also enjoys his wife’s enthusiasm for experimentation. “She comes to chocolate from a chef’s background,” he says. “She’s studied world cuisine and has a lot of knowledge about savory and spice notes.” Like Gambill, the Andersons have found that, “chocolate doesn’t need to be sweet; it picks up and enhances savory flavors beautifully.”

Sacred Chocolate faces the further challenge of changing consumers’ preconceptions about raw chocolate. “We’re focused on the cutting-edge nutritional aspects,” says Adler, who initially developed flavor pairings for the company, “but we also want to make sure it tastes good.” The company has recently hired professionally trained pastry- and chocolate-chef Dereme Church to refine existing flavors, create new ones and oversee expansion of product lines.

Whether just starting out, establishing roots, celebrating success or forging their own path, everyone interviewed for this story shares an enthusiasm for their work. Words like “inspired,” beauty,” “magic,” “creation” and “love” crop up again and again. “The complexity of the flavor doesn’t get old,” explains Gambill of what attracts him. “In the first second, when you bite into chocolate, you register more than 500 flavors on your palate—and if it’s really good chocolate, the complexity of those flavors lingers a long time.”

“We’re creating the best product we can, in a conscious way, with love, gratitude and prayer,” adds Adler. “When someone eats Sacred Chocolate, I want it to be an experience on some level—mental, physical or spiritual.”

For Davis, it’s as much about the process as the end result: “Making chocolate nurtures me,” she says. “All my senses are engaged, and it feeds my emotions as well. It fills me up and makes me feel good.”

Anette’s Chocolates
1321 First St., Napa

CutieCakes Bakeshop
Available online and at Farmers Markets
in Santa Rosa and Petaluma

Divine Delights
1250 Holm Rd., Petaluma
(800) 443-2836

Gandolf’s Fine Chocolate
Available online and at Farmers Markets in Santa Rosa and San Rafael

Halo Truffles
Homeward Bound of Marin
1399 N. Hamilton Pkwy., Novato
(415) 457-5179

Le Belge
Available online for personal
or business customers

Sacred Chocolate
Available online and at grocery
and health food stores in Marin and Sonoma counties (list available online)
(415) 456-3311

Sonoma Chocolatiers/Infusion Teahouse
6899 McKinley St., Sebastopol
(707) 829-1181
Also available online and at select stores in Sonoma County (list available online)

Viva Cocolat
110 Petaluma Blvd. N, Petaluma
(707) 778-9888

Wine Country Chocolates
14301 Arnold Dr., Glen Ellen
(707) 996-1010

414 First St., Sonoma
(707) 933-4475

Woodhouse Chocolate
1367 Main St., St. Helena
(800) 966-3468

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