As it turns out, I’m a lightweight. I’d always considered myself a hardcore chocolate lover, but I met my match at the third annual San Francisco International Chocolate Salon last weekend. Herbst Pavilion quickly filled with hundreds of eager chocoholics, including my sister-in-law, niece, and me. We started hitting the tables, gobbling samples, and it didn’t take long to reach a conclusion:
A gimmick does not make for good chocolate.
Take, for example, Sacred Chocolate, which produces a vegan/organic/kosher/halal product being hawked by “Sacred Steve,” wearing butterflies in his hair and a lavish velveteen duster worthy of “Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat.” Of course, we had to sample the chocolate on offer, and it was…OK. Just OK.
We pushed on, tasting creations combining chocolate with everything from Guinness stout, guava, goat cheese, fleur de sel, durian, and even Pop Rocks candy. The artisanal chocolate arena is crowded these days, so you have to do something to stand out. Problem is, when you venture into creative flavor combinations, it’s all too easy to overwhelm the flavor of the chocolate. As I’ve mentioned before, I think the folks at Chicago-based Vosges, who were not at the salon, do the best job of achieving a the delicate balance of combining offbeat flavors with chocolate in a way that enhances the chocolate. That’s no small feat.
As it turned out, our favorite finds were those that kept it simple and focused on chocolate. We loved the wonderful nuggets of dark chocolate fudge produced by Jeanne’s Fudge of San Mateo, CA. Schoggi’s imported Swiss chocolates (especially their hot chocolate) were another favorite. Berekeley-based Xocolate’s were works of art in terms of design and taste. We also fancied the Vermeer Dutch Chocolate Cream Liqueur.
I did my bit, trolling the tables until I staggered away in a shaky, giggly chocolate high. But I couldn’t help thinking these are tough times for fancy chocolate. Hershey’s, which bought the upscale Joseph Schmidt Confections in 2005, announced it will shut the operation down as of June 30. Schmidt has been a Bay Area institution in 1983 and was a forerunner of the current wave of artisan chocolate. Of course, one might think that the marriage of mass-market Hershey’s and speciality Schmidt was doomed from the beginning. Or it might hint at an overcrowded market, now that every city seems to boast a raft of chocolatiers.
But those who really love chocolate–and that includes everyone at the salon on Saturday–don’t really care about all that. They just love chocolate, recession or no recession, and they’re happy to sample such lovingly crafted wares. In fact, we spied Joseph Schmidt–the real, live chocolatier, not the company–wading through the crowds, going from table to table, and tasting a bit of this and a bit of that.
Now, that’s love.