Saturday, February 9, 2008

Dallmann Confections: Candyland in El Cajon

Trying to find Dallmann Confections is a little tricky. Just off the 8 freeway in El Cajon, the little storefront doesn’t yet have any signage to speak of—owner Isabella Valencia’s only been there for two weeks—and the place is set back from the street. But, the location is really more headquarters than retail operation. Valencia has plans to eventually hold chocolate and wine tastings as well as chocolate-making classes here, but unlike other local chocolatiers, she has no plans for opening a café or shop on site.

“This just isn’t the right location for a café,” she acknowledges. “I’d rather wait until I can do it in La Jolla.”

But, having bounced around for the last couple of years in different locations, including downtown San Diego, her new East County workspace is a welcome relief. The garish yellow and turquoise paint on the walls and ceiling will soon be a thing of the past once Valencia redecorates, but in the meantime she’s got a large open kitchen—perfect for hands-on classes and demonstrations—as well as plenty of room for tasting guests to circulate.

You would think the 27-year-old Valencia came to making chocolate as an inevitability. Back in the ‘50s in her native Austria, her grandfather, Guenther Dallmann, ran a much loved pastry shop, which grew in renown and success when her mother and father expanded the business. Their Mozart Travel Cake—remember, this is Austria—is one of their biggest draws. It would have been only natural for Valencia to join the business, but instead it was her brother who went to work for their parents while she continued her education, earning a degree in hotel and restaurant management at The Institute of Tourism & Hotel Management in Klessheim, Austria.

Valencia first came to the U.S. on an internship at a resort in the Poconos Mountains back east. It wasn’t the most exciting place she could have landed but it was there that she met her husband, Alex. The couple returned to Austria for awhile but the Westgate Hotel’s general manager, George Hochfilzer, also Austrian, recruited them to work at the downtown San Diego hotel for 18 months.

“The idea was that we’d go back home to Austria after 18 months,” she says, “but with an American husband I was able to get a green card and I was promoted to manage the gourmet shop.”

Long story short—one day Valencia got a call at work from Mainly Mozart, asking if she knew where they could buy Mozart chocolates, a delicacy that, as it happened, her parents make. Shipping the chocolates from overseas became cumbersome so Valencia decided to quit her job to learn how to make them herself. That was “it” for her.

“It’s like the way nuns say they feel when they explain their calling,” she says. “I felt it was what I was meant to do.”

Three weeks back at home with her family gave her the fundamental skills she needed to get started. She returned to San Diego, told Mainly Mozart she was ready to provide them directly with what they needed—and they told her they weren’t interested anymore.

Fortunately, Valencia was inspired by her new-found passion and, like an Einstein she says, spent her time at home playing with chocolates and ingredients like teas and spices to develop a line of confections. She approached her former Westgate Hotel colleagues, and they became her first customers. Wasting no time getting more accounts, her business quickly grew. Valencia now sells her chocolates to wine bars like Wine Love, Wine Steals, The Cask Room and Eno Winebar; retail stores like Taste, Zanzibar, Orfila Vineyards, Java Jones and the Westgate Gourmet Shop; restaurants like Villa Portofino in Catalina and hotels such as Tower23, the U.S. Grant, W. Hotel Spa, the Westgate and The Handlery.

And now of all things, Valencia’s preparing for the Academy Awards. Dallmann Chocolates will be part of the celebrity swag giveaway extravaganza for three days leading up to the Oscar’s. “I got an email out of nowhere asking me to participate,” she says. “I’ll be with other vendors at the Beverly Hilton in a booth with a display. They tell me that 35 celebrities a day will come to the booth, eat my chocolates and have their photos taken with me.”

Her hope, of course, is that she’ll be able to generate a lot of publicity through the event and even garner some A-list customers.

In the meantime, Valencia is madly whipping up confections for her regular clientele as well as other special events. Stacked on shelves are bags of the Felchlin chocolates that are the foundation of her creations: dark 72 percent, a lighter 65 percent and 38 percent milk chocolate. The Swiss company makes single bean organic chocolate derived from Venezuela.

In the adjoining workroom, drawers are packed with all sorts of fascinating ingredients that she uses in her chocolates. Out came a small bag from Japan containing pearl dust, literally the wispy particles that result from hand grinding pearls. Valencia sprinkles it on her Prosceco and Pearls champagne truffles, a hit at weddings, she says. Then there’s a container of bee pollen and another of royal jelly for her Royal Jelly truffle. Royal jelly, which is secreted from the salivary glands of worker bees, provides nutrition to the larvae in the hive. Valencia uses it in the truffle’s ganache, and sprinkles bee pollen lightly on top. She also has a bag of fine grade macha, or green tea powder, and assorted spices and herbs. Fresh flowers, like orchids and roses, figure in her presentations and dried flower petals often top her candies.

Interestingly, she says she gets many of her ideas for her confections from body shop products, which often contain unusual combinations of ingredients. But, it still takes a lot of fine tuning to be able to turn a concept into a luxurious chocolate bonbon or truffle. One example is the key lime bonbon I tried that morning.

It is a beautiful treat—Valencia uses her thumb to paint the inside of the molds a vibrant yellow and green. The ganache is made with key lime and forest honey. The trick has been just how far to take the lime flavor. Too much and customers will wince at the taste of sour chocolate, so it has to be just enough to develop the flavor and no more. Valencia is just shy of reaching the finish line here, although the bonbon itself is rich and delicious.

On the other hand, the Rose bonbon was perfection and I’m not even a huge fan of rose-flavored food. It reminds me of my grandmother’s strong smelling soaps when I was a child. And, often candy makers are heavy handed with the rosewater. So, I was wary. But, it was a delight, especially the way it infused the caramel filling and contrasted with the bittersweet chocolate encasing it.

The Jasmine bonbon gently stoked my taste buds. The scent of the tea just swam up to my nose while its flavor lingered on the back of my tongue even after I swallowed the chocolate.

The other tea-flavored bonbon I sampled, Macha Passion, was equally well crafted. I love macha tea and I love passion fruit. Until recently, I grew a vine in my garden, always hoping it would bear the small fruit with its sweet-tart syrupy pulp. Valencia uses a passion fruit puree at the base of the bonbon, topped with a gorgeous ganache infused with macha, all wrapped in chocolate. My mouth felt like a happy playground as different flavors bumped up against one another.

The Giandja, a combination of hazelnut paste and Frangelico, a hazelnut liqueur, was far more subtle and luxurious. It’s a smooth jazz kind of confection.

The palate is jolted awake, though, with the playful Fleur de Sel, which Valencia says is a customer favorite. The sea salt sits in the center of the top of the bonbon, so no matter where you bite, you get a sensation of buttery caramel and a little kick of salt, snuggled in bittersweet chocolate.

Finally, I got a chance to taste one of Valencia’s truffles, her basic chocolate truffle rolled in cocoa powder. It was dense and dark, definitely an adult confection.

Valencia also has a line of three chocolate bars of varying depths of chocolate. Her smart packaging includes suggestions on the back for wine pairings with the chocolates.

“I love to watch people take a bite of my chocolate and see the smiles on their faces,” says Valencia. “It makes me feel like a superstar on stage.”

Dallmann Confections is located at 780 N. 2nd St. in El Cajon. You can learn where to find her products on her web site,

Have some thoughts about Dallmann Confections or other artisan chocolatiers in San Diego? Do you have a favorite neighborhood market or shop that carries unique or unusual foodstuff? Let me know or add to the conversation by clicking on comments below:

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1 comment:

  1. I had no idea they were so close to my house - I will have to go down there and check it out. Of course, I wish they did have a cafe, but I can understand why that location probably isn't the best. If would be awfully nice to have something like that open in La Mesa though!