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Here's the thing about most high-end chocolates, says Blue, whose Berkeley shop — Chocolatier Blue — opened in August: They're way overpriced. "We could easily have opened a store in Union Square and sold these chocolates for $4 apiece," says the 29-year-old chocolatier, his baby face bristling with a day or two's blond stubble, nodding at the L-shaped case in his store at the western end of University Avenue. Blue charges $1.50 (a bit more when packed in a gift box). And, in a pricing strategy best described as counterintuitive (if not, frankly, daft), Blue's reasonably priced chocs are made of ingredients so pristine they're practically in a class by themselves. Huh?
Luxury can have its dirty secrets. High-end Valrhona chocolate is made from cacao beans sourced on the commodity market, Blue says, where quality and growers' living conditions end up easily obscured. Blue uses only chocolate from Tuscan maker Amadei, a variety containing 66 percent chocolate liquor, sourced from a single locale (Venezuela's Chuao peninsula, where Amadei has an exclusive arrangement, in return for shelling out above-fair trade prices). Blue says he's the only US chocolatier to use Amadei (though luxe restaurants like the French Laundry and elBulli do). He's certainly the only one to use super-rich unpasteurized cream from a small farm in Nebraska, where two hundred Guernseys free-graze on two thousand acres of grassy pasture.
Blue is from Nebraska, too, where he spent summers on his family's farm. If his chocolates have urban polish, it's because he learned his chops in Chicago, at the blisteringly expensive Charlie Trotter's, a restaurant that stands as a temple of vertical food and foamy emulsions. While other fancy chocolate makers aren't shy about using frozen fruit purées and concentrates for fillings, Blue does it all form scratch: presses Granny Smiths for juice he then reduces, till its jelly-like, to mix with ganache for his cider chocolates. And he uses the sous-vide method — poaching shrink-wrapped fresh fruits slowly, in water barely above warm, as a way of preserving flavor.
For the holidays, Blue is making jelly candies from his fresh-fruit purées, five pieces packaged together for just two bucks — a certain high-end Ferry Building chocolatier is charging $18 for a box of 24 fruit gelées. "There's extraordinary price-gouging out there," Blue says. "It's out of control." The young entrepreneur thinks sustainability should mean, in part, that customers can afford to sustain a local business by becoming regular buyers, not just coughing up cash for the occasional splurge. "I'm hoping people can't charge $2 for a piece of fruit jelly again. I want to at least give people quantity and quality for their money."
It's just after 9, the sleepy hour at the Sunday Temescal farmers' market, a time some merchants are still scrambling to set up. Rachel Saunders is nursing a coffee; she's wearing sunglasses, a puffy, down-filled cape, and petunia-pink crocheted headscarf — a style easily tagged as Oakland quirky. Saunders' Blue Chair Fruit Company jams are crowded onto footed cake plates that skew Martha-ish in their scalloped-rim quaintness. And while home-style preserves certainly have the potential to be the most Holly Hobbie of all food crafts, Blue Chair has a whiff of coolness. Credit Saunders's knack of combining flavors in a way that seems comfortably local, and which never messes with the integrity of the fruits themselves.
Less than a year old, Blue Chair has made a claim on the area's drop-dead retail and cafe scenes. In the city, you can buy Saunders' jams at BiRite, Avedano's, and Rainbow, and in the East Bay at Sweet Adeline Bakeshop and Market Hall. Pizzaiolo serves them up with toast, part of its laid-back morning espresso service. They show up at Venus in Berkeley, and at Aunt Mary's and Café 504 in Oakland.
Today the cake plates bear jars of Early Girl tomato and damson plum jam, cranberry-pomegranate jelly with rose geranium, and Italian prune and cardamom conserve. Saunders sources most fruits from farmers' markets, filling in with citrus and other fruits from Monterey Market. Paul Bertoni, a customer in a Peruvian woolen cap with earflaps, is effusive. "It's difficult to achieve that balance of bringing in those herbs and spices and having it work, and not just be some random elements," he says.
All of which suggests that Blue Chair jams aren't necessarily inevitably destined for breakfast. Saunders herself is a kind of miniaturist when it comes to eating, preferring little tastes of intense and fully realized little things, rather than some fully fleshed out meal — a preference she discovered as a foreign student at the Sorbonne in Paris. "I realize now that what I love are small foods, specialty foods — the perfect cheese, some perfect antipasti. I think I love cafes more than I love fine dining," she says.
In fact, Saunders' jams might find ultimate expression as companions to cheese — especially during the holidays, when foods should be vivid and indulgent, not to mention small-scale and handmade. "Sheep's cheese, like a Manchego-ish one, is good with quince," Saunders says. "I really like sharper cheeses like Taleggio with the jams. Otherwise you just end up with the texture of the cheese."
Try this for a holiday meal: Ditch the turkey and brown 'n' serves, just say no to candied yams. Unveil a cheese, spiced nuts, breads, and a fiercely exquisite jam, steeped in the East Bay's farmers' market scene. Call it Oakland quirky.
2 Twigs & a Bay Leaf
1964 University Ave., Berkeley, 510-705-8800, ChocolatierBlue.com
Blue Chair Fruit Company
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