Shop Talk: Alma Chocolate

Category: Chocolate

Owner: Sarah Hart
140 NE 28th Ave., Portland, Oregon 97232
In business since: 2005

Chocolate philosophy: I am always striving for balance both in life and in Alma’s confections. I use the best chocolate I can get my hands on and high quality ingredients to go with it. Each origin, each chocolate maker has such a unique expression and I love those subtleties and nuances. In my confections I work to complement - not overwhelm - the flavor inherent in the chocolate. Why use a beautiful single origin chocolate and then smother its uniqueness with a heavy hand? So, I use fresh herbs and spices for flavor infusions instead of oils or flavorings. This also lets us bring a bit of seasonality to the confections. We go lighter and brighter in the summer (with local fruits and berries and flavor combinations like lemon-basil) and favor the smoky, warm spices when
it is chilly (think smoked paprika, cardamom
and prunes in Armagnac). I like change and adventure and so I delight in flavor combinations that will make you stop a little and pay attention to what you are experiencing — but at the same time it has to work, you know? It can’t be novel for novelties sake. It comes back to pleasure. In the end it has to taste really great. Because ultimately chocolate should be fun and delightful — so while we treat our ingredients with great reverence we try to bring a sense of playfulness to what we do at Alma.

Inspiration: I always say that chocolate pursued me instead of the other way around. It was just this idea that wouldn’t leave me alone! So, I started pulling the thread, you know, to see where it led me. I also like to blame it on the Easter bunny. I was looking at this waxy, googley-eyed chocolate chick someone gave my son and I thought, “Chocolate is such an amazing substance — with a rich and complex history. And I thought that somebody should be making things with it that are as amazing and beautiful as chocolate. At the same time  I was thinking about the root name for chocolate “Theobroma cacao” which means “God food” and so the idea for the icons was born. They are beautiful art work — and they look like old reliquary. It just made sense on a very deep level. So then I had to learn to temper chocolate. And I fell in love with the whole process. Once, I got going I was hooked and had to learn everything I could. So, I found a master chocolatier and convinced him to teach me.

Training: I studied with Master Chocolatier Ian Titterton, formerly of Moonstruck and now head of Clark College’s pastry program. He came to my house every Sunday for a year and we went through all the basics of chocolate and confectionary technique. I also did a stage at Valrhona’s Ecole du Chocolate in T’ain Hermitage. I took their bonbon course. It was a dream come true!

Business profile: Alma is a little jewel box of a store — 600 square feet for both manufacturing and retail of our treats! But we pack a lot of goodness into that tiny spot. We are located in the NE quadrant of the city in sweet little hub of shops and restaurants. The colors of the shop are inspired by an antique hand-painted armoire where we display our icons and caramel sauces. We favor rich blues, oranges and chocolate browns that remind us of Mexico. The bonbons are displayed in a handmade case atop a counter made from reclaimed fir. The small pastry case for our choco-centric cookies, brownies and cakes is a rebuilt lovely green cabinet that Ruth, our baker, had in her basement. “Growing” out of one wall is our cacao tree. The base is made from metal pipes bent and aged to look like a tree trunk and the pods are paper lanterns made by local artist Lam Quan of “hihi” studio. I love it so much. We sell a line of gilded “Icons”—buddhas, swallows, flaming hearts and even the Virgin of Guadalupe are molded in 73% Venezuelan chocolate and hand gilded to look like old reliquary. We make bonbons, toffees, bars, barks and sauces. In the store we have a line of chocolate and espresso drinks made with Spella caffee (a local micro-roaster) and Felchlin Cru savauge, 68%. Our most popular drinks are the bicerin (layered drinking chocolate, espresso and hand-shaken OG cream) and the Carmelita (a thick hot chocolate blended with our house-made habanero caramel sauce). All our drinks are made with OG milk and we have soy or coconut milk available, too. We just started doing micro batches of ice cream, too! We package our goodies in natural kraft boxes or biodegradable cellulose bags hand tied with colorful ribbons.
Pricing: Bonbons (truffles, caramels, marzipans and the like) are $2.25 per piece; gilded icons are $15- $45; toffees and barks (all OG butter, sugar) are $8 per pound; mini bars are $4; caramel sauces are $8.

Chocolate varieties: We have 15-16 bonbons at any given time and they change seasonally. We have several that are ever popular and stay on the menu all the time (salted lavender caramel, habanero caramel, salted peanut butter cup, Thai peanut butter cup and a classic dark truffle). The chocolate we use for the classic truffle changes mostly according to which chocolate we are feeling obsessive about. We do Meyer lemon in the winter season, and lemon basil in the summer, fall calls for warmer flavors like our cardamom burnt sugar sesame bonbon, or the rosemary fleur de lys. In the winter we like dried fruits; my favorite winter combination is a dried black mission fig stuffed with Rogues “Oregon Blue” cheese and dipped in dark chocolate and set on a candied walnut. We do special one-offs like a tequila sunrise bonbon for Dia de los Muertos, or a raspberry truffle when the berries are at their very best here.

Chocolate brands: My palate favors South American chocolate, so that dominates what we use. Our top three couvertures are Valrhona’s Araguani, Felchlin’s Bolivian Cru Savauge and Felchlin’s OG Dominican. Vintage Plantations also makes an appearance as do other small bean to bar makers.

Signature chocolate: We are most known for our gilded chocolate “icons”, which are made from original molds and hand-gilded with edible gold leaf. Our top bonbons are the Habanero Caramel Crown (fresh habanero infused cream and butter caramel in a dark crown shaped shell) and the Salted Lavender Caramel (local lavender infused caramel enrobed in
dark with fleur de sel) followed closely by the Thai Peanut Butter Cup.

Most unique piece: Thai Peanut Butter Cup – layer one is a coconut milk ganache infused with Thai chile, ginger and lime, layer two is Jivara milk chocolate and peanut butter. It’s all in an Araguani shell topped with red volcanic sea salt.
Personal favorite: Overall, I love the classic truffle. It is the cleanest expression of the chocolate’s personality. It is so silky on the tongue and as it melts you get all of the subtleties and nuances of whatever the chocolate is we use (It is almost always a single origin).

Shipping: Mostly via USPS priority mail. In summers we ship via chocosphere because they have the space to store all the hot weather packaging!

How does your shop differ from others? Alma is just so creative. The atmosphere is so charming and our flavor combinations are innovative and done with excellence.

True story: I learned to really just trust my own palate early on when I was giving samples out at the Portland Farmer’s market. We were sampling a Mocha Almond Nibby Bark and I offered a sample to one woman and she said “You must never blend coffee and chocolate together!” Right after that another woman came by and squealed with delight “Ooh, coffee and chocolate are my favorite things!”. You just can’t please everyone so you gotta please yourself! It has worked out so far!