Sweet surrender
IN chocolate circles, it's often said that ganache reveals the true art of the chocolatier. Ganache, that creamy, silky, melt-in-your mouth blend of chocolate, cream and butter, is at the heart of many of the best artisan confections. And more and more these days, California chocolatiers are making outstanding ganaches — and pralines and caramels and butter creams — all covered in the most luscious chocolate.

Not so long ago, Californians — especially Southern Californians — might have had a hard time finding great fresh chocolates with coatings that snapped and ganaches that sang. Passionate chocoholics resorted to staking out a Teuscher store and waiting for the latest shipment from Switzerland, or tracking down a prepackaged box from La Maison du Chocolat at a high-end department store.

But now a growing number of chocolatiers from Sebastopol to San Diego are turning out impressive handcrafted chocolates. With distinguished pedigrees and a whopping enthusiasm for expensive, highest-quality ingredients, some of them rival top European confectioners. And best of all, their bonbons are fresh: There are several top-notch chocolatiers right here in Los Angeles, and many more in the Bay Area.

"More artisan confectioners are aspiring to a higher level of quality, and so much is changing right now in all aspects of chocolate making," says Alice Medrich, who owned several Cocolat dessert stores in the Bay Area from 1976 to 1990 and is the author of several books on chocolate. "There's a new level of detail, of care and attention during every step" of the process.

At Woodhouse Chocolate in Napa Valley, painstaking effort is poured into a tiny cup of dark chocolate layered with milk chocolate ganache, orange-blossom-scented fresh cream and marzipan infused with fiori di Sicilia, the citrus and vanilla extract traditionally used to flavor panettone. It's hand-dipped into milk chocolate, topped with a clean swirl of dark chocolate and a speck of 24-karat gold leaf.

At Boule in West Hollywood, a square of thick ganache might be infused with raspberry and Earl Grey tea or with cardamom and coffee, all enrobed in silky chocolate. Bite into one and the chocolate snaps between your teeth, like good chocolate should, giving way to the velvety filling.

California's artisan chocolatiers make their chocolates in small batches and meticulously cut or fill them piece by piece; they eschew preservatives or excessive amounts of sugar.

Their chocolates might be found in unexpected places, such as at humble pastry shop Frances in L.A.'s Little Tokyo district or at La Dolce V, in an antique mall outside of Sebastopol in Sonoma County. Other chocolatiers' shops might be destinations in and of themselves, like Jin Patisserie's Asian-inspired tea garden in Venice or the Recchiuti Confections store in San Francisco's Ferry Building.

Buying local means getting the freshest chocolates possible — and there's nothing like the experience of stepping into an artisan shop. The smell of chocolate fills the air, a chocolate tempering machine might be whirring in the back, and in a glass case out front are row after row of gorgeous bonbons. You get to pick exactly the flavors you want and know that these chocolates probably have been made within the last day or two.

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Home-grown product

THE high-quality chocolate known as couverture that's used by California confectioners often comes from European companies, such as Valrhona or Callebaut. But a California producer, Guittard Chocolate Co., is lately attracting a lot of attention.

Founded in 1868 in San Francisco, Guittard, now based south of the city in Burlingame, features single-origin chocolate in its fairly new E. Guittard line of couverture. That means the cocoa beans all come from a particular region, such as Sur del Lago in Venezuela or Sambirano Valley in Madagascar.

The company wasn't the first in California.

Ghirardelli Chocolate Co. was founded in 1852 in San Francisco, which offered a big port for the shipment of cocoa beans and a cool climate conducive to making and storing chocolate. Ghirardelli was first in California to make chocolate "from bean to bar," in industry parlance. That is, from cocoa bean to the bars used by chocolatiers. Chocolatiers take the manufacturers' product "from bar to bonbon."

Chicago-based Blommer Chocolate Co. established its presence in the area in the 1950s. In October, renowned Swiss manufacturer Barry Callebaut opened a $20-million distribution facility in American Canyon in Napa Valley. The company is considering establishing a Chocolate Academy there, banking on the assumption that exciting things are happening on the West Coast.

But it was home-grown Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker Inc., now based in Berkeley, that helped lead Californians toward darker chocolate. In 1996, Robert Steinberg, a physician, and John Scharffenberger, a former sparkling-wine maker, started in Steinberg's kitchen with some cocoa beans, a coffee grinder, mortar and pestle, an electric mixer and a hair dryer, according to company lore.

At the time, Americans might already have been aware of premium dark chocolate such as the French brand Valrhona. Top New York chefs were listing it on their menus in the early '90s as an ingredient in their molten chocolate cakes. But Valrhona wasn't as widely distributed at retail outlets in California as Scharffen Berger. (Now, however, retailers such as Trader Joe's regularly stock Valrhona.) "We thought we'd be selling to restaurants, to food service. But we realized that consumers were eating it and cooking with it," says Scharffenberger. At many retailers, he says, "We were the first [premium dark chocolate] on the store shelves…. Others were available, but they weren't making chocolate for the people."

In a testament to a growing market for high-end dark chocolate, Hershey Co. bought Scharffen Berger last year.