RFT Editor Anne Weaver and I are back from the Oregon Chocolate Festival (OCF) in Ashland, Oregon, and, in our opinion, it’s one of the best—if not the best—celebration of chocolate in the Northwest.
OCF is the brainchild of the folks at the Neuman Hotel Group, the people that own the historic Ashland Springs Hotel (formerly the Marc Antony) in downtown Ashland and the Ashland Hills Hotel & Suites, site of this year’s event. And it’s a wonderful idea because it introduces chocolate lovers to the talents of some of the best chocolatiers, chefs and pastry chefs from around the West. The event is held annually in March, just when the trees are in bloom in Southern Oregon, and everyone needs an inspired break from the winter weather.
Additionally, the entire town of Ashland gets chocolate fever at this time of year. Art galleries feature chocolate-themed artwork in a First Friday Art Walk, downtown shops offer chocolate books and gifts, and local restaurants whip off chocolate dishes. The famed Oregon Shakespeare, which begins its season at this time of year, offers 20% off ticket prices to festival goers.
This was the 12th Annual Oregon Chocolate Fest and the first year the event was held at the newly-refurbished Ashland Hills Hotel & Suites. While some people mourned losing the downtown location and intimacy of Ashland Springs Hotel, site of the previous festivals, everyone agreed that Ashland Hills was perfect—big exhibit spaces, plenty of large rooms for classes and demonstrations, lots of parking, and rooms that are spacious and reasonably-priced, just right for chocolate-loving families.
Anne Weaver and I were invited to the festival as guests of the Neuman Group—me as a chocolate judge and Anne as photographer. Our first Chocolate Festival event was the popular (and sold-out) Chocolate Maker’s Dinner held at the Ashland Springs Hotel’s beautiful upper dining room space. The meal, where every course has a chocolate element, was created by Damon Jones, executive chef of Ashland Springs Hotel’s Larks restaurant, and his team.
For $75 pp, guests were treated to a multi-course meal paired with wine. It included: Grilled Radicchio, Shaved Parmesan, Marcona Almonds, Preserved Lemon Zest, Cocoa Nib-Orange Vinaigrette paired with Sass Pinot Blanc, Rogue Valley, 2013; Oven Roasted Branzini, Celeriac-Cauliflower Puree, Fresh Herb Gremolata, Bittersweet Chocolate-Pecan-Fennel Slaw with Kriselle, Sauvignon Blanc, Rogue Valley, 2013; an entrée of Braised Beef Short Ribs, Dark Chocolate Mole, Truffle & Bone Marrow Whipped Potatoes, Thyme Olive Oil Local Carrots or, the vegetarian option, Cocoa Crusted Cauliflower Steak, Roasted Eggplant & Chickpea Stew, Brown Butter-Thyme Crème Fraiche served with Quady North, GSM Rhone Style, Rogue Valley, 2012; and, for dessert, Espresso Truffle Cake, Roasted Hazelnuts, White Chocolate Crème Anglaise, Raspberry Coulis paired with Jaxon, Syrah, Rogue Valley, 2012.
Let the Judging Begin
On Saturday, I joined Chef Darrell Folck, instructor at the Oregon Coast Culinary Institute, and Chef Tim Keller, Executive Corporate Chef at Harry & David, renowned purveyors of gourmet foods, for judging duties. Whenever I tell people I’m working as a culinary judge, I get all kinds of disbelieving looks—rolling of the eyes, great sighs, and comments like, “Oh yeah, that’s work—not.” Here’s the truth: culinary judging, even when it’s chocolate, isn’t easy and in every contest I’ve judged, the judges take the work every seriously. And the Oregon Chocolate Festival was no exception.
Chefs Tim and Darrell and I met on Saturday morning at 9 a.m. Then, equipped with plenty of water and coffee and our scoring sheets, we dove in to judge: Best Non-traditional Use of Chocolate, Best Traditional Use of Chocolate, Best Raw Chocolate Candy, Best Truffle, Best in Show (all vendors judged) and Best Student Chocolate Creation. Imagine sampling and evaluating 6-10 chocolate entries in each category first thing in the morning. Whew!
The show has earned a prestigious reputation in the chocolate community, so it draws chocolate chefs and chocolatiers from around Southern Oregon to as far as Seattle and the San Francisco. In all, 30 chocolatiers participated as well as four wineries, a cider company, a switchel/drinking vinegar vendor, a coffee roaster, and several companies selling chocolate-themed gifts, soap, and jewelry. In addition, five pastry chefs from Southern Oregon whipped up desserts. The large exhibition hall was filled to capacity.
Judging took three hours. That’s three hours of sampling a couple of bites each of dozens of chocolate candies. By noon, I was buzzing, but we’d narrowed our results down to the winners. In most cases, there was only one winner per category. However, in a few cases, the products were so excellent that we named a second place honorable mention.
When I joined the festivities in the exhibition hall, the place was filled with vendors and happy chocolate-sampling guests. Everywhere I turned there were chocolate samples—colorful truffles, bars, chocolate covered toffees, and more. Lively music provided by Gayle Wilson’s three-piece combo added to the festive atmosphere.
After a much-needed (non-chocolate lunch), I rejoined my fellow judges at 2 p.m. to evaluate the Best Dessert entries. For this event, local pastry chefs create two versions of the same chocolate entry. One was judged based on taste, presentation, and best use of chocolate by the expert panel. The other was auctioned off in a silent auction and festival-goers voted for the People’s Choice Award. Proceeds from the silent auction benefit Access, a community action agency in Jefferson County offering food, housing assistance, weatherization and other services to needy community members.
Throughout Saturday and Sunday, chocolate experts offered workshops and demonstrations on everything from pairing chocolate with beer and wine to making chocolate bonbons and chocolate peanut butter cheesecake. For those who love spas, the Ashland Springs Hotel offered a fun Chocolate Spa Party that included learning to make Chocolate Mojito Sugar Scrub while sipping on a chocolate cocktail served along with appetizers.
And the Winner Is…
Finally, at 4:30 pm, it was time for Chefs Tim and Darrell and I to present the Best Chocolate Awards. As we announced the winners, excited chocolatiers came up to receive their certificates. The winners included:
Best Traditional Use of Chocolate
The Salty Caramel Truffle by Dolcetta Artisan Sweets
Honorable Mention: Peach Basil Bon Bon with Caramelized Horseradish
Best Non-Traditional Use of Chocolate
Chocolate Rose Petal Sauce by PremRose Edibles
Best Chocolate Candy (Best Marriage of Chocolate and Candy)
The Pretzel Drumstick by Peggy’s Handmade Chocolates
Best Use of Chocolate in a Baked Good
Earth Brownies by Oregon Coast Culinary Institute students Chloe Gibb & Faith Amend
Honorable Mention: Ramblin’ Rose Brownie by Lillie Belle Farms Handmade Chocolates
For the first time in Chocolate Festival history, a tie between:
The Bananas Foster Truffle by Fera’wyn’s Artisan Chocolates
The Dark Chocolate Vanilla Bean Creme Brulee Truffle by Smitten: Artisan Truffles
Best Raw Chocolate Product
The Peruvian Raw Cacao Nectar Bar by Honey Mama’s
Honorable Mention: The Heatwave by The Great Unbaked
The Best Dessert, a Chocolate Ganache with Eucalyptus, Burnt Honey and Olives, was created by Chef Andrew Will of Public House
Chef Harlan Brooks of Peerless Restaurant, who made a Chocolate-Peanut Marjolaine received an Honorable mention for his dessert entry.
People’s Choice Awards
First Runner Up: Cocotutti
Second Runner Up: Fera’Wyn’s Artisan Chocolates
The Grand prize, Best in Show, wasn’t announced until Sunday. And it was Cocotutti, a company that makes wildly inventive and beautiful chocolates with wonderfully thin chocolate shells with just the right chocolate ‘snap.’ This was the second year in a row Cocotutti came away with the top honors at the Oregon Chocolate Festival.
By the time RFT Editor Anne Weaver and I packed up to head home on Monday morning, I’m sure I was suffering from a chocolate hangover from my time at the Oregon Chocolate Festival. But, you know what, I can’t wait to come back next year I’ve already got it marked on my calendar. You should too.-– Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor
Editor’s Note: In the next few weeks, we’ll be publishing reviews of some of the best of the best chocolatiers who participated in the 12th Annual Oregon Chocolate Festival. Watch for them.
Oregon Chocolate Festival www.oregonchocolatefestival.com
Ashland Springs Hotel www.ashlandspringshotel.com
Ashland Hills Hotel & Suites ashlandhillshotel.com