Monday, September 12, 2016

Top 10 Places to Find Chocolates - Sept. 12, 2016

How Did I Find 3,600+ Chocolates?
September 12, 2016

People often ask me where or how I found a different chocolate to eat every day for a decade.  In honor of Chocolate Banquet's 10th Anniversary, I'm sharing a list of the top ten places where I've found chocolates. There are some overlaps between categories, and this list is not all inclusive by a long shot, but it does explain where most chocolates on Chocolate Banquet have come from.

1.) Curated Chocolate Shops
2.) Bean to Bar Makers, Chocolatiers
3.) Specialty Shops, Bakeries
4.) Grocery Stores
5.) Airports
6.) Conferences, Shows, Salons
7.) Farmers' Markets
8.) Online retailers
9.) Museums
10.) Friends and Family

Curated Chocolate Shops
I was able to find 3,650+ chocolates this past decade from 1,100+ different chocolate suppliers/sources worldwide. However, I owe a special debt of gratitude to five carefully curated chocolate shops in the San Francisco Bay Area where I live.

The Chocolate Garage (Palo Alto, CA), located a few miles from my house. The Garage is open limited hours to the public, but Sunita de Tourreil and team offer a tasting room, a sense of community, and an excellent selection of craft chocolate bars from around the world—with the occasional hazelnut spread or confection. Sunita has helped set standards for high-quality chocolate that also has a "clean," transparent supply chain back-story. No to child slavery and dicey sourcing. Only Happy Chocolate.

In the North Bay, Elana Turchon at SweetE Organic (Mill Valley, CA) provides her customers with higher-end organic, allergen free and raw chocolates, many of them fair trade and local as well. She also carries other healthy sweets and quality gift items.

Since I appreciate great chocolates with flavor inclusions that are also gluten free, Elana has been an invaluable source. My daughter has a life-threatening peanut allergy, and has experienced severe symptoms from eating foods cross-contaminated with peanuts. So, it's a relief that Elana specializes in finding sweets suitable for everyone.

Two other shops in San Francisco have also provided an excellent source of new chocolates, just when I thought I might be running out in the early years.

Adam Smith has been managing Fog City News (San Francisco, CA) with a small team of dedicated staff for as long as I remember; and he always has a new chocolate, just when I think I'm running low, or need one more bar for a given theme week. The shop on Market Street in the Financial District also stocks an impressive array of magazines, foreign periodicals and gift cards.

But, if I'm looking for unique chocolates, I visit Jack Epstein and team at Chocolate Covered in Noe Valley (San Francisco, CA). During one of my last visits, his small shop was stocked with 950+ different chocolate items, along with handmade cyanotype decorative metal tins adorned with San Francisco street names and other images. Epstein claims not to be a chocolate expert, but he knows and works with dozens of chocolate companies from around the globe. If you want a camel's milk bar, or a bar with brisket, this is the place to go.

Alas, other shops, like CocoaBella Chocolates (San Francisco), have come and/or gone in the last decade. But, I continue to appreciate small shops that offer a selection of truffles, bon bons and bars from a variety of chocolatiers and makers here and abroad.

Local Bean-to-Bar Makers and Chocolatiers

Some chocolate makers offer retail outlets. If you can find bean-to-bar makers (large or small) who give talks or tours, you'll learn a lot about chocolate, and may come away with a greater appreciation of the challenges involved. The first step is to obtain high-quality fermented cacao beans from farmers to be able to make great chocolate. Great beans are essential, and roasting, conching, tempering (and all other steps) are critical in making good chocolate as well.

Tours continue to come and go. For example, in the Bay Area, Scharffen Berger used to offer a great tour in the East Bay, but that facility closed after the company merged with Hershey. TCHO is working on offering tours again, following their move from San Francisco to Berkeley.

Ghirardelli still offers some tours in San Francisco (e.g. as part of their Chocolate Festival). And Dandelion Chocolate (San Francisco, CA) offers talks at their cafe + factory (production area with glass walls) so that customers can learn more about chocolate. Some of the largest bulk or wholesale producers of chocolate (or processors of cocoa) are not open to the public for tours, e.g. Guittard Chocolate Company (South San Francisco, CA) and Blommer Chocolate Company (based in Chicago, IL with a facility in Union City, CA).

However, the majority of chocolate shops are owned by chocolatiers (who buy bulk chocolate to melt and shape into their own bars and confections). And chocolatiers can be found in almost every mid-sized city. These shops (or tables at Farmers' Markets) in the Bay Area are a plentiful source of chocolates, ranging from high-volume local sellers such as See's Candies, to luxury truffle and filled chocolate companies (NeoCocoa, CocoTutti, Michael Mischer, Recchiuti Confections, etc.), to novelty shops like fudge-maker and candy and gift seller, Z Cioccolato (San Francisco, CA).

Specialty Shops, Bakeries

I've been surprised to find a variety of specialty shops that also stock chocolates. Bakeries are also a natural fit, but I need to find gluten free items, which narrows down the number of bakeries quickly on this list.

Miette Cakes LLC, with locations San Francisco, Oakland and Larkspur, is famous for their cakes, and also manages to stock a small assortment of interesting chocolates as well as a rows of glass jars filled with different gluten-free macarons, some of them with chocolate.

And local Bay Area gluten-free bakers at Mariposa Baking Company, Flour Craft Bakery, Flour Chylde, Zest Bakery and others, have enabled me to enjoy and feature chocolate cakes, cookies and other baked goods. (See also Farmers' Markets.)

Honorable mentions go to ZombieRunner (store in Palo Alto, CA), a retail store dedicated to trail runners that also offers a great latte, licorice, dark chocolate bars and other snacks; and to Recreational Equipment, Inc., aka REI, Outdoor Stores that carry energy and snack bars with chocolate and the occasional craft chocolate bar. Because if you run or walk, you can justify a bit more chocolate.

Grocery Stores
Whole Foods Market, Piazza's Fine Foods, Draeger's Market, Trader Joe's, New Leaf Community Markets, Andronicos, Paradise Foods...I thank you all. I've found many bars, truffles and gluten-free chocolate items at these stores over time. Even the larger chains like Safeway and Raley's have surprised me occasionally with some great finds, depending on the store.

And even economy-oriented Grocery Outlet Bargain Market (at least the location in Palo Alto) has stocked single origin chocolate bars and other chocolate items.

Airports, or more specifically specialty shops and retail outlets at airports that stock local bars or confections, can be a great source of chocolates no matter what country you happen to be visiting. If I'm lucky, I find some that carry smaller brands or hand-crafted chocolates and not just the big brands that I can find at home.

Chocolate Conferences, Shows, Salons, Festivals
These events can be great places to find new chocolates and find out more about chocolatiers and chocolate makers. Vendors often choose to launch a new brand, family or product line at a show. And, if you're fortunate, you'll be able to ask vendors questions. Or, a company founder may be speaking or conducting a tasting or demo at a conference or show.

Farmers' Markets
Like airports, I find farmers' markets great sources of new chocolates, particularly if I'm traveling to a new area, or am on vacation. While visiting farmers' markets in Hawaii I met a bean-to-bar maker and an outstanding chocolatier. Many of the companies may be small, and may not have a permanent storefront, but I may have a chance to speak with the owner or chocolate maker.

Online Retailers
In a word...Chocosphere. This site carries many different chocolate bars and has been selling chocolate since 1998.

There are, of course, many other chocolate retailers that sell online; however, the majority are selling just one or two brands. And that's fine if you're hunting for something specific. Search engines are marvelous for this. Not all international companies can ship to the U.S. (especially in summer when ice packs are required), but I enjoy reading about new places I may want to visit or contact.

Museums often have interesting gift shops. And sometimes museum stores or shops stock a few specialty or branded chocolate items. However, I've found museum cafes even more interesting, as they often carry a high-end, gluten-free chocolate dessert and/or beverage that I can eat.

And, for a special treat, try visiting one of several chocolate museums when you travel in the U.S. or abroad. I found ones in Cuba and Nicaragua in the past six years, and I've barely scratched the surface.

Friends and Family
Never underestimate your own circle of friends, be they next door or on Facebook. I've learned about several new chocolates, or have been fortunate to receive occasional samples from friends and relatives who they either picked up during recent travels (thank you Toni, Katy and Dave)—or, in some cases, made themselves.

Thank you to you all! I really appreciate your support.

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