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Corrected version

This story was published April 16, 2009. Because of a technical problem, the correct publish date is not displaying properly on the story. We apologize for the error.

Seattle happily obsesses as chocolate workshops and tours thrive

This story was published April 16, 2009. Because of a technical problem, the correct publish date is not displaying properly on the story. We apologize for the error.

Seattle keeps getting crazier for chocolate, and obsessed fans keep filling workshops and tours.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Exotic flavors, complex definitions

IN THE LAST THREE DECADES in Seattle, chocolate has morphed from the cheap, extremely sweet variety to premium truffles with exotic and complex flavors, inspired by French chocolate makers. Sea salt truffles and chili chocolates are trendy. So are Wasabi, plum and sesame confections, inspired by the region's pan-Asian cuisine.

The city's chocolate scene has come a long way since 1982, when Fran Bigelow opened Fran's in Madison Valley and had to convince a skeptical public that chocolate could be gourmet. Now, even President Obama is a fan. His favorite: Fran's salted caramel chocolate.

The opening of Theo Chocolate in Fremont in 2006 was a milestone. Theo, by definition, is the only commercial chocolate maker in Seattle, since it's the only company that roasts cacao beans to make chocolate. The rest are technically chocolatiers or candymakers who buy and melt chocolate to make truffles and bars.

The organic, fair-trade chocolate company draws not only chocolate lovers, but tourists and people with just a passing interest to take its plant tour to taste curry chocolate and other exotic flavors. These days, chocolate tours and workshops are big in Seattle, filling to capacity, sometimes with waiting lists.

If You Go

Chocolate tours and how-to classes

HERE ARE SOME TOURS AND WORKSHOPS offered in the Seattle area:

Theo Chocolate, 3400 Phinney Ave. N., offers the most workshops and tasting events in the area, including its new Chocolate Academy, which features lectures and hands-on courses. About $55-$70 per course. Theo also holds daily tours of its Fremont plant ($6, including tastings). 206-632-5100 or www.theochocolate.com

Oh! Chocolate offers classes on Fridays and weekends at its Madison Park shop, 3131 E. Madison St. ($59). There are also "Parlour Nights," chocolate-and-wine pairing events ($69). 206-329-8777 or www.ohchocolate.com

Chocolopolis holds workshops on how to taste chocolate properly and also brings in many of the nation's top chocolatiers for free tastings and talks at its Queen Anne store, 1527 Queen Anne Ave. N. 206-282-0776 or www.chocolopolis.com

Boehms Candies will soon release its guided-tour schedule of its plant in Issaquah. Customers may also take the self-guided window tour at the factory, 255 N.E. Gilman Blvd. 425-392-6652 or www.boehmscandies.com

Chocolatier Ivy Chan of Cocoa Chai Chocolates teaches a variety of workshops out of her Queen Anne studio for all levels. Included is one of the area's most comprehensive chocolate courses, "From Bean to Bar." See www.cocoachai.com.

Sweet Decadence Chocolates offers classes (including some for bridal parties) at its Newcastle shop, 12835 Newcastle Way, Suite 100. 425-572-6572 or www.sweet-decadence.com

Wicked Chocolate offers a five-week class ($95) at the Sand Point Education Center, 6208 60th Ave. N.E., Seattle. See www.wickedchocolateshop.com

Tour de Chocolat Seattle offers a three-hour tour and sampling of some of the area's top chocolate makers including Theo Chocolate, Oh! Chocolate and Fran's, for $69. 206 427-2515 or www.sschocolatebox.com

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It didn't seem that long ago that folks were content to just snack on chocolate. No one questioned its cacao percentage. No one cared about the terroir.

Now, though, chocolate has been anointed with gourmet status here. Treated like fine wine or charcuterie. Even showcased like jewelry, with each confection enrobed in saffron or some exotic flavor, under glass for display.

Our cacao curiosity has never been higher in Seattle. Chocolate tours often fill up. Wine-and-chocolate pairings have become a big hit year-round, not just at Valentine's Day.

Classes? Folks, we got classes. For bachelorette parties and company retreats. Classes to make ganache and truffles, and classes that explore fair-trade issues or the health benefits of dark chocolate.

This month, Theo Chocolate in Fremont started arguably the country's most in-depth series of classes on all things chocolate, from how to make a chocolate bar to "the history, culture and economics of the global cacao and chocolate industries." "I think chocolate inspires a particular kind of interest that even wine and coffee don't," said Kristy Leissle, an instructor at Theo Chocolate. "We have such an emotional connection to chocolate. Since we are little, we associate (chocolate) with birthdays, romance, times of happiness and sadness, when we need comforting."

Also, local chocolatiers say, the slow food, eat-local mantra has gotten the public interested in knowing about their food's origins.

Many workshops

As a result of such interest, a flood of chocolate workshops are offered these days. It can seem overwhelming. A good starting point: Take a class that focuses more on sampling and that skims through the history and chocolate-making process. Most chocolate lovers are more interested in tasting different chocolates rather than inhaling hourlong lectures about cacao beans from Ecuador and Cameroon, several chocolatiers say.

Theo Chocolate's tours offer a good introduction, though you have to book weeks in advance.

Another way in is Oh! Chocolate's weekend classes in Madison Park, two-hour informal sessions offering a sort of Chocolate-for-Dummies overview, ending with participants dipping Oreos and strawberries in chocolate. You should see the wide-eyed expressions of adults when told they may keep as much chocolate as they can make.

A family owned business, Oh! Chocolate, started by Carl and Gertie Krautheim in 1973, is now passed on to the third generation, including brothers Nick and Chris Masaoka.

The brothers, part German, Portuguese, Korean and Japanese, lead weekly classes in groups of 10 to 12.

Each participant gets a plate of chocolate in its various stages and permutations: unrefined cacao beans that have been shelled and roasted, bittersweet and semisweet, milk and dark chocolate.

In a recent class, Nick, 31, the younger brother, even brought out chunks of Madagascar Criollo, a fruity chocolate with red hue, made from arguably the finest cacao bean in the world. "She really better be cute to bust this stuff out," Nick said.

The class nibbled away while the brothers chatted about how cacao beans get roasted and "cacao percentage," the part of the bar made from chocolate liquor.

Then on to making chocolate-covered strawberries, graham crackers, marshmallows, pretzels and Oreos, with pitchers of melted chocolate poured on to the marble tables.

Get your hands in there, the brothers said. Time to temper — folding and thinning the melted chocolate to produce a shiny finish and consistent texture.

Every month, the brothers also lead social wine-and-chocolate pairing events.

A wine vocabulary

There are others, such as Lauren Adler, founder of Queen Anne-based Chocolopolis, who treat chocolate like wine, talking about "single-estate chocolate" and "terroir" to customers who sign up for her chocolate-tasting workshops.

You can learn a lot about chocolate, the complexity of it, by using your five senses, said Adler, a former investment banker. Her shop features 200 different bars from around the world.

"First thing is look at the bar. You don't want to see gray streaks, air bubbles or marks ... You want to make sure it looks shiny," she said. "Then you want to feel the chocolate. It should not feel brittle, sticky or grainy. You want it smooth."

Break the bar in half, she said. "It should have a nice snap sound, which ... (means it's) well-tempered and also implies that it has a high percentage of cacao solids in it."

Rub the chocolate between your fingers and take in the aroma. "Is it earthy, fruity?"

She advises tasters to "hold it in the roof of your mouth with your tongue. It helps different notes come out better ... You want to evaluate the taste. Is it simple or complex? The bar might have a strong note. If complex, you find different notes."

For instance, she said, just as it melts, you might get a citrusy suggestion or hints of cinnamon. And when you finish, you might notice notes of "coffee lingering on your palate."

And, like coffee, chocolate is a perfect new obsession for Seattle.

Tan Vinh: 206-515-5656 or tvinh@seattletimes.com

This story was published April 16, 2009. Because of a technical problem, the correct publish date is not displaying properly on the story. We apologize for the error.

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