Proof that we are as spoiled as many of the children who went on the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory tour in Roald Dahl's consummate book, a new chocolatier has entered the already remarkable Bay Area chocolate scene.
With an eye for design and an understanding for the importance of formal re-introductions, the Charles Chocolates website explains how the company seemingly sprang up from no where, "Chuck (Charles) Siegel has been a part of the San Francisco chocolate scene since 1987 when he started his first premium chocolate company, Attivo Confections, at the age of 25."
No newbie to the sweet scene, Chuck has found a new dedication to candy making. "He uses only the finest ingredients, including some of the world's best chocolates, organic herbs, fruits and nuts as well as Organic cream and butter from Strauss Dairy."
And recently, a choice few of the local press were invited to taste these decidedly rich confections, take a gander at the spacious factory where they were created, and hear the Charles Chocolates story from the inspired mouth of the man himself.
We wandered into the cavernous kitchen of Charles Chocolates, early as usual. Fortunately there were already choco-philes milling about. Practically before our warm greeting, both by Chuck and the heady scent of chocolate perfuming the air, we were offered our first "welcome" taste, the almond cluster. And the night carried on from there.
Taste 1: Almond cluster.
Chuck has worked endlessly on the nut cluster and raised this Americana sweet to sophisticated, balanced perfection. The Charles Chocolates almond cluster is spot on when it comes to real crunch, sparse but milk chocolaty coating and sculptural integrity. With a thin caramelized glaze enrobing toasted, slivered almonds, it's the kind of candy you could eat continuously without the guilt of consuming too much chocolate. (Really, though, is there ever too much chocolate?)
"One of my pet peeves is when nuts aren't toasted enough and/or the chocolate that goes with it is so gloppy you can't taste the nut inside," Chuck explained.
Taste 2: Dark chocolate honey-lavendar truffle.
This round little truffle packs much flavor into its compact size. Infusing Organic lavendar into fresh cream, the candy is nicely balanced with rich chocolate flavor and just a whisper of the potent herb. Even the delicate flavor of the honey is not masked by the often-overpowering tastes of chocolate and lavendar.
Taste 3: Peanut butterfly.
A good play on words, and one of people's favorite tastings of the night, the butterfly is like an adult Reese's peanut butter cup.
A thin dark chocolate shell bursts forth with crunchy, outspoken, natural peanut butter flavor. It's secret? Peanut butter pralinee! Mix caramel with peanuts, grind it up and you get a crunch that lasts. Our only desire was that it had a hint more salt.
Taste 4: Chocolate-covered almond.
Surprisingly this almond was not blanched. Although I appreciate the thought behind this choice, the papery almond skin was the last thing in the mouth and it detracted from the toasty nut taste and generous coating of dark chocolate and natural cocoa powder exterior.
Taste 5: Mojito heart.
I didn't think I'd like this. I mean, I was ready to try it, with an open mind, but I just couldn't imagine how you could pull this one off, all the strong flavors: spearmint, dark Jamaican rum, lime juice, chocolate. That's what I get for thinking. This was heaven. Again, as in previous tastes, the flavors of this candy were perfectly balanced. How does he do it? Superb.
Taste 6: Earl Grey truffle.
The flavor of tea was so subtle it was barely there in the second cream truffle of the night. Rich and delicious with a slight bergamot perfume, simple and delicious.
Admittedly following on the heels of just about every European and American candy maker in the last few years, Chuck pulled out his two versions of salted caramels. Gorgeously redolent of the Strauss butter mounted into the caramel for a rich emulsion, everyone sighed in unison after biting into the Charles Chocolates' version. Some of us diverged from the maker's deliberate choice concerning how much and where to place the trace amount of the exorbitantly expensive French salt.
Taste 7: Fleur de Sel caramel.
Here's where it all comes out and where I differ from Chuck. I love. Love. Love chocolate and salt and caramel. The Spanish know what the hell they are doing. (A staple Barcelona treat is a slice of baguette with melted chocolate, a sprinkle of salt, and a drizzle of olive oil. oh god.) Give me a drizzle of some olive oil and I'm swooning. I digress.
One of Chuck's newest additions to his line of chocolates differs from many of the other fleur de sel caramels I've tried by local and boutique chocolatiers. Many of them make what's known as a "wet" caramel; sugar cooked to caramel and then mounted with cream and or butter. Chuck has developed a "dry" caramel; sugar cooked with all the ingredients until the correct temperature thus creating a more toothsome, smooth and less chewy interior. I prefer the chewy wet caramel, and I just wished for more salt. Flakes of salt. I actually dipped my salty caramel in more fleur de sel. Lest you think I'm a salt junkie, I'm not. But this just was not my favorite taste of the night.
Taste 8: Chocolate-fleur del sel caramel.
More of the same as above but with dark chocolate added to the caramel.
Taste 9: Poire Williams caramel.
As far as I remember, and by this time I was drunk with chocolate, this was actually not part of the original tasting line-up, but Chuck was so inspired, he whipped out a tray of these lovely little delicacies, flecked with edible gold leaf.
Taste 10: Marzipan chocolate.
For those of us closing the party we got to try a few more examples of the new line-up. Having read about Chuck's marzipan on the website and I was really hoping to try them. I love alomonds. Give me anything almond and I'm happy. Marzipan, it's right up there. And, as per his style, Chuck took that marzipan and made it his own, having a great story to back it up. While he himself is a big nut fan, Chuck has bad childhood memories of sickly-sweet marzipan. He's hated it. But with enough goading from his crew, he decided to make a marzipan confection that he could actually appreciate. Add a bit of orange zest to this, a little lemon zest to that, and voila! A perfectly balanced bittersweet chocolate-coated candy with just enough ooh-la-la to take the edge off the sweetness. Heaven.
Chuck Siegel is boldly entering a fashionable Bay Area scene with highly designed packaging and a line of unique candy bars and filled chocolates. He has a tough act to follow as Scharffen Berger put California on the world map of a fiercely competitive chocolate making field, and Michael Recchiuti tempted and fed us into submission with his innovative, rare and seasonal, hand dipped chocolates. It could be said that they are cornering the market.
But with the open mind and expansive palates we Californians are known to have, I think there's room for a newbie but a goody.
Where to find Charles Chocolates:
You can purchase a full range of chocolates on the website, including the fresh candies described above.
Due to quality and freshness considerations, the stores below generally only carry chocolate bars, righteous on their own of course...
Select stores only.
post by Shuna Fish Lydon and Kim Goodfriend
photos by Wendy Goodfriend