A Glorious Chocolate Adventure
By Rachel Trachten | Photos by Jon Milavec
Is there any better magazine assignment than the chocolate beat?
Well, no, there just isn’t.
Before launching our exploration of East Bay chocolate, we turned to Berkeley’s own First Lady of Chocolate, Alice Medrich, from whom we learned some basics of the craft.
Medrich ran her own chocolate dessert shop, Cocolat, in North Berkeley from 1976 to 1989. On selling that business, she turned her attention toward writing, consulting, and, of course, baking. Among her many award-winning cookbooks are Cocolat: Extraordinary Chocolate Desserts, Chocolate and the Art of Low-Fat Desserts, and Bittersweet: Recipes and Tales From a Life in Chocolate. When we contacted her for this piece, she was working on a chocolate fundraiser for the Berkeley City Club and was deeply involved as a consultant for Oakland’s Renewal Mill, an exciting start-up that’s turning a byproduct from production of tofu and soy milk into a nutrient-packed baking flour called okara.
The difference between the chocolate maker—an artisan who uses raw cacao beans to make chocolate—and the chocolatier, Medrich explains, is that the latter is a confectioner who uses the chocolate produced by the chocolate maker to turn out truffles, bonbons, and other treats. She recalls the words of a large chocolate producer: “The chocolate maker produces the gold ingots with which chocolatiers/confectioners craft their jewelry.”
And there’s a host of reasons why working with chocolate is such a fascination: “Chocolate is not a single generic flavor, but endless combinations of flavors depending on the origin and variety of the cacao, cultivation and post-harvest processing on the farm, and finally, the choices and skills of the chocolate maker,” says Medrich. “Chocolate is a vast playground for creative chefs and an opportunity to orchestrate specific chocolates with other ingredients so that all of the flavors are singing together—making chocolate a whole world of tasting for all of us.”
Treat Them Like Fresh Flowers
Freshness is key when buying truffles or filled chocolates from an artisan chocolatier, says Medrich. “Treat them like fresh flowers; buy today for tomorrow.” During her Paris years, the chocolatier was so obsessed about freshness that she would ask her cab driver to stop at La Maison du Chocolat on the way to the airport—just to be sure she came home to Berkeley with the freshest possible chocolate.
Be a pushy giver
“If you give chocolate as a gift,” says Medrich, “be a pushy gift giver and urge the recipient to enjoy as soon as possible.” Unlike a box of drugstore chocolates, fine confections, especially those made with chocolate and cream, typically do not contain preservatives and will have very short shelf lives. As a second-best gift option, she suggests giving a few bars of artisan chocolate, which will last longer and still taste delicious. ♦
Cookbook author Alice Medrich adds a sweet finishing touch to her chocolate cookies.
Alice Medrich’s Chocolate ‘Wedding Cake’ Cookies
Too easy for words! These super-dainty, melt-in-your-mouth chocolate cookies are what happens when you make classic Mexican Wedding Cakes (aka Snowballs, Russian Tea Cakes, or Austrian Crescents), but swap all of the nuts for dark chocolate. The dough takes seconds to mix in a food processor—with no chocolate melting required! You can vary them before baking by rolling the balls of dough in sugar spiced with cinnamon, cardamom, or any other spice you like. You might try adding orange zest to the dough, or make the cookies more bittersweet by using only ⅓ cup of sugar or using chocolate with a higher cacao percentage. What more could you ask for?
Makes about fifty 1½-inch cookies
7 ounces (200g) 66%–72% cacao dark chocolate, coarsely chopped or broken
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons (75g) granulated sugar
2 cups (255g) unbleached all-purpose flour
¾ teaspoon salt
16 tablespoons (225g or 2 sticks) unsalted butter, slightly softened and cut into chunks
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Powdered sugar for dusting
Position oven racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven. Preheat the oven to 325°. Line baking sheets with parchment paper.
Put the chocolate, granulated sugar, flour, and salt in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade and pulse until chocolate pieces range in size from pulverized to ¼ inch. (The mixture should feel like fine gravel.) Add butter chunks and vanilla. Process until the mixture comes together to form a dough.
Shape level tablespoons (15g) of dough into scant 1¼-inch balls. Place 2 inches apart on lined baking sheets. Bake 16–18 minutes; tops may look slightly crackled and won’t feel squishy when lightly pressed with a finger. Rotate the cookie sheets from top to bottom and front to back halfway through the baking time to ensure even baking.
When the cookies are done, let them cool on the pan for 5 minutes, and then sift powdered sugar over the top of each one. Cool completely on a rack before storing. May be stored, airtight, for at least 2 weeks. Sieve additional powdered sugar over the cookies before serving, if necessary.
East Bay Chocolate Makers and Chocolatiers
Illustrations by Margo Rivera-Weiss
BARLOVENTO: Bonbons, bars, and truffles made in Oakland with sustainably grown Venezuelan chocolate known for its distinctive, almost floral note. Contact them to arrange a visit or team-building experience. Sold in Oakland at City Bloom, Piedmont Grocery, Market Hall, and Barlovento’s own retail store at 334 Frank H. Ogawa Plaza. Also sold at Alameda Natural Grocery, Diablo Foods in Lafayette, and Star Grocery and Market Hall in Berkeley.
BISOU: Bean-to-bar chocolate made in Oakland and Berkeley from sustainably sourced and grown cacao. Their fruits, nuts, wines, and liqueurs are sourced from local farmers’ markets. Find the bars at Rocky’s Market and Star Grocery in Oakland, and the full line of bars, caramels, truffles, and chocolate-dipped fruit at the Jack London Square and Diablo Valley farmers’ markets. bisouchocolate.com
BLUE’S CHOCOLATES: Jewel-like chocolates in fun flavors like Banana Split, Peach Bellini, and Cantaloupe & Bacon. Handcrafted from single-origin chocolate. Made and sold at 1964 University Ave in Berkeley. bluesberkeley.com
CASA DE CHOCOLATES: Handmade combos like Chipotle Caramel, Mayan Espresso, and Mole Bonbon highlight the Mesoamerican origins of chocolate. Frozen Mexican Hot Chocolate (a cold blended drink topped with whipped cream and chocolate bits) is a customer favorite. Traditional and vegan hot chocolate are popular during the colder seasons. Products are made and sold at 2629 Ashby Ave, Berkeley. casadechocolates.com
CORACAO CONFECTIONS: Organic vegan chocolate made in Oakland with coconut sugar. Chocolate is sourced from Ecuador and Peru from farmers paid at or above fair-trade wages. Bars, truffles, and healthier versions of favorites like Almond Butter Cups, Salted Caramel Bars, and the classic Peppermint Patty. They also make Cacoco, a drinking chocolate. Sold in Oakland at Piedmont Grocery, Village Market, and Oaktown Spice Shop. Find in Berkeley at the downtown Berkeley Farmers’ Market, Three Stone Hearth, Vegan Republic, both Berkeley Bowls, Monterey Market, Cultured Pickle Shops, and Blue Willow Tea. Also at Alameda Natural Grocery, Colusa Market (Kensington), Oaktown Spice Shop (Albany), and El Cerrito Natural Grocery. coracaoconfections.com
ENDORFIN: Plant-based chocolate alchemy incorporates bold flavors paired with a sweetener made from caramelized coconut milk and coconut sugar. Compensation packages co-developed with farmer partners surpass standards set by organic and fair-trade agriculture. Made in Berkeley and sold at Berkeley Natural Foods, both Berkeley Bowls, The Xocolate Bar, Three Stone Hearth, Franklin Brothers Market, Vegan Republic, Berkeley Student Food Collective, Star Grocery, and Biofuel Oasis. Sold in Oakland at Oaktown Spice Shop (also Albany store), Market Hall (also Berkeley store), Five Flavors Herbs, Field Day, Preserved, The Well, Farmer Joe’s Market, and Chocolate Dragon Bittersweet Cafe & Bakery. Also at Alameda Natural Grocery, Williams Natural Foods (Richmond) and El Cerrito Natural Foods. endorfinfoods.com
FLYING NOIR: Micro-batch artisan chocolates made in Oakland with single-origin organic chocolate. Hand painted using natural-colored cocoa butter and mica. Sold at both Bi-Rite markets in San Francisco. Contact maker Karen Urbanek about private events and pickup of chocolates at her Oakland loft. Read our story below. flyingnoir.net
HOFSSI: Caramels, toffee, bars, and gianduja made in Moraga with Guittard’s organic line and El Rey’s fair-trade chocolate. Sold at Across the Way in Moraga, Orinda Books in Orinda, Diablo Foods and Clocks, Etc. in Lafayette, and at many pop-up events around the East Bay during the holiday season. hofssi.com
MICHAEL MISCHER: Bars and pralinen (German for “chocolates”) made from single-origin chocolate. Distinctive fillings like Pfeffernuss (infused with green cardamom and white pepper) and Lebkuchen (soft caramel with honey and spices). Made and sold at 3352 Grand Avenue, Oakland, and also sold at Piedmont Grocery and Market Hall. michaelmischerchocolates.com
NUUBIA: These “wild safe” chocolates, bars, spreads, and truffles are crafted from humanely sourced ingredients, specifically those grown by farmers who honor a coexistence with wildlife. Nuubia uses no palm oil or chocolate from West Africa due to local practices of deforestation and hunting wild animals for meat (see sidebar below). Made and sold at 5673 W Las Positas Boulevard, Suite 220, in Pleasanton, and also sold at Market Hall (Oakland and Berkeley). Classes and teambuilding events available. nuubiachocolate.com
OAKLAND CHOCOLATE COMPANY: Small-batch bean-to-bar chocolate made in Oakland and turned into bonbons, truffles, and other confections. This social enterprise business supports Jamaican cacao farmers and donates the revenue from its Peace Pops to a local restorative justice organization. Sold in Oakland at the Old Oakland and Grand Lake farmers’ markets, Downtown Wine Merchants, and Energy Matters Acupuncture and Qigong. Find in Berkeley at University Press Books. Contact maker Nancy Nadel to arrange a group tour and tasting. Read our story below. theoaklandchocolateco.com
OCHO: You won’t find them in an elegant gift box, but these Oakland-made organic candy bars will make you so happy when nostalgia hits and you want one of your childhood favorite candy bars, coated with chocolate and filled with coconut, peanut butter, or caramel. Or maybe you’re still a kid and already know you love them. Sold at major retail shops. ochocandy.com
SOMETHING SWEET CHOCOLATES / THE GOURMET WORKS: Artisanal small-batch chocolates, fudge, toffee, and caramels made and sold at a gourmet food and gift store located at 420 Main Street in Pleasanton. Contact them about small-group workshops. gourmetworkspleasanton.com
TCHO: Bars and baking chocolate made in Berkeley from fair trade–certified cacao beans for both consumers and commercial customers. In the business since 2005, TCHO has been a pioneer in empowering small cacao farmers to demand a fair price. Tours and tastings at their Berkeley factory will resume once renovations are complete. Sold in Berkeley at Raxakoul, A Priori, and both Berkeley Bowls; in Oakland at the Wine Mine and Piedmont Grocery; at Alameda Natural Grocery; in Lafayette at Diablo Foods; and at East Bay Whole Foods and Cost Plus stores. tcho.com
THE XOCOLATE BAR: Bonbons, sipping chocolate, and a wide assortment of bars made and sold in a cozy retail store and workshop at 1709 Solano Avenue in Berkeley. Creative flavor combos like strawberry-balsamic and tamarind-mango as well as low- and no-sugar options. Read our story below. thexocolatebar.com
Note: All of these makers sell online, but we encourage visiting the retailers listed here, who make our communities joyous places to live and connect.
The Maker’s Hand
Flying Noir’s chocolate artistry
When you open a box of Karen Urbanek’s hand-painted chocolates, you may find one she calls a “blessé.” The word translates as hurt or wounded, and Urbanek uses it to describe a piece that is imperfect in appearance, but not taste. Rather than giving or throwing those pieces away, she highlights the cracks or other imperfections by painting them, usually in gold.
“It is one more trace of the maker’s hand,” says Urbanek, referring to these painted flaws. Her practice, she explains, relates to kintsugi, the Japanese tradition in which broken pottery is mended using a special lacquer to create gold or silver seams in the cracks.
Highlighting the maker’s hand comes naturally to Urbanek, who imbues her flying noir creations with artistry and color. A painter, weaver, and expert in natural dyes, Urbanek hand paints her chocolates using natural colors mixed with cocoa butter. The pigments might come from berries, carrots, turmeric, or even spirulina. The sparkle comes from mica, a naturally occurring mineral dust. One of the challenges in the painting process, she explains, is that she has a very short window for painting the molten chocolate before it begins to harden. “I paint an image over and over again in the mold, but the more I paint, the more differently they turn out.”
Before becoming a chocolatier, Urbanek worked as a fiber artist, creating pieces for public and private spaces. When recession hit in 2008, the market for art commissions collapsed, and she found herself in need of a new career. She’d long been making truffles to give out at art openings and spent the next two years gaining an online education through the Ecole Chocolat in Vancouver. She came up with the name flying noir [Urbanek prefers this lowercased] one day while living in Mendocino. “I have a little black car and pictured myself flying up and down the coast delivering chocolate. It is the feeling of flying when you are totally immersed in what you are doing (working fast, chocolate may be flying around the workspace). It is about focusing on darker chocolate, and about a sense of mystery that is always part of my chocolate story.”
In her Berkeley kitchen, Urbanek creates variations on her award-winning chocolates and packages them using original art. She comes up with her own seasonal recipes, favoring organic ingredients, chocolate from the Americas, and local fruits, honey, nuts, and spices. Layers of flavor come through in each bite. As an example, this is the creative combination she uses in the chocolate she calls “Matzu”: white chocolate ganache with yuzu and ceremonial matcha in Japanese Roku gin enrobed in dark chocolate. “My flavors are complex, yet subtle,” says Urbanek. “The chocolates in any given box are created as elements of a composition of different flavors, textures, and colors that contribute to the overall experience.” ♦
Karen Urbanek hand paints her artistic small-batch chocolates.
From Politics to Peace Pops
The Oakland Chocolate Company
Art, science, and politics all come into play for bean-to-bar maker Nancy Nadel. Formerly a member of Oakland’s City Council, Nadel now runs the Oakland Chocolate Company, turning Jamaican cacao into award-winning chocolate.
Nadel was vacationing in Jamaica in 2006 when she got to know some cacao farmers there. “It was fascinating to see how cacao trees grow,” she says, “but the economics of the Jamaican system were not working well for the farmers.” Nadel, who knew she wanted to make chocolate, promised the farmers she’d only use Jamaican beans.
At a class offered at UC Davis, Nadel learned the basics of chocolate technology. She then bought some equipment and practiced at home, sometimes giving chocolates to her City Council colleagues. “A spoonful of chocolate makes the policy go down better,” she jokes.
After 16 years on the City Council, Nadel retired in 2012 and rented space first at Brown Sugar Kitchen, then from a local chocolatier. Mindful of Oakland’s rising rents, she eventually decided to buy a condo. The space houses her office and chocolate kitchen, where cacao beans are sorted, roasted, and then winnowed (shell removed from the bean). Next, the beans are ground and then tempered, a process of heating and cooling melted chocolate to create its shine and the characteristic snap it makes when it breaks. Other than a Jamaican-American friend who helps with the winnowing, Nadel is a one-person operation. Her experience as a painter and ceramicist make her well-suited to hands-on crafting; her engineering background helps with the technical side and the occasional repair.
Until 2017, all Jamaican chocolate was sold through the government-run Cocoa Industry Board, which was responsible for drying and fermenting the beans, important steps for developing flavor. But Nadel says the system didn’t work smoothly and didn’t reward the farmers fairly. When the Jamaican government decided to get out of the cacao business a few years ago, she hoped the board would create a system to help the small farmer, but they didn’t. “It’s frustrating; they abandoned the small farmers,” she says.
A group of farmers banded together to create the Jamaica Cocoa Farmers’ Association, an attempt to replace the system the government abandoned. It’s slowly brought some improvement, but agricultural pests and a lack of capital are problematic. Nadel says that the larger farmers, motivated by their love of the island and pride in the industry, are trying to help the small farmers do well. Nadel is now able to buy her beans directly from Desmond Jadusingh, a Jamaican farmer whose 300-acre farm has capacity for drying and fermenting beans.
In addition to making bars and truffles, Nadel experiments with creative bonbon fillings. Examples include an Otaheite (Malay) apple jam she got in Jamaica and mulberry jam made by a friend. Another friend has a quince tree, so that will be the next flavor.
Nadel isn’t in the chocolate business to make a profit. She prioritizes paying a generous price for her Jamaican cacao, has helped Jadusingh find another California customer, visits Jamaica regularly, and also donates the revenue from her chocolate Peace Pops to the nonprofit Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth. A regular at the Old Oakland and Grand Lake farmers’ markets, Nadel also gives tours and tastings by appointment. At age 73, she recognizes that she’ll need help at some point and hopes to eventually turn her business into a cooperative. But for now, she says, “I’m addicted to chocolate making.” ♦
Nancy Nadel makes bean-to-bar chocolate and donates a portion of revenues to a restorative justice nonprofit.
‘We Never Run Out of Ideas’
Artisans-turned-chocolatiers at The Xocolate Bar
In back of her cozy shop, Malena Lopez-Maggi stirs melting chocolate, then carefully pours it into butterfly molds. Her path to becoming a chocolatier, she explains, was not the traditional one.
In 2005 Lopez-Maggi was working as an artisan metalsmith. She noticed she was feeling tired of handling cold, sharp metal and of the persistent cough she experienced from the soldering fumes. She and her partner, jewelry maker and ceramicist Clive Brown, turned to chocolate in part because of its sculptural qualities.
“It flows and carves like wax, tempers like metal or glass, casts like ceramic slip, and yet it possesses none of the harsh sensory qualities of those other materials,” says Lopez-Maggi. “The smell, the taste, the texture, the way there is almost no waste because you can temper it over and over…it’s quite a special sculpture material.”
The duo started their business in 2006, working out of a commercial kitchen and selling chocolates at craft fairs and festivals. In 2008, they opened the Xocolate Bar on Solano Avenue in Berkeley. It’s a workshop where they make bonbons from fair-trade organic chocolate in an array of unique flavors—tamarind-mango, strawberry-balsamic, and cinnamon-orange chile, among others—and where experimentation with new flavors happens constantly. It’s also a retail shop, which offers cups of sipping chocolate and craft chocolates from local and distant makers, including no- and low-sugar options.
The shop’s name salutes the Mesoamerican heritage of chocolate as well as Lopez-Maggi’s roots. Her father’s family is from Sonora, Mexico. The word “xocolatl” is Nahuatl (Aztec) for chocolate, translated as “bitter water” because chocolate was originally used for an unsweetened drink.
Lopez-Maggi says that as artists-turned-chocolatiers, she and Brown have a great deal of creative freedom. “We are not bound by culinary tradition, but rather driven by experimentation. We never run out of ideas.” ♦
Chocolatier Malena Lopez-Maggi creates tasty confections at her shop on Solano Avenue.
Reports abound on the many ways worldwide demand for chocolate drives production practices that are destructive to the environment and harmful to both people and wildlife. Many chocolate makers and chocolatiers in the Bay Area prioritize their sourcing decisions in efforts to address those negative impacts, and several of their blogs provide good reading that can help consumers track the problems and potential solutions.
Alexandra Saunders founded Nuubia SF in Pleasanton with an expressed mission of protecting wildlife. In her nuubiachocolate.com blog post titled “What Do Orangutans Have to Do with Chocolate and Why It Matters” she writes, “We hope in our own small way that when consumers ... taste our chocolates, their curiosity will be piqued and they’ll take away some new-found knowledge of ... how their consumer voice[s] can help to protect what’s left of the incredible biodiversity on Earth.” ♦
Associate editor Rachel Trachten writes about food and gardening in connection to social justice, education, business, and the environment. She takes time out from magazine work for choral singing. View her stories at racheltrachten.contently.com.
Veteran photographer and video director Jon Milavec is a new transplant to the East Bay. He and his wife are enjoying the climate, the beauty of the region, and they’re tasting everything in sight. Find him at mixedbagmedia.tv.