Sunday, May 29, 2005

A Delightful Day

I had the BEST day on Friday. We "fab five friends" (minus one -- Rita is away visiting her daughter and having fun without us) spent the day in Berkeley. Janet, who used to live there and knows the area well, was our activities director. She arranged for us to start the morning with a tour of the Scharffen-Berger Chocolate Factory. Ah, Chocolate: the perfect start to any day!

If you haven't heard of Scharffen Berger chocolate, it's a relatively new (since 1997, I learned) gourmet "artisanal" chocolate, from a tiny company begun by two guys, a wine-maker and a retired physician. They went to Europe and learned the old, artisan-style method of making chocolate. They make all of the chocolate at their tiny Berkeley factory, using vintage machines from the 20's and 30's. The factory is also in an historic building, made in 1906 (just after the big earthquake) from local bricks. So, outside the factory, you stand and gaze up at this lovely old brick building and see this sign, and inhale the incredibly strong, rich smell of dark chocolate. It's just wafting through the air everywhere there. Heaven.

As it turned out, the tour was fantastic. (And that's saying something, given that we had to all wear dorky hairnets AND I had to wear THEIR clog shoes as they required closed-toe shoes in the factory and I was wearing sandals that day. (What strange things would YOU wear to get free, gourmet chocolate?!) It started with a talk about the history of chocolate, how and where it is grown, and we got to see, feel, and even taste bits of the chcolate bean. Have you ever crunched a chocolate "nib"? That's the roasted inside of a cocoa bean...sort of a non-sweet, but cocoa-ish walnut texture. Very interesting. Then, into the factory, to see the chocolate actually being made (unlike the Hershey tour, where you stand behind glass and watch a demo of how Hershey makes chocolate, somewhere else).

Here is the cocoa bean roaster, which is basically a coffee been roaster. There's even a little sign stuck on saying where this batch of beans comes from (Costa Rica).

You can't see the beans in there, but trust me, they were there. Then, on to the machine that crushes the nibs and eventually breaks them down to a gooey chocolate mass:

Yep, that's chocolate goop coating the two grinding wheels. It was sort of intoxicating to peer into that machine and see that mass of whirling dark chocolate while smelling that rich, dark smell. One could easily swoon and topple right in!

Here's a shot of newly-formed chocolate bars coming down the line...very exciting. Those little dribbled bits at the end of the line drop into a bucket and are eventually dumped back into a vat, melted, and then formed back into perfect bars. Chocolate can be re-melted, tempered, and formed over and over, so if the find mistakes or bubbles in the bars, they just remelt, re-temper, and re-form them. Darn--no seconds at this factory.

Here's another shot of this conveyor belt with more chocolate. And see those people in the background? Wearing the dorky hair-covering nets? That's what we were wearing and that's pretty much how we looked. (Janet wouldn't let me take a picture of them.) One bearded fellow even had to wear a special beard-covering net on his chin which was very amusing.

But I digress.

Here's a lady whose job it is to pop lovely, dark bricks of chocolate out of their molds. That white tub in the foreground is full of them! Yummers!

And here's where little chocolate items get bagged. It looked like she was putting chocolate covered cranberries or some such delicacy into bags, here.

By the way, Sharffen-Berger has a cool website where you can take a virtual tour and see better photos than mine. And, just so you know, you can order chocolate online here!

After the tour, we made a trip through the gift shop and all bought souvenirs (edible ones, for the most part). Then, surprising, we were hungry. Fortunately, there's the Cafe Cacao right on site! We had a gorgeous lunch there (and no, we didn't have any chocolate there, although the desserts looked fabulous!) Many of the items on the menu featured chocolate in some form: a chicken mole pressed sandwich (which Pat and Janet had and raved about), a salad with cocoa nib vinaigrette... I had a lovely pressed ham and gruyere cheese sandwich with a delicious tomato and apricot chutney. The perfect salty/tangy combo to offset that chocolate lingering on my palate! It really was a lovely cafe with delicious food. We all agreed that we'd highly recommend the tour to others. (And, by the way, most of the people on the tour were visiting from out-of-state.)

From there, we ventured to 4th Street, a great shopping area in Berkeley with some terrific little shops AND a Crate and Barrel outlet! We all found good bargains there: I came away with Sunbrella (you know, that outdoor fabric that doesn't stain or mildew or fade in the sun) cushions for our patio chairs, a great deep red rug for in front of the kitchen sink, and a wire window-box planter for my sister's birthday in a few days. Score!

After that excitement, we went to our favorite Berkeley haunt, a wonderful fabric store called New Pieces. It's especially fun because, besides the great fabric they always have, they have a gallery a few doors up the street where they hang collections from various quilters. This month, they were featuring a group of quilts made together by Freddy Moran and Gwen Marston, two of my favorite quilters.

In case you're not familiar with their work, Freddy is famous for her use of bright colors interspersed with black and white prints for a very lively look. (You can see a bunch of them, here.) Gwen is known for (among other things) her "liberated quiltmaking" style of wacky, free-form versions of traditional blocks. I especially love Freddy, because I consider her responsible for getting me back into quilting after I'd been away for it for so long. I started quilting in college, when we used cardboard templates, carefully pieced dull little calico prints... and back then, I thought it was fun...but I went on to law school and then work and didn't have time or energy for it. I happened to stumble onto Freddy's book "Freddy's Houses" just when Caroline was entering preschool, and it was seeing her exciting and happy quilts that made me realize that traditional blocks didn't have to look traditional. I was electrified by the possibility of using all that color and pattern. Lucky for me, Freddy lives across the bay (on the Berkeley side, in Orinda) and she teaches at local shops. I was thrilled to get to meet her (I gushed and gushed at her, at how I loved her quilts, and how they made me see a whole new world of quilting, and how she'd changed my life...until she probably thought I was some strange and overly emotional stalker type.) Anyway, since then I've taken numerous classes with her --not becuase what she teaches is difficult, but because she's such a lovely and fun person and her classes really are wonderful fun. I think I'm a Freddy Groupie.

Oops, I'm digressing again. But that's why I was excited to see this collection of Freddy's latest quilts, with Gwen. Here's a photo of a typical one:

Now, a lot of people might think this sort of quilt is garish and wacky and bright. But actually, what I love about them: they are, well, garish and wacky and bright! I love that traditional blocks are livened up with wild color and nontraditional design. Note the amazing border on this one above...Freddy makes great fun borders.

Here's another one I really liked, which shows off Gwen's "liberated" baskets perfectly with Freddy's color:

And this one, titled "Little House in the Big Woods," is my favorite.

See that little tiny house block in the middle there? I love it. You can see more of their collaboration here.

I was excited to find the perfect backing fabric for the polka dot quilt I'm working'll see it when the quilt is finished. And I came away with the book from the 2004 Visions Quilt Show, which is full of amazing and inspirational art.

It was a fabulous day, and Gerrie, Janet, Pat and I have such fun together that we didn't even mind the traffic on the way home. I got back to find that Roger had grilled mahi mahi for fish sandwiches (on good rolls, with Louie dressing and lettuce) and sweet potato fries on the side and a chilled glass of white wine...the perfect end to a perfect day.


  1. What a perfect day! (Great links and photos-you did an outstanding job of sharing it with us.)I LOVE Freddy and Gwen, and as far as gourmet chocolate is concerned, I'd wear a spacesuit if it meant I got to eat some! Jen

  2. Yummmm... my mouth is watering. Thanks for showing us these photos.

  3. Great photos! That chocolate had me drooling!

  4. Thanks for not taking a photo in the hairnets and earmuffs!!

  5. Thanks for sharing. Almost felt like I was there. Just couldn't smell the chocolate. Now I'm off to spend time looking at Freddie and Gwen's work.Is it any wonder I don't get much work done?? (LOL)

  6. you and your group do the coolest things together. chocolate and quilts, umm, ummm, umm, good