Saturday, September 12, 2009

14th Annual Ghiradelli Square Chocolate Festival

Chocolate is flowing in Ghiradelli Square this weekend as the 14th Annual Ghiradelli Square Festival takes place.

It opened at midday today and soon crowds were clustering around the stalls that lined the square's plaza and street below. Entry is free if you just want to browse and walk past stalls of mouth-watering chocolate offerings and enjoy live music, childens' activities, free shows and chef demonstrations and test drive a Cadillac SRX.

To sample, though, which is really the point of the festival, you have to purchase a ticket for $20, which entitles you to 15 chocolate wares.

'Chocolate with everything' is the motto: truffles, brownies, biscotti, cream puffs, shortbread, fudge, macaroons, pancakes, toffee, cupcakes, cookies, cakes, nuts, marshmallows, ice cream, milk shakes, even vodka and tea!

A place that Charlie of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory would take his family to.

Just like Christina who with her love of chocolate had spurred her aunt into bringing her and other members of the family to San Francisco specially for the festival. Aunt and mum, Lucretia, daughters Angie and Edith, and nieces, Christina and Anna, from the Bay Area, were tucking with relish into tubs of Ghiradelli hot chocolate fudge ice cream sundaes. (pic: Angie, Christina, Lucretia, Edith, Anna)

But it is Christina who is designated the chocolate lover. 'We're all into chocolate because of her!' said Lucretia.

What else had they had? Chocolate marshmallow and a chocolate smoothie! said Angie, rolling her eyes in delight.

That left her 12 more samples.

'I need some water!' she gasped.

Along with the chocolate, wine is also a festival feature. The Wattle Creek Winery, whose tasting room is in the plaza, were offering either a tasting menu or wine by the glass. I took the rose served by Laura, light and not too sweet, however wine is not in the ticket price and comes at $5 a glass.

While the purpose of the festival is to advertize as well as entertain, it is also a fundraiser for Project Open Hand, a charity that provides 'meals with love' for people suffering from serious illness and for seniors in San Francisco and Alameda County.

It has a range of services. Volunteers take food to the housebound, serve community meals, hand out bags of groceries and give nutritional advice.

Gowned in black charity aprons, their volunteers were spread around stalls in the festival. Anne and Claudia were outside the Crown and Crumpet, a tea shop that describes itself as an 'English tea salon.' For once, instead of a nutritious meal they were offering chocolate mint tea, and truffles infused with Earl Grey tea.

Two would-be partakers, Chris and Monica, handed over their tickets to be crossed off. Then Monica sipped at the tea.

'This is really good! It's kind of weird!' she said.

'I think it's one of the best things we've had so far!' said Chris, savouring both the truffle and the tea.

Browsing several other stalls, I made for the Pacific Puffs, enticing-looking light puffs filled with vanilla cream with a chocolate topping. Suddenly a man's voice buzzed my ear, like a mosquito on a fly-past. 'I'm burnt out!' he said.

I turned too slowly and missed him in the crowd, but his words were caught by David and Jennifer from near Sacramento who were joining the cream puff line.

'I'm feeling nauseous,' Jennifer said to David.

So you agree, you're burnt out too? I asked.

'We started off and we just ate everything in sight! It's delicious, it's hard to stop!' she confessed.

What did David think of the festival?

'It's very different to other festivals. It's very well planned,' he said.

People, it seemed, were groaning from chocolate and it was still only 1.30 pm. There were another three-and-a-half hours to go!

On a side of the plaza chairs were set out for free chef demonstrations. They were getting ready for Casey Thompson, Top Chef Season 3 Finalist. Music was playing and a couple who were still light on their feet were having a romantic twirl. They were Judith and Rico of Switzerland who had not been in the festival for long.

'We are here at a chance,' said Rico. They are spending three days in the city, part of a tour that takes in LA, Las Vegas and New York.

What did they think of the chocolate?

'Very good!' Rico whispered, so that Switzerland wouldn't hear!

They had brought Swiss chocolates with them as a gift for Judith's uncle who lives in San Francisco, 'but it doesn't seem to be necessary!' he said.

Pete's Gourmet Confections specialize in old-fashioned candies, particularly marshmallows. Set out on plates were pieces of brittle, chocolate-covered candied orange peel and pumpkin marshmallows. The marshmallows were different and very good.

Peter, whose company is in Oregon, was breathing a sigh of relief at the cool San Franciscan temperatures. He had been fearing a chocolate melt-down.

'I'm so happy it was cool today and a little overcast. They anticipated it was going to be 80 or 90 degrees today and I was a little nervous,' he said.

Ghiradelli Square is by far the largest chocolate festival that he attends. The average chocolate festival attracts about 8,000 people, he said, but organizers were expecting between 40,000 and 60,000 people over Saturday and Sunday.

Down below in the street, Cost Plus World Market, who are presenting the festival, had set up a marquee as a lounge. There you could select from a few choice wines and sit in comfort, nibbling on a few free chocolate bits.

A popular feature on the main stage was just starting, an ice cream sundae eating contest.

Six contestants lined up with hands behind their back and plunged their faces into stacks of ice cream. The winner, for the third year in a row, emerged with his face daubed with ice cream. Daniel Feldman is becoming something of a local celebrity.

How did he feel? compere Elizabeth, Miss San Francisco, asked him as he collected his prize,
'Numb in the face and gross in the stomach!' he replied.

'I just went for it. I'm pretty sure I won't be back here next year,' he said, but as an afterthought said that when he had recovered, he might change his mind!

Which seems to be the way of the festival: No more...well...maybe just one more!

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