San Francisco is a foodie town. As a friend of mine said recently, “I feel like every time I get together with people they’re talking about some amazing new concoction.” It’s kind of true. San Francisco is a place with an incredible food culture born out of a year-round growing season and a creative, progressive atmosphere. From it comes some of the most unique chocolate in the world. Recently, I went on an Untapped Cities quest to meet the most interesting and up-and-coming Bay Area chocolatiers, as well as sample their glorious goods. Each told me the story of how they started their businesses: Socola, Trufflove, and The Tearoom.
Socola, the Vietnamese word for chocolate, was started in 2001 by sisters and Bay Area–natives Wendy and Susan Lieu. Wendy makes all the handmade confections with the help of a small staff, and organizes all things production-related. “She’s an Excel empress,” says Susan, paying respect to Wendy’s serious organizational skills. Susan, a ball of energy and ideas herself, takes care of marketing and PR for Socola. What impressed me the most is that the sisters have their own careers outside of the business. In addition to being head chocolatier of Socola, Wendy is also a management consultant. Susan, passionate about social justice activism, works on various projects that have taken her to places as far away as a sustainable cacao farm in Vietnam.
I asked how their remarkable and rapid journey-they are both successful 20-something entrepreneurs-influences their approach to making chocolate. Says Susan, “A general attitude of non-snobbery is really important to us. We’re on this earth for who knows how long; we might as well have fun and be gluttonous. We try to create things we’re excited about sharing with our friends.” Wendy, the pastry-school grad, chimed in, “I would like to add that with all this whimsy and fun, the technique [and craft] are still really important [to us].” She went on to fill me in on their family history, and how they came to be where they are now. Their parents were boat people who fled Vietnam in 1983 after the war; neither one had finished high school. After living in refugee camps for two years, they came to the U.S. They opened a nail salon and landscaping business, and taught themselves everything from scratch. Wendy concludes, ”The do-it-yourself spirit of entrepreneurship that we have is very much in the vein of being Vietnamese.” In a sense, Socola is both an homage and a testament to their heritage. Recognized as role models within the Vietnamese community in the U.S., the sisters spoke at a Culture Camp organized by the Catalyst Foundation last summer for Vietnamese adoptees. Susan recounts, “It was really special to be a part of bringing happiness to this community.”
Tasting Impressions: I sampled a tea assortment (that included matcha, masala chai, jasmine and earl grey truffles) as well as an assortment of some of their standards and current seasonal flavors. Overall, plenty of delicious dark chocolate truffles, not too sweet (which I personally love!), lots of depth, very creative flavor combinations. You can find their truffles online or at select San Francisco stores, including Bi-Rite and Whole Foods. Here are some of my favorites:
Burnt Baby Burnt (burnt caramel, sea salt, and dark chocolate). An assuredly deep flavor experience, each salt crystal is a separate bubble of salty flavor, which dissolves into the chocolate and resurfaces in the next crystal. Luxuriously warm aftertaste.
Sriracha Flying Rooster. Instantly zings the tip of the tongue and leaves a ring of smoky spice in its aftermath. The chocolate is tertiary; hot and spicy are the point.
Inside scoop: For Valentine’s Day, Socola is offering a truffle assortment called Aphrodite’s Delight, which includes Burnt Baby Burnt and Hot Lava flavors.
Trufflove is the brainchild of Australian-born Carmen Brooks, chocolatier and creator of some seriously wonderful chocolates. She makes truffles with whole, fresh ingredients, emphasizing the local products of the region. Watch also for drops of liqueurs and spirits in her truffles. She adds enough to bring out the flavors of the truffle but not enough to be perceptible. Here’s Carmen’s story of how she got into the chocolate business: “I wanted to make a truffle tower for my wedding, so I made that.
Then, while waiting for my work permit I made chocolates to pass the time. I came up with my own recipes, and they kept getting better and better. By the time the months had passed it took to get a green card, I had 12 flavors.” Although running a chocolate business involves far more than just making chocolates, Carmen’s favorite aspects include making chocolate and meeting new people through professional networking.
Tasting Impressions: Trufflove’s 12 truffle flavors include many different hues of chocolate. Often a dark shell contrasts with a creamy white center, or a crunchy nut coating contrasts with the ganache center. This perfectly balanced contrast between ingredients was my favorite aspect of the truffles. I sampled the twelve-piece tasting collection which you can find online or at select San Francisco locations. Here are some of my favorite from the collection:
Bourbon, Maple, Pecan. Milky chocolate center wrapped in a shell of slightly smoky-spicy nuts. The order of flavors: salt, bourbon, vanilla, chocolate, chili. The heat is not subtle. It permeates the experience in the best possible way and goes to the back of your throat. The chocolate flavor lingers on the tongue, while warm vanilla coats it all.
Whiskey and Honey. The center is a perfect ganache with just the right cocoa content to balance a shell of puffed brown rice. It has the satisfying depth of a true, unadulterated dark chocolate. Complete with firm outside and smooth center.
Inside Scoop: Carmen will be at Rainbow Grocery February 12th at 3 pm for a chocolate demo!
Zurich-born Heinz Rimann is head chocolatier of The Tearoom, a Bay Area chocolate company founded in 2007. The Tearoom specializes in combining chocolate and tea. I chatted with him about his career in chocolate, and how he makes his fabulous tea-infused chocolates. How did he come up with this creative take on chocolate? His response: “Tea and chocolate are my two favorite things, so I thought I’d put them together.” A career in the food and hospitality industry, the open-mindedness of American chocolate consumers, and an attraction to the Bay Area led Rimann to open The Tearoom here. It was interesting to speak to him about chocolate, because his native Switzerland is world famous for its chocolate. Switzerland has one of the highest rates of chocolate consumption, but consumers are more traditional, and well-known brands like Lindt, Cailler, Camille Bloch dominate the market.
Tasting Impresions: Balance and flavor are the true feats of Tearoom chocolate. Eating this delightful tea chocolate is like drinking a cup of tea while eating chocolate, only better! The Tearoom sells not only truffles but also bars of tea-infused chocolate. I sampled the assortment of tea-infused chocolate bars, available online. Here are some of my favorite flavors:
Earl Grey Green + Dark. Delicately perfumed, it has a perfect balance between the tea and chocolate flavors.
Caramel Almond. Very warm almond caramel flavor, with just a hint of salt. I personally love slightly salty baked goods, and this chocolate reminded me of that delightful balance.
Interested in comparing different approaches to making chocolate, I asked each of these wonderful chocolatiers the same questions. Here are their responses.
Untapped Cities: Do you get a lot of requests for certain flavors? What trends have you noticed in the public’s taste?
Socola: People love the salty caramel.
Trufflove: Peanut butter and salty caramels are popular here as opposed to in Australia, where we enjoy things like chocolate-covered licorice and orange-chocolate. I think there’s also more of an inclination in general nowadays to buy something that’s very small and very good quality, as many people are trying to avoid overeating.
Heinz Rimann: Sometimes customers will really focus in on one particular flavor, like a lapsang souchong blend I made, or the matcha truffle. But now the big thing is caramel with just a touch of sea salt!
UC: What sources of inspiration do you have for coming up with new flavors?
S: Our flavors are inspired by the people we love, among many other things.
T: Certain [food] dishes can be inspirations, for example, a cashew chili and pineapple fried rice I had recently-[I] thought it would be awesome in anything. Sometimes I just come across an ingredient or a liqueur that interests me, and that can inspire a new recipe.
HR: I look at trends. Or, I’ll eat something interesting and think maybe that could work…I always have new ideas ready to develop.
UC: What is the most crucial part of the truffle eating experience?
S: That they be visually appealing, that the ganache is dense and melts in your mouth. Creativity and flavor are super important, too.
T: The way that you experience the flavors should be identifiable. Sweet, salty, then spicy is normally the order you taste and your brain perceives flavors. Texture is also important-biting into it, how it stays or melts in your mouth. Another factor is whether it stays together in your hand. There are a lot of things to consider when you try to make a nice chocolate.
HR: Both texture and flavor are important, and in the case of my chocolate, the tea not overpowering the chocolate or vice versa. There has to be a perfect balance. Sometimes you taste the tea first, then the chocolate, sometimes the other way around.
UC: Finally, since I’m writing about chocolate in San Francisco what is your most popular truffle here?
HR: Dark chocolate!
S: Vietnamese Coffee and Burnt Caramel with Sea Salt are the most popular.
T: The response to spicy chocolates has been really strong. Bourbon maple and spice pecan is what San Francisco loves.
If you’re searching for a sweet for your sweetie on Valentine’s Day, look no further! Chocolates from these three unique producers can be ordered online or found in Bay Area stores.