Photograph by Rory McNamara
Choc a bloc: Gorgeous little yummies from Wine Country Chocolate & Truffles wait patiently to be devoured.
Like so many other people, I'm dismayed that Christmas has become synonymous with shopping for toys, shopping for clothes, shopping for jewelry, shopping for those fake, plastic, mounted fish that sing "Take Me to the River." This is ridiculous. Why, oh why do we waste our money, time and energy on all this pointless shopping? If we would just take a minute to stop and get in touch with our feelings, we'd realize that this is not what we crave deep within our souls. We don't want toys and clothes and singing fish.
No, what we truly crave is sugar. Sweets. Lots and lots of sweets.
So let's focus on what's real, and get to shopping for boxes of chocolates to wrap and place under the tree, tins full of cookies to pass out to neighbors, mounds of candies to stuff into Christmas stockings, and of course, a big cake to eat on Christmas Eve. (That cake bit was my very own contribution to family tradition.)
Our first stop is for a box of chocolates to place under the tree. For this, we travel to Glen Ellen and the tasting room of Wine Country Chocolate & Truffles (14301 Arnold Drive, Glen Ellen; 707.996.1010). The tasting room is located in Jack London Village; a few doors away is the olive oil tasting room at the Olive Press, cheese tasting at Raymond & Co. Cheesemongers, and across the street there's winetasting at Eric Ross Winery.
The room itself is rather small and there's a large window in the back, through which you can see the chocolate being made in big, shiny, silvery things. Personally, this ruins my happy little vision of someone's elderly, French grandmother mixing chocolate entirely by hand. On the other hand, my young son can't believe his good luck as he stares through the window, witnessing two of his very favorite things together: machinery and chocolate.
Behind the bar, two young employees hand me samples from three different bowls of freshly made ganache, which is the creamy center of a truffle. You sample these as you would wine or olive oil, from most subtle to most robust. I place the mixture of chocolate, butter and cream in my mouth. Through a haze, I can see that the employees are talking, probably educating me about the different percentages of cacao in the shell and how chocolate is made and . . . I'm sure they're very knowledgeable. But I'm in chocolate nirvana and can't hear a thing.
The company makes all kinds of nifty stuff. For example, in the tasting room, there's a nice selection of gifts, such as a CD (in a plastic CD case) made out of chocolate. You can bring in a special bottle of wine, and they'll use it as a filling for their sweet confections. You can even get chocolates molded to look like your company logo.
Personally, I don't care so much what my chocolates look like as long as they taste like this. I buy a box of a dozen truffles ($20) as a Christmas present for my husband. But then I get to thinking. The last time we got chocolates from here, he ate some of mine. So, I figure, I'll take this box for myself. That way, he'll no longer need to feel guilty. It's the least I can do, considering it's Christmas and all.
Next, we head on over to Santa Rosa to buy some Christmas cookies in a tin. At Sisters Three Artisan Cookies (3181 Cleveland Ave., Ste. C, Santa Rosa; 707.546.8700), their motto is "Our Cookies Are Our Canvas." They mean it. For example, the sugar cookies are hand-decorated, and it takes about five or six different steps for all the colors and details to be added in. They do end up looking wonderful, and they taste just as good. Plus, the butter and milk come from cows that are not fed growth hormones. And eating the cookies feels so good, and I think that counts for something as far as good health is concerned.
There's a selection of holiday cookies to choose from ($45-$55 per tin for about a dozen cookies), and it's tough to pick. Should I get the assortment of gold and silver sparkly reindeers and Christmas trees and presents? Or how about the polar bears, penguins, igloos and snowflakes? The sisters (and, yes, the company actually is run by three sisters) will also make custom cookies. Once again, it seems like company logos are a big hit.
After thinking about it, I decide to get the sugar cookie dogs (a collection of poodles, dachshunds and retrievers decked out in some warm sweaters in holiday colors). This will make a nice present for our two yellow Labs. After all, we need to think of our four-legged friends during the holidays. But, wait. Labs do tend to gain a lot of weight. I better eat these cookies myself.
Next, it's a quick jaunt to the original Windsor location of Powell's Sweet Shoppe (720 McClelland Drive, Windsor; 707.836.0808; see sidebar above for other locations) to stock up on supplies for my kids' Christmas stockings. If I had more time, I'd order a root beer float from the soda fountain and then sit down in one of the theater seats to watch the continuously playing video of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. But I'm on a mission. So I peruse the huge selection of new candies, old-fashioned candies, novelty items and standby favorites. I'm leaning toward the old-school candies: Pop Rocks, Wax Bottles, Razzles and Candy Buttons. That way I can show my kids the kinds of things Mommy use to eat when she was little. It'll be a bonding experience. I buy the candy, but have second thoughts. This is definitely not good for my children's teeth. I must protect them. Full of motherly pride, I eat the candy.
Last but not least is Patisserie Angelica (6821 Laguna Park Way, in the Cinema complex, Sebastopol; 707.827.7998). Those who like sweets already know all about Patisserie Angelica. After all, it's hard not to hear about them. They've been written up in the bridal magazines (their specialty is wedding cakes) plus the foodie magazines, and last fall they appeared on TV when one of their cakes was featured in the new show Fantasy Wedding. Pastry chef Condra Easly, Angelica co-owner with her sister Deborah Morris, received her training at several big-name pastry shops in Paris, where, I'm told, everyone takes their sweets as seriously as I do.
I order their special Buche de Noël cake to serve on Christmas Eve ($28 to serve six to eight; $46 for a large to serve 12 to14). It looks like a yule log, complete with little meringue mushrooms and holly. I'll need to come back just before Christmas to pick it up. Sure, it's a whole separate trip, but that's OK. It's well worth the drive to have this special cake to share with my family.
Sharing--isn't that what Christmas is all about?
Some other North Bay chocolatiers perfect for sharing
Annette's Chocolate Factory Look for chocolate wine and liqueur sauces as well as handy-dandy chocolate discs for everything from noshing to throwing into cookies. 1321 First St., Napa. 707.252.4228.
Chocolat Mysterious, sexy and French--which is how we like our Christmas. 540 San Anselmo Ave., San Anselmo. 415.454.4525.
Heart's Desire Chocolates A perennial fave in our annual reader's poll. Y'all can't be wrong! 101 Golf Course Drive, Rohnert Park. 707.585.7673.
La Dolce V Now in a new and more localized storefront location, this chocolatier serves an otherworldy cocoa, too. 110 N. Main St., Sebastopol. 707.829.2178.
Lyla's Chocolates Specializes in cute little figurines guaranteed to add charm to the hols. 417 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. 415.383.8887.
Peter Rabbit's Chocolate Factory Another perennial favorite in our annual readers poll. 2489 Guerneville Road, Santa Rosa. 707.575.7110.
Powell's Sweet Shoppe has two other North Bay locations with plans to expand to Petaluma and beyond. 879 Grant Ave., Novato, 415.898.6160; and 22 Center St., Healdsburg, 707.431.2784.
Vintage Sweet Shoppe Have your favorite wine bottle dipped in chocolate. 3261 Browns Valley Road, Napa. 707.226.3933.
Woodhouse Chocolates Seasonal figurines and tableaux so ornate and delicate that they can't be shipped. Given the little blue boxes that coddle the chocolates, this is fairly the Tiffany's of the mouth. 1367 Main S., St. Helena. 800.966.3468.
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