Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Holiday Gift Guide--Chocolate Edition

Returning to college from Christmas break I was always loaded down with broken chocolate Santa's. The benefit of restocking the Christmas candy in a specialty food store was that I could take the damaged goods for myself. Eating all that broken chocolate helped me develop a taste for fine quality. At a certain point, if it wasn't really good, I just skipped eating it entirely. Ruined for life, you might say.

Now I get to try lots of chocolate, most of it very good. But not all the chocolate I tried made the cut this year. All of the chocolate on this list was personally consumed by me, very recently. See you at the gym in January!


Charles Chocolates
Charles Chocolates makes beautiful and delicious confections. For the holidays, the boxed chocolates make very impressive gifts. The brown and turquoise packaging is as modern and gorgeous as can be, and the chocolates in edible chocolate boxes are like nothing I've ever seen before. The chocolate covered caramels were a big hit at my folk's house the other night. Though not as glamorous, my favorite items continue to be his decadent chocolate almonds and pate de fruit, little colorful gems of intense fresh fruit flavor. As a special bonus, Charles Chocolates is offering my readers a 15% discount on online purchases through December 17th Just use the promo code, COOKINGWITHAMY

Richart Chocolate
Richart is one of my favorite chocolate innovators. Yes, innovators. They bring new things to market which are eventually copied by everyone else. Like mad geniuses they have an incredible ability to make anything and everything pair with chocolate. You really do have to taste to believe. This season they introduced a "festive garden" collection with chocolates including black truffle and potato coulis, grilled corn and chestnut, kalamanzi with carrot, and my top pick, tomato with basil. In each you feel as if you are rediscovering the flavors of the garden. The flavors come in waves and the chocolate becomes a backdrop for the experience. It's as if you are tasting the very essence of the flavor and experiencing something you know very well, for the first time. They sound weird, but actually they are divine revelations. And I'm not even religious!

Hotel Chocolate
I discovered the English brand Hotel Chocolat in London last Summer. At first, when I saw one of their shops I thought it was a real hotel, now that I've had some of their particularly wonderful little "canapes" of chocolate tiles topped with fruit, nuts and sometimes a kick of chili, I'm ready to check in. The quality of their products is particulary high and they avoid many ingredients like lecithin that are standard in the industry.


Amano bars
I recently discovered the chocolate of Amano artisan chocolate, a very small boutique producer in Salt Lake City. Amano has one of the best explanations for why their chocolate is not fair trade. Like the label organic, fair trade is complicated and choices are not always black and white. I strongly urge you to read it, and to try Amano's chocolate. In the past year they have won a number of awards for their chocolate bars. I am particularly fond of their Ocumare bar, a 70% bar from Venezuela; it's rich and dark and transports me to a jungle far away....For the bar connoisseur, this is rare chocolate to seek out.

Vosges bars
If you're just warming up to the idea of flavored bars, the mini bar gift set of exotic chocolate bars from Vosges is a fun way to try lots of trendy flavors including smoked almonds, ginger, wasabi, macha green tea, curry, chili, espresso, cacao nibs and more. It doesn't include the bars with really wacky flavors like goji berries, kalamata olives or bacon, which are available separately. This gift is good fun for the chocolate enthusiast, though not necessarily for the chocolate snob. Chocolatier Katrina Markoff says her mission is to bring peace to the world though chocolate. Kinda fits with the holidays, don't you think?

When it comes to bars, here are the other brands I love and recommend--El Rey, Michel Cluizel, Chocovic's Ocumare bar, E. Guittard bittersweet and extra dark bars, Valrhona's Araguani and Alpaco bars, and always worth trying are any of the limited edition bars from Scharffen Berger.

My favorite local Bay Area retailers of chocolate are Cocoa Bella for confections and Fog City News for bars.