Raising the Bar
I grew up on
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
. On Gene Wilder's frizzed out, creepily fantastic take on the purple-hatted confectioner. On chocolate rivers and tiny men who rolled blueberry girls and tended to a flock of golden-egg producing geese. I was obsessed with this colorful, psychedelic world that existed in the shadows behind each and every chocolate bar, toffee crunch, and strawberry puff I stuffed into my sugar-sticky mouth.
Now that I’m older, my belief in the magic of confections has faded. With knowledge comes a certain loss of innocence; a trip to a gloomy, industrial Cadbury warehouse in New Zealand seven years ago nearly extinguished the flame of my childhood choco fantasies. But these days, I’ve noticed a booming upswing of locally made chocolates crafted in small batches by highly trained artisans stocking the larders of nearly every grocery store. In the midst of a seeming San Francisco chocolate renaissance, my thoughts about sweets and the mysteries of their creation have once more risen to the surface.
Curiosity firmly in hand, I set out to seek the enchantment of chocolate I once believed in.
I start my quest by visiting the tasting room at TCHO on the
Embarcadero, just down from the Ferry Building. My knowledge of
chocolate is limited, so I pepper the pony-tailed salesperson with
questions. I find out that TCHO's chocolate is bean-to-bar, meaning that
where other chocolatiers purchase their chocolate ingredients
wholesale, TCHO picks, roasts, and grinds its own beans, literally
bringing its confections together from cacao bean to candy bar. A
glutton's worth of samples is sprawled across the counter and I dip in
quickly, tossing nibs of chocolate with names like "Citrus" and
"Chocolately" into my gaping mouth.
The bits are delicious and inspire me to try the TCHO Shot, a four-ounce cup of "drinking chocolate." I’m already a little nauseated, but I still push two dollars across the counter and receive a Dixie Cup full of warm, melted chocolate in return. In my mouth the chocolate feels both solid and liquid at once, a sort of warm cocoa slug of deliciousness. Two sips are nearly enough, but I power through, my stomach aching at the finish. I purchase a couple bars for further "research" and bid adieu.
With the rich choco-sludge roiling in my belly, I'm more curious than ever about the conundrum of chocolate. I turn south, toward Dogpatch to Poco Dolce and, hopefully, a bevy of answers.
I spend 20 minutes pacing back and forth on 3rd Street before I stumble
upon Poco Dolce, the Dogpatch chocolate company that created "tiles,"
small quarter-inch thick squares of chocolate lightly dusted or studded
with simple accoutrements like sea salt or chili powder. Located within
the American Industrial Center, Poco Dolce hides behind a dinged-up door
better suited for a pawnshop than a purveyor of French
Inside Poco Dolce I'm greeted by founder, owner, and top-notch chocolatier Kathy Wiley. The way Kathy carries herself reminds me of her chocolates: simple and unadorned, yet delightful and approachable. Kathy is one of the company’s six employees. With the amount of presence Poco Dolce has in San Francisco, and the country, it's shocking that such a small team produces, packages, and markets the entire operation.
The interior of the factory is a cross between a partitioned office and a science lab, one half-carpeted showroom, the other a mini tiled kitchen where Kathy sets about crafting new ideas. Seated at one of the few desks sparsely situated within the front room, Kathy tells me she loves chocolate "because it's the middle ground between science and creativity." The tiles, and all of Kathy's delicious treats, fall on the side of savory (Poco Dolce means "little sweet" in Italian) and this is exactly how Kathy wants it. "This is the chocolate I want to eat," she says. "This is my perfect chocolate created for the chocolate lover."
Kathy takes me through a small door into the production room to see where these delightful treats are crafted. The room is filled with a variety of space-age-looking machines that are pushed into various corners. Shelves of ingredients loom above me, and the stark white lighting brings to mind a surgical room. It isn't exactly the Willy Wonka of my youth, but the place still churns with the warmth of creation. Poco Dolce chocolate makers stand at various stations – some drip shining ganache in to plastic molds, others apply test-stickers to the chrome bottoms of sampler bags. Kathy's charming attitude seems to be infectious as everyone is smiling and enjoying their work. As I amble about chatting up various folk within the warehouse, I find myself glowing with a sort of kid-like glee.
With a smile and a nod, Kathy and crew, ready to continue their day of chocolate, politely shoo me out the door. I'm ready to leave anyway – Michael Recchiuti and his factory of wonders await.
From the sleek packaging of Michael Recchiuti’s chocolates, I'm
expecting him to appear in a black thin-legged Brooks Brothers suit. Yet
Michael, who meets me at the door of his spacious operation (just down
the street from Poco Dolce), is more down-to-earth than I expected. He’s
quick and funny, with a twinkle in his eye and a kick in his step,
oozing a relaxed charm. "If you're going to hang around here, we got to
make you legit," he says, leading me into a supply warehouse in his
expansive space. He tosses me a shirt emblazoned with his name and an
apron, and we're off to the races.
I’m at Recchiuti Confections on the perfect day to see the chocolate master at work – with Father’s Day on the horizon, the factory is busily churning out beautifully formed wonders. Michael is running the enrober, a machine that spits out a thin waterfall of perfectly heated chocolate. Through this delectable stream, a steady march of ganache (the innards of chocolate-based confections) rolls through, acquiring a coat of chocolate that is thinned to an exact thickness by a steadily blowing fan. From there, the now globular bits of chocolate continue their journey down a bright orange conveyor belt, where they dip into a long tunnel for slow, gentle cooling.
Like Poco Dolce, Recchiuti is sold nationwide and is run by an almost unimaginably small force of workers: Peter, Pat, Rita, and Angelica. At all times, someone is creating something amazing. I watch Rita, who Michael refers to as a "superstar,” whisk together the makings of a raspberry-chocolate ganache. Off to one side, a machine circulates a batch of white chocolate in a regurgitating fountain, slowly bringing it to the proper temperature. Rita frets about the state of the egg whites that are in an enormous mixer. A copper pot holds a thick combination of gelatin and corn syrup, soon to be blended with the egg whites to create a thick, goopy mess of marshmallow that will be skillfully poured into a pan. I'm fascinated, my eyes darting back and forth trying to capture everything that's going on.
Pat, a former-engineer-turned-chocolate-nut, grabs me at one point and drags me toward the panning room, a temperature-controlled freezer that holds three panners. Somewhere between scientific machines and giant spinning silver gourds, panners are used to buffer ingredients and chocolate in a variety of ways. At the moment, a batch of dried cherries is rolling in the panner as Peter and Pat gingerly add small amounts of powdered sugar. In another panner, thickly coated with dried cocoa residue, a pile of chocolate-covered mango tumbles so its dusky sheen will polish down to a shiny brown gloss. Taking in deep inhalations of this room is like sucking on a chocolate hookah. Peter, his arms heavily-tatted, tells me that sometimes after spending too much time with cocoa powder, he literally blows chocolate boogers into his handkerchief.
I'm taken into a freezer filled with trays, each displaying different batches of confections, including piles of candied hazelnuts, long stretches of peanut butter cups, and thin square chocolates filled with unknown ambrosial delights. Michael points at various treats, asks me if I've had them before, and then shoves a small pile in my hand before I can even answer. He's been in the business for nearly 13 years, but the light in his eye is still bright, the ideas still churning.
Pat grabs me by the elbow, "We're about to run a batch if you're still curious." In the main room, a group of workers have gathered around the exit of the enrober, where piles of tiny cocoa butter transfers – bearing ties and other symbols of fatherly cheer – are stacked up. The thin chocolate waterfall is already sluggishly gushing and someone, somewhere hits a switch and row after row of square ganache begin their long journey from gooey innards to gooey piece of chocolate.
I'm tired, my daylong sugar high is crashing, and the endless progression of sweets is almost hypnotizing. Looking around, Michael and company are already moving, making new batches of ganache, tasting truffles, and crafting more delectable goods.
Head nodding, eyes fixated on the enrober’s steady chug, I'm suddenly struck by a familiar feeling: This is magic. Sure, the terminology and the tools might not resemble the cinematic visions of candy wonderlands, but replace panner with magic wand, enrober with chocolate waterfall, and throw a battered top hat on Michael Recchiuti, and Willy Wonka and his chocolate factory can't hold a candle.
Drop by Bi-Rite, Rainbow, or Whole Foods to pick up any of the amazing chocolates listed above. Or drop by Poco Dolce for a tasting led by one of its knowledgeable staff. Recchiuti Confections offers chocolate tastings paired with a variety of foods and beverage.