Happy Valentine’s Day weekend.
In the United States, more than 50 million pounds of chocolate are purchased in the week leading up to the holiday, according to industry reports.
I contributed to that statistic this week when I stopped to visit Marsatta Chocolate, a small corner shop in Torrance that feels like a cross between a working chocolate factory and a neighborhood café.
The space is crammed with the odds and ends of a chocolate-making facility: dried cacao husks, bowls of aromatic beans, and squares of freshly pressed dark chocolate waiting to be wrapped.
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Jeffray and Naomi Gardner, who own the business, are an easygoing pair who will gladly spend the morning talking to you about the finer points of “bean-to-bar” chocolate making.
Bean-to-bar is a fuzzy label, but it generally refers to production models like Marsatta‘s, where whole cacao beans are roasted, ground and refined in a single facility.
The Gardners do pretty much everything except grow the cacao themselves. They import small batches of beans directly from growers in Belize, Ecuador, Peru and Madagascar. The beans are dried, fermented and roasted in house, and then crushed into bits called nibs, which are turned into a chocolate paste through a process called conching.
Most high-end chocolatiers start with already-processed chocolate and then add flavorings. I can see why: Bean-to-bar production is expensive and time-consuming (even a small conching machine costs thousands of dollars).
The Gardners’ aim is to highlight bold-flavored, unadulterated chocolate.
The couple is particularly proud of Marsatta’s 100% bar, which is made with organic cacao and nothing else.
The chocolate is extremely rich and only vaguely bitter. It sits on the tongue for a few moments before the natural butter content softens and melts.
“This kind of chocolate making is sort of like making wine,” Naomi told me. “We try to bring that bold flavor to the front.”
If dark chocolate isn’t your thing, Jeffray, a former NHL referee and trained chocolatier, also makes several confections and chocolate-dipped pastries.
His chocolates are often fruit-filled and fragrant; his Oolong tea-infused ganache with toasted coconut is something I hope to taste again soon.
A coffee bar is in the works — another excuse to drop by Marsetta’s.
Ask the Critics
Just wondering what restaurants you would recommend near LAX?
— Monica P., Twitter
I’ve become familiar with the dining options around Los Angeles International Airport because it happens to be very near the L.A. Times’ offices (we can watch the planes take off from the newsroom).
Let me suggest a field trip into nearby Hawthorne. I’ve had great meals at Al Watan Halal Tandoori (try the pillowy roghini naan), Zacatecas Restaurant on Inglewood Avenue (the spicy chile verde is the move here), and I would gladly plan my day around the chicken biryani at Zam Zam Market.
— My co-critic Bill Addison reviews Xiang La Hui, a new Sichuan restaurant in Alhambra where the cooking is as complex as it is spicy, and I review Bianca Bakery, a bread lovers haven in Culver City. (In case you missed it, check out Bill’s excellent roundup of 30 great places to drink wine in Los Angeles).
— Columnist Lucas Kwan Peterson on a lifetime of living with the pulse-quickening, skin-tightening, blood vessel-dilating condition known as alcohol flush, a.k.a. Asian Glow.
— On this week’s episode of “The Bucket List,” Jenn Harris investigates the art and science of making delicious fried chicken with Sang Yoon, the chef behind Father’s Office and Lukshon.
— Also from Ben: A highly opinionated, road-tested list of the best breakfast breads in L.A.
— Did you hear? Massimo Bottura, whose Osteria Francescana in Italy is considered one of the best restaurants in the world, is opening a restaurant in Beverly Hills next week. It’s on Rodeo Drive, in the Gucci store.