Sweet 'n' local: chocolate-making with Dandelion at the SF Botanical Garden

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"My name is Kaylen, and I'm a chocoholic," I announced at the Mesoamerican cloud forest at the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society (SFBGS), where users like me met for a recent course taught by Dandelion Chocolate. But what else is there to know about chocolate, apart from learning how to quit?

A whole botanical and cultural history, as it turns out, including tribal trading spats, terroir to make a oenophile envious, and ancient medicinal remedies — so don't stop drinking just yet. (Sound enticing? Sign up for SFBGS's upcoming class with Dandelion Chocolate and Four Barrel Coffee on Nov. 9; more Dandelion events here.) Here's the report.

Cacao and the cloud forest
The cacao plant thrives in Mesoamerican cloud forests, 6,000 to 10,000 feet above sea level and only 10 degrees north or south of the equator. This explains why San Francisco's climate doesn't agree with the picky pod. Mesoamerican botanist Dr. Joseph Barbaccia, leading the class on a tour through the cloud forest, explained, "We can grow the trees, but we can't approximate the environmental factors."

Nevertheless, many transplants from Mesoamerican cloud forests flourish here in the bay fog instead of down south, where cloud forest cutting has ravaged the flora and fauna. Among the high-scaling daisy trees, oaks, and pines, plants called out to Barbaccia like old friends, and he couldn't help stopping every few feet.

"Aha! The pièce de résistance!" he said, pointing at yellow and pink flowers hanging from the Deppea splendens in overturned bouquets, shivering like limp fingers. Dr. Dennis Breedlove, the botanist who collected the initial seeds for SFBGS's cloud forest, took seeds from this stunning, macabre flower while hiking through southern Mexico. Returning 13 years later, that plant had gone extinct in the wild ... but before straying too far down this mossy tangent, it's time to head to the classroom.

A brief history of chocolate
Dandelion chocolate makers Alice, Joey and Cynthia — not to be confused with chocolatiers, who make confections from pre-made chocolate — led the class. Joey began with a quick history lesson.

The pre-Columbian natives consumed cacao in a sludgy, half-wet, half-ground gruel of sorts. Sound appetizing? Actually, most of their meals had this consistency, and began on a stone, or metate, where Mesoamerican mamas ground maize, chilies, pumpkin seeds, and cacao. (Every household had one, like your modern KitchenAid wedding present.) Once the cocoa beans released oils, the paste was combined with herbs, honey, vanilla, spices, even dyes, as well as maize and hot water.

We ground our beans on a metate but skipped the corn meal and went straight for hot water. Traditionally, someone poured the boiling drink from one terra cotta bowl at shoulder height into another on the floor, back and forth until the drink foamed, but these chocolate makers didn't care to get dirty. They used a whisk. "You probably don't want to taste this," cautioned Alice.

I took a hesitant sip. Despite her warning, I found something mildly pleasing in the thin drink. It tasted oddly like coffee — sort of beany, without the disguise of milk, sugar, and added fats. It had me thinking, does our exhaustively artisanal coffee-culture have room for a new style of mocha, made from ground cacao bean instead of overly artificial sauce?

Bean to bar
Back in 2010, Dandelion Chocolates began experimenting with chocolate-making in a garage using hair dryers and blenders, before moving their factory to Valencia Street. The open space resembles the interior of a barn, if a barn were made of glass and the animals wore aprons.

While most mass producing chocolate companies source from a variety of plantations and over-roast their beans to achieve a uniform "chocolate" flavor in every square, Dandelion makes each bar from a single bean variety, playing around with roasting and mixing until finding a sweet spot, so to speak. Ultimately, they've created a broad collection of bars that rival a Napa winery's selection of pinots, cabs, and malbecs.

Nibbling, melting, slurping
I've saved the best for last, so let's cut to the chase, and taste.

The first samples foiled three of Dandelion's 70 percent darks, emphasizing the variety in beans — the boom without the frills. Joey called the Patanemo, Venezuela bar "platonic," since it wasn't too sweet, nor floral, citrusy, intense or bitter. So what is it? Round, warm, and buttery. It tasted of chocolate at its most classic.

The bean from Mantuano, Venezuela was grown on a women's co-op farm, just a valley and forest away from the Patanemo bar, yet this one arched and changed on the tongue, beginning sweetly, sliding to citrus, and biting, bitterly, just before the swallow.

The Ambanja, Madagascar bar began with a deep, earthly flavor like wet, ripe fruit, rose to an acidic high, and finished "like a raisin," said Joey, though I thought of pomegranate. If chocolate tasted like colors, this one was red.

The same Madagascar bean made up Francois Pralus' 100 percent bar, but a different process and darker roast deafened the subtle harmonies, creating one tone. Still delicious, less interesting. Ritual's southern Belize bar, which processes wet beans together, immediately pleased my taste buds, skipping the tang and going straight for sweet indulgence. The gritty, unrefined texture of TAZA's bar tasted of slowly cooling desert sand and S'mores. The only milk chocolate sampled, San Francisco's TCHO 55 percent, made for an anticlimactic, diluted finish.

Before heading back into the bracing chill, the chocolate makers passed out small cups of their Mission Hot Chocolate. It went down frothing and thick, the pasilla chili nipping at the back of my throat. Oddly, the drink lingered even longer, like an oddly pleasant after-aftertaste in my belly. It pleased and purified the same way a spicy curry cures you of the blues on a rainy day. No wonder the Mesoamericans believed in cacao divine.