Buying Guide to California Chocolates

California is blessed with a lot of things, but most people aren’t aware that the Golden State is also blessed with some very fine chocolatiers. Some, such as See’s and Ghirardelli’s, may be familiar to people throughout the country. Others are much smaller and limited to just one or two shops within the state, but they are definitely worth the effort to discover.

See’s Candies was founded in 1921 in Los Angeles, and is perhaps the best known chocolatier in the state. The well-known crisp black and white motif of their boxes and stores reflect both the art deco era and quest for perfect white-glove cleanliness of the time. They are moderately priced and make a fine last minute gift, especially since their assortments come pre-wrapped in their many retail outlets. The chocolates themselves reflect their moderate price and their method of factory manufacture – good enough, but slightly waxy.

Columbia Candy Kitchen uses recipes dating back four generations in the Nelson family. Located in historic Columbia State Park, their headquarters occupies the same shop that has housed confectioners since the 1890s (they added a second shop in The Junction shopping center in Sonora seven years ago). They carefully concoct their creations using the original old equipment such as copper kettles and marble slabs. According to Jennifer McMahon, fourth generation chocolatier, “the pine nut rolls are probably our most unique creation, and we also have the fruit and nut California Cups.” Columbia Candy Kitchen employs three full-time chocolate dippers and one full-time candy maker who also roasts the nuts and makes the ingredients for the hand-dipped chocolates. You can truly taste the difference in these creamy, melt-in-your-mouth delights.

Schurra’s Candy Factory is a cut above, a true modern chocolatier. This San Jose company has their factory and retail store on The Alameda, and a second shop inside the Fairmont Hotel downtown. From molded chocolate boxes in a variety of sizes, shapes and colors to their unusual truffles decorated with wild designs, you’ll find a lot to love at Schurra’s. A hint of hazelnut flavor gives their chocolate a very different undertone, and it’s a richness that you miss in others after you’ve sampled theirs.

XOX Truffles from San Francisco won a private, unscientific taste test done by a group of California friends who spent a day sampling 19 different chocolates. Owners Jean-Marc and Casimira Gorce have garnered perhaps a more prestigious award in the form of excellent reviews from Chocolatier magazine and The Rosengarten Report which both gave XOX Truffles high marks for creativity and flavor. All they do is truffles, however, so if you want more variety shop elsewhere. But oh, what truffles! David Rosengarten describes them as “unbelievably delicious, very artisanal, exceedingly idiosyncratic chocolate truffles.” They even offer a vegan truffle line made with soy milk.

Donnelly Chocolates are created under the guiding hand of Richard Donnelly, who has studied with master chocolatiers in Brussels and Paris. The March 2001 issue of Chocolatier magazine featured Donnelly as one of their top ten favorite chocolate artisans in America. Hailing from Santa Cruz, this small company offers a wide variety of products, including body sweets for intimate experiences, and even has chocolate-making classes. The Chocolate Companion magazine lists Donnelly Chocolates as “one of only 17 three-star (out of three) artisan chocolatiers in the world.”

Charles Chocolates, located in the San Francisco Bay Area, has received extensive local and national press coverage for their high-quality and unusual creations. One of their more spectacular offerings is “‘The Apple’, a giant Granny Smith apple coated in fresh cream caramel, dipped in bittersweet chocolate and then coated with Macadamia nuts or crumbled biscotti.” Charles Chocolates appeared as one of the “Best of the West” for chocolates in the February 2006 issue of Sunset magazine, where the verdict was: “Top-quality chocolate is paired in exquisite proportion with flavors such as Earl Grey and peanut praline.”

Ghirardelli is not a gourmet small batch chocolatier, but they’re definitely worth a mention because of their national market appeal and exceptional products considering their high volume of production. Their mass-produced candy bars made for grocery stores are somewhat waxy to keep them in better condition for store shelves, but the high quality chocolate underneath the heavy texture shines through, and unusual flavors like mint and raisin make these an excellent low-cost choice. Other offerings with a higher cacao percentage and less confectioner’s wax include the boxed assortment Masterpieces Collection and the Dark Decadence line. Where they are at their best, however, is their powdered hot chocolates, especially the Double Chocolate and Sweet Ground Chocolate & Cocoa. A California institution in Oakland’s Jack London Square since 1852, Ghirardelli is a local and national favorite for good reason.

If possible, visit the flagship store of each of these chocolatiers for the freshest examples so you can truly appreciate them at their best. Often, the shop will have a plate of free sample bits so you can taste before you buy – some flavors, especially among the more wild and experimental truffles, aren’t for everyone! It’s also fun to have a tasting party with your friends – put a few in numbered bowls (to which you have the key) and ask them to vote based on flavor, texture, appeal, and other factors.

Most chocolatiers will ship their products to your door, but during the hot summer months expect to pay a premium for extra heat-resistant packaging and rush delivery. Some won’t ship in hot weather at all, so contact the company of your choice before assuming that you’ll be able to have your chocolates sent in time for a special gift or occasion.

There are dozens of chocolatiers in California, so this is merely a sampler box full of delicious chocolate delights to try. No doubt you will have your own local favorite!

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