Sweet Surrender

Sweet Surrender

Along with sugar, spice, and everything nice, today’s chocolate shops are down with salt, booze, and bittersweet cacao.

One taste of chocolate can change everything. As a proper East Bay mom, I had shielded my 3-year-old daughter, Lila, from the evils of candy as long as possible. But 14 years ago, in Paris, my husband’s French cousin handed Lila a creamy milk-chocolate bonbon—and my protective parental wall crumbled. As my daughter popped the novelty into her mouth, her face was transformed by a wave of ecstasy, followed by a sidelong glance at me. “Why have you been keeping this from me?” she demanded wordlessly.

Back then, the selection of gourmet chocolate in Paris eclipsed the choices in our humble East Bay chocolate outpost. But these days, there’s no need to hop a flight to France to satisfy your educated sweet tooth. Local chocophiles can indulge their dark fantasies—or, at least, snag a seductive Valentine’s Day present—right here in Oakland, Berkeley, and Emeryville.

Or so I’ve heard. But as I begin to explore the East Bay’s growing gourmet chocolate scene for myself (a tough assignment, but someone’s got to do it), I find myself surrounded by a world of sultry treats that don’t so much satisfy fantasies as create them.

Smoky with a hint of oak

My point of departure, five-year-old Bittersweet Cafe on College Avenue in Oakland, provides a homey setting, with earth-tone decor and rustic wooden furniture, for partaking of an array of sophisticated flavors. Studded with more than 120 bars from across the globe, the eye-catching right-hand wall of the cafe serves as an edible gallery. “Chocolate is an object of connoisseurship,” says co-owner Seneca Klassen, who sees his job as curator of the collection. Bittersweet’s wall of chocolate bars from many different makers, ranging in price from $4 to $17, consists of three sections: Milk, Dark, and Surprise. The latter includes innovative combinations, from a fragrant mélange of blueberry and lavender to a bar incorporating wasabi, black sesame, and ginger, which takes my surprised tongue on a timed-release ride of flavors.

Bittersweet specializes in premium dark chocolate, especially bars that specify their beans’ single country of origin. Just as wine-lovers obsess over terroir, chocoholic purists prefer to know exactly where their beans were born. For example, the tropical Theobroma cacao tree only grows within 20 degrees of the equator, in Ecuador, Bali, the Philippines, and some African countries. Because of concerns about labor practices and pesticides in many countries where chocolate is harvested, Bittersweet carefully chooses products that are responsibly grown and processed. The cafe fabricates its own line of confections from in-house-roasted Balinese beans as well as other fine chocolates, produces a daily selection of pastries, and offers more than a half-dozen flavors of hot chocolate.

The cozy shop usually hums with chocolate-fueled, caffeinated chatter. On a recent afternoon, eighth-graders Alexa Hanshaw of Oakland and Shayla Goldlist of Lafayette are sipping bittersweet hot chocolate and nibbling chocolate-caramel truffles.

“The bittersweet chocolate here tastes real, not fake,” Hanshaw says.

“We eat M&Ms and all that,” Goldlist adds, “but this is better, more natural.”

Ah, but my chocolate quest has barely begun. Next up: a trek to the Epicurious Garden Food court in North Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto, where Alegio Chocolaté’s tiny corner shop cleverly caters to all five senses. Old movies and concerts are projected on the wall while classical music plays in the background and the taste of chocolate—small samples are graciously provided by co-owners Robbin Everson and Panos Panagos—lingers on the palate. Patrons are also invited to handle the roasted beans, shells, nibs, and powder in little boxes illustrating the complex process that transforms beans into bars.

Decorated with delicate patterns, Alegio’s own line of truffles contains distinctive flavorings such as Tasmanian honey, Illy espresso, and habanero chili, sold singly for $2 or in boxes from $12 to $45.

“We are also the exclusive American distributor for avant-garde Spanish chocolate artist Enric Rovira,” Everson notes. “Europeans call him the Dali of Chocolate Art.” Rovira’s Planetarium series (a box of 10 sells for $75) consists of a large golden-speckled chocolate orb representing the sun, filled with ganache infused with pear liqueur; the nine smaller planetary bonbons each have their own distinctive flavor and color. Rovira also creates chocolate-covered morsels called Bombolas, including intense nibs, amusing corn-nuts, and sublime pink peppercorns, which aficionados sprinkle on their salads. For much of his artistry, Rovira insists on the world-renowned chocolate made by Italian Claudio Corallo, an artisan so devoted to chocolate that he has spent more than a decade living and working on a cacao plantation on the tiny island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe (the second-smallest country in Africa; originally settled by the Portuguese who brought over the cocoa plant from Brazil).

If American palates today are sophisticated enough to handle these not-so-sugary confections, the reason may be that we are already accustomed to consuming darker varieties of chocolate. Since the 1990s, when flavonoids in dark chocolate began to be linked to cardiovascular benefits, health-conscious consumers have been seeking out confections with higher percentages of cocoa solids. For example, Bobbe and Jim Skiles, both 60, of San Leandro, pursue a healthy lifestyle, eat plenty of raw veggies, exercise daily at the gym—and end every evening with a small piece of very dark chocolate from Trader Joe’s. The tiny treat, the pair agrees, must contain 70 percent cacao or more. “The higher the better,” Jim notes, “because the antioxidants help prevent cell breakdown as you age.”

“I like the chocolate with salt on it,” Bobbe adds, “and a little bit is enough to totally satisfy me.”

Hearts and crafts

As my tasting tour takes me from one avant-garde confectioner to another, though, it becomes increasingly clear that the once-burning issue of dark vs. milk has lost its bite. Today’s passionately-debated question: Which infusions of spice or exotic fruit truly tickle—perhaps even titillate—the fancy?

At The Xocolate Bar on Solano Avenue in Berkeley, co-owners Malena Lopez-Maggi and Clive Brown, partners in both business and life, create daring flavor pairings: tamarind-mango, cherry-hibiscus, lavender-walnut, and even a savory-sweet combination of Kalamata olive and salted caramel. Lopez-Maggi credits her Chilean-Mexican heritage with her career in chocolate. The name Xocolate (pronounced “shocolate”) derives, appropriately enough, from the Aztec word for chocolate—the delicacy has been traced to ancient Mesoamerican civilizations. Not in bar form, though; the Aztecs boiled ground cacao in water, added vanilla or other spices, and whipped the liquid into a frothy, bitter beverage. This potent brew, to which magical powers were ascribed, was used in religious rituals.

Xocolate’s vegan offerings include black currant and ginger zing, sweetened with agave nectar and fruit instead of cream. The most unique aspect of its wares, though, may be the amusing forms they take. The idea of biting into King Tut, a laughing Buddha, the elephant god Ganesh, or perhaps one of the illustrated tiles from the Kama Sutra, puts a sly smile on my face.

Moving along to University Avenue, the sheer beauty of the glistening chocolate gems inside Chocolatier Blue’s sedate blue-striped walls stops me cold: crimson half-bubbles infused with passion fruit, golden-flecked swirls of caramel, pumpkin-flavored gleaming orange domes. Working in the back of the small Berkeley storefront is owner Chris Blue, 30, who makes 9,200 of these confections (but who’s counting?) by hand every week, while fiancée Jessica Steeve uses her art background to pair shapes and colors complementing each season.

Blue, whose mother and grandmother were classically trained European chefs, grew up on a farm in Nebraska. He studied at the famed French Pastry School in Chicago, where his acclaimed teacher, Sebastian Cannone, taught him the complex process of tempering chocolate to achieve a silky, velvety texture. It takes two days, Blue says, to complete the many steps necessary to produce a molded chocolate jewel with taste combinations as sublime as grapefruit with rosemary or pear with thyme. Somehow, though, Blue’s cherubic face reflects neither the long hours he works creating inventory for this store and a second venue on Fourth Street in Berkeley, nor his international status as a chocolatier.

“You can’t be self-taught with chocolate. It’s 90 percent science, 10 percent artistry,” Blue says, deftly filling a tray of molds from his pastry bag of aromatic Flying Goat coffee ganache. This coffee, made by a small Healdsburg company, exemplifies Blue’s commitment to handpicked ingredients: passion fruit from New Zealand, Sicilian pistachios, organic raw Five Star butter. For the couverture, or shells, Blue swears by Amedei chocolate, a four-time winner of the coveted Golden Bean award. In fact, Chocolatier Blue is the only U.S. confectioner allowed to use the exclusive Amedei product, and Blue—his youth notwithstanding—is the only U.S. chocolatier invited to participate in the Academy of Chocolate’s prestigious competition to be held in London next year.

Fans aren’t allowed behind the front lines at most chocolate shops—trade secrets aside, there’s little room to spare in most such ateliers. But the Charles Chocolates factory in Emeryville offers more than a fleeting glimpse of the premises; here, candies are handmade in small batches in an open kitchen, visible through a large glass wall. Narrated tours are offered several times a week, along with a smattering of samples. Depending on the day, you’ll get to see the dozen hair-netted, white-gloved employees caramelizing peanuts, filling chocolate molds, or spreading out praline on cooling tables. On my Tuesday morning tour I am captivated by the workings of the enrobing machine, where armies of inch-long, orange-infused, milk-chocolate rods march through a cascading curtain of dark chocolate. And there they go, wrapped in their smooth brown coats, tumbling into a large bin for a light dusting with confectioner’s sugar. I’d enjoy a handful of orange twigs under any circumstances, but appreciate the addictive tidbits even more after witnessing their birth.

Charles Chocolates’ specialties include triple-chocolate–dipped nuts and tea-infused truffles. Edible chocolate boxes ($60) extend pleasure in an eco-friendly fashion: The lids are decorated with fanciful flowers and after savoring the 18 chocolates inside, you can polish off the box. Selected treats are also available at Whole Foods, Berkeley Bowl, Sur La Table, The Pasta Shop, and other stores throughout California.

Edgy European flavor

My own introduction to European chocolate occurred on a 1982 trip, when I came down with a bad case of tonsillitis. At the small hospital in a tiny Swiss mountain town, I stood transfixed at the admitting desk, amazed to find it lined with scores of Toblerone and Lindt bars. “Now, this is my kind of medicine,” I thought. The long tradition of chocolate artistry in Switzerland and France is shared by Italy, Belgium, and Germany.

From this latter land comes the proprietor of the eponymous Michael Mischer Chocolates on Oakland’s Grand Avenue, whose store suggests a split personality. On the left side of the elegant shop, where the burnt orange walls exude both warmth and sophistication, is a counter arrayed with miniature trays. Each cradles just one exquisitely flavored molded chocolate—Lilikoi (Hawaiian passion fruit) or caramelized apple, for example. The right wall showcases the bars, also handmade by Mischer and priced from $3.25 to $10, with piquant fillings practically erupting out of the silky brown chocolate. These robust offerings range from the familiar—mixed nuts—to the exotic: dragon fruit and blueberry, cayenne spiced mango, orange and togarashi (a Japanese blend of seaweed and spices). Mischer enjoys pairing flavors and shapes in whimsical combinations: root beer in a tiny log barrel, chipotles in a triangular shape, and marzipan (“the king of flavors”) in a crown.

Mischer worked as a pastry chef in both his native Germany and California before opening his shop in 2004. Observing the statuesque confectioner—Mischer stands nearly six and a half feet tall—fashion molded chocolates in his back kitchen is like watching an athlete perform. The man’s practiced moves waste no gestures. First, he dips trays of molds into the dark chocolate continuously warmed by a tempering machine. Gracefully, he sets tray after tray on a small vibrating table that noisily jiggles out any air bubbles, then turns out any excess, repeatedly wipes the trays with a special trowel, and places the resulting glistening shells into the refrigerator to await filling.

For the benefit of his customers, Mischer lists the cacao percentages of his dark- and milk-chocolate bars on their labels. But for himself, he says, taste is of paramount importance. “I put a piece of chocolate in my mouth and tell you whether I like it,” he says. “There are so many other factors to consider, besides the number.”

As we chat, Art Cohen and Bill Alexander of Orinda wander in to buy a box of chocolates for Bill’s wife. This pair of retired dentists doesn’t seem to notice the irony in their devotion to candy—albeit state-of-the-art, handmade candy. “I like frequenting independent stores; they add charm to the urban landscape,” Cohen says. “Mischer’s chocolates are beautifully sculpted creations. This is an art form that needs to be supported.”

Up the hill in Oakland’s Montclair district is an unassuming storefront labeled XOX Truffles. Inside, behind a jumble of cafe tables and chairs, an innocuous white deli case conceals real treasure, nestled in mismatched crockery bowls. Although these truffles, created by French chef Jean-Marc Gorce, resemble little clods of earth, they are as rare as the prized truffles that pigs snuffle for in France. Smoothed and rolled in cocoa powder, the luscious dark-chocolate palate-pleasers are infused with some very grown-up tastes: Kahlua, crème de menthe, honey vodka, triple sec, and vin rouge.

Gorce’s partner and wife, Casimira, presides over the Oakland location; he spends his days crafting chocolates at their flagship store in San Francisco’s North Beach. Their truffles are sold not only at the two stores, but also at Whole Foods, Neiman Marcus, and other locations throughout the Bay Area.

The highly successful enterprise had its unlikely start on their honeymoon on Catalina Island in 1997, when the then–30-year-old Gorce, a chef at Fringale restaurant in San Francisco, suffered a heart attack. Although his doctor subsequently ordered him to stay out of hot kitchens, Gorce refused to abandon the culinary world: Instead, he and Casimira, an aspiring entrepreneur born in the Philippines, brainstormed the new venture.

Fashionably attired in a smart suit, Casimira brings me a duet of petite sweets to try. The caramel truffle, whose crumbly honey interior balances perfectly with its dark-chocolate coating, has me moaning; the cosmopolitan taste of the cognac truffle immediately transports me to a smoky Parisian bar. Then Casimira sets a third morsel before me. “Our newest flavor,” she says, “spicy cayenne tequila.” As I place the tiny powerhouse of flavor in my mouth, I am startled by a cool splash of tequila. “There’s a little kick at the end,” Casimira adds innocently, as the exquisite fireworks burst on my tongue. As I open my eyes and regain consciousness, I find myself recalling my daughter’s transformative chocolate moment so long ago, and realize that I, too, have just experienced an epiphany of sorts. Oh, those Frenchmen! XOX indeed.

Not every East Bay enthusiast, though, is crazy about the extreme trends in chocolate today, beautiful exteriors belied by unanticipated astringency or other knock-your-socks-off sensations. “My gripe is that it is so healthy, it’s lost its fun,” says 50ish Oakland artist Margaret Dorfman, who satisfies her sweet tooth at places like Berkeley Bowl and Cost Plus. “Chocolate isn’t a vitamin; it’s a treat. It’s not supposed to be good for you.”

For those who share Dorfman’s point of view, there’s the nearby Le Bonbon, an island of respite in a sea of wasabi, lavender, and salt, which has quietly occupied a corner in Montclair for 33 years. When your petulant inner child—or your no-nonsense sweetheart—craves something a little more Norman Rockwell, the pleasantly old-fashioned candy shop is standing by with the stuff of nostalgia: rainbow-sprinkled nonpareils, almond turtles, coffee cordials, chocolate-dipped orange peel, homemade fudge, and sugar-free almond bark. The local Berkeley company, Judy’s Candy, crafts many of these stalwart favorites.

“Eating chocolate should be escapist, like relaxing with a murder mystery, not forcing yourself to read Tolstoy,” Dorfman continues. “I don’t want a tiny bite of an 87 percent ultra-bitter bar. I look for a nice Swiss milk chocolate with nuts, and then I eat the whole bar.”

Anna Mindess is a freelance writer specializing in food and culture and a frequent contributor to The Monthly. She is also a sign language interpreter. Keep up with her at cultureandfood.wordpress.com and annamindess.com.

Sweet Shops

Following is a sampling of East Bay chocolate purveyors:

Alegio Chocolaté, 1511 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, (510) 548-2466; www.alegio.com.

Bittersweet Cafe, 5427 College Ave., Oakland, (510) 654-7159; www.bittersweetcafe.com/oakland.html.

Charles Chocolates, 6529 Hollis St., Emeryville, (510) 652-4412; www.charleschocolates.com.

Chocolatier Blue, 1964 University Ave., Berkeley, (510) 705-8800 and Chocolatier Blue Patisserie, 1809 Fourth St., Berkeley, (510) 665-9500; www.chocolatierblue.com.

Le Bonbon, 2050 Mountain Blvd., Oakland, (510) 339-2962; www.le-bonbon.com.

Michael Mischer Chocolates, 3352 Grand Ave., Oakland, (510) 986-1822; www.michaelmischerchocolates.com.

The Xocolate Bar, 1709 Solano Ave., Berkeley, (510) 525-9626; www.thexocolatebar.com.

XOX Truffles, 6126 La Salle Ave., Oakland, (510) 339-9969; www.xoxtruffles.com.

Faces of the East Bay