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A chocoholic among us

Bittersweet on Fillmore

By Gary Carr

Seneca Klassen is a chocolate nut. His shop, Bittersweet, the chocolate cafe at 2123 Fillmore Street, is the culmination of a lifelong passion for chocolate.

“I’m a home chocolate-maker from way back,” Klassen says. For years, he’s collected recipes for chocolate drinks and confections, concocting goodies in his kitchen capable of driving a chocoholic to ecstasy. “I have friends in the cacao-growing world who would ship me the raw materials,” he says. “I’d turn them into chocolate and send them back, just to show them what could be done with their beans.”

Bittersweet sells all sorts of chocolate bars and other chocolate treats, some of which are from the recipes Klassen has developed in his kitchen. The shop owners — Klassen runs the company with partner Penny Finnie — search the world for uncommon brands dear to the chocolate aficionado’s heart: Chocolat Bonnat and Pralus from France, vegan Casa Don Puglisi bars from Sicily, and forastero bars from the Hawaiian Chocolate Co., the only U.S. company that grows its own beans.

In addition, Bittersweet offers handmade bonbons, housemade croissants, and a bevy of chocolate drinks.

Among the drinking chocolates at Bittersweet are a chocolate Thai iced tea and a spicy chocolate drink from Oaxaca made with rosewater, cinnamon and cayenne.

“We have a great mix of the familiar and the offbeat for chocolate lovers,” Klassen says. “But where we stand out is in our wide range of drinking chocolates.”

He points out that, until the mid-1800s, the only way people consumed chocolate was by drinking it. The Spaniards brought cocoa beans back from the New World, and Europe soon fell in love with chocolate — as a drink. The chocolate houses of 17th century London rivaled the coffee houses, and served as chat rooms for such luminaries as Isaac Newton and Samuel Pepys.

The first solid “eating chocolates” didn’t appear until the 1840s, Klassen says, when J.S. Fry & Sons of Birmingham, England, produced them in molded form. Milk chocolate appeared in 1879, introduced in Switzerland by Henri Nestlé.

Klassen’s love of chocolate led him to trace the bean back to its roots. He concocted a drink that reflected the very first uses of cocoa beans more than 3,000 years ago by people living along the Amazon.

“It was basically ground cacao mixed with chilies and water and drunk cold — very bitter and nutty,” he says. “But for them, it was completely normal.”
Later, the Mayans enjoyed a drink made with cacao beans, water, chilies and cornmeal — all very grainy, porridgey and with a kick. Perfect for starting a day of pyramid building.

Klassen’s hobby outgrew his kitchen, and four years ago he started looking for a way to turn it into a commercial venture. In 2004, he and Finnie opened the first Bittersweet cafe in Oakland. A year later came the cafe on Fillmore Street, which Klassen describes as “an ideal location in the perfect neighborhood.”

“We have a great foodie community here, with tremendous interest and knowledge of wine, cheese and olive oil,” Klassen says. “Chocolate, with all its nuances, is certainly in the same league.”