Latin flavors lie at the heart of Casa de Chocolates

Chocolatier Arcelia Gallardo and co-owner Amelia Gonzalez bring a taste of Latin America to The Elmwood. Photo: Omar Wandera

Two Latinas originally from L.A, with a shared passion for chocolate, Mexico, and social justice, are combining forces to open Casa de Chocolates in The Elmwood today.

Amelia Gonzalez, 50, who worked for KPFA Radio for 20 years, most recently as general manager, was approached by chocolatier Arcelia Gallardo, 35, about coming on board as an angel investor for her artisan sweet treats store that pay homage to cacao’s Latin American heritage.

Gonzalez was interested, but also wanted to play an active role in the development of the budding business, which suited Gallardo, who preferred to focus on perfecting her products, handcrafted in small batches.

So Gonzalez, who has lived in Lima, Peru, and Oaxaca, Mexico, has handled everything from managing construction permits with the city to sourcing ancillary merchandise such as ceramics, tin boxes, and molinillo (wooden whisks for making Mexican hot chocolate), while her partner focuses on flavor pairings.

Casa de Chocolates officially opens today a few months behind schedule, though the shop has held a series of pop-up events since the holiday season, selling dark chocolate (61%) bon bons with Latin flavors like tamarind, tequila, and Tapatio (hot sauce).

Gallardo, who has previously worked out of a commercial kitchen near campus and catered private functions and public events such as Art Murmur in Oakland, will craft her goodies in the on-site kitchen.

Gallardo also lives in town and works for the Berkeley-based Greenlining Institute, a public policy nonprofit that strives for racial and economic justice. A graduate of the Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Pasadena, she has trained with pastry chefs in Europe and Mexico, and says it took five years before she felt like she understood chocolate well enough to call herself a chocolatier. She talked with Berkeleyside last week.

What brought you to Berkeley?

I came first to attend UC Berkeley, I got a degree in communications and Latin American literature. In my Latin American studies I learned that the cocoa bean originated in Mexico, and that got me started on this journey. I came back to Berkeley after culinary school in Los Angeles because I thought this was a better place to run a chocolate business. The climate is better, it’s not as hot, and people here really value organic, sustainable food, hand-made products, and a unique idea.

The store's Mexican-inspired logo.

How has your background impacted the chocolates you make?

I half grew up in a Latino community in Los Angeles and half on a family farm in Fresno, where my immigrant parents grew peaches and corn. Growing up on a farm with cows and then tasting that milk and noting how different it tasted from what we had in the city or in the school cafeteria was an education for me.

In the city, we lived in a pretty much 100% Latino community — Huntington Park. It was like growing up in Mexico. We had the same traditions, like hot chocolate, sweet breads and Mexican candies. I grew up with these flavors from the farm and my culture. After I graduated from Cal I went to culinary school, where I learned from pastry chefs to play with these ideas and tastes. That’s how my chocolate business evolved.

What other connections will your business have with Latin America?

Part of our plan once we settle into the store is to work with local farmers in Latin America in Belize, Mexico, and Peru. Right now we get most of our chocolate already made. We buy from Guittard, single-source chocolate from Peru, Ecuador and Venezuela. The company has good business practices and their chocolate is good quality. But eventually we want to work with smaller cacao farmers and chocolate makers in the region. It’s important to me that we support cacao growing in indigenous communities in Latin America.

Casa de Chocolates designs pay homage to an ancient people.

Can you describe the thinking behind the appearance of your chocolates?

We’re doing a lot of Aztec, Mayan, and Olmec designs to pay tribute to the fact that these ancient cultures were the discoverers  of cacao. When people think of chocolate they think of Belgium, Switzerland, or maybe Africa. The last place they think of is Mexico, so we want to set the record straight on that score.

What kinds of desserts will you sell at the store?

I’ll make traditional flan, as well as chocolate, pumpkin, coconut, and espresso. The Mestizo Cheesecake is chocolate, cream cheese, and sour cream, so chocolate from the Americas and cream from the Spaniards, hence its name. The Aztec Cheesecake has an intense chocolate crust, chocolate filling, and chocolate frosting. The El Rey Chocolate Cake is a moist chocolate cake, it’s the king because I think of it as the ultimate in chocolate cakes.

And we’ll sell cocoadas, or coconut macaroons, which you find all over the coast in the tropical areas of Mexico. I grew up eating cocoadas because my family comes from Colima, a completely tropical state, where I go with my family every year to visit.

How did you earn the honor of one of the best new sweet shops in the world from Travel & Leisure magazine before you even officially opened?

They found out about us and contacted me so we sent a 12-piece box of bon bons to their staff. And they chose the Cajeta, a goat’s milk caramel, as their top pick.

Casa de Chocolates distinctive bon bons feature Latin flavors.

Is it a blessing or a burden there are lots of chocolate makers in the Bay Area?

It’s a good thing to have competition as a business because it forces you to come up with new ideas. And it’s good for consumers who want to taste different flavors. I appreciate the support of the chocolate makers here. We have a core group of women chocolate makers and business owners in the Bay Area, including Berkeley’s Xocolate Bar, and we get together and talk about best business practices, chocolate shows, dairy providers, and who to source chocolate from. It’s not competitive; we all have our own distinct themes and unique products.

What plans do you have for your new business?

Down the road, we may open a smaller location in San Francisco. We want to work closely with the farmers in Latin America and create our own chocolate-making companies there.

And here, since we’re big on community, we want to open up the shop to train youth how to work with chocolate. We want to create a non-profit working with kids at-risk, so they can come and learn with their hands.

Do you eat out and, if so, where do you like to dine around town?

When I eat at home, about half the time, I’m basically vegan, a roasted vegetable and salad kind of girl. I love fresh produce. When I eat out, I do eat meat. I love Indian food. I particularly enjoy Ajanta, the food is always so fresh, you can taste the difference. I’m always up for their chicken masala.

I like Tacubaya, they have really authentic flavors, exactly what I’d eat at home with my family. I always get their Sope de Chorizo y Papas (crispy masa cake with black beans, Mexican sausage and potatoes). And my other go-to place is Kirala; it is the best sushi place in Berkeley in my opinion. I almost always order a caterpillar roll.

Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Related:
Where in Berkeley? Valentine’s Special
[2.14.12]
Elmwood business quotas may change to help startups [02.17.12]
Shop Talk: The ins and outs of Berkeley businesses [08.23.11]
Bittersweet: Artisanal chocolate made in Berkeley [05.07.10]
Berkeley Bites: Anand Chokkalingam [03.12.10]

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  • serkes

    ¿Hay chocolate Oaxaqueño?

  • guest

    Now I know where to get dessert tonight!

  • http://www.facebook.com/jojo.acapulco Jojo Jones

    Sounds wonderful and I wish them all the luck.  I’d suggest, however, that “pan dulce” would be better translated as “pastry.” In English “sweet breads” usually refers to what are called “mollljas” here in México. ¡provecho!