A bunch of years ago, when I was writing a dessert-and-pastry column called Queen of Tarts for the San Francisco Bay Guardian (yes, this Pie Queen concept has been going on for quite a while), I got an invitation to go down to a warehouse in South San Francisco. South San Francisco is what you first see from the airport, its claim to fame laid out in huge white Hollywood-sign letters: "South San Francisco: The Industrial City," framed by identical rows of boxy pastel houses, And the garage-like space I'd come to find was identical to every other locked box in a long row of corrugated metal and concrete.
Except for the smell. It was like all the brownies on earth baking together, tantalizing and warm and unbearably seductive. "I don't even smell it anymore," confessed Robert Steinberg, one of the founders of the then-nascent Scharffen Berger Chocolate company. A doctor turned self-taught chocolate maven, Steinberg was overseeing the company's tiny chocolate-making operation in tandem with co-owner John Scharffenberger, who'd recently left his family's successful sparkling-wine business in the Anderson Valley. Together, they were doing what no one else in America was doing on such a small scale: making bean-to-bar chocolate. (As far as I know, Jacques Torres's new Hudson Street operation is the only other small-scale chocolate-making operation in the States.)
In the land of home-grown behemoths like Hershey's, they had to import their fire engine red, Willie-Wonka-ish machinery from Germany, where family-run chocolate companies still had old, small machines to sell. The beans came in rough burlap sacks, stamped with their country of origin--Venezuela, Cote d'Ivoire, Ecuador. We toured the room, pausing at each machine as the beans went from roaster to concher to tempering vat. The chocolate itself was startling: intensely flavored, with a vivid smokiness balanced by fruitiness.
Professional pastry chefs were Scharffen Berger's target market, and soon, in San Francisco, menus were touting Scharffen Berger chocolate the same way they bragged of Frog Hollow peaches and Acme bread. But Steinberg and Scharffenberger were caught off guard by the public's clamour for their chunky slabs of baking chocolate.
Now, Scharffen Berger has a sleek new home in a rehabbed brick warehouse in south Berkeley (where you can take a fragrant tour of the whole chocolate-dusted works, then taste their wares in the adjoining Cafe Cacao). The product line includes both the original big baking blocks and a whole wide range for straight-up chocolate eaters: smooth, slender 3-oz bars of various cocoa-bean percentages (the higher the percent, the darker and stronger the chocolate), cute chunky two-bite bars, cocoa powder, cocoa nibs (tiny bitter tidbits of the roasted bean itself), even milk chocolate (something Steinberg swore, in the beginning, that he’d never do). And the company has a corporate parent: the original rubber-candy-bar company itself, Hershey's.
But so far, Scharffen Berger's still doing what it does best. And their brand new Gianduja bar--ahhh, my sweet, I insist! Dark chocolate mixed with pure hazelnut paste into a silky toffee-colored bar, it's like Nutella for grownups, not too sweet, with that special smoky edge roughing up the smooth suaveness of the hazelnut. Melt this onto a baguette, or some toasted brioche, and you will have died and gone to breakfast in heaven’s youth hostel.
On the Scharffen Berger website is a recipe for a chocolate pudding made with this. Fair warning: anyone making this for me better show up with a ring.
And elsewhere in the news, Cafe du Monde is back! They're up and frying down by the French Market, bringing the sweet smell of sugar-dusted beignets and chicory coffee back to the French Quarter. When times are tough, the tough start frying.