Coffee may have put Seattle on the map, but lately, another treat has the Emerald City buzzing: chocolate.
Some attribute the trend to Seattle's strong locavore culture, where artisan food makers receive strong support. Others chalk Seattle's sweet tooth up to the climate: "With the rain and the coffee, it just makes chocolate something we want to eat year round," said famed Seattle chocolatier Fran Bigelow, owner of Fran's Chocolates.
Either way, Seattle's booming chocolate scene is a great way to explore the city. From a factory that would make Willy Wonka jealous, to a boutique that offers rare European drinking chocolates, Seattle will leave any sugar-lover satisfied.
Theo Chocolate, founded in 2006, is the United States' only fair trade and organic chocolate manufacturer. Nestled in the heart of the quirky Fremont neighbourhood, the Seattle factory offers a behind-the-scenes tour of the complete bean-to-bar process. The one-hour, guided walk moves through a candy-coloured maze of equipment as a Theo employee explains how the company sources its cocoa beans and what their techniques are for turning them into chocolate. "When most people think of chocolate being made, they think of Oompa Loompas," said Theo founder Joseph Whinney. "We want to show them what actually happens and why we care about who is producing the ingredients were using." Another perk of the tour: copious free samples along the way.
Visitors can also pick up a sweet souvenir at the company store, which features Theo's unique bars and confections, such as Bread & Butter, Chai Tea and Coconut Curry flavours, alongside seasonal selections. (3400 Phinney Ave; make reservations at www.theochocolate.com two to four weeks in advance; $6)
Inspired by a trip to Paris, Fran Bigelow returned to Seattle in 1982 to introduce European chocolates to her hometown. "It was really hard to search out chocolate of European quality back then," the Seattle native said. Unable to find suitable ingredients in the United States, Bigelow partnered with European chocolatiers to create the premium chocolates they still expect today.
Bigelow now operates four Fran's Chocolate stores in the Seattle area and even counts President Barack Obama among her devoted fans (she ships the Commander-in-Chief her famous smoked sea salt caramels in a custom-made box with his presidential seal). In a fitting homage to the nearby Seattle Art Museum, the newest store features a chocolate portrait of Bigelow's granddaughter, which took weeks to complete. (1325 First Ave; open Monday through Saturday 9:30 am to 7 pm, Sunday 10 am to 5 pm; www.franschocolates.com)
This chocolate shop takes its name from the Latin word "vitalis", which translates to "full of life". The name is fitting: Chocolat Vitale looks to bring new life to Europe's decadent drinking chocolates to the United States. Since its founding in 2004, Chocolate Vitale has whipped up signature blends including Chocolate Raspberry and European Chocolate. Their handcrafted drinking chocolates have wooed national clients like Whole Foods and Sur La Table. In February, Chocolat Vitale will open its first retail boutique. The new store will feature Chocolat Vitale's nine drinking chocolate blends, as well as hard-to-find brands from across Europe, a treat that connoisseurs and chocolate amateurs alike can enjoy. For those who cannot wait for doors to open, you can currently purchase all Chocolate Vital products online. (Chocolat Vitale opens in late February; sign up at www.chocolatvitale.com to be notified of the exact date).
Simply Seattle Chocolate Box
Too much chocolate in Seattle to choose from? The Chocolate Box Experience, a half-day Seattle tour, ensures you sample all the goods. The tour begins at Chocolate Box's Pike Place Market store, where visitors are greeted with a cup of Chocolat Vitale drinking chocolate and whisked off to the Theo factory tour. Then, it is time to try out your own chocolate making skills: Julian Rose, of Moonstruck Chocolates in Portland, Ore., teaches tour-goers how to whip up a chocolate ganache and divulges the secrets to the perfect truffle. The tour ends with a goodie bag of chocolate souvenirs. (108 Pine Street, tours Friday to Sunday at 8:30 am; make reservations at www.sschocolatebox.com; ; $39)