Berkeley’s Claremont neighborhood isn’t the first place I’d look for a chocolate factory. But tucked away in a wooden shingled house on a quiet tree-lined street is a kitchen producing some of the finest French chocolates you’ve never heard of.
Pascale Martin makes French chocolate pralines, which are nothing like the Southern caramel and pecan confections with which I’m familiar. Chocolate pralines are a bite-sized truffle-like confection — a crisp chocolate exterior gives way to a luscious, creamy center of caramelized nuts blended with chocolate. They’re hard to find in the U.S., said Martin, who grew up in France and eats chocolate every day.
“I started making pralines just so that I could eat them,” she said. Martin began giving her pralines to her friends, who convinced her to start charging for her treats. She formed an email list, which became a simple website and a small business, Les Chocolats de Pascale. She now counts 200-300 people in her customer base, which she’s generated entirely via word-of-mouth.
It’s Martin’s first holiday season, so when I stopped in to visit earlier this month, she was already finishing up her second batch of chocolates for the day. She’s been working almost non-stop for the past couple weeks, filling holiday orders for everyone from her friends to larger corporate accounts.
When I walk into her kitchen, Martin is tempering milk chocolate in a miniature tempering machine. Picture a small bathtub filled with silky chocolate, slowly heating along a precise temperature curve. Martin points an infrared thermometer at the chocolate and gives it a quick stir. It’s not ready yet.
She works with the precision of a trained chocolatier, but Martin is entirely self-taught. Her background is in electrical engineering, which she says has given her structure and a good organizational skill set. It also, clearly, trained Martin in the art of precision and experimentation, which are both crucial for building a success chocolate business.
Martin has been tinkering with her praline recipe since she began her business earlier this year. She started with a base recipe gleaned through online and cookbook research and has slowly been dialing back on the sugar content. Her pralines now contain somewhere between 30 and 40% less sugar than is traditional, and she credits customer feedback with the change. She would cut back on sugar every week and then check in with her customers. They liked the chocolates more and more the less sugar she included.
It makes sense — the lower-sugar mixture really allows the chocolate and nut flavors to shine. Even Martin’s milk chocolate pralines aren’t terribly sweet. “I take a lot of pride in everything I make,” she said. “I just want to make chocolates with good ingredients. They don’t need a lot of sugar.”
All of Martin’s ingredients come from the West Coast except for her chocolate, which she imports from France. And she sells her truffles fresh — very fresh. “All of the chocolate I sell is made that week. I always sell out,” she said.
Martin currently offers four different pralines in milk or dark chocolate: le croquant (crunchy hazelnut and almond praline mixed with puffed quinoa), le moelleux (creamy hazelnut and almond praline), la noix (creamy walnut and hazelnut praline with a whole walnut in the center) and la noisette (creamy hazelnut praline with a whole hazelnut in the center). She also sells chocolate bars studded with all kinds of crunchy and sweet ingredients. On my visit, I tried a chocolate bar with pepitas (toasted pumpkin seeds), and she was planning to make bars with candied orange peel and chocolate-covered espresso beans later that week.
Even with the short ingredient list, Martin said: “You can be very creative with pralines. You can vary the nut type and the spices. I’m even working on a chocolate bar that’s filled with praline to give customers a different experience.”
Martin is able to run her business because of the California Homemade Food Act that went into effect in 2013. The bill allows individuals to prepare and package “certain non-potentially hazardous foods in private home kitchens referred to as ‘cottage food operations,’ ” according to the California Department of Health website. Individuals must also complete a food processor training course, implement sanitary operations, follow established state and federal labeling requirements and operate within “established gross annual sales limits.”
Crucially, all ingredients used for such businesses must be safe to store outside of a refrigerator. “I was very lucky because all of the ingredients needed to make pralines can be held at room temperature,” said Martin.
Martin said that she would never have been able to start Les Chocolats de Pascale without the passage of the law. “I wouldn’t have been able to afford to rent a commercial kitchen. It would have been a total non-starter,” she said. However, Martin will eventually outgrow her space.
Right now, Martin is only selling her chocolates through her website and at a few holiday fairs in the East Bay. “I would love to expand but I will need to figure out how to grow and expand while maintaining high quality,” she said. “Eventually I will have to move to a bigger kitchen and add staff, but now I can control everything but I am just working alone. It’s easier to maintain quality right now.”
Martin isn’t sure if she pictures opening up her own chocolate shop or if she would rather sell through other outlets. Regardless, Martin said that she will stay within the praline niche. “I don’t want to offer the same thing that everyone else offers,” she said. “There are very good chocolatiers in Berkeley that are making ganache-style truffles and I want to offer something different.” Plus, she added, “I think I have enough to do with just pralines.”