Untapped San Francisco writer Clio Tilton shares her favorite hikes through California’s wine country, samples hot springs, and thinks about smellscapes in this week’s Tap This.
What I’m listening to: Your Name In Secret I Would Write, a recent album of folk music re-interpreted by Robin MacArthur and Tyler Gibbons, the unique husband-wife duo that makes up Red Heart the Ticker. The story behind the album is compelling: Margaret MacArthur, Robin’s grandmother, was a folk musician who collected songs in Vermont during the 60s. After her death in 2006, Red Heart the Ticker made this disc of their own versions of Margaret’s ballads in her honor. A way, perhaps, of allowing her music to live on. I can’t think of a better way to honor a musician. For an interesting interview about the album, check out NoDepression.
What I’m eating: Choices from this beautiful array of pastries at Butter Cream Bakery in Napa, California, which I stumbled across on my way to Harbin Hot Springs. American pastries at their best–full of buttery, sugary goodness. Butter Cream also offers an enticing brunch, very 50s diner.
What I’m drinking: Home-made kombucha. A drink that I had never tried before moving to San Francisco, it offers a satisfying and refreshing energy boost, and has the advantage of being distinctly weird. For the uninitiated, kombucha is a fermented tea drink with origins in China. It is made by allowing the ‘mother,’ (a culture made up of bacteria and yeast) to process the tea-sugar base for a week to ten days, turning it into a fizzy, slightly sour beverage. Having trouble picturing this ‘mother’ character? Imagine a jellyfish without tentacles that floats atop the tea/sugar mixture, calmly digesting.
What I’m reading: Recently I’ve stumbled upon Edible Geography, a blog about how food affects the places we live and vice versa. A recent post on ‘smellscapes’ reminded me of how smells intensify my bike routes through the city. My morning ride to work includes the following smells: bacon, the bay, sourdough bread. Riding through the park: eucalytptus, cherry trees, fog. In this fascinating post, Nicola Twilley, creator of Edible Geography, talks about how we perceive smells and how they affect our experience of an urban environment in both good and bad ways. She describes smells that typically provoke reactions and the associations that make them positive or negative.
Most Untapped thing I did in the past week: Hiking up Mount St. Helena and visiting Harbin Hot Springs, located two hours north of San Francisco in wine country. An absolutely gorgeous and restorative experience, I would highly recommend it for a weekend get-away.
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.
On a recent concert tour in Japan, I had the chance to visit several thermal baths and to chat with people about the tradition of bathing. I was fascinated by their differences with American spas. Japanese thermal baths are about luxury: Like Western-style spas, the experience is about taking time to relax. They are, however, unique in their emphasis on feeling close to nature; the best hot springs are often tucked away in the mountains. If it sounds tempting, luckily, San Francisco has it’s own spot to sample Japanese communal bathing: Kabuki Springs and Spa in Japantown.
The word onsen in Japanese means, literally, “hot spring.” Until the second half of the 20th century, few Japanese homes had their own baths. Many people went to neighborhood communal baths to bathe in the evenings. Although this is no longer the case, the culture of communal bathing in Japan remains in the form of onsen, a sort of national leisure activity.
For Japanese, staying a night in an onsen is the ultimate indulgence. Onsen are a way to relax and commune with nature. The most coveted onsen are off the beaten path, in the middle of nature (in Japanese, hitou, literally, “secret hot spring” ). Outdoor baths, or rotenburo, are also highly sought-after; they offer a way to experience the seasons that are culturally so important in Japan.
Hot springs are also believed to have certain healing properties, depending on the mineral content of the water. Some are said to help to heal broken bones, skin, or even aid in fighting cancer.
A visit to an onsen always follows pretty much the same schedule-even the symbol for an onsen on a map of Japan offers a glimpse into the bathing ritual. The symbol is a pool of water with three lines of steam drifting up from it. Each line of the steam represents one of the times that guests bathe in the mineral-rich water during their stay at an onsen: once upon arrival, once after eating the evening meal, and once in the morning before leaving. Food is also an important part of the onsen experience, with dinner sometimes involving 15 courses (keep in mind that Japanese cuisine is very delicate, and a “course” can be more of a morsel).
Upon arriving at the onsen, guests are shown to their rooms, where there are green tea and snacks as well as a yukata (a sort of kimono-style bathrobe) to wear during their stay.
The baths are generally separated by sex, although in some more remote hot springs they still have mixed-gender baths. Actually, the tradition of men and women bathing together in hot springs was standard up until the beginning of the Meiji Period in 1868, when Japan began to open to the west. Mixed-gender onsen largely disappeared because of their “taboo” status in western society. Japanese communal bathing has its own strict rules: just as you would never wear shoes in a Japanese house, you would never enter a communal bath without first washing yourself thoroughly.
In most cases, guests are not allowed to wear swimsuits or bring towels into the baths, as it makes baths harder to clean. The baths are normally quite hot, making bathing a popular winter activity.
If this sounds appealing, San Francisco’s Kabuki Springs and Spa has Japanese baths. There are also hot springs north of San Francisco in Sonoma and Napa counties. Kabuki, in Japantown, originated as a Japanese bath and spa for men in the 1970s, and has grown and changed over its 40-year history. Since 1999, Kabuki has had three days for men and three for women. (Tuesdays are mixed-gender.) It also has an expanded range of massage and spa treatments. The current director shared some interesting comments with me on how San Franciscans react to the experience of a communal bath. “In general, the mostly local clientele is comfortable with Japanese-style bathing [the Japanese custom for bathing is to be nude]. Many newcomers are trepidatious at first, but embrace the experience once they see the cleanliness and the respectful atmosphere of the baths. One difficult concept for clients to get used to, however, is the alternating days for men and women.” Kabuki has only one bathing area that alternates days for men and women.
On my visit to Kabuki a few weeks ago I was impressed by how relaxing the whole experience was. After paying the $22-25 entrance fee to the baths, you can stay as long as you like, taking your time to wash, try the steam room and sauna, and of course the hot bath which is central to the bathing experience. While there are no outdoor baths, there are plenty of other perks that lead to a rejuvenating experience. There are lounge chairs for resting between the different baths/saunas, as well as ice-cold washcloths, cucumber slices, salt for scrubbing your body, and refreshing drinks. The atmosphere is relaxing; warm lighting and a large open space allows you to feel you have your own space and comfort. Talking is generally discouraged (unlike in Japanese baths) and there is a small gong to strike if you feel it is getting too loud. (On my visit, the bath attendant did strike the gong when the baths got busier.)
Overall, this San Francisco spot is not to be missed, especially on a cold, gray day.
Kabuki Springs & Spa
1750 Geary Blvd.
San Francisco, CA 94115
Open daily 10a””9:45p
San Francisco lies in the midst of amazing natural beauty, but even so, many of us in our daily lives don’t always have the time to get out and enjoy it. Growing a garden or having plants in your home can be a good alternative, a way to feel more connected to the natural world.
One “new” way to bring nature into your home is in a terrarium. Terrariums were popular in Victorian England, found their way Stateside and into fashion during the 1970s, and now they are making a comeback for several new reasons.
A terrarium is “a sealed transparent globe or similar container in which plants are grown,” according to the Oxford American Dictionary. But this definition is really just a starting point: Terrariums are a combination of plants and art, personalized by the arrangement of flora and found objects, and protected in a glass container. As Tovah Martin and Kindra Clineff put it in their book The New Terrarium: Creating Beautiful Displays for Plants and Nature, “When glass enclosures enter the scene, not only is gardening possible inside your home, it’s downright glamorous”¦You’ve elevated plants to an art form.”
At first, the concept of the terrarium might seem antithetical to many nature lovers-you can’t put nature in a box! But the glass encasing of the terrarium creates a tiny “ecosystem” in which the water cycle occurs naturally within its walls, creating humidity and a stable environment for delicate plants. Making terrariums is also a creative outlet. You can personalize your terrarium by choosing the container, plants and found objects. Found objects can be anything: shells, beads, rocks, trinkets-as long as it can fit in your container.
On my quest to scope out the latest developments in the terrarium-making world, I spoke with San Francisco plant cultivators Ken Shelf, co-owner of Succulence in Bernal Heights, and Hiro Hayama, owner of Utsuwa Floral Design, recently relocated from Tokyo to Nob Hill.
Untapped: Why have terrariums become popular again?
Ken: [They’re] a way to have plants in small city spaces. There’s a creative, artistic aspect [to them], and it’s super fun! You can really personalize terrariums by using found items from nature or the city and finding the glass casings in antique shops”¦Terrariums use space well, and once you have one there’s not a lot of work involved. People are [also] becoming more and more connected to the environment. For example, they want to know where their food comes from. Phrases like “carbon footprint” show what a different world we live in since the ’70s when terrariums were last “in.”
Hiro: Terrariums are also popular in Tokyo, where people are dealing with small living spaces, and don’t necessarily have a table top to cover with a traditional bonsai. Terrariums can hang from the ceiling, using space efficiently. Having a little piece of nature in a city can allow you to relax, connect with nature when going to [it] is not an option. We’re surrounded by concrete here, and a little green can help. Terrariums present an image of nature, small-scale.
Untapped: How do you choose the different elements of your terrarium? What are some of the possibilities in making terrariums?
Ken: I’ve been using bonsai in terrariums-they’re phenomenal-and, of course, succulents. I like to call them “will to live” plants. They want to live more than any other plant.
A succulent at Succulence
Hiro: Usually my inspiration comes from one plant that strikes me in particular; it serves as the center of the work. I build around this main piece, but the space is key as well. Mostly, I strike a middle ground between a Japanese aesthetic and the American style, which uses lots of flowers and little empty space. My grandmother is an ikebana [Japanese flower arrangement] master in the Sousetsu school, and she has been an important influence on me as well.
Untapped: What do you think of the issue of nature under glass? Does this containment strike you as unnatural?
Ken: I’ve actually questioned why I do this, because terrariums are about bringing nature to us humans, kind of like a zoo, and I’m not into that. There’s something bizarrely human in capturing a bit of nature. But one reason that I like what I do is that [my work] shows nature’s overwhelming ability to continue. Terrariums are about nature’s constant disintegration and re-integration. You know, right now we’re causing a lot of damage, and maybe it will wipe us people out, but the planet will be just fine. That’s the kind of thing I like showing in my terrariums, like the one that I made with the crushed up truck.
Untapped: Any other thoughts on terrariums or your work with them?
Hiro: I want to make my store an oasis in the city, kind of like a terrarium within San Francisco: a beautiful, small world that you can step into for a moment of respite.
You can purchase a terrarium or take terrarium-making classes at Succulence, Paxton Gate, and a variety of other San Francisco locations. Succulence offers monthly classes in terrarium making and hanging gardens, and Ken Shelf currently has a show up at the Rare Bird in Oakland. Hiro will be starting classes at Utsuwa Floral Design sometime soon, but in the mean time head to Nob Hill and check out his beautiful store.