The 3rd annual Los Angeles Luxury Chocolate Salon is basically a convention hall filled with fine, rich, artisanal chocolates in an unbelievable range of flavors and textures where you can eat as much as you want. We’re not talking drugstore chocolates here. These are hand-crafted confections. Some of them are tiny works of art. Some are playful. Some are actually medicinal. Some are downright weird. But all are treats for the palate. The only downside is the chocolate coma that settles over you by the end of the day.
The big theme at the salon - besides the chocolate itself - was the range of strong, novel flavors married to it. Some flavors were surprising, like bacon or goat cheese. Some flavors were pulled from other cultures, like chile or edamame. And some were cousins of familiar filling flavors: blueberry instead of strawberry; macadamia butter cups instead of peanut butter cups. I couldn’t possibly say which was my favorite. I’ll try instead to give my impression of each chocolate maker’s confections, and let you decide which you’d like to try.
Two keyword themes here were “artisanal” and “organic.” Artisanal chocolates are hand made and, when decorated, hand painted. The surprising thing about this painting is that it does not place a flat layer of color on the candies, but often has depth and layers of color that are sometimes so beautiful you almost don’t want to ruin it by taking a bite. Almost.
The majority of the vendors at the Salon promoted the fact that their products were organic. I don’t think this is just because “green” is “in.” Since I’ve started eating more organic produce, I’ve started to notice a strong chemical taste when I eat conventionally grown fresh vegetables and fruits. I suspect that the same is true of chocolate, and especially fine chocolates that are aiming for the foodie culture. Such customers are willing to pay more precisely because they have more refined tastes.
In trying to describe the individual vendors at the Los Angeles Chocolate Salon, I’ve divided them into four groups. There were about 10 brands of bonbons: AF2, Chocolatique, Christopher Michael Chocolates, Happy Chocolates, Helen Grace, Marti Chocolatt, Mignon Chocolates, Ococoa, Sterling Truffle Bar, and XT Patisserie. Another half-dozen were actual chocolate makers: Amano, Jade Chocolate, Original Beans, Republica Del Cacao, Tcho, The Chocolate Traveler, and The Tea Room. I’ve reviewed three chocolate sellers in a separate category whose product is as much about health as it is about taste: Chocolatl, Chocoveda, and Zhena’s Gypsy Cacaoberry Tea. And finally, there were other chocolates and chocolate products that didn’t fit neatly into the above categories: Bitz (chocolate covered pretzels), Clarine’s Florentines (cookies), Cuisine Noir (foodie magazine), Dove Chocolate Discoveries (everything chocolate), Landrin Waferatto (cookie and candy combo), Plush Puffs (marshmallows), Rushburn Toffee, Sweet Beauty (beauty products), and Tifa Chocolates (fine chocolates emporium). If you are interested in only one of these categories, you can scroll down. Or you can read it all and get a sugar rush from just the thought of all that chocolate.
CLASSIC CHOCOLATE BONBONS
Butter cremes, truffles, turtles, caramels, pralines. Th e kind of chocolates that have fillings, are tucked in paper cups and go in a beautiful box. Each vendor had something special to offer in the way of flavor or design.
AF2 ( Auntie Fruf’s Aahsome Fudge) makes fudge - your mother’s fudge, or rather Christine Hanson’s mother’s fudge. Starting with an old family recipe and the help of Mama’s Small Business Incubator Kitchen in Pasadena, her single base recipe has been expanded to five flavors. Now Aahsome Fudge is ready to launch. The website is still under construction, but you can email the owner or call to make your order for some fabulous fudge. http://aahsomefudge.com
Chocolatique has special holiday chocolates in addition to their extensive regular assortment of sweets. This tiny ghosts in white chocolate with fruity fillings were a favorite with Halloween coming up. Then the gift-giving season arrives and they have a box of chocolates in shapes to give anyone visions of sugarplums. http://www.choclatique.com
CHRISTOPHER MICHAEL CHOCOLATES
Christopher Michael Chocolates are highly refined chocolates with definite “down home” roots. Their signature bar, the big seller at this event, was the Sizzling Bacon Bar, a chocolate bar that evolved out of a favorite treat from the chocolatier’s Michigan childhood. The chocolate actually sizzles on your tongue thanks to some pop-rock bits in the chocolate that fizz when they get wet in your mouth.
His boxed confections are as beautiful as cloisonée jewelry, and his goal is to combine the very thin couverture shell favored by the French with the intense filling flavors preferred by Americans. His caramel fillings are soft and sensually gooey and make a lovely contrast to the hard, thin couverture that melts on your tongue. http://www.christophermichaelchocolates.com
Happy Chocolates are a local artisanal chocolatier aiming for chic and unique hand-made chocolates. They have a dark chocolate collection for those who like a stronger chocolate flavor. And they have something called the “Chocolate Bliss Gift Basket” which features 2 assortment boxes, bars, nibs and cocoa along with a copy of their recipe book for chocolate lovers: “Chocolate Bliss.” http://www.happychocolates.com/
HELEN GRACE CHOCOLATES
The first thing I noticed as I approached Helen Grace Chocolates were the enormous caramel apples. The fresh crispness of the tart Granny Smith helped clear my palate for the next round of chocolate tasting. Their carmel, the kind that coats an apple, is also the kind I love in a chocolate, chewy and dense. So it was no surprise that their truffle deluxe was my idea of heaven: a rich, meltaway chocolate base crowned with an equal part of caramel and coated with white chocolate. Gives new meaning to dreaming of a white Christmas. http://www.helengrace.com
Marti Chocolatt is heaven for the culinary adventurer. Some of their exotic flavors are sure to please everyone, while others are what they themselves call an acquired taste. For a gourmet experience, try the goat cheese filled “chevre” chocolates. Then they have a durian filling made from the Southeast Asian fruit that has a scent that some find aromatic and some find offensive - like smelly socks. The smell is not present in the chocolate, but whenever someone reached for a sample, the helper explained that it was considered an “acquired taste.” I found it musty and dark and could imagine coming to love it the way I have come to love stinky cheeses. Not all their flavors are so difficult. Their Kalamansi ( a kind of lime) managed to evoke love at first bite for many with its pearlescent green coating and key-lime-like tartness. http://martichocolatt.com
Mignon Chocolate unveiled their latest new collection of flavors, the M Collection, at this event. The box includes six chocolates with six different flavored creamy ganache centers: pomegranate, lavender, chili pepper, Cuban mojito, ginger with lime sea salt, and blueberry. I chose the blueberry and the flavor was both heady and fresh. I was supposed to try the pomegranate and almost didn’t because I wanted to savor the flavor for a while. But then I tried the pomegranate and didn’t miss the blueberry at all. Completely different and just as good.
Mignon came to California from Iran, making their hand-crafted delights in Van Nuys and selling them out of their two local shops in Pasadena and Glendale. For more information, go to www.mignonchocolate.com.
Ococoa has taken the idea of the peanut butter cup and expanded it to include other nuts, filling their deep, dark chocolate cups with creamy, nut butters. The result is an array of chocolates that go right to the soul of those whose dream of sweets is to put chocolate and nuts together. Ococoa describes their product as “the peanut butter cup, all grown up” and the flavors are indeed more subtle and surprising than your basic Reese’s with combinations like pistachio date, sesame fig, and sunflower honey. http://www.ococoa.com
STERLING TRUFFLE BAR
By far the longest line at the LA Chocolate Salon was for samples of the Sterling Truffle Bar. These bars consist of three different truffle fillings layered into a long triangular ingot and then coated with hand-painted, colorful designs. Individual servings are sliced off the bar giving each person a triangular tricolor medallion of ganache. The bars come in 6- and 12-ounce sizes and make great party or gift chocolates. http://www.sterlingconfections.com/
XT Patisserie is both a baker and a confectioner. By the time I reached them, I was feeling chocolate overload, but it was the praises sung by another vendor of the beauty and quality of owner Tuan Trinh's chocolates that send me over for a careful look. I was thrilled to see French macarons on their display (not to be confused with macaroons) It is rare to find these cookies outside of France, but XT manages to make them perfectly. The chocolate ones have light meringue chocolate cookies filled with a chocolate ganache so dense and rich that it qualifies as a candy with flavor to match any chocolate bar.
XT Patisserie chocolates are lovely and exquisitely refined in their shape and color. The chocolate heart made with white chocolate swirled with red has the depth of a pearl or opal. There is obviously both discipline and delight in the making of these chocolates. The only discipline involved in the eating is stopping before you eat the whole box in one sitting. www.xtpatisserie.com
In America, the term chocolatier can mean anyone who sells or makes chocolate candy products. Most chocolatiers do not make the chocolate. They buy chocolate and make their candies using that chocolate. Actually making chocolate from the cacao beans is very difficult and, because of the nuance of flavor in beans from various growing regions, as much an art as, say, wine making.
Amano is an artisanal chocolate maker, their focus is on the chocolate alone. In their Rocky Mountain factory (higher than the Swiss Alps for reasons of altitude and cooking), they have chosen quality over quantity and so make their chocolate slowly in small batches. As a result, they have a range of chocolates with different overtones and nuances of flavor that need the vocabulary of fine wine to describe. They have won many awards for their sweet black gold but are not sitting on their laurels. They are coming out with two new chocolates: Dos Rios from the Dominican Republic and Guayas from Ecuador, both 70% cacao. http://www.amanochocolate.com
Jade Chocolates specializes in putting an Asian and Pacific Island twist to their confections. In addition to bars with tea, coconut and cinnamon flavorings, they sell chocolate covered edamame, macadamias, and mango. They also make mango orchids, edible candy flowers with dried mango half dipped in chocolate and worked together to resemble the petals of an orchid. http://www.jadechocolates.com
Original Beans sells chocolate bars with origins in Bolivia, Congo, and Ecuador. In fact, they are the first ever single-source chocolate from the Congo. Original beans is an activist chocolate. Not only are they ethically traded, but there is a card in every packet with a number. Original Beans plants a tree in the country of the chocolate’s origin for every bar you buy, and if you go to their website and put in your number and you will see a map of the reforestation project that your purchase helps fund. You can’t actually see your tree, but the pictures show you the work you are helping them do with your purchase. http://originalbeans.com/
REPUBLICA DEL CACAO
Republica Del Cacao not only sells the chocolate bars they make, they also growers and sell cacao beans to the other chocolate makers at the Salon and elsewhere in the world. Their specialty is the Ecuador fine arriba cacao, the most aromatic and desirable of chocolates. Only 5% of the world’s cacao is considered “Fine Aroma” and the tiny country of Ecuador produces more than half of it. Republica Del Cacao has single origin chocolate bars or, if you think you want to be a chocolate maker, of course you can by the beans from them as well. http://www.republicadelcacao.com
Tcho is a new brand of chocolate can be considered the first hi-tech chocolate maker, not because a computer decided how to make it, but because it was developed according to the protocols of the tech industry. The CEO being a co-founder of Wired magazine, the obsessiveness of programmers led them to Beta test myriad iterations of their chocolate before launching. They ran this Beta like any tech company would, inviting people to try their product and give feedback which was then used to improve the “program.” The result is a “baby” brand with a following already, a whip smart blog that includes an entry on the first photograph ever of a molecule by a Swiss lab, and an aesthetic that is as targeted as its product. http://tcho.com/
THE CHOCOLATE TRAVELER
The Chocolate Traveler specializes in chocolates that come in small round tins and pre-cut into pie-shaped wedges so that you can carry quality chocolate in your purse or bag and not risk getting it all over everything. I’ve been a fan of their bittersweet since the first time I picked up a tin at my local Trader Joe’s. What I didn’t know is how many different varieties they have that come in tins. They also will custom print the tins as a promotional or memorabilia product, but the minimum is 2500 tins. http://www.thechocolatetraveler.com
THE TEA ROOM
The Tea Room is not a tea shop; it is an organic artisanal chocolatier whose signature product lines have a cup of tea in every chocolate bar by way of flavoring. Their eight tea-flavored bars were there for the tasting at the LA Chocolate Salon. I love the combination of chocolate and mint, and their mint tea bar was one of the all-time best for combining the two flavors. I was disappointed that I was so chocolate-full by the time I got there, or I would have indulged in a few more pieces. Their Earl Grey infused bar is a prize-winner and a favorite not to be missed if you like the two flavors individually. Together they make for a divine combination. http://tea-room.stores.yahoo.net/
Chocolate is more than a candy. It has proven health benefits, especially in the darker chocolates. Some companies make chocolate that has more medicinal benefits in mind than sweetness. But so long as that chocolate aroma reaches our brain, and the cocoa butter hits our tongue, we are transported to food heaven. Still, the taste and textures are different enough that the experience is completely different from that of candy.
Flow Foods Chocolatl doesn’t present itself as a confection at all. Their product is a raw cacao superfood. Sweetened with agave and blended with raw flavoring products like coconut and mint, their treats are nutrient rich in antioxidants, minerals and neurotransmitters. Not only are they organic, ethically traded, vegan and gluten free, but their packaging is 100% biodegradable. Oh, and I tried it. It’s delicious. http://www.flowfoodschocolatl.com
Chocoveda makes chocolates to support your health using the Ayurveda system of healing. Their truffles truffles are organic and handmade, contain no preservatives or any unnatural additives, and are absolutely dairy free and vegan safe. If you know anything about the Ayurvedic system, it identifies your body/energy type and their healing seeks to balance it with, among other things, spices, herbs and diet. Since I know that my type is a blend of Vata and Kapha (the third type being Pitta), I asked which chocolate I should taste. The response was to ask if I felt the need to have more grounding or more energy. I opted for energy and was given a taste of the ginger and lemongrass. It was so much less sweet than most chocolate, and had a definite kick. If you don’t know anything about Ayurveda, on their website, Chocoveda has a great wheel of the seven chocolate truffle flavors with an explanation of what chakra each one serves. This is chocolate that leads you to a double kind of bliss for both your palate and your spirit. http://www.chocoveda.com/
ZHENA'S GYPSY TEA
Zhena’s Gypsy Tea Cacaoberry is a woman’s health tea. Fair trade and organic, this Ojai company makes its tea with cacao and dark chocolate along with berries, and Sencha green tea for an antioxidant boost. www.gypsytea.com
OTHER CHOCOLATE & CHOCOLATE-RELATED PRODUCTS
Bitz are chocolate covered pretzels rolled in toffee for the kid in everyone. This San Francisco company started as a family business 4 years ago and is growing by leaps and bounds. Bitz come in tins and can be bought online and shipped if you live outside the Bay Area. http://www.cjsstix.com/ ..............................................
Clarine’s Florentines are amazing cookies. Their recipe is a variation on the traditional Italian cookie. Clarines’ Florentines start with high quality toasted almonds, then hold them together in a thin, buttery layer coated on one side with dark chocolate. Almonds and chocolate. A perfect combination. http://www.clarinesflorentines.com/
Cuisine Noir was one of the few vendors without anything to sell. They were there to promote their new foodie website aimed at African-Americans. Their site is not just about food, but gives covers things like travel and living well. Judging by the sense of fun they show by doing a promotion at a "chocolate" event shows, I'd say they have what it takes to make their online magazine stand out from the crowd. http://www.cuisinenoirmag.com/
DOVE CHOCOLATE DISCOVERIES
Dove Chocolate Discoveries is a line of chocolates and chocolate products that can be purchased through chocolate parties given by resellers like Vanessa Rivera-Atchison and Angela Freeland. You can test and buy chocolates, liqueurs, cookies, mixes, chocolate-making tools: just about anything chocolate. If you want to put together a chocolate party, contact them and share the sweetness with your friends. www.dovechocolatediscoveries.com/angelafreeland or www.dovechocolatediscoveries.com/vanessarivera
Landrin Waferatto is a Russian confection, a chocolate coated hazelnut cream with a cookie shell. These individually wrapped candies come in boxes sold in grocery and specialty stores. http://www.landrinusa.com
Plush Puffs artisanal marshmallows were a fun stop. They had pots of sterno with flames so you could roast your own marshmallow and eat it hot. Even though this was a chocolate salon, I passed over the chocolate marshmallow and opted for the plain vanilla. As you can see in the picture, it bloomed and browned beautifully. If I'd known to bring a graham cracker, I would've pinched some chocolate and had myself a s'more. As it was, the toasted marshmallow was satisfyingly sweet and gooey with a crunchy crust. http://www.plushpuffs.com
Rushburn Toffee was present at the event with their elegant boxes of English Toffee. There are three kinds you can order online: English Toffee with Almonds, Espresso Toffee with Almonds, and Chocolate Toffee Clusters. http://www.rushburn.com/
Sweet Beauty is a line of chocolate-based organic spa products. Just about every female who passed their booth had to stop and try on a chocolate-scented product on her skin. Sweet beauty has a chocolate lip balm that tantalizes you with the scent of chocolate right under your nose. I can’t guarantee that someone wanting to kiss you won’t be doing it just to taste the chocolate. http://sweetbeautyspa.com/
Tifa Chocolate is a chocolate and gelato shop in Agoura Hills sells high end artisanal chocolate. They also sell gelato and coffee so you can have a double treat when you go. Fine, unusual and hard-to-find chocolates to take home and delicious Italian gelato while you are there. They organize chocolate tasting parties with their variety of chocolate tasting kits. http://www.tifachocolate.com
The Los Angeles Luxury Chocolate Salon
October 11-13, 2009
$20 advance purchase
$25 at the door