Chocolatier Robert Nieto doesn’t do much of anything the easy way. Crafting a 24-piece tray of his Fleur Sauvage bonbons takes several hours. First, he tempers a fine Ecuadorian chocolate, heating it and cooling it to create a smooth, glossy finish. Next, he molds each piece, fills it with pralines, caramel, and other sweet goodness, then paints each tiny shape with an airbrush and buffs it by hand.
The buffing, he explains, helps the edible paint adhere and brings out the ganache’s luminous, glasslike shine. The bonbons positively glisten in their various silhouettes, looking like multicolored marbles, princess-cut diamonds, and dazzling emeralds. Some designs burst forth in 3D — a seasonal cranberry chocolate filled with caramel and vanilla, for example, takes the elegant form of a flower in bloom.
It all could seem like a bit too much fuss, until you savor one and realize the worth of the effort — the crisp, feather-delicate, chocolate shell, the hints of natural mint or orange infused in the paints, the silky fillings that flood the senses with even more intense flavor.
Robert, who sports three chocolate-themed tattoos, and his wife Tara Nieto opened Fleur Sauvage Chocolates in a candy-box-size industrial park kitchen in Windsor in the spring of 2019. (Robert has also been with Jackson Family Wines as a full-time pastry chef for the past nine years.) As soon as they opened, the couple saw a steady stream of customers clamoring for such exquisite offerings as lavender caramels, white chocolate truffles, and Mexican bonbons spiked with cinnamon, cayenne pepper, chile powder, and Tahitian vanilla. The couple also works with wineries and breweries, and they reach locals by selling online and at farmers markets.
“One night, I made 1,200 bonbons for a special event,” the chef says, matter-of-factly. “I do that for holidays, too, since it gets so busy.” Yet even the all-nighters don’t faze him. “It’s so fun to do,” Robert explains. “All hand painted and splattered, Jackson Pollock-style. There’s so much movement and color, and I really get to showcase my artistic style.”
Tara has been learning the art of chocolate, from infusing the raw ingredients with flavors of Meyer lemons, fresh rosemary, and Earl Grey tea, to airbrushing the nearly-finished chocolates in their trademark swirls and splatters.
Robert allows the seasons to dictate the chocolate flavors. For Valentine’s Day this year, he is planning flavors such as strawberry-and-rosewater ganache, basil dark chocolate, and cocoa-nib praline.
The ingredients all swing as local as possible, including honey from Hector’s Honey Farm, bitters and whiskey from Alley 6 Craft Distillery, almonds from Bryerton’s Roasted Almonds, and tea from the Russian River Tea Company.
The couple also likes to bike, swim, and run, but not in the simple way. In fact, as you might expect from a pair so obsessive about chocolate, triathlon is their sport of choice. Robert has completed multiple Vinemans in Sonoma County, a Lake Tahoe Ironman, and the Santa Rosa Half-Ironman. Together, they spend long hours training along Sonoma’s scenic roads and trails.
And when Tara is not training or in the kitchen, she works as a fire engineer. For the past 12 years, she’s maintained firefighting vehicles and pumped water from the engines to the firefighters’ hoses on the front lines. “Making chocolates and working the farmers market is all really fun for me because it is so different from what I do for my career,” Tara says. And she’s right that it’s hard to imagine two jobs that are more different from each other. “My job can get heavy at times, but chocolate is always fun, light, and very social with our customers. Plus, Robert and I love working in the kitchen with our music up loud. We talk, plan, and dream about more chocolates.”
The company remains small, with no formal storefront; customers simply send an email requesting boxes sized from four to 36 pieces, which Tara has been known to hand-deliver.
The Nietos have recently launched a pairing program at Alley 6 Craft Distillery in Healdsburg, and they are looking to expand to other farmers’ markets this year. Also on tap: virtual tastings online, and working with winery clients to creating wine and bonbon pairings. “We often like to pair to match the flavor notes of a particular wine or spirit, but sometimes we are surprised and find that, for example, our Mexican chocolate, which is spicy and complex, goes wonderfully with some Chardonnays,” says Tara.
For the couple’s own Valentine’s Day, there likely won’t be bonbons on the menu. Robert jokes that he forgets to enjoy his own work, since he’s around it so much — a classic case of the cobbler having no shoes. But he will make a full, multicourse dinner for Tara, which will end, of course, with a chocolate dessert.
A Food Network star too
Robert’s creativity with sugar and chocolate, not to mention an unflappable grace under pressure, has made him a star on the Food Network.
He first got the giant cable company’s attention when he appeared on an episode of “Beat Bobby Flay” in 2016. In 2019, producers asked Robert back to compete in “Cookie Wars,” and again in that year’s “Holiday Wars” competition, which he won with his specialty, a rosemary dark chocolate bonbon. This past holiday, Robert was cast in “Candy Land,” a fantasy show with an entirely edible set in which teams of four competed to craft real-life versions of the classic childhood board game, like gumdrop mountains and the peppermint forest. Episodes are available online.
For your valentine
To order treats, visit Fleur Sauvage Chocolates online at fleursauvagechocolates.com. Prices start at $10. Robert and Tara will offer special 2021 Valentine packages, including bonbon assortments, flavored chocolate bars, and large chocolate hearts filled with truffles.