Maybe it’s because I live close to the ocean. My partner has a sailboat, and on windy days, the feel of a light salt spray hitting my face (and I do mean a light one: I am a fair weather boater) makes me lick my lips and crave salty foods.
Spring is in the air and it is almost time to put the boat back in the water, so it is, perhaps, no wonder I am thinking of fleur de sel.
This wonderfully tasty and expensive salt is, according to David Lebovitz, “a hand-harvested sea salt collected by workers who scrape only the top layer of salt before it sinks to the bottom of large salt pans”.
And it is an absolutely essential ingredient in the best salted caramels. Mmmmm – the heavily salted buttery caramels of Brittany have, with a few tweaks and variations (my favourite, of course, being the dark chocolate covered version) become tres populaire in North America in the last few years, with Barack Obama himself being a huge fan, especially of the ones from Fran’s Chocolates in Seattle.
Surely my hometown, Vancouver – lovely city by the ocean, must boast a few decent chocolate caramels? Oh, indeed. And since I take my research seriously, I am prepared to visit as many Vancouver chocolatiers as I can pack in, today, to sample the variety and quality of their fleur de sel caramels.
I start with my local favourite chocolatier, one whom I can feel guilt-free about visiting, because he is a bike ride away:
I love coming to this narrow, packed patisserie, not only for the beauty of his creations, but for the fun of pushing open the “secret chocolate” compartments in the wall, to sample whatever the kitchen is working on that day. These rotating drawers are, I believe, meant to be for the kids, but the poor darlings have to elbow their way past ravenous, canny, adults who know exactly where they are located, and who wait, poised like ravens, for them to be filled.
Thomas Haas has many variations on the theme and I pick up the Salted Caramel Truffle – a combination of bittersweet chocolate ganache and silky golden caramel with a sprinkle of Fleur de Sel.
I take two of these beauties home, to bribe my lovely partner, and he enthusiastically agrees to help me carry my research further afield after consuming his truffle:
“First you bit through a dark chocolate shell, and then get a rush of liquid caramel and then a hint of saltiness as the whole thing melts together in your mouth. Smooth and rich.”
This is my favourite of the day.
We drive, through the pouring Spring rain, into the quaint Mount Pleasant neighbourhood in East Vancouver, to discover a charming little shop I had no idea existed, but was recommended by a friend:
Oh, it was worth waiting in the rain for the door to open.
We are the first customers of the day and glorious aromas waft from the tiny kitchen, where Anne-Geneviève Poitras is hand-dipping bon bons, and tells us the caramels are just ready to be cut.
These ones are not chocolate dipped, we discover, and are carefully wrapped in gold foil, as they are quite soft. My husband is delighted to hear his native tongue (French) being spoken, and bids the smiling staff “Bonjour!” as we head out the door.
We wave as we pass the window, looking into the tiny, efficient kitchen, with not a machine in sight. Like something from the French countryside, a hand-painted mural decorates the entryway, and outside wall. My companion with the Android phone uploads a picture of the wall to the Find Chocolate app, our visual marker for future visitors.
I step into a deep puddle on the way back to the car and I definitely need a caramel to make amends, so I dive into the bag. They have a nice mouth feel, are very soft and smooth, mild with a “not too salty” taste. My partner is more eloquent:
“They’d be nice to have out on a walk – to sit down with on a bench, pull out and chew, while having a think”. I’d make sure to put them in a pocket where they could stay cool, though. They are very soft.
Next stop – the funky and friendly Home Grow-In on Cambie Street, a co-op retail space for B.C. artisans, where chocolatier Wendy Boys is one of the co-operative owners.
We pick up her signature piece, the Vanilla Salt Caramels with Peanut Butter & Milk Chocolate Crunch from Cocolico. Vancouver magazine names Wendy’s creation as one of the “101 Things To Taste Before You Die”. I am assured tasting them will not hasten my demise, and anyway, I can’t wait.
Ooooh, these are like a really sexy version of a Crispy Crunch chocolate bar. It is almost hard to distinguish the caramel in this crunchy/smooth mixture of peanuts, but it sneaks in, with an “oh yes!” on the second bite. It is a very good thing we bought a box of nine, because later, they are scoffed by the boys and their friends, the milk chocolate lovers – definitely a hit with teens, and their parents!
But our quest today, is far from over, and we head west, to the upscale Kitsilano neighbourhood, and the distinctive and elegant Chocolate Arts.
Their goal is to create chocolates which capture the spirit and flavour of British Columbia & the Pacific West Coast, using locally grown and organic produce in their fruit purees and making their flavourings and essences in house. Chocolate Arts is renowned for their chocolate medallions, designs reproduced from carvings by the internationally acclaimed artist Robert Davidson.
Six slender rectangles of bittersweet chocolate fleur de sel caramel are carefully wrapped up, while I look longingly at the Coconut & Lime Egg (white chocolate ganache with organic coconut milk & tart lime reduction in an egg shaped shell of dark chocolate coated with toasted coconut). Oh dear, it is seasonal, made only for Easter, and I am sorely tempted … but I must keep on task.
We pass a massive, intricately sculptured chocolate Easter egg on display in the window, on our way out.
Slender, almost wafer-like, the Chocolate Arts Caramel is very mild. I don’t taste any salt right away, but as I let it melt on my tongue, I can discern it. This one, I have to say, is a bit bland for me, but it could be that I am still thinking of that coconut-lime egg.
And it’s westward ho, to Rachel Sawatsky’s funky, comfortable, delicious-smelling Cocoa Nymph
I love walking into this tiny, comfortable place, the centrepiece of which is a grand piano, the top of which is lined with bon bons, because it feels like this could be your neighbourhood hang-out, if you were really cool, and perhaps working on a novel.
Today, Rachel’s place is full of people making and decorating their own chocolates, and she is, as always, bustling about, carrying trays to the back to cool, carrying out more supplies, making sure everyone is having a good time.
I am tempted to sink into a comfortable couch for one of her delicious hot chocolates, with homemade marshmallows (the salted caramel marshmallows are so good), but I’d feel bad taking up room amidst all the people dipping chocolates, today. I am in and out of this busy place in minutes, clutching what I came for – the Sea Nymph bar – a 64% dark chocolate bar, enhanced with fleur de sel, and bits of English Toffee.
This bar is a keeper, the one you stash in a hiding place and indulge in a bite when you feel you need a boost to your day. I like the fact that the tastes marry well, without the “dark-but-not-too-dark” chocolate overpowering the toffee, which provides a fine, crunchy texture. The salt hit is just right too: balancing the English Toffee, and bringing out the chocolate flavour.
We each nibble a bite on our way back home to North Vancouver. The Sea Nymph also proves a big hit with my adult Scene Study students, when I take it into class. They have very discerning palates, not only for good theatre, but for good chocolate, as well.
It has been a lovely day, driving through the rain, dodging puddles, and discovering some new-to-me chocolate treasures, in shops ranging all over the city: from tiny jewel-box shops hiding around corners, to shops like art galleries.
Proof that a really good salty-sweet idea can have many different takes and variations, and proof also, to my husband anyway, that all the best ideas come from the French!
Here are some tips on conducting your own tour of local chocolate shops, no matter where you live:
- If you’ve got an Android phone or iPhone, get the (free) Find Chocolate! app. It uses your current location to find chocolate shops nearest you. The app shows you the shops as a list or a Google map, and the map will give you driving, walking or transit direction on how to get there. We used the app to help us find the quickest route from one shop to the next.
- If you don’t have one of these smart phones, don’t despair. You can also browse the same database of chocolate shops from your computer using the ChocoMap.com website. You can easily copy down the addresses or print a copy of the screen to take along with you.
- Finding new chocolate shops is an adventure, to bring along a pal or two to make it more fun.