When chocolate met cheese in Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto

At the Cheese Board on Saturday night, the bar for both chocolate and cheese was raised to new heights. Pairings of high-end dark chocolate with carefully selected foreign and domestic cheeses had local taste buds all atwitter.

The unusual tasting was the brainchild of Leonard Pitt, founder and president of the exclusive Berkeley Chocolate Club (BCC), and Laura McNall, a veteran Cheese Boarder and recent inductee into the BCC. Pitt is well known in the Bay Area for his work as a mime (trained in Paris in the 1960s by the teacher of Marcel Marceau), and his books, including Walks Through Lost Paris (Shoemaker & Hoard), about Parisian architectural history. His latest venture into chocolate is just another of his many autodidact passions.

For April’s BCC meeting, McNall wowed members with a carefully designed cheese and chocolate tasting. The idea was then hatched for a public tasting of her revelatory combinations in conjunction with the Gourmet Ghetto’s annual Chocolate & Chalk Art Festival.

Leonard Pitt: founder and president of the exclusive Berkeley Chocolate Club

Of course, the pairing of chocolate and cheese is nothing new. Think chocolate cheesecake and the somewhat hideous, yet popular, chocolate-stuffed French brie en croute. You can go online and find all kinds of cheese and chocolate concoctions, but most are made with generic semisweet chocolate, like the chocolate chips in Giada De Laurentiis’ Chocolate and Cheese Danish recipe from her Food Network show “Giada at Home.”  Chocolate, whether high end or low, dark or sweet, combined with cheese (or bacon, or salt, or what have you) is always hot.

Yet Pitt and his chocoholic cronies reject the notion that their mania for dark chocolate, and the club’s current preoccupation with cheese, is a bi-product of a national commodity gratification fetish —or, as it’s more commonly described,  foodie elitism.

“I’m not at all a foodie, as foodies go,” says Pitt, and adds, “I just love great chocolate.” If you ask Pitt what great chocolate is, his answer, which he loves to repeat, is refreshingly free of code words like organic, sustainable and fair-trade: “Great chocolate is chocolate you love.”

At the cheese and chocolate tasting Saturday night, five cheeses and three chocolates were paired.  More than 40 tasters paid the $10 entrance fee that went to benefit Raise the Bar Hershey!, an organization fighting for ethical business practices in cocoa producing countries. Among the attendees was Nicole G. who had never even considered the idea of chocolate and cheese together. “You need parental guidance for something like this, ” she said as she slid a clump of Colston Bassett Stilton piled on a chunk of French Valrhona chocolate into her mouth.

Another Nicole, a video game designer, was impressed by how the Spanish Romao, a firm cheese made from sheep’s milk and rubbed with rosemary, brought out the sweetness in the smoky bitter Claudio Corallo chocolate sold by Allegio Chocolate, a shop across the street from the Cheese Board.

A pairing of chocolate and cheese at the Cheese Board Collective

A lone contrarian opinion came from Sharon R., a long time resident of the Ghetto, who confided that she’s not a huge chocolate fan and that if she wanted to combine dairy with chocolate, she’d prefer a  brownie and a glass of milk. I wonder why she was at the tasting?

Mention milk at a Berkeley Chocolate Club event at your own peril! Pitt’s lone bugaboo about chocolate is his complete distain — shared with fellow BCC members — for milk chocolate, the ubiquitous chocolate confection (usually in bar form) laced with milk solids and too much sugar, that makes up the majority of chocolate consumption in the USA.

One of Pitt’s oft-repeated quips is “Milk chocolate need not apply,” the only criteria for membership in the Berkeley Chocolate Club that Pitt seems willing to divulge. But isn’t the pairing of chocolate and cheese, ironically, a bit like making milk chocolate right on one’s own palate? When I expressed this perspective to the Cheese Board’s Laura McNall, she shot back, “No, not at all. Cheese is not milk.’’ She ought to know.

But if cheese is not milk, strictly speaking, it is certainly a product derived from milk’s proteins and fat. Well, let’s not quibble over spilt milk. The truth is, as we experienced on Saturday night, the knowledgeable pairing of chocolate and cheese produces fascinating flavors and textures buckets ahead of any milk chocolate product you have ever had, or even imagined.

If you want to explore the world of dark chocolate further, with or without cheese, you can get in touch with the Berkeley Chocolate Club through its website. You may not be able to actually join the club because, as one veteran BCC member told me Saturday night off the record, you have to already be a member of the club to join it. She was kidding. I think.

L. John Harris is a journalist, artist, filmmaker and author of the recently published graphic memoir, Foodoodles: From the Museum of Culinary History. He is a regular contributor to the online food journal, Zester Daily.

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  • Anonymous

    I had no idea we had a chocolate club, thank you.  It’s sad that they hold themselves to hire ethical standards than our government officials though: http://berkeleychocolateclub.com/ethics.html

  • TizziLish

    I have encountered few people aware of an eating custom I experienced when I lived in Bogota, Colombia for a year, 1972-1973 (my junior year in college).  All over the city, there were shops that specialized in hot chocolate — sorta like starbucks but about chocolate.

    The hot chocolate was very rich — cocoa is big in Colombia. And it came with chunks of cheese at the bottom of the cup.

    People savored the cocoa, zipping, and as they got down to the cheese, which would become creamy and spreadable, they would scoop it out and slather it on very good crusty french-bread-like rolls that were also part of the ritual.

    That was as good as chocolate and cheese gets, yet I have never seen chocolate & cheese served that way anywhere else.  It is delicious, with a high satiety factor. .. the cheese is all warm and gooey, the chocolate is richly delicious. 

    Also, the chocolate in Colombia, the cocoa/hot-chocolate, was barely sweetened. The focus was on the chocolate.

    Huge pots of liquid hot chocolate were common in most kitchens. i brought home a special pot-pitcher that was specifically designed for making liquid hot chocolate. Each pitcher came with a wooden stirrer– a long stick with a lined bulb at the bottom. You put it at the bottom and used your hands to swirl the stick, which swirled/blended the cocoa.

    Yes , people also drank a lot of coffee in Colombia. We all remember Juan Valdez coffee commercials, right (those of us old enough) . .  Colombia is known for its coffee. But people went out for cocoa with cheese, not coffee.

    Virtually all workplace had ‘onces’, or elevenses. Around 11 a.m. coffee maids would roll through with a cart with tiny cups of tinto, that was, more or less, comparable to what we call espresso. Tinto in Bogota was more dense than any espresso I have had in this country.

    People drank lots of tinto. People rarely drank the kind of ‘regular’ coffee and rarely offered it to guests.

    Guests got hot chocolate and if it was special occasion, they also got cheese at the bottom.

  • Heather_W_62

    I have to go there right now, Tizzie. That sounds like my kinda place.

  • The Sharkey

    Too bad this didn’t make it onto the Berkeleyside events calendar.

    They might have raised more money if it had.

  • Ducovny

    Oh yes, dark chocolate and Chevre, a perfect after gym snack.  Varda

  • PragmaticProgressive

    Neither did the massive Sikh festival, with street closures, a parade with floats, and free food that drew what had to be 1,000 people to Civic Center Park yesterday.  

  • Kaaren Kitchell

    Great article, John. Witty and vivid, as usual. Berkeley seems to have become Paris West. I had a cup of chocolate africain a few weeks ago at Angelina’s in Paris and three of us nearly passed out with bliss. Its reputation is: best hot chocolate in the world, and it gets my vote. Lenny looks adorable, as if he were drunk on chocolate. It’s perfectly obvious that the ambrosia of the gods has always been chocolate.

  • Bill

    I only went to the Sikh festival because I saw a procession on University was we were headed downtown to have lunch.  It was a lively mix of people and quite a wonderful event.

  • PragmaticProgressive

    Same here — I was going to take my child out for lunch and we ended up dining al fresco with the very welcoming Sikh community. 

  • The Events Calendar is self-serve and we encourage everyone in the community organizing an event to submit it to the calendar. If you happen to know who organized the Sikh festival, do alert them to the calendar for next time! Thanks.

  • PragmaticProgressive

    Tracey, my assumption is that they publicize it within their community: http://www.elsobrantesikhcenter.org/annual-nagar-kirtan-peace-march-june-3rd-2012/.  While it’s open to everyone (as many in attendance told me), they probably wouldn’t feel a need to put it on a general events calendar.  

    Another option for you to consider is asking the City to give you a heads up when someone obtains a permit for a big event like this.  

  • ML

    Love the graphic at the head of the article!

  • Berkeley Resident

    Did any one attend the Family Festival at Civic Park.  I did, as I was also going to Farmer’s Market but the place was pretty empty and not a whole lot was going on.  My 1.5 year old had fun running around but there wasn’t much of a Festival. 

  • Joe

    nitpick: that would be “higher standards”. Unless of course you can hire a standard, in which case I stand corrected.

  • Anonymous

    Sorry. The stupid predictive typing on this phone demands constant vigilance.

  • you can turn that feature (??) off…

  • Belinda

    I loved the cheeses and the wine, which no one has mentioned. The cheeses were spectacular — especially the creamy one with apricot jam on top — but I found the chocolate, when joined with the cheese in my mouth, all had a one-note. They all tasted the same to me. Obviously my dark chocolate discernment needs work. A fun event,, and I look forward to the next! Thanks Lenny and members of the BCC and BCB!