Most people have definite opinions about chocolate. Either you like it or you don’t. Growing up, I was never swayed by it. No adult could buy my loyalty with a Cadbury’s Fruit & Nut and no kid my own age could sway my friendship with a Perk or Crunch. I was totally indifferent to what some chocolatiers call la vida cocoa. But as time passed and age crept up on me, instead of developing my wisdom tooth, I sprouted a sweet tooth. And then another and another, and then some more till now, in my thirties, I no longer hesitate to put my grubby paws all over a bar of chocolate. So when I got the opportunity this year to sample buttery, melt-in-your mouth handcrafted artisanal champagne truffles, hazelnut toffees and butterscotch pralines in San Francisco, I put on my big girl pants with stretchy elastic and jumped all over it.
The beautiful, windswept city of San Francisco on the American West Coast is synonymous with the tech industry for most visitors. But behind the veneer of computers and scrappy startups lies a robust food culture and a muscular appreciation of all things gourmet that has led to a thriving chocolate scene here. San Francisco’s sweet tooth, however, isn’t new. It dates all the way back to the 1848 California Gold Rush, during which approximately three hundred thousand people from North America and Europe thronged the West Coast, seeking their fortune in the yellow metal. Among the eager hordes were the chocolate-making families of Guittard and Ghirardelli. In 1849, Italian confectioner Domingo Ghirardelli, who was then running a sweet shop in Lima, Peru, decided to try his hand at mining. While he failed spectacularly at striking gold, he found his riches in selling groceries, supplies and confections to other miners in California. He formed a new confectionery company in San Francisco that became the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company in June 1852. In addition to selling chocolate and their signature hot chocolate drink Broma, Ghirardelli also imported coffee and spices—a thriving business that quickly made him one of the seaport’s wealthiest men.
Fellow European Etienne Guittard similarly set sail west from France, hoping to trade his chocolates for mining supplies and make his fortune in gold. However, he soon found that wealthy miners with a sweet tooth were willing to cough up a pretty penny for French chocolates. Recognizing this opportunity, Guittard went right back to France, brushed up his chocolate-making skills, bought the right equipment, and returned to set up Guittard Chocolate Company on Sansome Street in 1868. Today, Guittard remains one of the only fully family-owned businesses in North America.
While the West Coast sampled wares from the Guittard and Ghirardelli stores, it was also never short of exotic beans and adventuresome chocolatiers. The port of San Francisco brought ships and immigrants from far and wide and with them arrived different types of beans and flavours. San Francisco’s chocolates now range from the over-the-counter $1-2 Hershey’s bars to the more exclusive, handcrafted, small-batch truffles, ganaches or caramel toffees that could set you back by a whopping $5-6 per piece.
So how do you prep for chocolate tastings? And if individual preferences vary, how does a regular person like me know what to look for in fine chocolate (short of scooping handfuls of chocolate pieces into my mouth)? “It’s similar to wine,” explained Pam Williams, the founder of Ecole Chocolat Professional School of Chocolate Arts and author of Raising the Bar: The Future of Fine Chocolate. “Sometimes, people want a cheap wine to put into sangria and sometimes, when you go to a celebratory dinner, you want something expensive. It’s all about the tastebuds.”
Chocolatier Williams sent me notes ahead of my choco-tour. They were simple: look for flavour—the chocolate shouldn’t be too sweet or acidic. “You want your chocolate to be smooth and creamy and have a ‘long finish’ so that you can taste it later,” he said. “You also want the chocolate to be crisp and have crystallization—that shows you the chocolate maker took pains to produce the bar. But most importantly, try different chocolates—it’s the only way to develop ideas and flavours that you like in your dessert.” With the Williams notes tucked in my pocket, off I went on my cavity-causing adventure. My first stop was Recchiuti Confections (Ferry Building Marketplace, One Ferry Building, Shop #30; 415-834-9494, recchiuti.com). The brainchild of chocolatier Michael Recchiuti (pronounced ‘ree-KYOO-tee’) and his wife Jacky, Recchiuti Confections in the busy Ferry Market Building blends classic French technique with signature flavours like fresh lavender and lemon verbena, and Michael also makes extravagantly flavoured truffles. However, if you don’t want anything too frou-frou and would rather just have some good ol’ crunch and chew, try the crowd favourites—peanut butter pearls, burnt caramel almonds or a wonderful sesame nougatine bar, which has toasted sesame seeds cooked with cane sugar and sea salt in a crunchy nougatine. The chocolates, however, won’t be cheap. The Black Box collection with 16 assorted pieces can set you back by $45. And a Fleur de Sel caramel collection with 16 pieces sells at $23.
Fog City News (455 Market Street; 415-543-7400, fogcitynews.com) was next on my list. Ever had a hankering for a bar of brown butter chocolate as you skim through the latest Italian Vogue? Then Fog City News may be the place for you. On the outside, it’s a well-stocked newsstand with magazines from around the world. Step inside and you’ll find chocolates with distinct flavours like bacon caramel, olive oil, miso and sourdough—which may leave your mouth watering as you scratch your head in wonder. “Fog City used to have a big international customer base [for their magazines] and they [the customers] would come in and ask for special chocolates—a special Belgian or something from Germany,” says Andrea Nadel, who leads Gourmet Chocolate Walks in SF. “So they started catering to that crowd.” Today, going to Fog City News is like visiting a speciality wine shop with knowledgeable keepers who will always let you sample their chocolate of the day.
If you are in the mood for some creamy Belgian chocolates, then Leonidas Belgian Chocolates (Crocker Galleria, 50 Post St.; 415-956-2338, leonidas-chocolate.com) should be your next go-to spot. The store flies in their entire chocolate collection every week so that customers can get their hands on a large and fresh collection of Belgian chocolates. Leonidas is famous for two things—always using 100% pure cocoa butter and never using frozen products in its chocolates. And I could literally taste the difference when I sampled their wares, including the amazing Leonidas Napolitain, which is a creamy milk chocolate filled with a layer of hazelnut praline, and their collection of truffles in classic, dark, cognac and champagne. Their coconut truffle was especially wicked and promptly melted in my mouth, leaving me hankering for more. Leonidas has branches across the country and if you find yourself on the East Coast, you can head to their flagship store on Madison Avenue and pick from over a hundred different types of Belgian chocolates. Be prepared to shell out big bucks for little boxes of explosive taste—a one-pound general assortment from this store costs $38.
If Leonidas prepped your palate for all things extravagant, then Teuscher: Chocolates of Switzerland (307 Sutter St; 415-834-0850, teuschersf.com) will take your chocolate tasting the extra mile. Much like the former, Teuscher imports all of its wares weekly from Switzerland—including a lot of white chocolate, which isn’t that commonly found in regular San Francisco stores. Teuscher’s store has a quaint little interior—like a craft class gone wild. There are festoons and colourful gift boxes in the shape of alligators and clowns—if the interior can have you pause for thought, their champagne truffles will have you linger in greed. The tiny truffles, dusted with sugar and filled with Dom Perignon, leave you with the ‘long finish’ that chocolate-experts love to talk about. The taste explodes and lingers in your mouth and you can go home satisfied (also knowing you visited Oprah’s favorite Swiss chocolatier). A two-piece party favour box with champagne truffles will set you back a cool $8.75.
Where to sign up for a Chocolate Tour
If you’re too daunted to go traipsing across town sampling chocolates, you can sign up for a chocolate walk where experts in the field guide you on where to go and what to chow down:
TCHO Factory Tour
The TCHO Factory (tcho.com) experience includes a factory tour and tasting. You can learn everything about the history of chocolate, how TCHO sources and manufactures all of its chocolates, and nibble on complimentary chocolates and biscotti. Their free public tours run twice daily at 10.30am and 2pm (Pacific Standard Time), seven days a week, and each tour can accommodate up to 29 people. To book a spot, go to the Factory Tour link on their home page and then choose the Public Tour option.
Gourmet Walks (gourmetwalks.com) is the city’s best-known chocolate tour. It includes a three-hour walk through some of San Francisco’s best chocolate shops and includes tastings. The tour is limited to 14 people, so book in advance. Ticket prices are $53 per head and tours run on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 10.30am. The Saturday tours are at 2pm (and sometimes 11am).