The sweet life—and creations—of our local chocolatiers
By Deborah Luhrman
Photography by Angela Aurelio
Part sorceress and part chocolate evangelist, Dominica Schaaf dances around the kitchen to soft jazz, singing positive love affirmations to the organic, raw chocolate truffles she mixes up nearly every day.
“Chocolate is magical. It brings people together, makes people smile and makes them feel amazing,” she says, adding: “Raw chocolate is even more of an enlightening experience.”
The bubbly 24-year-old is the owner and chef behind Love Bird Chocolates, an online shop based in Boulder Creek that offers more than a dozen varieties of rich, intense truffles and peanut butter cups—all raw, vegan, organic and made with low-glycemic agave syrup so they can be enjoyed even by diabetics.
The love Schaaf injects into these sweets isn’t the only thing that makes them good for you. Chocolate has more antioxidant flavonoids than any other food. It contains a substance called theobromine that acts as a mild stimulant, and eating chocolate produces serotonin and endorphins, which contribute to an overall sense of well-being.
In fact, all the local chocolate artisans I met for this story seemed downright jolly, enjoying that sense of well-being that comes with the opportunity to craft—and eat—something they truly love.
Strictly speaking, chocolate may be the last food to offer the frisson of taboo in a true Central Coast locavore’s diet (see story on p. 56 to find out why coffee can now come off the list). But that for- bidden quality just adds to the attraction, and certainly eating locally made chocolate has its own virtues. Whatever its origins, chocolate’s sweet, melt-in-the-mouth deliciousness is especially appreciated at this time of year. From the countdown to the holidays through Valentine’s Day, nothing says love more than an exquisite box of chocolates.
When a box of See’s Candies just won’t do, the latest local chocolate shop to head to is Ashby Confections’ new aquamarine-colored confectionary in Scotts Valley. “You don’t get paid a lot for making chocolate and candies, but I’m so grateful that I found my passion,” says proprietor Jennifer Ashby, the mother of 6-year-old twins. “I get to be creative and work with the finest ingredients.”
Like most chocolate makers, Ashby tempers her chocolate to give it snap and sheen. She heats it and cools it on a large granite slab, moving it continuously so that all the tiny crystals in the cocoa butter line up. “Chocolate is tricky stuff. It’s temperamental and it’s needy,” she explains. “So I need to be very present and attuned to the chocolate. If I’m in a bad mood, it won’t turn out right.”
Ashby uses all organic butter and cream and specializes in bonbons filled with local flavorings, like lavender flowers from Happy Boy Farms, strawberries from Windmill Farms and fresh citrus from the farmers’ market. Her chocolate is a custom blend of French Valrhona and Guittard, a family-owned Burlingame company that pro- vides big blocks of premium chocolate to most of the confectioners in our area.
“I zest all the lemons and oranges myself. Even if I got really big, I wouldn’t use bottles of extracts and oils,” she says. “There is an effervescent quality to chocolates made with the real live stuff.”
In addition to hand-dipped creams, nougats, caramels and pralines, Ashby’s is known for its decadent chocolate-pecan tortoises and rocky road treats featuring homemade marshmallow. With the arrival of the new shop, Ashby is also rolling out a fresh line of goodies made with organic/fair trade dark chocolate imported from Agostoni of Italy. “Side by side, organic just tastes better, and I want to give the best experience I can,” Ashby says.
Quality is also top priority for Richard Donnelly Chocolates, which sits prettily at No. 8 on National Geographic’s list of the world’s 10 best chocolatiers. The accolade brings a steady stream of curious customers to the little shop on Mission Street in Santa Cruz that Don- nelly runs with his brother Henry, but the proof is in the tasting.
The brothers claim to have no idea how they made it on the 10 best list this year—for the third time—but Donnelly explains it this way: “We have very good recipes, very good ingredients and we make everything in really small batches, so it’s really fresh.”
The Boston native says he had little interest in chocolate until he went on a backpacking trip to Europe. He ended up in Paris going from one chocolate shop to another, tasting everything he could get his hands on. A friend helped him score an apprenticeship with one of the city’s top chocolatiers, and later he honed his craft in Belgium.
In 1998, just 10 years after returning to the U.S. and opening his Santa Cruz shop, Donnelly blew away the competition at the prestigious EuroChocolate festival in Perugia, Italy by introducing novel flavorings like smoky chipotle, cardamom and Tahitian vanilla bean, and walked away with the “Best Artisan” award.
Using his own blend of chocolates from Valrhona and Belgium’s Callebaut, Donnelly’s chocolate bars remain amazing—especially the Chinese Five Spice, with clove, cinnamon, star anise, Sichuan pepper and fennel. His European-style truffles also dazzle.
Donnelly has looked into making chocolate from scratch and taken classes, but says bean-to-bar is not for him. “There are so many steps involved and it’s difficult to source cocoa beans. They come from so far away, it’s hard to know what you’re going to get,” he says.
But he’s diversifying by offering classes (see EXPLORE box, p. 37) and creating new products like ice cream bars, truffle cookie sandwiches, hot cocoa mix, and even dark chocolate massage oil— which might just be the greatest Valentine’s Day gift ever.
Bean to Bar
One of the bean-to-bar classes Richard Donnelly took was offered at Cabrillo College Extension in Aptos by pastry chef Anne Baldzikowski, who also teaches a popular 8-week chocolate course for students in the college’s culinary arts program.
Class starts with a tasting of chocolates from all over the world, and she encourages students to pick out flavors that are familiar or unusual. Then she leads them through roasting, grinding, winnowing, conching, refining, tempering and molding.
“It’s so amazing that you start with a beautiful pod full of beans and end with something that’s so delicious and brings so much joy,” she says. “It feeds the soul.”
Anne teaches how the Mayans and Aztecs in Mexico and Guatemala first used chocolate thousands of years ago as a holy beverage concocted with chile peppers and spices. In fact, the word cacao comes from the Mayan kakaw and was corrupted to cocoa when the
Europeans started taking the highly revered powder back home to mix with sugar for drinks and later for baking and candy making. Nowadays, cacao generally refers to the raw beans, and cocoa is used for the processed product.
Santa Cruz resident Nell Newman is another chocolate lover who knows where the beans come from. As co-founder and president of Newman’s Own Organics, Newman has twice visited farms that grow the organic cocoa beans used in the company’s line of chocolate bars and candies.
She works with small farms in the Dominican Republic and Ecuador that are certified organic by Oregon Tilth. “Cacao can be wild looking with yellow, red or lime-green pods, and it’s meant to be grown in the understory of the jungle,” she explains. “If it’s grown on large plantations, they need chemicals.”
Her company collaborates with the Rainforest Alliance, which certifies the green rating of the farms’ environmental and labor practices. Inspectors visit every year and work with farmers to improve conservation and increase yield.
“Cacao is a commodity and prices fluctuate with the market, but we pay a premium because we feel farmers need to be paid more money or there may not be a future generation of cacao farmers,” says Newman. “Farmers are not getting paid enough to convince their kids to stay on the farm.”
Newman’s beans are processed by a contractor; in fact, no one is refining their own chocolate in the Monterey Bay area. The nearest bean-to-bar chocolatier is Snake & Butterfly, which operates a workshop and retail location in Campbell, and TCHO, on Pier 17 in San Francisco.
If you’re getting the idea that Santa Cruz County is a mecca for chocolate makers, you just might be right. We can’t leave out Marini’s Candies, which has been delighting sweet-toothed visitors to the boardwalk since 1915. Marini’s hand dips dozens of types of chocolates each day in a showcase window at its Pacific Avenue location and on the wharf.
In 2010 they started making chocolate-covered bacon as a joke, but it sold out in three hours and has become one of their most popular products. The bacon is baked, so it’s not greasy. Instead, it provides a pleasant, salty crunch that enhances the flavor of its chocolate covering.
In Scotts Valley, Lloyd and Lindy Martin’s little shop Chocolate Visions specializes in delicious chocolates flavored with wine, champagne and even single malt scotch. Lloyd’s own designs are transferred onto each candy, giving them a beautifully modern, upscale look. If you’ve ever wondered whether wine and chocolate really go together, this is the place to find out.
Ian Mackenzie is another Santa Cruz chocolate maker who has found his special niche. Mackenzies Chocolates occupies the same lace-curtained English cottage on Soquel Avenue designed and opened by his parents in 1984. Mackenzie carries on the family tradition using his mother’s recipes to mold more than 1,000 different objects. He loves making chocolate boxes that can be filled with chocolate candies and has a design for every occasion. There are chocolate banana slugs in honor of UCSC, golf clubs, tools, musical instruments, baby pacifiers, seashells and a clever computer mouse that opens to reveal a colony of tiny chocolate mice inside.
True chocoholics won’t be able to resist a trip to Chocolate the Restaurant in downtown Santa Cruz. Chef/owner David Jackman uses El Rey Venezuelan cocoa in making his popular moles and his barbecue sauce. For dessert, he offers 10 varieties of frothy hot chocolate and decadent giant truffles filled with fresh mousse in flavors like Mexican spice and salted caramel.
Our area’s largest chocolate maker began in Watsonville but moved east to Hollister looking for more space. Dutch candy man Marinus van Dam had been working for others, including Harmony Foods (now Santa Cruz Nutritionals), when he decided to open his own Marich Premium Chocolates in Watsonville in 1983. His son, Brad van Dam—now CEO—recalls sweeping floors and mending machinery for his father in between classes at Cabrillo College before he was allowed to learn to make chocolates.
The confectionery flourished and after their dad passed away in 1997, Brad van Dam and his brother Troy moved the business to a 50,000-square-foot facility in Hollister. There they specialize in round, panned chocolates, which are essentially nuts, dried fruits or espresso beans enrobed in chocolate, covered with a candy shell and tumbled or “panned” in special polishing machines that look like miniature cement mixers.
Brad van Dam excitedly showed me around the huge plant like Willy Wonka giving a tour of his iconic chocolate factory, nibbling as we walked and offering samples from bins brimming with brightly colored candies and shiny dark brown ones.
The scale and mechanization of Marich’s operation is a contrast to the area’s typical small-batch chocolate shops, but when it comes to ingredients, Marich operates with the same commitment to using premium chocolate and sourcing quality ingredients from the nearby region. In Marich’s case, this means Guittard chocolate and California dried fruits and nuts—including walnuts from Hollister.
“At $5–10 a bag, our chocolates are an inexpensive luxury, a pleasure product,” he says.
Much of Marich’s production is sold under the private label of other retailers, including nearly every major American coffee shop chain. But the company’s own brand is starting to take off and was chosen as the official candy at the Emmy Awards earlier this year, introducing it to a bevy of Hollywood stars. Trendy flavor combinations like dark chocolate chipotle almond, pumpkin spice, sea salt caramel and coconut curry have catapulted them into the gourmet category. “My dad always said do what you do best,” says van Dam, who is gearing up to expand again and clearly enjoying the sweet success.
Sea salt caramels
It’s easy to forget that just a short number of years ago, dousing chocolates and caramels with liberal amounts of sea salt seemed novel. Now, chocolate-covered sea salt caramels are a big deal. They are also best sellers for all our local chocolate artisans, and no one does them better than Lula’s in Monterey.
Owner Scott Lund learned the chocolate craft from his grand-mother, who used to mix up big batches of confections every Christmas in the basement of her home in Salt Lake City. Scott started out as an accountant for Shell Oil in Texas, but before long returned home and in 2007 decided he could build a business based on his Grandma Lula’s recipes.
“We do everything the old-fashioned way, using her techniques and knowledge,” he says. The kitchen, in a business park in Ryan Ranch, is sparkling white but filled with well-worn copper pots and wooden paddles. A small staff turns out exquisite buttercreams, toffees, nut clusters and truffles. For the holidays they mold solid chocolate old-fashioned Santas, made from flavorful Venezuelan Criollo chocolate.
But for adults, consider Lula’s luxurious sea salt caramels. The centers are buttery, not sticky, and they come in sets of nine, with different sea salts—like Himalayan pink, chile verde, vintage Merlot and Hawaiian black lava Hiwa Kai—adorning each piece. They’re addictive and before long, you’ll find the box will be empty and you’ll have to get some more.
Fortunately, Lula’s has two shops in Carmel—and other fine local chocolatiers can be found throughout our region!
Deborah Luhrman is a lifelong journalist who has reported from around the world. She returned home to the Santa Cruz Mountains a few years back and enjoys covering our growing local foods movement. She also edits EMB’s electronic newsletter.