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A lifelong affair with chocolate

A guide to the good stuff



I’ve loved chocolates since I was a toddler. My mother lovingly filled every Easter basket with giant Rocky Road eggs, Bordeaux and walnut fudge eggs, a huge chocolate Easter bunny, and jellybeans from See’s Candies. Not only did she continue doing this well into my adulthood, she repeated it for my daughter, Barbara (her namesake). I don’t keep boxes of See’s candy around the house like my mother did (her six sisters did, too); that’s far too much temptation. But I do treat myself to a couple of dark chocolate squares weekly. And now that studies prove that chocolate is good for your health, I indulge more often.

A simple search on WebMD quickly provided the facts: Dark chocolate contains flavonoids, just like red wine, tea, fruit, and vegetables, which improves your blood sugar and insulin sensitivity, reducing the risk of getting diabetes. But you won’t get flavonoids from milk chocolate or white chocolate. The latter isn’t chocolate at all—it’s cocoa butter, the fatty solids from cocoa seeds used in candies, tanning oils, and soaps. However, the popular health website recommends consuming dark chocolate in low doses because of the saturated fat and sugar. Another WebMD page had this interesting news: “Eating a little bit of chocolate each week may not only lower the risk of having a stroke, it may decrease the odds of dying from one.”

Many excellent shops devoted to chocolate have opened all over SLO County. That makes it much more convenient to enjoy a handcrafted truffle, bonbon, or almond bark whenever the craving hits. I visited four shops incognito to see how they differed and found them all uniquely distinctive. Afterward, I called upon them for details about making chocolates.

In San Luis Obispo, Tropical Chocolates on Broad Street provides a taste of paradise for chocoholics. Chocolatiers Roger and Pam Marshall design the most complex, unique candies I’ve seen. Not a fan of the salted-candy trend, I tasted their gorgeous Hawaiian sea salt caramel in dark chocolate and loved it. Pam explained they buy most of their chocolate from Hawaii, including single-origin sources in Waialua and Kokoleka. Their worldly chocolates also come from Madagascar, Venezuela, and Ecuador.

“We support the World Cocoa Foundation, which supports sustainable and ethical practices and pays Fair Trade prices to cocoa farmers,” Pam pointed out.

The Marshalls support local farms and wineries, too, producing such unique confections as Atascadero organic lavender and caramel in dark chocolate, Santa Maria strawberries and balsamic vinegar in dark chocolate, and Edna Valley Pinot Noir in dark chocolate ganache.

“I love coming up with new flavors, like ‘poparazzi,’ filled with Pop Rock candy and edible glitter, and Champagne truffles to serve at brunch,” Pam said.

Check out their monthly tasting, featuring chocolates from around the globe.

The Village of Arroyo Grande features The Chocolate Sheep, owned by Noreen Vance. She started working for a candy maker at 14 to learn to be a chocolatier. Her mom has owned and run a chocolate and ice cream shop on Cape Cod for 25 years.

Noreen’s daughter Amelia, 13, and son Josiah, 8, help. She buys Guittard chocolate and loves experimenting with additions like fruit and coffee. Next to almond bark, her best seller is the giant peanut butter cup. A former educator, she sells creative toys not found in chain stores.

“The hardest part for me is doing the business side of it,” she admitted. “I like making the chocolates and talking to my customers.”

I went crazy over her delicious caramel pecan buds liberally coated in dark chocolate. When I whined about calories, Noreen laughed and said: “When people come in and say, “Oh, that’s so rich!’ I tell them: You can never have too much money, too much love, or too much chocolate.”

I discovered Gerald’s Olde Tyme Chocolates in Grover Beach when their sign caught my eye: “All About Chocolates—Made Here—Always Fresh.” Owned by Gerald and Beatrice Reed, it seemed as familiar as the chain store. But this mom-and-pop shop offers original, handcrafted chocolates of excellent quality. Beatrice offered a sample of their delicious almond bark while patiently answering many questions. Gerald learned his craft from a third generation European candy maker, Albert Tandy, in Los Angeles. Tandy’s grandfather and father were candy makers in England. Tandy, founder of Liberty Candy & Supply, mentored Gerald and sold him recipes he had copyrighted in 1927.

“For 30 years it’s always been about tradition,” said Gerald, who buys Guittard chocolate for his confections. “That’s what our customers expect.”

The decadent dark chocolate mint truffles are reminiscent of the chain store’s, but are far superior. One taste of his almond toffee, which he described as similar to the canned variety (but his is much tastier), made me like that old-fashioned treat.

The newest specialist in Pismo Beach is I’m in Heaven Chocolates on Price Street. Professional chocolatier Dr. Nancy Ronga said her shop is paradise found. A psychologist by day, she spends evenings and weekends offering chocolate-covered delights sure to satisfy anyone’s inner child. Treats include Rice Krispy bars, Oreo cookies topped with strawberries she calls “straweo,” and jelly roll cake, which she coats in dark, milk, or white chocolate. Customers love almond bark and the decadent shot of liquid chocolate. Or you can buy a cup of it and have it topped with marshmallows, graham crackers, or whipped cream. She also offers coffee, espresso, tea, and sodas. She colored her Shangri-La sky blue and added white wicker furnishings and a white baby grand piano for Sunday concerts. She’s holding her grand opening on Thursday evening, Sept. 22, from 5:30 to 8 p.m. 

“It was always in my heart to be a chocolatier. I’m a third-generation baker; my grandmother and mother were both phenomenal,” Nancy recalled. “I vary what I offer daily and make things people like.” ∆


Contact New Times’ Cuisine columnist at [email protected].


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