Treats from Bay Area Chocolatiers
By Leith Steel
Photography by Lori Eanes
It began in the ’70s in Berkeley. Her name was Alice, and she led a culinary revolution. Not Alice Waters, but Alice Medrich, the visionary behind the much-mourned and much-missed Cocolat, her dessert company. Medrich introduced East Bay residents to fine chocolate some 20 years before Scharffen Berger, today’s wildly successful Berkeley chocolate maker, entered the business.
Since then chocolate, like coffee before it, has inundated the East Bay, creating cult favorites with devoted clientele and introducing a new vocabulary to initiates. Like the Alices before them, modern confectioners insist on top-quality fresh ingredients devoid of artificial additives or preservatives. While Sharffen Berger is the sole East Bay confectioner that literally starts its chocolate making from scratch by roasting its own beans, other local chocolatiers are working wonders with
ready-made chocolates and other ingredients, weaving them into multi-layered tapestries of cocoa-based confections.
Three independent artisans—
Charles Chocolates, Michael Mischer Chocolates and Alegio
Chocolate—understand what Medrich was after: an aesthetic related to taste, pleasure and craft. These confectioners use top quality chocolate, create their own fillings and design attractive products. Plus, they stand united in their commitment to premium ingredients, short shelf lives and enhancing the pleasure factor. Chocolate, they say, is an affordable luxury, an edible experience, something to be enjoyed and indulged in one bite at a time.
Or as Chuck Siegel of Charles Chocolates puts it, “Once you understand how chocolate can taste, you’re really not interested in eating a Snickers bar.”
The biggest of these three small-batch indies is Charles Chocolates, which is based in a large production kitchen in Emeryville. Owner Chuck Siegel has been in the chocolate business since 1987, first with his own company, Attivo Confections, and then as a consultant. In 2004 he began his own line, Charles Chocolates, working with all-natural organic ingredients including organic butter and cream and organic mint.
Siegel makes everything in-house—from the caramelized crisped rice to the custom-made marzipan. “I want people to experience great chocolate. I use the best stuff every step of the way, everything as good as can be. That is what my goal is.”
Fresh ingredients are meaningless, though, if the final product sits too long on the shelf, which is why Siegel sells most of his chocolates by mail order. The goods are shipped within three days. (A few stores carry Charles Chocolates—but only if proprietors undergo thorough training to properly handle the sweets; check the store’s Web site for locations.)
Charles Chocolates’ offerings are all encompassing: nut clusters, filled chocolates and bars. Many selections are fresh and ethereal. For example, he whips Meyer lemon marmalade ganache into a lofty mousse-like consistency before enrobing it in a thin layer of chocolate. That same lemon adds intrigue to pistachio clusters, with the citrus offsetting deeply roasted nuts in a complex symphony of flavors. Equally impressive is the peanut butterfly, a smooth, creamy ganache that bursts with crispy bits of praline next to silky peanut butter and bitter notes of carmelized sugar. Roasting the nuts brings out superior flavors, and the chocolate almonds, covered in three layers of velvety chocolate, are simply addictive.
Michael Mischer Chocolates
Michael Mischer is every bit as exacting as Siegel. Trained in Europe and working as a pastry chef for 20 years, Mischer, too, makes almost everything in-house and only sells his filled chocolates in his own store so he can ensure their freshness. Using a secret Swiss couverture, or covering chocolate, whose receipe he refuses to reveal, his emphasis is artistic, and his single-origin Criollo chocolate is exquisite. Creamy, balanced and smooth with 65 percent or 72 percent cocoa content, these nuanced chocolates form the base of his designer bars. The 72 percent bars offer a deeper, more decadent chocolate taste.
Mischer’s establishment is a mishmash of art gallery, soda fountain and retail shop with marble tables and pop-art hued paintings, and he takes the visual aesthetic seriously. Chocolates are displayed individually on stark ceramic plates, and the chocolate bars and gift boxes come in clear packaging for maximum effect. With his passion for sculpture, Mischer’s creations are more structural, incorporating shell molding with defined shapes. These strong outer shells allow him to create super-soft fillings. The outer wall can be too thick, but quibbles disappear when the shell breaks, letting lose a silken waterfall of caramel or peanut butter caramel. Always on the lookout for surprising tastes, Mischer takes customers’ suggestions for new flavors.
Unlike Siegel and Micher, Panos Panagos, the owner of Alegio, had no background in chocolate. Neither did his partner, Joan Coukos. A series of unexpected events—divorce, breakups, layoffs, a child’s dream and a chance visit to a Belgian flea market where an old woman was selling chocolate-making equipment—somehow drew these friends together as business partners. They’re now creating their own signature line of chocolates. Panagos is Bay Area-based; Coukos, however, lives in New York.
Inhabiting a corner stand in the Gourmet Ghetto’s Epicurious Garden, Alegio is more art museum kiosk than store: A glass showcase exhibits the chocolates, a back-lit wall highlights imported chocolates from Barcelona’s Enrico Rovira and classic jazz music plays while images of the musicians are projected on another wall.
Coukos, the chocolatier, was named one of America’s top innovators in chocolate by Food & Wine, and Alegio’s chocolate reflects well on Coukos’ reputation. However, the long distance can be problematic. The summer heat wave wreaked havoc on shipping, so stock was limited, a recurrent issue.
“I’ve learned a lot about life from chocolates,” Panagos says. “Everything has to be balanced.”
And Panagos and Coukos know what they’re doing when it comes to understanding balance. The hot and spicy jalapeño in the chili pepper chocolate hits with surprise, and the earthy honey of the honey chocolate makes that confection more round and robust than sweet.
“I see so many smiles here,” Panagos says, smiling himself. “Chocolate changes your mood.”