DAY ONE: So much for the idea that 2012 would be slower, quieter year. If the last three days were any indication, I’d better strap myself in. But I’m not complaining. While last fall was filled with an end endless array of necessary but often tedious tasks, the last three days have been spent in pursuit of pleasure, all because my friend, Nicole, was in town for the San Francisco Fancy Food Show. Nicole and I have known each other since high school. She was a “foodie” before the term officially entered the lexicon. After a long career in marketing and advertising, Nicole left her agency to start her own business as a chocolate maker–which is not to be confused with a chocolatier. Chocolatiers make chocolate products like truffles by melting down chocolate that other people produce. Chocolate makers, by contrast, engage in an elaborate and time consuming art of making their own chocolate from scratch . . . as in starting from the bean. Turns out, there’s a revolution underway in the chocolate world. Artisans like Nicole are producing small batches of high quality chocolate bars. These are two of the bars Nicole suggested I try. First, there was Patric, made with cocoa beans from Madagascar. Then came Rogue, made with beans from Hispanola.
Who would have guessed, there’s a whole world of folks making artisan chocolate. You know that scene in the first Harry Potter movie when Hagrid takes Harry to buy his wand and school books? They stand in front of a what appears to be an ordinary brick wall until Hargid pushes on some bricks, the wall parts, and just like that they’re in Diagon Alley. Well, I was feeling a lot like Harry Potter last Friday as we visited all the specialty chocolate shops in San Francisco. This picture was take at Fog City News. I swear I’ve walked past this place a thousand times and had no clue what was inside.
But I’m getting sidetracked.
The real perk of having a friend like Nicole visit is that you have an excuse to eat all the stuff you wouldn’t normally allow yourself to eat . . . at least not all in one weekend. In addition to sampling all varieties of chocolate, Nicole and I ate our way from one side of San Francisco to the other. First stop: Tartine. For years, people have been telling me this place, but for some reason, I’d never taken the time to go. Until now.
To call Tartine a bakery doesn’t begin to describe it. Think: Cafe de Flore on a brisk November morning, or a late-night stroll along the Seine. Think: bicycling along a country lane in Provence with two fresh baguettes in your woven basket. Picture a bustling farmers’ market in the village square on Saturday morning, supper at a long wooden farm table, a leisurely dinner with friends at a neighborhood bistro. That’s Tartine. We swung by on Friday afternoon around three o’clock, which is late by bakery standards. You know a place is going to be good when you can smell butter in the air from half a block away. The line was out the door.
On our first visit (that’s right, our FIRST visit), I ordered a lemon square, which was perfect: tart with just the right amount of sweetness; a crust that was firm without being hard, soft without being gummy. Nicole ordered a brownie and two strange little meringue cookies called Rochers, which she said were some of the best she’d ever had: light and delicate on the outside, chewy on the inside. She ordered one with cacoa nibs and one plain. Normally, I don’t care for meringue, but even I had to admit they were spectacular. We agreed to return the next morning for breakfast.
But first, we had to have dinner at Out the Door, an Thai-inspired, Asian fusion restaurant in my neighborhood. Dinner: Imperial spring rolls with mint and noodles wrapped in lettuce leaves , green papaya salad, cubes of filet mignon in some kind of viniagrette, brown rice. Lots of wine. Sorry, no pictures. We ate everything before I could photograph it.
DAY TWO: A word to the wise: If you’re going to visit Tartine on a Saturday morning, get there early. As a matter of fact, you might want to consider camping out. We got there at 10:20 and the line stretched down the block.
While we waited, we struck up a conversation with a young woman who said she ate at Tartine at least once a week. She suggested we try the open-faced sandwiches. Nicole ordered the croque monsieur: bechamel, gruyere, topped with Niman Ranch ham and sun-dried tomato.
I tried the vegetarian quiche, made with creme fraiche and chard.
Of course, we had to have coffee. Oh, and two more of those Rochers with cacao nibs, to go, please.
Next stop: The Fatted Calf, which reminds me of Couchon Butcher in New Orleans minus the Cubano sandwiches. Who knew you could make bacon out of lamb?
Duck fat, lamb fat . . . I came down with a case of gout just standing there.
We followed our visit to The Fatted Calf with quick stop at Christopher Elbow chocolates and Miette, to scope out their chocolate selections. Then it was on to Blue Bottle Coffee where they make their coffee drinks on the “wet side.”
All this excitement and it wasn’t even lunch time.
DAY THREE: To be honest, the Fancy Food Show was disappointing. Nicole and I had both imagined two convention halls filled with gourmet food products. Wrong. Lots of bad packaging and bad lighting. Most of the companies, even the ones from Europe, promoted mass-produced products. There were two highlights. The first was Jabugo ham from Spain. Jabugo is made from the meat of black-hooved Iberian pigs. After weaning, the pigglet grazes on a diet of acrons, roots and herbs, and then, in the last two weeks before slaughter, only acorns . . . Or something like that. The meat is salt-cured for two weeks, then aged from twenty-four months to forty-eight months . . . Or something like that. All I know is that the guy slicing the samples wore gloves. When he finished, he covered the leg in a black cloth. What did it taste like? Think: Italy’s finest prosciutto only ten times better.
The last stop on our “Tour de Indulgence” was a booth they served bresaola, thinly sliced cured beef. That’s it, on the left.
I won’t share all the items I sampled between the Jabugo ham and the bresaola. Let’s just say, l learned that cured meats, six kinds of cheese, tuna and aloe vera juice don’t mix.
Thanks to Nicole, I know a little bit more about the food scene in San Francisco and a whole lot more about chocolate. I can’t wait for friends to visit so I can show them around. In the meantime, I put my name on the email list at Fog City News. They’re having a chocolate tasting tomorrow night. Maybe I’ll see you there.