By Carol Blackman
Contra Costa Times Correspondent
This story was first published by the Bay Area News Group and appeared in the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times and Oakland Tribune – 10/30/2009.
Take a few San Francisco history lessons, add some artisan chocolates and you have a sweet way to learn about sites in the city. With the “San Francisco Gourmet Chocolate Tour,” you can nibble your way through facts about the Ferry Building, the Barbary Coast, Union Square and Market Street.
Andrea Nadel, President of Gourmet Walks, meets our tour group at Justin Herman Plaza and gets down to the business of chocolate. “The most expensive chocolate I know about is $2,600 a pound. It contains French truffles. But all chocolate starts with harvesting pods like this one.”
She hands over a cocoa pod to pass among ourselves. Then she explains the detailed process that takes the beans inside from pod to crushed “nibs” to cocoa powder or cocoa butter and eventually chocolate.
Nadel seems to know as much about San Francisco’s history as she does chocolate. She shares a little of that knowledge on our walk to the Ferry Building – “Our ferry terminal used to be the second largest terminal in the world before car traffic, “ she tells us. “Only London’s Charing Cross was larger at the turn of the century.”
At the Ferry Building, it’s back to chocolate. First up: Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker, founded in 1996 in Berkeley.
Because there will be tastings at each stop, we are told we do not have to eat everything that is offered but can bag samples to enjoy later. One visitor from our group smiles. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
We quickly learn from Cy Olney, Scarffenberger’s manager, that tasting is an art. “Use all of your senses, sight and smell, and notice how the bar snaps apart before tasting for the unique flavors,” he says. We find tasting notes on the wrapper of the “Anniversary Bar” indicating that the flavors include “berry, finishing with hints of cinnamon and black tea.”
Next Up: Recchiuti Confections (also in the Ferry Building), created by San Francisco-based master chocolatier Michael Recchiuti . In addition to sampling the best selling truffle, “Fleur de Sel Caramel,” we taste truffles with lavender, ginger and candied orange peel. The best treat s a seasonal specialty, only available at the shop, called “Harvest Whoppie Pies” – two packaged carrot cake cupcakes, frosted with butter cream and “enrobed” (that means covered) with 64% cocoa content dark chocolate.
We take a momentary history respite as we walk down Market Street, learning about trade during the Barbary Coast days, as Nadell guides us to our next stop. Fog City News carries 200 chocolate bars, and four are presented to us for a blind tasting.
We guess at the variety of flavors, but one is so unusual, no one can identify the taste. Owner Adam Smith surprises us by revealing that the chocolate is made with goat cheese.
Next we cross Market Street to the Crocker Galleria and enter the Leonidas Belgian Chocolate shop. Here we taste a rich hot chocolate drink as we rest for a few minutes. Before leaving, everyone chooses a truffle, called “pralines” here. Leonidas is best known for its pralines with 80 choices. As we step back outside, we notice The Dental Suite across the street. Coincidence?
We continue on to Sutter Street and Teuscher Chocolates of Switzerland, which has a large window display featuring whimsical animal characters that contain chocolate candy.
“The Swiss eat more chocolate per capita than anyone else in the world,” says Nadel. We do our best to even the score with three sample truffles, including one with hazelnuts called “Giandua.”
Once more history accompanies us on our walk, this time toward Union Square. Turning on to Maiden Lane, Nadel explains how brothels once lined the road, then known as Morton Street, in the Gold Rush days. Today, it is a premier shopping area and on a direct path to San Francisco’s original chocolate shop.
Ghirardelli on Stockton Street is one of four Ghirardelli stops in San Francisco, where Dominigo Ghirardelli turned from the gold fields and other business ventures to his chocolate empire, opening his first shop in 1852. At Ghirardelli we sample 86 percent and 72 percent cocoa content bars.
Then it is on to our final stop, CocoaBella, in the Westfield Shopping Centre. The shop offers 180 chocolates, including a “PB&J” truffle with peanut butter and strawberry jam in a milk chocolate shell.
As the tour wraps, Nadel shares some parting advice. We have to preserve our treats, and she explains that chocolate bars can be stored for weeks in a refrigerator to prevent that chalky color change called “bloom.” But specialty truffles, she adds, usually have no preservatives and so they need to be eaten within a week. No problem.
To learn more about the Gourmet Chocolate Tour or other culinary tours of The City, check out www.gourmetwalks.com.