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.

Comments

It is possible to quit chocolate? Why would anyone want to?

Posted by I Say Oui on Nov. 16, 2013 @ 5:55 am

It is possible to quit chocolate? Why would anyone want to?

Posted by I Say Oui on Nov. 16, 2013 @ 5:52 am

Wow!

The SFBG is going overboard on lauding gentrification.

Not only is this tour ridiculously overpriced, it also take splace on public land occupied by the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society without any public input.

We have to pay $7 for our guests now to enter, thanks to hundreds of thousands paid to a lobbyist.

Stramgely, I learned about this in this very publication.

Dandilion is one of the most offensive new high-end businesses on Valencia Street...

:(

Posted by guest on Oct. 23, 2013 @ 7:20 am

Dandelion is essentially a hobby business founded by wealthy techies. It's part of the new, new Valencia Street, which caters to the "unique" lifestyles of the affluent.

Keep the Chains stores out! They are so gauche.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 23, 2013 @ 11:42 am

not a concession stand for neo-hipster fair trade labeled confections

Posted by racer x on Oct. 23, 2013 @ 11:51 am

deny the offerings to those who want them?

Posted by Guest on Oct. 23, 2013 @ 12:06 pm

place that is supposed to be a refuge and haven from commercial living

Posted by racer x on Oct. 23, 2013 @ 12:19 pm

As should be obvious to all, and is apparently not..

Posted by +ULFBERH+T on Oct. 23, 2013 @ 12:33 pm

This is the problem with the left. If they dislike something, it's not enough to simply decline the product. They want to stop anyone else from having it as well.

Live and let live, dude.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 23, 2013 @ 12:26 pm

you are of course free to go buy those products in an actual shop, instead of in the public park which is supposed to do its best to please everyone

who is seeking spend time in natural places

Posted by racer x on Oct. 23, 2013 @ 12:39 pm

cream stall and food truck from the park then?

Would the Japanese Tea Garden not serve tea?

Posted by Guest on Oct. 23, 2013 @ 12:53 pm

The tea garden serves Chinese tea (last I checked) for a ridiculous sum. But that is in a pavilion at least.

Food trucks should not be in any park anywhere!

Overpriced, gentrifying, polluting, noisy.... :(

Posted by guest on Oct. 23, 2013 @ 5:59 pm

Do leftists hate everything good in this world?

Posted by Guest on Oct. 23, 2013 @ 6:28 pm
Posted by Guest on Oct. 23, 2013 @ 6:21 pm

on the edges of more recreation oriented areas of the parks

there is a clear difference between those areas and areas that are set aside for viewing nature

and the Japanese Tea Garden was set up to be a tea garden - it is serving its role - if someone proposed selling i-phones in the tea garden, park goers would rightly put their collective foot down and say NO

just as we should to ridiculous unrelated concessions for the effete, in our arboretum

Posted by racer x on Oct. 23, 2013 @ 1:27 pm

"

These beans come from a female-run co-op nestled in the tropical hills of the Caribbean coast of Venezuela. For Norah’s first batch, she chose a roast profile inspired by a coffee roasting technique: higher temperature for a shorter time. We taste notes of fudge brownie and espresso with a lovely cinnamon finish.

All of our single-origin bars are made with just cocoa beans and sugar, no added cocoa butter, lecithin, or vanilla.

"

Posted by Guest on Oct. 23, 2013 @ 10:59 am

"Our" ?

Every time I walk down Valencia Street I feel depressed.

A dotcommie's Starbuck$! :(

Posted by guest on Oct. 23, 2013 @ 6:02 pm

at high prices, no matter how well they were produced, do not fit with what should be a local public owned and run municipal arboretum

there are other far more appropriate venues at which to buy expensive boutique private products

let's get back to basics in our parks and make them

parks

not theme parks

Posted by racer x on Oct. 23, 2013 @ 11:35 am

Your vision of what San Francisco should be lost. Get over it and enjoy Oakland while you still can

Posted by Guest on Oct. 23, 2013 @ 12:08 pm

He just needs to look further and harder.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 23, 2013 @ 12:15 pm

In fact the garden is divided up into geographical zones.

A garden with only SF-native plants wouldn't be very interesting.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 23, 2013 @ 11:51 am

so instead of selling us expensive elite chocolates repeatedly shipped thousands of miles over the ocean as they are bought

why don't they just plant a cacao tree....

Posted by racer x on Oct. 23, 2013 @ 12:06 pm

The cafe is all food that is brought in as well. Those hot dogs do not come from local pigs.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 23, 2013 @ 12:14 pm

not eating

the key is to have the arboretum be garden oriented

not concession oriented

Posted by racer x on Oct. 23, 2013 @ 12:27 pm

Or a drink?

Are you telling me I should just suck it up, just so that you can feel more pure and precious?

Posted by Guest on Oct. 23, 2013 @ 12:46 pm

and bring it with you

Posted by racer x on Oct. 23, 2013 @ 12:57 pm
Posted by Guest on Oct. 23, 2013 @ 1:28 pm

at which point i reach into my pocket for the food i brought with me, in case of such a moment

or i go to a restaurant

but i of course do not require, nor should anyone want, commercial candy and snack trees distributed on every square inch of the planet in case someone has an urge

Posted by racer x on Oct. 23, 2013 @ 1:47 pm

doesn't mean that others do not, and yet you want to stop anyone buying stuff there just because you don't.

The left, personnified

Posted by Guest on Oct. 23, 2013 @ 2:14 pm

well said

Posted by +ULFBERH+T on Oct. 23, 2013 @ 11:39 am

What in the world

Posted by Guest on Oct. 23, 2013 @ 10:18 am

contributing a few bucks, cheapskate.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 23, 2013 @ 7:23 am

This thirty five dollars benefits the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society. It does not benefit taxpayers.

Taxpayers subsidize the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society who now run 55 acres in GGP!

:(

Posted by guest on Oct. 23, 2013 @ 9:31 am
Posted by Guest on Oct. 23, 2013 @ 10:04 am
$75

$75 so I can bring a guest into a public park?

While the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society pays Sam Lauter hundreds of thousands of dollars to lobby for these permanent fees?

Do you understand the difference between public and private?

Posted by guest on Oct. 23, 2013 @ 10:34 am

It's free to SF residents. Do you spend all your time looking for things to whine about?

Posted by Guest on Oct. 23, 2013 @ 10:42 am

They are harrassing SF residents who can not prove they are from SF. We have to pay $7 to the elitist and snooty San Francisco Botanical Garden Society so we can bring a guest.

That is wrong!!!

Posted by guest on Oct. 23, 2013 @ 6:04 pm
Posted by Guest on Oct. 23, 2013 @ 6:22 pm

do not have a few bucks

Posted by racer x on Oct. 23, 2013 @ 6:33 pm

you do less shit and go to fewer places.

Gee, do you think that is why people like money and spend most of their waking hours earning it?

Posted by Guest on Oct. 23, 2013 @ 6:40 pm

is that it makes them falsely believe that they deserve more than other people

Posted by racer x on Oct. 23, 2013 @ 6:50 pm

that I deserve more than you. It just means that I can buy more than you. Deserving doesn't come into it.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 23, 2013 @ 7:01 pm

this is simply a barricade against trolls

it is a signpost to indicate to the reader that other anonymous posters on this thread are beginning to purposely diminish the conversation into repetitive reactionary hyperbole, and/or petty, mean spirited personal attacks and irrelevant bickering

the barrier is put in place to signal that there is probably little point in reading more replies in the thread past this point

proceed at your own risk

Posted by nksrgifhjd on Oct. 23, 2013 @ 11:37 am
Posted by Guest on Oct. 23, 2013 @ 10:41 am

this is simply a barricade against trolls

it is a signpost to indicate to the reader that other anonymous posters on this thread are beginning to purposely diminish the conversation into repetitive reactionary hyperbole, and/or petty, mean spirited personal attacks and irrelevant bickering

the barrier is put in place to signal that there is probably little point in reading more replies in the thread past this point

proceed at your own risk

Posted by nksrgifhj on Oct. 23, 2013 @ 11:37 am

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