Walking into Compartes for a chocolate tasting I had set up, I wasn't sure what to expect. For the past few months, I've reading off and on about chocolatier, Jonathan Grahm and was definitely curious as to how someone in his early 20s had already made quite a name for himself in the very competitive world of artisanal chocolate making.
Soon the rest of the group arrived and it was time for Jonathan Grahm to start off our tasting event by giving us some background about himself and Compartes. With his talk, we found out that Compartes was originally owned by Mrs. Compartes and had been around since 1950. Back then and up to when Jonathan took over, Compartes was more of a traditional candy store than a real chocolate shop. When Jonathan's family, of Bonny Doon Wine fame, purchased the shop, at first they weren't quite sure what to do with it, but at age 19, Jonathan volunteered to take it over and because of his creativity, Compartes reached new heights.
Even at such a tender age, he knew not to completely throw out the old and replace it with everything shining. Compartes' signature line were chocolate dipped fruits, everything from apricots to orange peels, so that stayed and what he added to the mix were truffles and ganaches utilizing exotic combinations of various spices, nuts, fruits, etc. Also, since his passion is dark chocolate, that's generally what Compartes sells.
What impressed me throughout the rest of his talk was how some of his chocolates were limited because he would only make them if he was able to get the ingredients directly from the source. For example, you aren't seeing umeboshi plum truffles until he's actually made a trip to Japan and picked some up to bring home. Now that's dedication to your craft. He finally ended with telling us that at the age of 23, he finally bought the business from his family and now it was really all his. I think that's pretty cool.
Now it's time to taste chocolate and we tried 8 different ones. Here's the run down:
1) Love Nuts (vanilla roasted and caramelized nuts sprinkled with sea salt, covered with chocolate and dipped in cocoa powder) - There was quite a cornucopia of ingredients, yet the combination of sweet-salty flavors combined with a nice crunch worked well together.
2) Brown Butter and Sage Truffle - Don't ask me why but the ingredients of brown butter and sage reminded me of a roast turkey with stuffing. I wasn't quite sure how it would translate with chocolate, but it did. The nuttiness of the brown butter and the slight peppery kick from the sage really complimented the dark chocolate.
3) Cup of Coffee Truffle - I'm not much of a coffee drinker, so I wasn't expecting much from this truffle. After my first bite, I decided that it should be called Perfect Cup of Coffee Truffle because if coffee tasted like that, I'd probably be drinking (or eating) a lot more of it.
4) Chocolate Covered Candied Orange Peel - I really don't have much to say. It was tasty and of good quality, but too "classic" for my taste.
5) Chocolate Covered Candied Apricot - Ditto.
6) Lavendar Violet Marshallow topped with Sugared Violet Petal - I love lavender and I've had it a few different ways from ice cream to chocolate, but a lavender marshmallow was something quite unique and how can you say no to a lavender marshmallow dipped in dark chocolate? You'd be a stronger person than me. What worried me was that the lavender might be overpowered by the dark chocolate, but it wasn't. The lavender certainly wasn't in your face, but I think the concentration of it was just enough in the marshmallow that you could appreciate it.
7) Bonny Doon Dessert Wine Truffles - These particular truffles were extremely limited in that once all the dessert wine was used for this chocolate recipe, you wouldn't see these particular truffles back on the shelves. I can't quite remember the story, but it had something to do with those dessert wines not being produced anymore, so there was only a small number of them left.
I'm not much of a wine drinker, so while I remember liking it, it didn't stand out as much as some of the other chocolates we sampled.
8) Smoked Salt Truffle - Of the 8, this was my hands down favorite. I've had chocolates sprinkled with sea salt before, but not smoked salt. It was something different. The name of the truffle really describes how it tasted to me - a little smoky, a little salty, but just the right amount of sweet from the dark chocolate somehow balanced all the flavors together.
The range of chocolates we sampled really showed a good example of "traditional" Compartes as well as a more "forward-thinking" Compartes, a company that is willing to take culinary risks, all in the name of chocolate. Throughout the tasting, Jonathan would talk about how he likes to experiment with new ingredients. Here's a hint for you. If you walk into Compartes, look into the display case and if you see chocolates without a label on the front of the tray, more than likely, the "Mad Chocolate Scientist" was at work again. If you're feeling brave, ask about those unmarked chocolates. You'll never know what treasure your palate might experience.
After the tasting, Jonathan gave us a tour of his "chocolate factory" with factory being quite a misnomer since it brings to mind automated machines belching out items from a mechanized production line. Instead, all the chocolates are hand made and hand-dipped in chocolate tempering machines and they're never refrigerated, with the exception of the original line of Stuffed Fruits, where one or more of fruits like grown apricots, dates, figs and prunes are combined with almonds and walnuts.
Overall, it was a great event. Jonathan really impressed me with his passion for what he does. After all, it's obvious that only someone who is quite dedicated and inventive can come up with truffles like Sichimi 7 Spice (Japanese spices), Lemongrass, Olive Oil Vanilla, Peach Rosemary and Raspberry Pink Pepper. Like I said earlier, he's only in his early 20s. I think it'll be amazing to see what else he comes up as he continues to evolve. I, for one, am looking forward to tasting the end results of all his hard work.
To see pics, go to:
912 South Barrington Avenue
Brentwood, CA 90049