Over Mother’s Day weekend this year, Ronnie & I spent a lot of time in Sebastopol because he had a painting in a show there. While there, we stumbled across Sonoma Chocolatiers, and discovered they have been making artisan chocolate since 2008.
We hadn’t heard of them before, even though we have been doing this blog almost as long as they have been in business. This is one of the things I love about the local chocolate scene — there is always more to discover no matter how long we do this.
The place is a rather modest storefront in a small, nondescript strip mall in downtown Sebastopol. We probably would have overlooked it except for the sandwich board on the sidewalk. But it’s a good location, and people were coming in and out the whole time we were there. I’m sure all the local chocolate lovers know about it by now, so they don’t really need to shout their presence.
The front of the shop is a small tea room/café, with tables and chairs (including a few comfy stuffed ones) and a wall of tea canisters, pots, and other tea paraphernalia. In addition to the drinks served onsite, they also sell baked goods, chocolates, and loose teas.
We felt pretty lucky when we got there because even though it was the day before Mother’s Day, the display case was stocked with over 30 different types of truffles and caramels. The staff told us she had done 3 enrobing batches in the past week, plus 3 batches of molded chocolate, because they kept selling out.
Not only was there a good variety of chocolates, but there were also a lot of unusual flavors, like the first one I spotted because it had a very different look. The Earl Grey Orange Absinthe (EGOA) was a leaf-shaped molded chocolate, but it had a kind of broken-plaster-wall look to it, with large holes in the shell allowing you to glimpse the insides. I’ve never seen this treatment before and was totally intrigued. (Their Instagram has a pic of a plateful of these, to give you a better idea.)
Of course, I had to try it. It had a strong smell from the Absinthe (which has a high alcohol content), and I felt a little alcohol burn on my tongue right away. It didn’t have a strong licorice flavor though; it was more of an orange-y chocolate with a little savory balance. And the bergamot of the Earl Grey tea made it a more sophisticated citrus flavor than straight-up orange chocolate. Plus the crunchy bits, candied orange peel, put it over the top. I recommend it.
They also had a lot of other molded chocolates with unique shapes, probably vintage molds, some pieces decorated with luster dust or cocoa nibs for added interest, but their EGOA is the G.O.A.T. of molded chocolates to me. Like a chocolate interpretation of wabi-sabi, or decay art.
In addition to their unique flavors and shapes, another unusual aspect of Sonoma Chocolatiers’ chocolates is they are all made with dark chocolate. No white or even milk chocolate here. They use couverture that ranges from 62% to 85%. Their slogan is “Taste the Darkside.”
Unique chocolate outpost
While picking out a box to sample, we talked with the staff, and were told another unusual thing about Sonoma Chocolatiers: They use Scharffen Berger couverture to make their chocolates. I don’t know any other local artisan chocolatier who uses Scharffen Berger, the formerly local chocolate maker who started the U.S. bean-to-bar industry, but is now a part of the Hershey’s corporation. I was curious about how their chocolates would differ from other local chocolates I’m more familiar with.
Picking out flavors at Sonoma Chocolatiers is really fun. I like a good salted caramel as much as anybody, but I’m really more interested in a chocolatier’s vision and creativity — as long as the end product is well-made and delicious. I want the backbone of proper technique and skill, but on top of that I want to experience something that only that chocolatier can deliver.
High marks for creativity
Sonoma Chocolatiers does well on both counts, although our take is that they are much stronger with flavors (the creativity and vision part) than texture. We are not sure if that is due to the couverture they use or the limitation of only using dark chocolate, but the ganaches were generally denser, ranging toward hard, and not as creamy as I expected. Also, the olive oil flavors we tried, Balsamic & Olive Oil and Lemon Olive Oil, didn’t have that slippery feel that olive oil usually imparts to chocolate. We liked the flavors, the Lemon was very lemony from start to finish, and the Balsamic & Olive Oil was interesting, a little salty and smokey, almost bacon-y.
Some of the flavors I had to try just because of their names: Indian Coconut Currant, Orange Cardamom Caramel, Chambord, Espresso Spice, Hibiscus Caramel, Brown Sugar Rum Caramel, Sweet Spice Chai Caramel, Cinnamon Rose, and Honey Saffron Chocolate Caramel.
They advertise 130 flavors on their website, but what is available daily changes depending on what’s in season and what they can get from their suppliers because they try to use only local and organic ingredients. After seeing that we were interested in the more unusual flavors, the staff was disappointed that they didn’t have a lot of their funky flavors that day for us to try. I guess we will have to come back multiple times to get a fuller picture of their creativity.
And speaking of pictures, be sure to take pictures of the pieces in the display case you are purchasing because there is no menu card enclosed with your chocolates. If you’re only buying one or a few pieces, you can probably remember what the flavors are, but if like us, you buy a box of assorted chocolates, you will have no other way of knowing what you are eating unless you can refer to pictures of the pieces with their labels in the display case.
Not like anybody else
I thought the Indian Coconut Currant might be like Socola’s new Kheer flavor that we had at the last Chocolate Salon, but this was more of a spicy piece with cardamom, cinnamon, and other Indian spices. It was a little coconut-y, not fruity, with a nice little pepper burn at the end.
The Brown Sugar Rum Caramel was a soft caramel inside an elaborately molded 70% dark chocolate, with a good rum flavor, but the caramel texture was thicker and not as smooth as I expected. That might be been due to the brown sugar. Not a bad piece, but I was struck by the texture.
The Hibiscus Caramel, decorated with a spot of purple luster dust, was another soft, thick caramel, but without the pasty texture of the Brown Sugar Rum Caramel. It was very fruity and a bit tart.
The Sweet Spice Chai Caramel was interesting: The caramel had a slightly jellied texture; it was a little Earl Grey tasting and very chocolatey, but then the sweet spice flavor came in as a cinnamon candy aftertaste that reminded me of Reed’s Cinnamon Candy Rolls.
I liked the Cinnamon Rose much better. It was a beautiful rose mold, with soft caramel in a 70% coating. The piece tasted like cinnamon first, and was rosy, but not too much, which I approve of because I’m not a big fan of floral flavors.
The Honey Saffron Chocolate Caramel used the same vintage mold as the Brown Sugar Rum Caramel and was a smooth chocolate caramel in 70% coating. But I didn’t like how the saffron gave it a smokey/burnt flavor.
The last caramel we tried, the Salty Dark Chocolate Caramel, was another soft caramel in 70% coating. I liked the crunchy nibs on top of its clam-shell shaped shell, but it wasn’t very salty for a piece with “salty” in its name.
Pieces I loved from Sonoma Chocolatiers included:
- Cinnamon, with a good cinnamon flavor that lasted all the way through the dense ganache and lingered afterwards.
- Orange Cardamom Caramel, a mild orange caramel with the cardamom appearing last.
- Chambord, which was very chocolatey and berry-ful, but ended with an unexpected rum and banana aftertaste (maybe it’s just me).
- Espresso Spice, a nice take on coffee chocolates with espresso first, then spices. I’m not sure what spices exactly, except a piece of cracked black pepper at end, but they worked well with the chocolate and espresso flavors.
A piece I was looking forward to was P.B. & Heaven. The staff explained that it is their take on peanut butter cups, and she recommended it. It’s not my ideal dark chocolate peanut butter cup because in the solid ganache, the dark chocolate overwhelms the peanut butter. I prefer more peanut butter than chocolate in the mix. I did like the saltiness of the peanut butter.
One piece I was surprised I liked was their darkest, the Devout, at 85% cacao. The staff told us this was her favorite, but I have tried other 85% truffles (such as from Basel B Inc.) and found them too bitter, so I was skeptical. After trying the Devout, I stand corrected. The piece has crunchy nibs on top, and a smooth, almost liquid ganache, which had an earthy, slightly cheesy overtone. I think the nibs are what made the piece work for me: The lighter, nutty nibs contrasted nicely with the creamy ganache and darker chocolate.
The staff also wanted us to try the heart-shaped Rose truffle because it is one of their rarer items; they only do twice a year, for Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day. The rose flavored ganache was definitely rosy, and definitely for rose lovers only.
In addition to all the different truffles and caramels, another unique offering by Sonoma Chocolatiers is their Body & Brain Bars, which are tiles made of 75% dark chocolate, matcha, bee pollen, and non-cannabis CBD (Cannabidiol), which has no psychotropic effects (no THC, so no “high”), but is taken for health reasons, usually to treat pain or anxiety. These are NOT available on their website, so if you are interested in CBD chocolate, you will have to make a trip to downtown Sebastopol.
A writer/designer, Nancy lives in Oakland with Ronnie, her husband of many years & fellow chocolate enthusiast.