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Message For You: What do you get when you guzzle down sweets? Happiness.

Chocolate Heaven

A trio of chocolatiers join Willy Wonka for a wild confectionary extravaganza


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Willy Wonka must be salivating with envy. That legendary, literary candy maker--the star of two popular children's books by Roald Dahl, made famous by Gene Wilder in the classic movie-musical Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory--has become an icon of confectionary invention and chocolate-making ingenuity, a creator of chocolates so rich and delicious they reportedly were imbued with magical qualities. It's unlikely, however, that even Mr. Wonka could have reached the same mouth-watering heights achieved by the dream-sweet chocolates of Veronica Bowers, Condra Easley, and Guy Daniels, three of Sonoma County's most celebrated chocolatiers.

For one thing, Wonka's goodies were all, ahem, factory made (no slight intended to the Oompa Loompas), while the chocolatey miracles whipped up in the kitchens of Bowers' La Dolce V, Easley's Patisserie Angelica, and Daniels' Gandolf's Fine Chocolates are all made--lovingly and expertly--by hand. And while none of these celebrated North Bay chocolate wizards admits to using a chocolate river, as Wonka does, to mix their creamy chocolate into fine, frothy perfection, the methods they do use have nevertheless inspired scores of customers to swear off famous-name factory chocolates forever.

Poor Willy Wonka.

Fortunately for those who'd rather not choose sides, local chocolate lovers will have the rare opportunity to enjoy both Mr. Wonka and some of the finest chocolates in the North Bay. On Sunday, April 7, Santa Rosa's Rialto Cinemas will be hosting a special, one-night event dubbed Reel Chocolate. The brainstorm of Paul Schwartz and Jim Lawer--a pair of Sonoma County chocolate connoisseurs--Reel Chocolate is envisioned as a grand, gustatory celebration of fine chocolate and chocolate-themed movies, featuring a screening of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory preceded by an appetite-whetting reception at which Bowers, Easley, and Daniels will all be offering samples of their tastiest inventions.

"We're all passionate about chocolate," says Easley, who's only just recovered from having made hundreds of chocolate Easter eggs in the swoon-inducing kitchen of Santa Rosa's Patisserie Angelica. "Chocolate is not just chocolate," she says. "And with the Reel Chocolate event, we're hoping to help elevate people's tastes as to what good chocolate really tastes like."

As for the sample she'll be serving, Easley is planning to bring a delectable-sounding tea-infused truffle.

"There are a lot of ways to infuse flavors into chocolate," explains Easley, who first honed her dessert-making skills in Paris. "A cold infusion," she says, "involves taking the cream and infusing the tea into it, then letting it steep in the cold for a day. We use a fruity, floral tea from Mariage Frères, a famous Parisian teahouse, and the sweetness of the tea is brought out by the cold infusion process, creating a wonderfully mellow flavor." The finished truffle, describes Easley, is "buttery and silky and smooth on the tongue. These are not gobbling chocolates. These are chocolates that are meant to be savored."

Savoring the experience, it seems, is what Reel Chocolate is all about.

"Most people have only tasted mass-produced chocolate and have no idea what they're missing," says Schwartz, a teacher of video production who developed the idea for Reel Chocolate with fellow chocolate fan Lawer. "We started talking about how people have lost touch with what chocolate is meant to be, and the idea sort of hit us to combine a night of fine chocolates with the screening of a great movie."

As for which movie to show, the choice of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory seems natural. Count Veronica Bowers of La Dolce V among those for whom Willy Wonka is a favorite.

"It's a yearly tradition, actually" she admits. "Every Thanksgiving I watch it again." Bowers--proclaimed by Chocolatier magazine as one of the top ten chocolate makers in the country--has not yet decided which goody to offer at Sunday night's event.

"We have so many unusual combinations going right now," she laughs, "it's hard to decide on just one." Likely candidates are her banana flambé--"If you've ever gone to the fair," she says, "and had a frozen banana dipped in chocolate, it's like that, only better"--or a malted milk ganache, introducing the flavors of an old-fashioned malted milk shake into traditional ganache, a creamy mixture of cream, butter, and chocolate.

Guy Daniels, the founder of Gandolf's Chocolates in Graton, has narrowed his choices down to two strong possibilities: a nipple of Venus--a hand-shaped ganache covered in rich, dark couverture chocolate--or a dark chocolate truffle with minced pieces of cranberry. "It's like an upscale Raisinette," he laughs, "only bigger and better. A tangy feeling of dried fruit in the chocolate complements the flavor. They're delicious."

Daniels is a self-taught chocolatier. "I am to chocolate what Hunter S. Thompson is to journalism," he says. A former IBM and Charles Schwab executive who left the rat race to make candy, Daniels quickly became a celebrated blender of unusual flavors. His appearance at Reel Chocolate is part of his devotion to telling the world that fine chocolate is within everyone's reach.

"Even a person of very modest means can afford to buy the best chocolate there is," he says, "if they can find it. But first they have to learn to appreciate it."

Even Willy Wonka would agree with that.

Reel Chocolate takes place Sunday, April 7 at 7pm at the Rialto Cinemas Lakeside, 551 Summerfield Road, Santa Rosa. Tickets are $20 at the door.

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From the April 4-10, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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