Bay Area Chocolate Binge
San Francisco attracts the nation's most innovative chocolate artisans and its most obsessive cocoa addicts. On a tour of the "chocolate fertile crescent," Abe Opincar finds out why.
My crabby taxi driver slammed on the brakes, rolled down his window and sniffed the air outside. "Geez, what's that incredible smell?" We were five minutes from San Francisco International Airport at the corner of Guittard and Rollins roads. To our right sat the 75,000-square-foot Guittard Chocolate Company. To our left, one of Guittard's biggest customers, the See's Candies factory, which produces 17 million pounds of confections a year. We were at the southernmost tip of what my friend Helen, a longtime San Francisco resident, calls "the fertile crescent of Bay Area chocolate."
Helen is not exaggerating. Four of the nation's 11 major chocolate manufacturers and a disproportionate number of its innovative boutique chocolatiers are to be found on an arc that begins south of San Francisco, sweeps up through the city and crosses the bay, ending in Berkeley.
"I don't live in San Francisco only because I love chocolate," said Helen, my guide along this arc. "But if you love chocolate, there's no better place to live than the Bay Area."
Étienne Guittard and Domingo Ghirardelli apparently thought so. Both men came to the San Francisco area in the mid-1800s to join in the Gold Rush, and both of them ended up making their fortunes in chocolate instead.
"You had the harbor for shipping cocoa beans. You had so many Italian and French immigrants who were sophisticated about chocolate. You had all these people with a lot of Gold Rush money who were willing to pay for good food," Gary Guittard, Étienne's great-grandson, told me as he gave me a tour of the factory. "You also had the cool climate. Chocolate melts, and air-conditioning didn't really become economically viable until the 1960s."
As we stood poised on a catwalk above a vat of burbling chocolate, Guittard, who took over as company president and CEO in 1989, explained that the Bay Area has been experiencing a surge of interest in chocolate recently. The inspiration—I should've guessed this—has been Alice Waters at Berkeley's Chez Panisse. Waters's emphasis on the best possible ingredients, on small-scale production and on simplicity not only changed the way Americans thought about cooking, but also prodded people to seek out higher-quality chocolate. In the mid-1990s, Guittard started expanding the company's line of artisanal chocolates with varieties of cocoa beans his great-grandfather had used.
As Guittard spoke about the superiority of varietal chocolates such as Venezuelan and Colombian, he handed me a piece of chocolate made only from Venezuelan cocoa. He studied my face. I remembered my first taste of Bordeaux, a St-Émilion, many years ago. The chocolate taste was as complex—fruity and acidic and with an aftertaste of cherries.
"You can't help but love it," said Guittard. This is a man who once told the San Francisco Chronicle that "chocolate melts in the mouth like two lovers in each other's arms."
In San Francisco, this wouldn't count as hyperbole. Here, visitors trundle their children to Ghirardelli Chocolate for "Earthquake" sundaes, made with eight scoops of ice cream and a bewildering number of toppings, while locals like Helen make frequent visits to their neighborhood chocolatiers.
"What could be more exhilarating than an athletic heterosexual Frenchman who makes chocolate truffles?" Helen asked while trotting me to XOX Truffles, a shop not far from her North Beach home. Her tone implied that I was about to encounter something akin to the Temple of Adonis. Instead, I saw a small, bright space with a couple of wrought-iron tables.
Helen has visited the shop twice weekly since owner Jean-Marc Gorce opened it in 1997. His cocoa-dusted truffles have the misshapen look of miniature spuds—or, as Helen says, "You can tell he's made them with his own very strong hands." Helen's crush on Gorce notwithstanding, what drives her to his shop is the quality of the truffles. What sets these truffles apart is the contrast between their rough-hewn appearance and the delicate way Gorce flavors them. The bergamot in his Earl Grey truffle is subtle. The raspberry in his raspberry truffle doesn't bring on the sharp dissonance you sometimes get when chocolate is paired with berries.
Helen's home looks out on Coit Tower and the spires of Saints Peter and Paul Church. But when Helen surveys the view from her dining room, she sees mainly an array of "chocolate hubs" accessible by San Francisco's eccentric mass transit.
"The Powell/Hyde cable car goes to Ghirardelli Square," she says. "The California line goes to Nob Hill, where you can see all the way across the bay, and stops at the foot of Market Street. There are two See's Candies shops within walking distance."
The city's vintage streetcars take Helen up Market Street to Joseph Schmidt Confections, where, for special occasions, she buys the store's big edible bowls made of white and dark chocolate. Customers with more elaborate tastes special-order the store's flowering chocolate trees, complete with butterflies, or Erté-inspired chocolate sculptures. Then she walks a few blocks over to Faerie Queene Chocolates on Castro Street, where owner Jeoffrey Douglas makes a dozen flavors of chocolate fudge and about 60 flavors made without chocolate, such as root-beer float, jalapeño and pumpkin. Douglas has a die-hard philosophy of what makes perfect chocolate fudge: a simple mixture of English clotted cream, French butter and Belgian chocolate. I wasn't surprised when he told me he was a San Francisco native.
During dinner one night at Rose Pistola in North Beach, I witnessed Helen's San Francisco—honed chocolate instincts in action. Once she determined that our waitress was conversant with Sardinian wines and the best Bay Area fish markets, Helen's eyes narrowed.
"And so where," she asked the waitress, "does someone like you find good chocolate?" The two women locked gazes.
"Frankly," said the young woman, "I'm pretty excited about the new Recchiuti Confections in the Ferry Building."
"A wise choice," said Helen, satisfied. "But never forget Gorce."
Michael Recchiuti's shop in the newly refurbished Ferry Building on Market Street—conceived as a retail nexus for the best Bay Area food, and accessible by streetcar—is a calm refuge in a massive, noisy building. At its front, a glass case displays Recchiuti's delicate chocolates, decorated with enigmatic squiggles, leaf patterns and exquisite small lettering in gold.
Recchiuti uses Guittard varietals in his chocolates, but his real genius is that he has resurrected a chocolate-making practice favored by Cosimo III de' Medici, grand duke of Tuscany from 1670 to 1723. His Grace doted on herb- and jasmine-flavored chocolates. Recchiuti perfumes his Medici-style chocolates with jasmine, and with organic herbs such as lavender, mint, tarragon and lemon verbena. Helen and I nibbled one of Recchiuti's best-selling chocolates, flavored with grapefruit peel and tarragon, as we passed the new Scharffen Berger store just a few yards away.
Helen grasped my elbow. "Scharffen Berger Chocolate Sauce," she said, "approximates physical love." To pay our proper respects, we'd have to go to the source: the Scharffen Berger plant in Berkeley, which offers public tours.
The next morning, just as the sun began to burn the mist off the Berkeley hills, I stood inside the Scharffen Berger factory watching a dozen people hug and kiss.
"Is this a family reunion or something?" I asked the tour's guide, Darin Rodrigues.
"I don't think they know each other," Rodrigues said. "They're from Minnesota and Illinois. I guess it's just the chocolate."
I tagged along on Rodrigues's next tour while he explained that Scharffen Berger makes chocolate with a clean conscience. As might be expected from a company based in Berkeley, Scharffen Berger's small-batch chocolate is made with cocoa beans bought from pesticide-free farms. The company's chocolate is produced primarily from Venezuelan beans, with varieties from Africa, Indonesia and the Caribbean blended in.
Before Rodrigues took us to see Scharffen Berger's old-fashioned cocoa-bean roaster and mélangeur, he spoke to us for almost an hour about chocolate's strange life: the cacao tree's fussy upbringing, the cocoa bean's tricky fermentation, cocoa butter's crucial role in the quality of a smooth, finished bar. To illustrate his points, Rodrigues fed us spoonfuls of Scharffen Berger Chocolate Sauce. We grew silent for a moment. And that's when the hugging and kissing began.
Abe Opincar, the author of Fried Butter: A Food Memoir, is a writer in San Diego.