It’s been many years since I was young enough to run around the neighborhood on Halloween, butterfly wings or witch’s cape fluttering on my back, and ring doorbells, my candy bucket clenched tightly in little fists. Nowadays, it just doesn’t compare to buy a bag of Hershey’s Miniatures and eat them on the couch, with a pile of wrappers and a queasy stomach to complete the sugar hangover (I had a much higher tolerance for cheap chocolate when I was younger – I blame the beautiful ignorance of youth).
But just when another candyless Halloween was about to pass me by, I found this in my trick-or-treat bag:
Imagine getting that from your neighbors! Or, in this case, from the kind folk at CocoaBella Chocolates. I was invited to the unveiling of CocoaBella’s 2006 "World’s Greatest Box of Chocolates", their selection of their favorite artisan chocolates from around the world. Did I mention that the invite said we would be able to sample all those chosen chocolates?
I’d already been to CocoaBella before and swooned at the dazzling choices before me; needless to say the prospect of more chocolate had me anxiously waiting all day.
Michael Freeman, purveyor of the store, who is infectiously enthusiastic about artisan chocolates, welcomed us into his shop with the captivating sight of tray upon tray of chocolates lined up for us to taste. Thank you, Mr. Freeman, for making my dream of being set loose in a candy shop actually come true. On my list of "died and gone to heaven" food experiences, this would have to come pretty close to the top.
After a ceremonial unveiling of CocoaBella’s "World’s Greatest Box of Chocolates" (more on that later), Freeman stepped aside for the evening’s special guests. First, Jacques Dahan, president of Michel Cluizel’s USA outpost, conducted a tasting comparing chocolates made from cacao beans from such different parts of the world as Madagascar, Santo Domingo, and Java. It was an illuminating illustration of the state of chocolate production today: no longer is just quoting cocoa percentages enough, as knowing where your chocolate comes from will help bring you greater insight and appreciation of its unique flavor. Certainly, it was much more than simply saying "The 85% is more bitter than the 67%". In fact, that wasn’t even my first reaction – it was that the 85% hit a completely different set of notes in my mouth, all intense coffee and cocoa, as opposed to the more fruity, nutty, 67%. The increasing sophistication of chocolate bars will make educating the choco-palate and finding a favorite an enjoyably complex challenge.
Next, an amazing treat: two fabulous chocolatiers, Charles Siegel of Charles Chocolates and Christopher Elbow of Christopher Elbow Chocolates made fresh chocolates for all the guests! This was really the highlight of the evening for me, to see two very talented professionals doing what they love most. They were wonderfully charming and funny as well; I loved when they revealed that their creations were dreamed up out of a trip to Berkeley Bowl supermarket that morning – they simply grabbed what caught their eye and made a chocolate out of it. How Iron Chef-cool is that?
These "spur-of-the-moment" creations – my awe of their talent doubled after tasting the tidbits – could easily be sold alongside all of the other chocolates in the store. There was a gorgeous Mission fig filled with white chocolate cream and dipped in dark chocolate; a delectable mango-ginger chutney topping dark chocolate ganache in a crisp oval shell; and an adorable square of peanut praline that crackled and snapped in the mouth: it turned out there were unflavored Pop Rocks in the filling! A perfect trip down memory lane…
If you can imagine, after all this chocolate we were invited to keep sampling all the chocolates in the store! I saw many a guest looking woefully at the displays, a look of "if only I could squeeze in one more," etched over his face. I myself fell far short of trying all the chocolates I wanted; I was too engrossed in talking to Siegel about how he got the inspiration for many of his chocolates and Elbow about the challenges of making and delivering chocolate in blistering Kansas summer heat.
However, my tasting regrets vanished at the door when we were given the sweetest of goody bags: a box of their "World’s Best" collection, to be enjoyed leisurely at home. Skipping down the street, I felt like the luckiest Halloween trick-or-treater.
So days past, and the box is mostly empty candy cups now. CocoaBella has put together a delicious, fascinating collection of chocolates from around the world, and I’m quite grateful (although perhaps my waistline is not!) to have been introduced to them. Some of my favorites:
From top, clockwise:
Michel Cluizel’s charming Champignon Caramel – how could you resist a mushroom with an almond praline cap and a stem full of crunchy caramel?
Marquise de Sevigne’s Creme Brulee – a marvelously smooth, creamy center of caramelized butter ganache, covered in milk chocolate. Yes, it’s sweet, but a really well-crafted sweet.
Christopher Elbow’s Strawberry Balsamic – a revelation. Strawberry puree swirled with caramel and balsamic vinegar. This is a chocolate that shows the magic of pushing boundaries.
From top right, clockwise:
Cary’s Toffee – I’ve had a lot of toffee and this is a stellar example: sweet, buttery toffee enrobed in smooth chocolate. I wish that piece had been twice as big.
Knipschildt’s Hannah – This is one of my absolute favorites; you must try if are at all a fan of caramel and sea salt. The thin chocolate shell holds a center of liquid caramel; as you bite into it, the crunch of Hawaiian pink sea salt mixes in to give your tastebuds a sensory jolt. I love it.
Christopher Elbow’s Rosemary Caramel – Caramel infused with rosemary, in a shell that looks like a work of art. Gorgeous-looking and even better tasting.
Many thanks to Michael Freeman and all his wonderful, accommodating staff at CocoaBella for generously hosting such a lovely event. While it a thrill to indulge in so much chocolate, it was a much greater pleasure to be in the company of so ma ny chocophiles and learn about all these beautiful gems being created around the world. If you live at all near San Francisco, I recommend you make a stop there. With the opening of their new shop in the Bloomingdale’s mall in Union Square, it makes it that much easier to me to get my chocolate fix!
2102 Union Street
San Francisco, CA 94123
or in the Westfield Shopping Center
865 Market Street
San Francisco, CA 94103