Ahhh, February – when a woman’s fancy turns towards…chocolate – same as it does the other 11 months of the year.
Some people’s passion for chocolate is so intense and consuming that they (we) call themselves “chocoholics,” as though they had a disease best treated with a twelve-step program, as opposed to just a nice 12 oz. bar of 83% Ecuadorian cacao.
A friend of mine pointed out that practically no other gustatory delight inspires such a universal passion as does chocolate.
There are few cultures that haven’t embraced its allure — it’s almost like a culinary U.N. Does chocolate actually have the power to…bring us all together?
Well, at least one day of the year, it certainly can. If there ever was a national holiday for chocolate, it would be Valentine’s Day. Your sweetheart might pretend to curse you for that box of bonbons, protesting their effect on the fit of her jeans — but she’s secretly delighted that you’d love her no matter her measurements.
Ladies, you have no excuses to not participate — there are plenty of manly chocolate options, from beer-infused ganaches to smoked salt caramels to whiskey pairing collections. Feed them to each other and share the love — or love yourself enough to indulge in a decadent ballotin of truffles, a Venezuelan varietal bar, or some chocolate-covered Oreos.
Compartes’ Chocolate-dipped Oreos
To help you narrow down your choices (or maybe make them even harder) here’s a roundup of chocolatiers, confectioners and retailers in three of my favorite markets, San Francisco, Seattle, and SoCal.
All have online stores, but a few of these I consider “destination confectionaries” — worthy of a visit to experience first-hand just how passionate these chocolatiers are about their product.
SAN FRANCISCO & SURROUNDING AREAS
Two journeys to the San Francisco area in 2012 are what jump-started my interest in luxury and artisanal chocolate, with an unplanned visit to Schoggi near the Yerba Buena Gardens. There are over a dozen, and counting, specialty chocolatiers in the Bay area, but here are a few that stand out.
One Ferry Building, Shop #30, San Francisco, CA 94111
Phone: (415) 834-9494
There’s no questioning the artisanship, quality and elegance of Michael Recchiuti’s exquisite creations and his stature as an innovator in the world of artisanal chocolate. Recchiuti Confections happens to be located in one of my favorite places in the world to hang — the Ferry Building on San Francisco’s Embarcadero. One of these days I’ll stow away in a utility closet and spend the night eating Cowgirl Creamery cheese and Hog Island Oysters, drinking Blue Bottle Coffee and indulging in Recchiuti chocolates until I pass out (or get arrested).
Recchiuti specializes in exquisitely conceived truffles – delicate chocolate shells oozing with exotic flavor combinations like lemon verbena and lavender vanilla and prepared with fresh, locally-sourced ingredients. They also offer curated, themed collections such as their Green, Rust and Noir boxes, and single origin varietal chocolates.
Champagne Truffles or Hearts in Motion, a collection of their famed Burnt Caramels adorned with Picasso-esque images. Delight him with the XO Box, or the Whiskey Pairing Box, a sampling of their Kona Coffee, Honeycomb Malt and Fleur de Sel Caramels, complete with tasting notes (Whiskey not included!). Store Hours: Mon-Fri 10AM-7PM, Sat 8AM-6PM, Sun 10AM-5PM
WOODHOUSE CHOCOLATE 1367 Main St., St. Helena, CA, 94574 Phone: (800) 966-3468 Website: http://www.woodhousechocolate.com/
St. Helena is a chic little Pleasantville at the north tip of the Napa Valley, and while its charming main street offers many distracting boutiques, Woodhouse Chocolate’s “salon” is a magical delight. From the cream and blue elephant logo (the chocolatier, Christina Wood Anderson, “just likes elephants”) to the vintage chandeliers and whimsical window displays, this jewel-box of a store hints at the treasures it holds. A family-run establishment, Woodhouse handcrafts their exquisite truffles, unique and original bars, and charming molded chocolate creations on site.
I’m a fan of their bars – their Salty Savory collection contains 5 individually-wrapped 3 oz. bars in flavors that include Four Pepper, Lemon & Sea Salt, Chinese 5-Spice and Chile & Cumin with Pink Salt. Where they truly shine is with their molded chocolates. Where else would you find a chocolate manatee, tiger or alligator, or Santas, pumpkins, bassinet babies and storks, made from vintage molds? When I visited, they had a stunning window display of white and orange chocolate koi, seashells and starfish on a mirrored “pond” — here is where you understand the love and care they put into each confection.
Store Hours: 10:30 AM – 5:30 PM
NUUBIA CHOCOLAT 5673 W. Los Positas Blvd., Ste. 220, Pleasanton, CA Phone: (925) 463-0226 Website: https://www.nuubiachocolat.com
Nuubia recently opened a retail location in The Market on Market in San Francisco, but I had the good fortune to visit their artisan kitchen in Pleasanton last year and meet master chocolatier Lionel Clement and CEO Alexandra Saunders for a first-hand account (and taste) of Nuubia’s luxury chocolate confections. Nuubia’s credo is “French tradition meets modern innovation,” and what that means to us is chocolates that are beautifully crafted, with delicate and pure flavors, humanely sourced ingredients and eco-conscious packaging.
Their Half Sphere Bonbons are the thinnest, most delicate chocolate shells filled with sensuous ganaches in bright flavors of lime juice and vanilla, French pineapple praline caramel and rich dark chocolate.
For Valentine’s Day, you could choose their “Be My Valentine” luxury gift box, filled with a selection of hand-painted chocolates in flavors like honey, raspberry jasmine tea and gianduja hazelnut. For an added indulgence, choose their Luxury Gift Box, a chocolate heart box, strewn with gold leaf, and filled with their hand-crafted chocolate bonbons.
Artisan Kitchen hours: Mon-Sat 10AM-6PM The Market hours: Mon-Sun 8AM-10PM
Seattle is a second home to me but is definitely not second to San Francisco in its reputation for satisfying the epicurious, chocolate being no exception. These are two Seattle institutions that are new to me — but not to Seattle-philes!
THEO CHOCOLATE 3400 Phinney Ave. North, Seattle, WA, 98103 Phone: (206) 632-5100 Website: https://www.theochocolate.com
Theo was the first U.S. chocolate maker to insist on organic ingredients and is a pioneer in utilizing fair trade, green and sustainable practices. They’re one of the rare bean-to-bar producers and have daily factory tours, a must-do if you’re in Seattle. It’s worth it for the chocolate tasting alone, but you also get to see the CHOCOLATE PIPELINE which leads to several CHOCOLATE HOLDING TANKS — it’s quite Willy Wonka-ish.
After taking the tour, I spent a leisurely hour poring over the selections at their counter and their staggering collection of pure chocolate varietal bars, caramels, barks and truffles.
I’d been gifted the Peppermint Stick and Salted Toffee holiday bars by friends who still think I need convincing to move north (thanks Elayne & Sarah!), and I also treated myself to a few nibbles from their confection counter – my favorites being the fig & fennel bonbon and the ghost chile salted caramel.
For Valentine’s day, well, it’s got to be the Valentine’s Bars or the Aphrodisiac Gift Set, with their Aphrodisiac Ganache and Casanova Caramels.
Store Hours: Mon-Sun, 10AM-6PM
Factory Tours Daily
FRAN’S CHOCOLATES Three locations: Seattle Downtown, Seattle University Village, Bellevue Website: https://www.franschocolates.com/store/home.php
I’d originally heard about the famous Seattle Fran’s from my BFFF (that would be best foodie friend forever) Hilary — she’s been waxing poetic about their ganache-stuffed figs to me for years. For Christmas, I was treated (again, by Elayne & Sarah…hmmm) to Fran’s salted caramels. Best. Caramels. Ever. Really. They’re the perfect two-bite size, the chocolate shell is sturdy and smooth, the caramel is buttery, soft and chewy but not gooey, and the sprinkling of crunchy salt on top enhances but doesn’t overpower. Buy some now.
Double Chocolate Figs. You won’t find any delicacy quite like them — they’re the plumpest, moistest dried Calmyrna Figs, stuffed with rich, dark chocolate ganache and enrobed in more dark chocolate. These are decadence in a box, from their voluptuous shape to their sensual juxtaposition of textures and flavors — creamy, chewy, fruity and darkly smooth. Just be warned – once you try these, you can’t go back….
Typical of a local, I’ve just begun to suss out the SoCal chocolate scene, and I’m thrilled to see it’s just as thriving as the LA’s current dining renaissance. I’m looking forward to being a chocolate tourist in this town I call home, uncovering a new crop of artisanal chocolatiers, and rediscovering some traditional favorites.
COMPARTES CHOCOLATIER Chocolate boutique & factory 912 South Barrington Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90049< Phone: (310) 826-3380< Website: http://compartes.com
Compartes has been hand-making luxury, gourmet chocolates at the same Brentwood location for over 60 years, and I was thrilled and delighted to discover that their small factory and revitalized boutique is just a few miles from my house. Now under the helm of scion and chocolate prodigy Jonathan Grahm, Compartes’ elegant chocolates are rightfully a favorite of Hollywood celebrities and LA gourmands. (Read more about Compartes in this great LA Time’s article by Betty Hallock).
Grahm is not only the owner and a master chocolatier, he’s also developed brilliant product lines and designed unique and innovative packaging which sets Compartes’ apart from and above the ordinary. Some people paint, write or play music – Jonathan is a chocolate artist, and Compartes’ boutique is his gallery.
But Compartes’ main event is their truffles. Perfectly formed squares decorated with Grahm’s elegant or whimsical designs, in unique and well-matched flavor combinations such as pear cardamom, raspberry pink pepper and peanut butter, honey and sea salt. What makes Jonathan’s truffles superior, IMHO, is that the chocolate shell is substantial enough to provide a taste and texture contrast to the luxurious (and not too gooey), intensely-flavored ganache or caramel centers. These truffles are meant to be savored, but I dare you to not consume a handful in one sitting (I lost that bet, btw).
For Valentine’s day, you could choose from their charming heart-box filled with Chocolate Dipped Oreos, a collection of their “insanely delicious” Love Nuts, or perhaps a selection of their Valentine’s truffles, in flavors such as Red Velvet, Honey Vanilla and Huckleberry Balsamic, which is sprinkled with little pink kisses.
I’ve gotten my honey an “Old Hollywood” bar from the Infinite Dream bar series – 75% Cacao with Dark Chocolate and Smoked Sea Salt wrapped up in a beautiful black & white Deco-inspired box. For myself, I selected a box of tipsy treats — a 5 truffle selection of “spirited” squares — Strawberry Champagne, Guinness and Sangria ganaches, a caramely Honey Rum, and the darkly delicious Macallan Whiskey Bonbon. You can even have your truffles imprinted with custom designs — perhaps a lovely marriage proposal spelled out in divine chocolate squares?
Store hours: Mon-Sat 10AM – 6PM, closed Sundays
SEE’S CANDIES Locations throughout the U.S. Website: http://www.sees.com
Yes, they’re old fashioned, and that’s just the way we like them. See’s, which originated in Los Angeles in 1921 but has gone all Starbucks with over 200 outlets nationwide, has thankfully stayed true to its founders’ candy-making philosophy, producing the the best fresh, delicious, traditional chocolates and confections. No, there’s no bourbon ganache or salted caramels or tarragon infused pear and lemongrass truffles. But fan clubs could be built around their addictive confectionary creations — Polar Bear Paws, anyone? — and their eagerly-awaited seasonal offerings like their fancifully decorated Easter Eggs or divine divinity St. Patty’s Day “Irish Potato.”
For Valentine’s day, there are traditional heart boxes with selections from their vast variety of flavors (I’m a nuts and chews gal), as well as seasonally available Strawberry Truffles, Scotchmallow Hearts and Milk Chocolate Peanut Butter Hearts.
My Valentine’s Day is never complete without a bag of their Milk Chocolate Foil Hearts. If you poo-poo milk chocolate, you haven’t tried See’s. They’ve created a golden ratio of chocolate, milk, sugar and vanilla to produce a smooth, lush, creamy and slightly spicy chocolate that tastes like it was created in heaven.
TRADER JOE’S Locations throughout the U.S. Website; http://www.traderjoes.com
Yes, it’s a grocery store, but for those lucky enough to live in the vicinity of one, this Pasadena-born, original can’t-find-it-anywhere-else market is a chocolate destination. First they lured us with their UFO’s — perfectly smooth, minty dark cocoa wafers, (who hasn’t eaten their way through a bag?) and they kept us hooked by dipping everything under the sun in chocolate — candied ginger, espresso beans, blueberries, edamame (!). Their Trader Joe’s 1 lb. plus bar is ideal chopped up for chocolate chunk cookies, and they always carry a great selection of varietal bars in different percentages of cacao content for any chocoholic’s palate. Oh, and they’re cheap, and what’s sexier than that?
My latest dark obsession is “The Dark Chocolate Lover’s Chocolate Bar.” 85% Colombian cacao, it has a beautiful “snap,” and has an unmistakably fruity flavor when it hits your tongue. This one goes extremely well with a spicy, milky chai tea (I’m having both as I write this), but for a simple and sensual Valentine’s Day treat, it would pair beautifully with a deep Bordeaux — something you can also buy at Trader Joe’s….
If you want to just go for it, line a basket with red tissue and stuff it with tubs of what your honey craves — chocolate-covered raspberry sticks, mini peanut butter cups, almonds double dipped in chocolate, cocoa and sea salt, and cap it off with a box of their crack-laced cocoa truffles. They don’t actually list crack on the label, but you try to stop eating them.
Yes, cacao is is loaded with antioxidants (chocolate that’s over 73% cacao content is considered “health food”), and of course, chocolate can also be loaded with sugar. But chocolate also releases endorphins and makes us feel good, and what could be healthier than that? And now that so many confectioners are utilizing organic, green and fair trade practices, maybe chocolate is also good for…all of mankind.
So I’m going to go love myself and eat some more chocolate, and maybe you should too. Do it for yourself, do it for your sweetheart. Do it for the planet.