While stylish imports bought at twee and alarmingly expensive stores were once the only real option for true connoisseurs, at last the chocoholic with a patriotic bent can salve his sweet tooth with fine cacao products that proudly bear the designation "Made in America."
Much as in the wine market, resourcefulness, ingenuity and persistence have helped American makers challenge once unassailable Old World brands. And some are doing it on the daunting level of "bean-to-bar" production, the ne plus ultra approach that requires sourcing and processing beans rather than simply buying chocolate blocks for shaping and flavoring.
Guittard, a San Francisco Bay Area chocolate producer founded just after the Civil War, has long sold its very good chocolate to the industry. Today the company is also creating top-quality bars. Many are of single origin, reflecting the character of the beans' birthplace. Taste the sampler packs to find what you like, or follow the flavors. The Ambanja bar, from Madagascar beans, has sparkling acidity; Chucuri, from Colombia, shows pepper and even cigar box notes (www.guittard.com).
Eleven years ago, in nearby Berkeley, Scharffen Berger, a bean-to-bar company now owned by Hershey, became perhaps the first U.S. maker to denote cacao percentage on the package. Now virtually a prerequisite in the serious chocolate game, the move was considered foolhardy at the time. Years of acclaim have followed, particularly for its blended bars (www.scharffenberger.com).
Flavored and filled choices also arise from the Bay Area. Charles Chocolates makes a variety of bars and bonbons, which show a fondness for citrus and berry flavorings (www.charleschocolates.com). I'm always wowed by Michael Recchiuti chocolates. Buy a box, a big one, and be sure it has the coffee and sesame varieties (www.recchiuticonfections.com).
Leaders from Seattle include Fran's, which riffs on a handful of flavor combinations—among the caramel entries Smoked Salt stands out (www.franschocolates.com)—and a newish company called Theo, which makes organic and Free Trade certified chocolate from bean to bar, and also flavored bars and confections, all with care (www.theochocolate.com).
Back east, New Hampshire's L.A. Burdick emphasizes novelty shapes (e.g., cigars) in fine chocolate (www.burdickchocolate.com). Connecticut's Knipschildt is a very fine confectioner with a light touch (www.knipschildt.com). Established by a pastry chef, Rhode Island's Garrison Confections makes a seasonal collection of squares filled with ganache. This fall's theme was berry and fruit (www.garrisonconfections.com). All testify that the only problem with American chocolate today is that so much of it is good.
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