Nov./Dec. 2015 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Kate Campbell
Photos by Paolo Vescia and courtesy of Guittard Chocolate Co.
San Francisco family raises the (chocolate) bar
More online: Recipes for Chocolate pistachio sablés and Dark chocolate raspberry bonbons
Amy Guittard and her father, Gary, continue the family tradition of turning cacao beans into finished chocolate at their San Francisco Bay Area company.
A chocolate renaissance is taking place across America, and culinary experts say the selection of premium chocolates—and delectable food pairings—has never been greater. One of the nation's leading commercial chocolate companies, Guittard Chocolate, was established on the shore of San Francisco Bay nearly 150 years ago. It's still family-owned and -operated.
Beyond classic flavor pairings such as honey, vanilla and strawberry, the company is helping home cooks, chefs, confectioners and others rethink chocolate. Increasingly popular pairings now include wine, cheese, fresh fruit and meat, and chocolate is being added to barbecue rubs, salsas and even vegetable dishes.
Amy Guittard, whose great-great-grandfather founded Guittard Chocolate Co. during the Gold Rush, said the variety of food available in the Golden State today always surprises and inspires her.
"California's culinary world offers endlessly delicious opportunities," she said.
Amy Guittard visits cacao farms, such as this one in Central America, to talk with families that grow and ferment the beans.
From bean to bar
Cacao—the beanlike seeds from which cocoa, cocoa butter and chocolate are made—comes from small family farms, but is not grown in California. Guittard explains that commercial buyers look to tropical regions such as Ivory Coast, Indonesia, Brazil and Central America for cacao bean supplies. So, in addition to overseeing the company's marketing activities, she travels the world, meeting with farmers, buyers and traders who are part of the $100 billion-a-year global cacao business.
Cacao farming is an art unto itself, Guittard said. From growing and harvesting to fermenting and drying, the crop requires careful handling to protect flavor distinctions. Historians believe chocolate consumption originated in the pre-Columbian societies of Central America at least 5,000 years ago.
Chocolate begins with cacao beans, which are grown on small farms in tropical zones around the world.
"Our beans come from small family farms where generations of farmers have carried on the long tradition of growing cacao beans," she said. "We've always had relationships with our farmers. From collaborating on their postharvest techniques to developing community education programs, we're working with them to build long-lasting success in our cacao-growing communities."
When not on the road, Guittard said the kitchen is her favorite place, "especially when we're making something with chocolate and testing new recipes." She recently published a collection of her family's favorite chocolate recipes, which incorporate ingredients from California farms—pistachios, almonds, cherries, persimmons and raspberries, to name a few.
"From the earliest days, fruits and nuts were coming into San Francisco from California farms," said Guittard's father, Gary Guittard, considered an international chocolate statesman for roles including chairman of the National Confectioners Association's Chocolate Council and founding member of the World Cocoa Foundation. "When I was a kid, our company was right on the Embarcadero and when the ships came in, we'd go down and they'd literally set up a farmers market to sell some of the cooking ingredients right off the ships."
This close-up shows cacao beans during fermentation, which takes place on the farms, before the beans are turned into chocolate at Guittard.
These days, after the cacao beans arrive at Guittard Chocolate Co., they're roasted and winnowed, the process of crushing the roasted beans into small pieces and removing the outer shells. Then the beans are slowly ground into fine particles until they become a dark, bitter liquid, called chocolate liquor or cocoa mass. After that, other ingredients such as sugar, cocoa butter and milk—in the case of milk chocolate—may be added.
The resulting thick chocolate is refined further to a smooth consistency on traditional European equipment. The equipment is unique to each chocolate company and designs are carefully guarded secrets.
Conching, where taste nuances are created in the chocolate, is the crucial next step in flavor development, Gary Guittard explained. Guittard's conching formulas have been handed down for five generations, now to Amy and her brother, Jesse.
The last step in processing is tempering: a warming, mixing and cooling process for precise consistency. Then the chocolate is molded into bars, wafers or chips, or shipped in bulk as cocoa powder.
Guittard Chocolate Co. offered other types of imported and ground food throughout the years, but now focuses strictly on chocolate, Gary Guittard said. Among its current products is a new gourmet line of candy bars with cacao content ranging from 38 percent to 91 percent. The bars are created for people who want chocolate from a single source, such as a country of origin—even a particular farm—and a higher or lower percentage of cocoa butter.
Guittard is famous for its "couverture" chocolate—containing a high percentage of cocoa butter that, combined with proper tempering, gives chocolate more sheen, a firmer "snap" when broken and a creamy, mellow flavor.
To make their chocolate, Amy and Gary Guittard use methods developed by founder Etienne Guittard, who came to California during the Gold Rush.
One key to premium taste is how the beans are fermented, a step that happens on the farm, Gary Guittard said. But texture—smoothness and mouth-melting—is as important as flavor, he added.
"Chocolate is a very powerful flavor and it creates taste memory," he said. "Sometimes chocolate is a flavor that's hard to understand or explain. But you can taste if the beans have been over- or under-fermented. Good chocolate tastes good."
People these days are more attuned to where their food comes from and they're interested in higher quality, Amy Guittard said.
"There's a lot of teaching going on now about chocolate—different flavor profiles, varieties with different uses, for example, and inventive chocolate pairings," she continued, adding that Guittard operates a cooking school in Los Angeles that offers advanced training to culinary professionals from around the world.
Alice Medrich, a Bay Area baking teacher and cookbook author, notes Guittard chocolate is probably well-known to many consumers—if not by name, then by flavor—because it's widely used nationwide by commercial bakeries and chefs.
"Ask the server in your favorite restaurant what kind of chocolate dessert you just ate," she said. "You'll likely learn it was Guittard."
The growing interest in chocolate and how it's used is fanning a renaissance in American chocolate-making, Medrich said, adding, "It's a new era for consumers interested in gourmet chocolate."