BY SEAN HUGHES
PHOTOS COURTESY FRAN’S CHOCOLATES
[twocolumns]When Dylan Bigelow was twelve years old, he got his first job working for his mom. She founded Fran’s Chocolates in 1982 and he helped out, doing a variety of odd jobs: putting candies in the little paper cups, wrapping up packages, or doing the dishes. That last job was a good one, because it included licking out the bowls.Given that he grew up under the influence of Fran’s blossoming success, it’s little surprise that he went into the culinary industry (or that his house was a very popular place for his friends to gather). After getting a baking and pastry certificate at the Culinary Institute of America and working at the start-up Scharffen Berger—one of the first in the recent wave of American chocolate manufacturers—he came back to Fran’s in 2001. A few years later his sister, Andrina, joined the company as CEO, making it truly a family business.
As Director of Chocolate, Dylan is responsible for developing recipes with his mother and supervising production. There’s also the matter of quality control, meaning that he has the wearisome task of tasting the day’s products. He is in charge of sourcing and spends a lot of time testing various products, especially now that Fran’s is trying to shift to more organic ingredients.
Their most important criterion is taste, and consistency is also significant; not all organic ingredients pass muster. Still, they use organic sugar, corn syrup, almonds, butter, and cream—the latter two ingredients are from the Fresh Breeze Organic Dairy over near Lynden, Washington. The chocolate they use, at the moment, isn’t organic. Though he admires several small, family-owned organic chocolate makers, the chocolate isn’t consistent enough for Fran’s products.
For the most part, their chocolate comes from the French company Valrhona. Dylan and Andrina visited Valrhona a few years ago to develop a blend especially for Fran’s. They settled on a blend of beans from Madagascar, Venezuela, and Mexico, designed to highlight the fruitiness of the beans from Madagascar. In the past, when I’ve heard people say that a certain tea has “a floral aftertaste,” that this wine has “tropical fruit overtones,” or, yes, that a particular chocolate “has hints of fruit,” I’ve rolled my eyes. They almost never do—perhaps a vague similarity, but certainly not a primary flavor. So it was a bit of an epiphany for me when I tasted Fran’s special blend of chocolate in its pure form. It really did taste fruity, and not just a little. Maybe that’s why their products are so special.
Another reason their chocolates are so special could be the exceptional care with which they are made. The caramel is cooked in small batches, then each candy is put in a little paper cup, packaged, and dressed up with ribbons by hand. Many of their candies are also hand-dipped, which is a mesmerizing process to watch. A chocolatier sitting next to a vat of chocolate picks up a piece of caramel, dips it in the chocolate, taps off the excess, places it in a pan, and makes a mark on the top of the chocolate by swooping her hand over it, before grabbing another piece and starting again. All in the blink of an eye. With two people dipping caramels, the third worker, charged with salting them, really has to be on her toes to keep up.
The salted caramel, the company’s most popular product, was born eight years ago. After a customer request, Fran experimented and ended up with a formula that took off: a handmade caramel dipped in chocolate with salt sprinkled on top. The growth in demand has been stratospheric, not least because President Barack Obama is said to prefer those made by Fran’s.
I asked, half in jest, whether we might see a complementary pepper caramel and Dylan said he’d tried it, but that the pepper had been overpowering. Still, he plans to keep working on it.
They’ve recently introduced a new product, thin squares of chocolate with specks of sea salt incorporated inside. They’re just as delicious as the caramels and have the added benefit of being lighter, less guilt-inducing. Though, this latter point is arguable, given my tendency to put a second in my mouth almost as soon as the first is swallowed.
Despite the brilliance of their salty-sweet candies, it’s the chocolate-covered fruits that really got me. The figs, especially. Dylan cut one into quarters, took a piece for himself, and gave one to me, coyly leaving half sitting on the plate—like somehow it could be resisted. It’s a fat Calimyrna fig, filled to bursting with dark chocolate ganache and coated in more dark chocolate. When he left the room for a moment, I quickly ate a second slice, then the last one. If there had been more, they would’ve disappeared into my mouth, or possibly into my pockets. They, like everything else this remarkable company makes, are not to be missed.[/twocolumns]
Fran’s Chocolates has three retail locations.
1325 1st Ave, Seattle
2626 NE University Village St, Seattle
10036 Main St, Bellevue
When not writing about food (or eating it), Sean Hughes writes book reviews for Real Change.