Wednesday, December 6, 2006
On my last San Francisco visit, after the night of the chocolate induced coma, I went to visit a chocolate factory. Unlike the Scharffen Berger factory that I saw last year around this time, I went to a place where they make more than just bars. Charles Chocolates in Emeryville makes heavenly concoctions under the direction of Chuck Seigel composed of fine chocolate, premium nuts (roasted on the premises), fresh fruits, teas and of course lots and lots of sugar & butter.
What sets Chuck apart from some other chocolatiers I’ve met is his lack of pretension (he admits not only to eating Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and Snickers, but he likes them!) but also his conviction to make candies to his standards and no one else’s. By example, we were talking about the new craze for salted caramels. He makes his own (chocolate and plain - review below) but doesn’t bother with the little salt crystals on top because he thinks that the texture gets in the way of the pure caramel and salt experience. He also makes his own marzipan from scratch and infuses it with citrus. I watched as they made a batch of lemon marzipan, and if I ever said here that I didn’t like marzipan, it was because I hadn’t tried Chuck’s. It’s sweet, mellow, nutty and zesty without that bitter medicinal taste of amaretto that so many others have.
Chuck is known for his nuts, which are roasted a little darker than others, he says to bring out more of their intrinsic flavors. I’m actually a big fan of raw nuts, so I was worried that these would be burnt and acrid tasting.
My problem with roasted nuts up until Charles Chocolates has obviously been quality control. His Triple Chocolate Almonds were divine. Instead of being just dark or milk chocolate, it’s both. There’s a rich milk chocolate layer and a dark chocolate layer (or maybe two, who knows, I couldn’t be bothered with dissecting them) and then they’re rolled in cocoa.
The little tin they come in is pretty fun too. They’re sealed in not only with a plastic wrap around the whole cylinder, but there’s also a little plastic cap inside the metal one. Air is the enemy of nuts, so Chuck has done his utmost to keep rancidity at bay. Not that I had them long enough. Of the haul that I left the factory with, this was gone within the first week ... and I only begrudgingly shared.
One of the other items sold in a tall clear tube are one of Charles Chocolates signature items, the Orange Twigs. It’s a milk chocolate ganache infused with orange and then dipped in dark chocolate and rolled in confectioner’s sugar. They look a bit like little twigs, I guess.
I wasn’t that keen on them. They were sweet and yes, the orange flavor came through, but I didn’t get a lot of chocolate to the whole thing.
If you’re curious about the box shown above, yes, that’s made entirely of chocolate. The bottom is made from fine dark chocolate and the lid of white chocolate. Inside were two layers of salted caramels. The caramels are small and soft, then covered in a thin layer of dark chocolate and decorated with a lightly embossed design.
The soft chew of the caramels was definitely buttery and creamy, but also had a slight grain to it. The salt hit was mild and pleasant and set off the chocolate well. But I didn’t care that much for it. Though the flavor was there, something a little off to the texture. It was like the whole thing wasn’t properly emulsified.
The chocolate caramel was interesting, but an intense buttery mouthfeel and a dark smoky taste to it. It also had less chew to it than the salted caramel and while I enjoyed the flavor, the texture just wasn’t for me.
The chocolate box itself was very good. I was afraid it was going to to suffer from being “functional first” but the chocolate was so good that over Thanksgiving the family busted up the box pretty quickly while there were still caramels inside. (Yes, I was sharing!) The white chocolate top wasn’t quite as notably tasty, I’m not sure why, but it tasted a little musty. White chocolate is tricky stuff, because the cocoa butter will absorb nearby scents and odors. I transported and stored the chocolate box in a cooler that also had some coffee infused bars, and I think there might have been some “contamination” there.
Other items that I tried and can heartily recommend are the Pate de Fruit (both fruit and wine flavors, so true to life), The Tea Collection (flavors that complement and rival the chocolate without overpowering it) and of course the boxed chocolates (many of which I sampled at CocoaBella - post #1 & post #2).
Charles Chocolates aren’t cheap at $54 per pound, but comparable with other high end chocolatiers. Some chocolatiers (like Recchiuti, another Bay Area chocolatier) are very focused on spices or fruits, Charles Chocolates seems to do a great job at raising mundane and common ingredients to gourmet levels, giving the ordinary like almonds luxury treatments.
Saturday, November 11, 2006
Yesterday I told you about the Night of a Thousand Chocolates. Today it’s all about the “World Geatest Box of Chocolates” and the Artisan Picks of 2006 from CocoBella.
The box is interesting. It has a heavy focus on nuts with half of the offerings featuring nuts in them (hazelnuts as the top favorite). Here’s the lowdown:
- Marquise de Sevigne Praline Noisette - France (Hazelnut paste enrobed in Chocolate) - mellow with a sweet and smooth paste center with a healthy dose of hazelnut but really not a sugary sweetness (or so it seemed). It balanced really well with the thin coat of rich chocolate. The nicely toasted nut on top gives this candy my pick as the candy I would most like to wear as a hat.
Marquise de Sivigne Orange Amer - Belgium (Orange ganache in Dark Chocolate) - This one was fascinating. It tasted like orange juice - more like a whole orange than a caramel or ganache. It was kind of like the custardy filling of a lemon meringue pie (only orange) because of the tart bite to it. The mellow dark chocolate with its bitter bite pulled it all together.
Knipschildt Chocolatier Hannah - US (Liquid Caramel with Pink Hawaiian Sea Salt) - this one doesn’t look like much. I’d never had a Knipschlidt chocolate before, so I thought this would be interesting. It truly was. Lately I’ve been eating a lot of salted caramels and this one was interesting. The center was a soft, custardy caramel with a good rounded sugar flavor, maybe with a hint of molasses. The salt was not too much and did actually have a little mineral hint to it.
Michel Cluizel Vesuve - France (Madagascar Dark Chocolate Ganache) - A simple single origin dark chocolate truffle. It was soft and had a good mix of bitterness, acidity, dry finish with smoke and woodsy notes. I realized that my less than stellar experience with the Cluizel nibby bar last year should not dissuade me from trying more of their truffles.
Corne Port Royal Rocher Noir - Belgium (Hazelnut Praline in Dark Chocolate) - another hazelnut chocolate, this one was more like a hazelnut halvah. It had an interesting crystallized texture. The nutty flavors combined really well with the shards of sugar, though I would have preferred a little more toasty caramel flavor to it. The chocolate was nice and mild and set off the sweetness really well. It was a good chocolate, but I don’t know if it’s among the best hazelnut chocolates I’ve ever had. (And I’m the girl who likes Perugina Baci.)
Charles Chocolates Almond Cluster - US (Lightly Salted Roasted Almonds in Milk Chocolate) - it’s not the most elegant looking piece of chocolate, in fact, there’s very little chocolate here at all. Everyone keeps going on about how nicely Chuck Siegel roasts his nuts, and though I agree, the milk chocolate just isn’t doing anything for me here. Too sweet. (Have no fear, I’ll say nice things about Chuck’s nuts in a few days when I get to that review!)
Cary’s Toffee - US (English Toffee topped with Almonds) - I was surprised to see toffee there. I was also pleased. This generous bar has a wonderful caramelized scent with an immediate hit of butter. The toffee itself had a wonderful gentle cleave, breaking into shards when bitten. The dark chocolate really helped to bring out the darker smoke notes of the sugars. The extra nuts on top could stay or go as far as I was concerned, in fact, they kept falling off.
Marcona ones I’ve had at tapas bars, and the different flavor of them and density of oils really set off the slightly salty zing of the cocoa outside.
Christopher Elbow Strawberry Balsamic - US (Strawberry Puree with Caramel and Balsamic Vinegar) - a lovely looking candy with an inventive design that really screams balsamic vinegar. But here goes ... I’m not fond of vinegar and chocolate. I’ve tried a few in the past year and maybe there’s one out there that will make me happy, but this one isn’t it. The center was a little too tart for me and the white chocolate a little too sweet. I think I would have preferred everyone compromising a bit in the middle. Perhaps a milk chocolate and a caramel with more butter to balance the acids.
Christopher Elbow Aztec Spice - US (5 Spice Blend with Ancho and Pasillo Chilis) - this one was lovely, one that I’ve actually had several of now. The spice is mellow and robust at the same time. I could make out the caramelized flavors of the roasted chilis and the cinnamon and allspice gave it a good woodsy boost.
Christopher Elbow Rosemary Caramel - US (Caramel infused with Rosemary) - The caramel in here is the slow flowing kind with a slight grain to it and a strong infusion of rosemary. However, the white chocolate added no vanilla balance but a pure sweetness that just drowned out the balsam qualities. This chocolate with its eighties style gemtone brushstrokes of color gets my pick as the one that I would least like to wear as a hat.
Valentino Framboize - Belgium (Whole Raspberry with Raspberry Buttercream) - I was really looking forward to this one. I have to say that it didn’t look very appealing to me, but the thought of a whole raspberry made me look past its bulging belly like a boa constrictor digesting an elephant. Aside from that, it was nice and floral with a really good raspberry flavor, but again too sweet for my tastes. I wanted more chocolate and less of the buttercream, I guess.
Marquise de Sevigne Creme Brulee - France (Caramelized Butter Ganache) - More like a praline than the custard I was expecting (like the Kee’s one I tried in NYC). Caramelized, a little grainy but rather light. Tastes a bit like coconut but not in a bad way. It kind of grew on my after I got past my expectations. It was more like the sugar crust of a creme brulee than the custard itself.
Amadei Supremo - Italy (Milk Chocolate Espresso Ganache) - simple and divine. I’d leave it at that, but the way I’ve laid out this page I kind of have to go on about each one the same amount. It’s not the prettiest one of the bunch, being from a rather common stock mold, but the milk and mellow ganache go well.
Maglio Stuffed Fig - Italy (Almond and Lemon with Fig) - when Michael Freeman was presenting the box and he got to this one I was just itching to bolt across the room to wolf one down. Billed as a dried fig stuffed with candied lemon and almonds, I was pretty much sold. Upon trying it was I in love with the figs and chocolate (as I’d already been downing the Trader Joe’s ones in my motel room earlier in the day) but didn’t get the lemon and almond notes I was promised. Don’t worry, I didn’t demand my money back. The dark chocolate was absolutely wonderful. I am surprised that I actually shared this with the neighbors (it’s pretty big and easy to cut into pieces) but I felt bad because someone pointed out that Amy spits out a lot of stuff I give her.
Michel Cluizel Champignon Caramel - France (Caramel Mushroom with Almond Praline Cap) - Were you wondering if I was saving the best for last? There actually aren’t in any particular order (I think the order I took the photos in). I didn’t know what it was, I think my mind was still on the fig thing when it was mentioned in the presentation. It looks like a mushroom. The stem is a wonderful firm caramel covered in mellow white chocolate. The cap is a little half-sphere cup of almond praline (like the florentine cookies) filled with a truffle ganache and then coated in chocolate. Genius. Cute and absoutely an incredible combination.
There was another walnut item in the box which I didn’t try.
On the whole, the box isn’t my favorite. However, after sampling the wares at CocoaBella, I know that Michael Freeman has good taste. I find boxed chocolates frustrating on the whole, because there’s usually such an assortment, as in this one, once you hit on a favorite you’ve eaten it and have to move on. The good thing is that it’s a great cross section of a lot of different chocolatiers that I probably never would have recognized before that are now on my “seek out” list.
So, my tip is, if you have the money, dive in and take a chance. If you don’t and you still want to explore, try the CocoaBella “Build a Box” feature on their website (or go into the store). The pre-selected boxes don’t actually tell you what’s in there but do have some good indicators (Dark Chocolate, Exotics, Milk Chocolate, Truffles and Wine Pairings). I think if I had to pick a box out for myself, I’d try either the exotics or the truffles.
Friday, November 10, 2006
It finally happened. I ate too much chocolate.
I had always figured that my first chocolate overdose would happen with a giant Toblerone or a bag of Hershey’s Kisses. This was the happiest surprise of all, it was with some of the best chocolates on the planet.
On November 1st I attended CocoaBella‘s unveiling of the “World’s Greatest Box of Chocolates.” This box is the culmination of Michael Freeman’s tastings of hundreds (probably thousands) of chocolates from some of the best chocolatiers. Instead of just shoving a box in the mail with some literature, Freeman and his PR team held a reception to introduce not only the chocolates but also the aesthetic and even three of the chocolatiers.
CocoaBella Chocolates bills itself as a purveyor of the best small batch artisan chocolates from all over the world. They carry Amadei, Christopher Elbow, Michel Cluizel and Charles Chocolates, among others. What’s different about them instead of going into all of those shops to find your favorites is that you can create your own box with chocolates from any or all of the chocolatiers. One stop shopping, if you will.
The evening began with the normal press recieving line where we were given our name badges as we entered the little shop in San Francisco. I was offered wine and given an overview of the evening. We would start with browsing and we were free to try ANYTHING in the shop. The chocolates for the box unveiling were located along one wall, but anything behind the counter was also available. There would be a presentation by Michael Freeman and three of the chocolatiers were actually present, Christopher Elbow of Kansas, Chuck Siegel (Charles Chocolates) of Emeryville and Jacques Dahan of Michel Cluizel Chocolates (Paris).
It was clear since the shop still didn’t have that many people in it and there were many name badges laid out on the table that there would be some mingling until everyone arrived. I browsed. I took photos. I didn’t touch anything. It smelled good and looked fantastic. There were other bloggers there, so I began to relax. It was no mistake that I was there.
At the back counter there were two men working to create and plate chocolates. I recognized both of them. On the left was Chuck Siegel and on the right was Christopher Elbow. Since other folks were talking to them, I sidled up and listened in. They were creating three fresh creations for us to try, nothing that either of them were ever going to include in their chocolate lines, just one-offs. I chatted with both of them and some other writers and then started trying some of the chocolates. I started with the nutty items, I had to pace myself. I got four chocolates under my belt when the presentation began.
Michael Freeman explained the chocolate shop, where he carries at least 300 different items. It sounds like exhausting work traveling Europe and the States to find some of the little chocolatiers and he insists that you can set down any of the chocolates he carries in front of him and he can identify it on sight.
Jacques Dahan did a little tasting of three of the Michel Cluizel single origin chocolates. I felt a little smug, as I’d already tried these as a tasting kit a few months back, but was comforted to see that my tasting notes of the time still held up. Dahan reiterated some of the literature in the tasting kit, that Cluizel fosters relationships with the plantations, just as I imagine great sommeliers do with wineries. There’s a great deal of pride involved in this upscale chocolate. What I found particularly refreshing though, was the openness and the nods that each of the chocolatiers were able to give to each other.
There were Siegel and Elbow, two men who might be regarded as rivals, happily collaborating on a set of chocolates for the evening.
Oh, and what were those chocolates? The little one is a simple dark ganache with a dollop of fresh mango and ginger chutney. Fresh and earthy, the bitterness and complexity of the chocolate was set off nicely by the rooty balsam flavors of the chutney. Then there’s the fresh fig, split open filled with a white chocolate ganache then dipped in dark chocolate. Wonderfully fresh, and the mild sweetness of the fig itself was set off well by the truffle cream, which happily was not sickly sweet. The dark chocolate wasn’t as powerful as I’d hoped, but maybe I didn’t pick one out that had been dipped enough.
The last one was a little mousy looking and they were pretty quiet about what it was. Just a peanut praline with a surprise. The next day Siegel explained a bit more about how praline is made, basically they take raw nuts and throw them in a copper kettle with sugar and heat it all together. As the nuts roast the sugar caramelizes. Then it’s ground together to make a paste that has little flecks of the sugar in it. This little square had an extra bonus though, at first I thought it was just something like the center of a Butterfinger bar, but then it popped. Then there was a lot of popping in there. Unflavored Pop Rocks. It was an interesting combination (and was a great help for my novel).
After the presentations it was back to the chocolate floor. I took photos, of course, and now that I had a better understanding of what Freeman was up to, I started really examining the offerings behind the counter. I also started tasting. I started tasting things that weren’t in that box. I knew that I was going to try more of Charles Chocolates the next day (yes, there’s still more to tell from my San Francisco trip!) so I looked at the other chocolatiers.
At first Elbow’s were missing the mark for me, they were very sweet (but they’re so darned pretty). Some that I tried that were fantabulous, most notably was the Orange Honey Blossom, which was a half-sphere button with a drippy honey cream center with a true honey taste and texture. I regret not trying one of the Bananas Foster. The Cluizel was fantastic and so incredibly specific. It finally dawned on me the unique position Cluizel is in, because they make their chocolate, from bean all the way to the final truffle creation. There are so few actual chocolate factories on the planet, and the fact that this one creates more than just the bars and couverture for the rest of the industry sets them apart. (And I need to pay more attention to them now.)
Fact is, I was seriously overloaded with chocolate. I wouldn’t call it a chocolate high, more like a chocolate sedation. I wanted it all, but part of my brain wasn’t working well enough to figure out where to put it. I couldn’t possibly fit any more in my tummy. I had a half a glass of wine during the presentations and after that a bottle of sparkling water. A glance over by the door though, and I saw that the name badges were replaced with gift bags ... with a box of chocolate to take home. I sighed in relief. As much as I didn’t want to leave, because the Golden Ticket would be voided the moment I stepped outside the door, I had to go. The wine had worn off at least a half an hour earlier and it was time to go back to the motel.
I lost count with how much I ate. It was probably a third of a pound of chocolate in two hours. Good thing I didn’t have any lunch or dinner.
POSTED BY Cybele AT 7:05 am
Monday, November 6, 2006
When I went to San Francisco earlier this summer I was eager to try out Recchiuti chocolates. They have a lovely little shop in the Ferry Building where all the most expensive and exclusive fresh foods are sold in the city but it was packed so I just looked and figured I’d buy another day (instead I bought some stuff at Miette Patisserie).
This time I went there at lunchtime on a weekday and found things a lot easier to handle. I had a lovely chat with both the women behind the counter (one was wearing devil horns, I’m thinking because I made my purchase on Halloween).
Recchiuti is the concoction of Michael Recchiuti with the tagline on their website of “Indulgence on the verge of Obsession”. That sounds just like me! He’s been making chocolates since 1997 with special emphasis on flavor combinations and herbal/fruit infusions.
The chocolates are positively lovely. In the store they’re laid out on little plates in beds of crushed cocoa beans. The staff was knowledgeable about all the chocolates and helped to guide me towards the ones I knew I’d like.
They sell in two different ways. You can get a gift box with a set number of chocolate pieces in it or you can buy by the pound ($55 a pound). As it was just for me, I didn’t need the spiffy box and seeing how the candies varied so much in size, I wanted to be free to choose without worrying about whether one flavor was a better value than another. I ended up with a quarter of a pound, which ended up as a large selection (I got quite a few doubles, so only about 2/3 of my booty is shown here - 22 pieces plus one free taste there on the spot with my purchase).
Cardamom Nougat - a rich chocolate ganache infused with cardamom and studded with honeycomb bits (a hard nougat) and cocoa nibs. One of the nibs was just terrible in the two pieces of this flavor that I ate (it was bitter and acrid) but the rest of it was phenomenal and left a fresh feeling in my mouth.
Star Anise & Pink Peppercorn - the anise zings to the front of the flavors here, then the chocolate comes in then that woodsy note of pink peppercorns without any of the burn. The flavors blend nicely and ended up feeling much lighter than I expected.
Rose Caramel - this is the little foil wrapped one there. The caramel was positively liquid and had a pleasant burnt flavor to it with a slight bitter note and a strong rose geranium scent. The rose and bitterness didn’t please me much.
Fleur de Sel Caramel - a great soft and chewy caramel with grains of salt in it. The caramel has a strong bitter and burnt quality to it the salt, of course, is quite strong. I really liked the texture of the soft caramel, but it was just too salty for me.
Honeycomb Malt - the filling is rather like butter with a bit of a grain to it like crystallized honey. The malt flavor is rather mild but the whole thing feels a little greasy and overly sweet.
Bergamot Tea - mellow and zesty with very strong notes of both tea and bergamot. A real favorite of all of them.
Candied Orange Peel - wonderful moist and chewy pieces of orange peel, candied without being sickly sweet.
Cinnamon Malt - very sweet and with a mild cinnamon flavor. Really too sweet for me, a little grainy and not much in the malt arena to compel me.
Mandarin - the smallest of the truffles. I wasn’t against buying it because I was paying by the pound instead of the piece. Sweet and dry with a nice zesty taste of fresh orange.
Force Noir - a simple dark truffle. They have another line that’s all single origins, but I wanted to try a simple dark truffle. The vanilla notes are very strong, the ganache is light and slightly acidic and super smooth.
Burnt Caramel - oddly, I didn’t get much of a difference between this one and the Force Noir.
Lavender Vanilla - mellow and round chocolate flavors with a strong balsam quality with a very noticeable lavender flavor and a honey finish.
Overall the ganache on most of the truffles is a little greasy for my tastes, it’s more on the butter side than the chocolate side. It keeps them super smooth and provides a good background for the flavor infusions, but the oiliness of them makes me feel fuller faster.
POSTED BY Cybele AT 5:55 am
Wednesday, August 2, 2006
Part of the reason for the stop in San Francisco on my recent vacation was to experience the Ferry Terminal Marketplace. It’s home to a bunch of artisan food companies, restaurants and other people associated with the food crafts. Plus, on Saturdays there’s a farmers market.
There are a couple of sweets locations in the Ferry Terminal including a Scharffen Berger store and Recchiuti Confections but for this trip (I’ll be going back again in September) I thought I’d look at Miette Patisserie.
The store is drop dead cute and reminds me of a forties/fifties-era cookbook. They had a huge selection of cakes and hand-held pastries. But I was interested in candies, of course. There was a large display of handmade lollipops which looked gorgeous and came in sassy flavors like cotton candy, grape and pink lemonade. None of the flavors were marked and the colors weren’t enough for me to discern the code so I passed them by for now.
Instead I was attracted to their Parisian Macaroons (which are not the coconut ones we’re most accustomed to in the States). These macaroons are a hazelnut or almond and egg white based cookie with a filling of some sort. Like a super decadent sandwich cookie. They were $1.50 each ... a little on the pricey side so I didn’t taste one of each flavor (I think there were six varieties).
I picked out:
Hazelnut: a vanilla cookie with a rich nutella-style filling. Sweet and rich but still light and flaky.
Rose Geranium: a delicately floral flavored cookie with a buttery light cream filling in the sandwich. My favorite.
Vanilla: a little sweeter because there was no strong flavor to balance it, but quite nice after a long walk and pleasant lunch.
By the register they also had three large jars of handmade caramels wrapped in wax paper. They were two for $1 so I had two of each.
Vanilla & Lemon - the wrappers were identical and I’m sorry to say that they all tasted the same. The caramels were nicely soft and sweet and of course had a wonderful slightly burnt sugar taste.
Fleur de Sel - a little darker tasting and with a nice warming sensation of instant salt. Instead of a regular caramel with a little series of grains of salt on the surface as I’ve had at other places, here the salt is completely integrated. The salt really brings out the caramelized notes, but it’s also a bit strong and made my throat sting.
UPDATE: A kind reader, Dan, has informed me that these are made by the Little Flower Candy Company, which makes sense based on the flavor array.
I’m sure their cakes are great and there’s the added bonus that they use organic ingredients whenever possible. Not that something like that makes a pastry more wholesome or anything! The macaroons can be ordered on their website, but not the caramels or lollies. The items are pricey, as is usually the case with labor intensive items. Overall I think I prefer the caramels and macaroons from Boule but since San Francisco doesn’t have a Boule, I can see myself stopping in here on my next trip for a little something to eat. I’m especially interested in trying their Lavender Shortbread (I know, I’ve totally diverged from candy all of a sudden ... I was on vacation!).
Friday, January 20, 2006
On December 2nd I had a fabulous day filled with seeing candy go from raw materials to finished product.
After my morning at the Jelly Belly Factory in Fairfield, CA, I toodled back towards San Francisco and hopped off the freeway in Berkeley to see Scharffen Berger.
Though I wouldn’t consider myself a huge fan of their stuff (or at least I wasn’t at the time), I was excited at the prospect of being let into the factory to actually see the process. There are very few factories in this country that allow people to just walk in off the street to see how they make their producuts. Scharffen Berger is the only chocolate factory and the tour is FREE. Scharffen Berger chocolate is like wine, it’s got a distinctive taste and is more for savoring its complexity than its hedonistic sweet satisfaction.
The building itself was started just before the great quake of 1906 (not quite finished at the time) and was completed and occupied immediately after that. It’s been through a few different incarnations but is a wonderful example of brickwork, with an impressive curved/vaulted brick ceiling in the winnowing room. The 27,000 square foot facility houses the chocolate manufacture, factory store and their cafe. The company only makes the raw chocolate here, the basic chocolate is then sent to an additional facility up north (I think Napa) to be molded into the their consumer bars.
The tour starts in a little room next to their cafe. People sit on the plain benches for a little lecture about the origins of chocolate and how Scharffen Berger makes theirs. Some of it is rather well known stuff and other bits of info are interesting. The lecture is long and I was antsy to see the factory itself. The environment of the factory itself is rather casual and of course it’s a small company so everyone seems to know each other. It gives a homey feel to the candy, that someone really cared about it. They also give plenty of samples during the talk, which helps everyone pay attention.
The chocolate making process starts in the jungles where Cacao is grown. The cocoa beans are harvested from squat, strange little trees that grow under the high canopy of the forest. They gather these large pods, as big as a large papaya and then hack them open to reveal the flesh and seeds within. The mush from inside is scooped out and allowed to dry. The seeds are separated from the fleshy detritus and allowed to bake in the sun to ferment at bit.
After the cacoa beans are ready, they’ll be loaded into big burlap bags and shipped around the world.
Scharffen Berger mixes their beans from different regions of the world and from different varieties of cacao to make their basic bars. Most of the bars (except for the single origin bars) contain beans from at least eight origins. This gives them a great deal of control over the consistency of the bars from year to year. Most manufactuers do this, otherwise chocolate bars would taste different every time we opened one. However, with the big guys like Hershey or Nestle, they have the advantage of quantity to give them consistency. Little guys like Scharffen Berger have to do it with variety.
After the lecture is over (about 40 minutes later) we’re given lovely hair nets and ear muffs. The machinery is literally deafening and without it on, we wouldn’t be able to hear the tour guide anyway.
The first room processes the raw beans. It holds the “winnower” which is a machine that removes the chaff and shell and skin from the cocoa bean to reveal the part that’s good for making chocolate, the nib. The nibs are then roasted, just like coffee would be in this large roaster. All of the machines are steel so the team at the factory uses magnetic labels to identify what origin of bean is inside.
The next part of the tour is the money shot, it’s the thing that people come to see, the image that lasts a lifetime. It’s the melangeur. What is that? It’s the mixer/crusher. The roasted nibs are put into this spinning bowl along with the additional cocoa butter and some vanilla and sugar (if it’s sweetened chocolate) and then it’s macerated by two huge rollers that crush the stuff together. During the tour everyone gets an opportunity to stand on a little riser to look into the machine. It smells quite good and the batch that was being worked on while I was there seemed to be rather grainy still and must have been far from done.
The next part, the conching, isn’t terribly sexy, as from my vantage it’s just a huge, closed tank. The concher is where everything is combined further under precisely controlled temperatures.
Next was the tempering process, which we didn’t get to see, but is basically where the melted chocolate is raised and lowered to particular target temperatures to aid in the formation of the perfect crystaline structure to the chocolate. If chocolate isn’t properly tempered it melts too easily, looks cloudy or may separate (bloom) more easily.
After that it’s ready for molds. At the Scharffen Berger factory they are only processing the basic chocolate product. The chocolate gets flavored and further made into bars or shapes at another facility. When they’re done with the tempering here, they make them into simple bars, which travel down this simple conveyer and meet a rather strange end falling into boxes where they’re shipped up to a facility north of San Francisco that ages the chocolate (chocolate is one thing you do not want fresh from the factory) for a few weeks before making the signature bars.
As free trips go, it’s pretty good. They have a rather cramped parking lot, but it’s close to public transportation if you want to take the BART and a bus from San Francisco if you’re in the area. I wish there was more to the factory part, but as a tiny working factory, there’s not much else to do other than breathe in the scents and take a few photos.
The building itself is rather interesting too, and the way that the company has cobbled together various bits of machinery from different time periods is also rather remarkable. I’m rather fond of old buildings and machines and I wish I could have spent more time looking at them. The gift shop is also really nice. I bought a few posters that I’m going to frame and of course I’ve mentioned their sassy tee shirts before. They have plenty of books, baking supplies and of course all sorts of their chocolate (some which they’ll let you sample there). The prices in the store are the same on the web, though sometimes they have little sale offerings.
There’s also a highly regarded cafe as well, Cafe Cacao, so making an afternoon of it is also a nice little treat. Tours require a reservation.
Weekday tours at 10:30 AM, 2:30 PM & 4:30 PM.
UPDATE: Scharffen Berger has closed their Bay Area factory and no longer offers tour at this location.
Monday, December 19, 2005
One of the best things about candy is that the manufacture of it is as delightful as the shopping and tasting part. It’s not at all like the whole “where does meat come from” thing, knowing how the candy is made actually makes me appreciate it more. I was in San Francisco a few weeks ago and set some time aside to head out to Fairfield to visit the Jelly Belly factory.
The location is rather ordinary, right off the highway in an industrial park that holds a few other confectionary concerns and an olive oil place, too. As unassuming and corporate as the outside looks, as we all know about jelly beans, it’s the inside that matters.
Jelly Belly has an exceptional free tour for anyone who makes the forty minute trip from San Francisco, but I was lucky enough to get a personal tour from Tomi Holt, the publicist for Jelly Belly.
Or first stop was actually the tasting bar at the factory store. This is actually the best reason for the drive. You can try EVERYTHING they make here. They have all of their candies available for tasting, every jelly bean, every JBz, all of the licorice, the fruit jellies and even the gummis and sugar free assortments. If you’ve ever been curious about anything that they make, this is the place to try it. I had a few JBz and some of the new mint trio Jelly Bellies before we donned our hairnets.
I got the star treatment with full access to the factory floor (regular visitors are restricted to balcony area that still gives an impressive view of all aspects of the process and of course the smells). Jelly Belly built the factory in 1986, but what’s really fascinating is that the Goelitz, owner of Jelly Belly, has been making candy since 1869 and has been in business since 1896. Goelitz is best known for their excellent candy corn, which is made by many companies, but Goelitz is often credited as the first one to make they layered orange, yellow and white version which has certainly become the standard.
The Jelly Belly factory is a huge facility that produces hundreds of different kinds of candy (most of them jelly beans) but they also do panned nuts (Jordan almonds), chocolates (JBz, Chocolate Malt Balls, Dutch Mints), gummi bears, licorice (pastels & bridge mix) and jellies (raspberries, fruit jellies & peach jells). Just about all of their candies are panned. Panning is a process where a candy center is created and then tossed into a huge pan that looks like a cement mixer. Syrups, flavors, colors and/or chocolate are added to coat the candy center, layer upon layer, until the candy is just right and can be polished up and packaged.
First, just about all Jelly Belly candies start as a sugar/corn syrup and corn starch mixture that’s boiled to the appropriate temperature and mixed with whatever flavors the recipe requires. Many recipes contain real flavor ingredients - so blueberry Jelly Bellies have blueberry puree in there. The biggest difference between Jelly Belly jelly beans and most others is that they flavor the center. An ordinary jelly bean is just a plain sugar jelly. A Jelly Belly will have a specific flavored center and then an additionally flavored shell.
On the day I was there, they were making jelly beans. Lots and lots of jelly beans. We started in the kitchen which is a hot room with several large machines side by side. Okay, it doesn’t look much like my kitchen, but it did smell like pina colada. It was here that Tomi showed me the secret to most the jelly candies that we all know and love. Corn Starch Trays. Each bean is molded by depositing the hot candy soup into a tray made from plain old powdered corn starch.
Picture a deep cookie pan filled with corn starch, then it goes through a conveyer where a mold of the centers is pressed into the corn starch (1,260 per tray). The starch is just stiff enough to hold the form and a little further down the line the depositor squirts the little center in there. While I was there watching one of the candy makers was there watching the consistency of the jelly to assure the quality. The starch trays are unloaded from the conveyer onto open racks where they set up for a day in the climate controlled room.
Next the trays are then dumped out—each tray is turned over where the corn starch falls apart and the centers are sifted to remove the corn starch that clings to it. The corn starch is sifted and reused for new trays. Then they go onto a conveyer where they get a quick steaming to get them a little sticky and they are “sanded” with sugar. For some candies like a fruit pectin, this would be the end of the line. But the Jelly Belly is just getting started. Tomi pulled some of these out for us to try (they were still warm from the steaming)—they were orange. Instead of the zesty tart flavor, these were must mellow and sweet with a nice boost of orange essence. I knew it was going to be interesting to see how a Jelly Belly is built.
The Jelly Bellies get loaded intro trays where they cool, set and wait for their next coat. As most of the centers can look the same, each tray is marked with codes and dates. Different centers get different treatment as some get more rest or less rest before and after their engrossing. Each tray weighs 25 pounds when filled with the Jelly Belly centers. At their appointed time the centers are sent to the engrossing pans. 10 trays of 25 pounds of centers are dumped into one of the pans. Then a master confectioner mixes up the elixir that becomes the candy shell. It’s a tricky process that involves a bit of art as they tumble the centers and pour in pitchers of the mixtures and sometimes use air blowers to speed the process.
It takes four coats over about two hours to make the shell and they keep dozens of these panning machines going at any time. So, have you been wondering how much of a Jelly Belly is shell? I asked one of the confectioners there as he was turning off the rumbling, tumbling machines and he said that they put in ten trays of centers, which weigh 25 pounds each. And when they’re done, they get about 375 pounds of beans out—that’s right, one third of the weight of a Jelly Belly is its shell. What’s more, that confectioner added more than 125 pounds of syrups and flavors to the engrossing beans—you’d have to account for evaporation, which is part of the shell making process. It’s a grueling job, if you ask me. There they are, all day pouring and managing these tumbling pans. There are fifty different standard Jelly Belly flavors alone, so the list of possible combinations is huge. It’s a really interesting process. While we were on the floor one row of pans was making Sizzling Cinnamon and the other was working on Tangerine. The smell of the cinnamon was pretty overwhelming. I’m just glad they weren’t making their newest flavor, Roasted Garlic.
You may have noticed that some Jelly Bellies have mottled colors. Those are added at the very end with special coloring agents that don’t integrate into the whole shell.
The beans are then tumbled again in another pan to polish them up with a confectioner’s glaze. It’s kind of like a rock tumbler.
Then the trays go back to the warehouse to wait. The beans’ flavors integrate while they cure and then when they’re ready to go they get loaded back onto a conveyer where they are sorted into a tray that places them in a huge printer that gives them their white ‘brand’ of Jelly Belly. All Jelly Bellies get printed in white, even the white ones. It’s this extra step that you can use to make sure that the bulk beans that you’re buying out of a bin at a candy shop are real Jelly Bellies.
Once the beans are branded, they’re boxed. The beans are stored in the cardboard boxes until they’re called for, for whatever mix they’re making. They un-box the beans onto a huge conveyer that sends them to a tumbler that mixes them together. The tumbler we got close to was making a combo that looked like sour lime and orange—kind of like peas and carrots. It’s mesmerizing to see them tumbling in mesh drums that must be four feet high with little holes in it that keep the air moving and the rejected small jelly beans will fall through. The noise is incredible, you wouldn’t think that so many jelly beans just rustling around could be so loud, but most of the crew on the floor in this area of the factory wears ear protection.
All along the way are the factory personnel assuring the quality of the beans, but there are mechanical methods as well. If a bean makes it all the way through the process to be a “complete” bean but is rejected for size or shape, they’re called a “Belly Flop.” Belly Flops can be purchased in one place, the Jelly Belly factory. When I was there they were selling them in various mixes for half the price of real Jelly Bellies.
At the end of the factory part Tomi and I went back to the lobby where she took me through the wall of history that detailed the rise of the company, the family history and of course the Ronald Regan memorabilia (he was a huge fan of the confections since they started and could be credited for bringing them to national attention in the early eighties).
Of course at the end of that Tomi and I adjourned to the factory store again and spent more time with Barbara at the tasting bar where she continued to feed us whatever we wanted to taste. I even gave some of the Bertie Botts(tm) flavors a try and rather liked the grass, black pepper and soap flavors. But what impressed me most after tasting such a wide range of the products they offered, no matter whether they were to my liking or not, the quality is excellent. The amount of flavor they pack into such small bits of candy is amazing and obviously is what sets Jelly Bellies apart from other jelly beans. The strange thing is that when I went on the tour I was pretty much neutral on Jelly Belly. They’re good, I never argued with the quality, but now that I’ve seen them made and tasted the full range of flavors, I’m hooked on some of their other products. See my full review for an exhaustive list of some of the things I’ve tried in the past few weeks.
They run the tours six days a week, but the factory doesn’t operate on Saturdays, so try to make it on a weekday for the full experience. Check their website or call ahead for hours. They also have a cafe on site (and a room you can rent for parties).
Also, if you’re in the Midwest you can tour their Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin warehouse too, which also has a full store and tasting bar.
(All inside the factory photos courtesy of Jelly Belly.)
Meticulously photographed and documented reviews of candy from around the world. And the occasional other sweet adventures. Open your mouth, expand your mind.