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Isabella Valencia’s treats bring Austria to La Jolla

It is widely known that the best of all things can be found in La Jolla. This fact will be driven home further when The Shores Restaurants holds a series of chocolate and wine-pairing dinners this July. While each of the savory and sweet courses is sure to please, attendees are in for a lovely endnote - a duo of truffles from Dallmann Confections, an upstart business headed by Isabella Valencia, the third-generation of Austria’s foremost family of confectioners.

In only its second year, Dallmann Confections is fast making a name in San Diego and beyond. Considering Valencia’s lineage, it seems almost cliche - Austrian chocolate royalty migrates to America to expand the family empire and finds instant success. But there’s more to Valencia’s story.

In 1954, Valencia’s grandfather opened a small shop in St. Gilgen, Austria. What started as a minimalist operation with just three types of pastries grew to a three-story edifice offering well over a hundred varieties of sweet treats. Eventually, Valencia’s parents took over the business and the children were enlisted to help out.

From the get-go, Valencia’s place would not be in the kitchen. Her brother would learn all there was to know about pastries while Valencia would focus on the business. This was just fine with her.

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“Growing up in pastry, chocolate and ice cream was fabulous as a child, but later on I was sick and tired of working in the shop because it was all I knew,” recalls Valencia, who earned a degree in hotel and event management and, in 2003, moved to San Diego where she worked the front desk at the Westgate Hotel before moving on to manage the hotel’s onsite gourmet shop.

It was there she was asked a question that would change her life.

“Out of the blue, a company called Mainly Mozart called. They didn’t know my heritage. They wanted Mozartkugel - little round balls with pistachio and nougat. I told them my family made them and they told me to have my father ship some over. If they liked them, they’d buy them. They loved them and started buying thousands at a time.”

Such sudden and significant sales planted the seed for a big idea. “I thought, why not learn how to make Mozartkugel and do it myself? I’ll make millions because nobody is doing it.” This brainstorm seemed particularly viable given the fact that Mozart’s birthday was right around the corner. So, Isabella quit her job and went back to Austria to learn the specialized skill that would make her rich. There was just one problem. “When I came back, the guy who was interested in the Mozartkugel had quit and Mainly Mozart didn’t want the stuff anymore. I thought, ‘What am I gonna do?’ My bubble was exploding right in front of me,” she said.

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Luckily, Valencia had two extremely supportive individuals to lean on. Her husband, Alex, urged her not to give up, offering his labor and suggesting they focus on a broader range of confections because most people had no idea what Mozartkugel was. Friendship and seed money was provided by Deborah Smith, who Valencia refers to as “an angel” who “adopted her” shortly after her arrival in the U.S.

Valencia took her husband’s advice and, despite being a novice in almost every way, enrolled in a two-day advanced pastry class; one in which all of the attendees were professional pastry chefs. “I said I was a pro to get in because I wanted to learn from the best. The people there were doing sculptures and stuff like that, and I had never even baked a cake. It was tough, but I made it through,” she said.

Not only that, but during that 48-hour period, she discovered that her favorite medium was chocolate and learned to make her own truffles. She spent the next two weeks meeting with and learning from as many industry professionals as possible before hitting the streets with samples of her truffles in hand, ready to win some business. Her first sales call was to the Westgate, where she presented her samples to Executive Chef Fabrice Hardel, who ordered 400 truffles on the spot. Inspired by this inaugural triumph, she pressed on, presenting her chocolates to hotels and wine bars and securing orders from every single establishment she visited.

The business has since taken wings. Such a meteoric rise is a testament to the quality of her truffles, which follow her family’s tradition of using the finest, freshest ingredients, but are, as Valencia puts it, “modernized with an artistic twist.” Dallmann Confections’ catalog is riddled with delicious examples of Valencia’s bold brand of culinary whimsy. A stand-out is her “prosecco and pearls” truffle, 65 percent cacao Madagascar dark chocolate infused with Italian sparkling wine and adorned with natural pearl dust.

Other lavish and exotic ingredients flavoring Valencia’s creations include green ginger, Provencal lavender, pear cognac, Valencia orange peel and royal jelly (the sweet, earthy special reserve nectar fed exclusively to queen bees). One truffle stands out as the hands-down customer favorite and Valencia’s signature item – the “fleur de sel:” dark chocolate filled with rich buttery caramel and topped with French sea salt crystals for the perfect fusion of savory and sweet.

Earlier this year, Valencia’s received an e-mail from an individual in Hollywood who had come across her chocolates and wanted her to provide truffles for the luxury suites at the Oscars. Shocked but elated over this unexpected request, she packed up her sweets and headed north where she wowed the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Denzel Washington, Will Smith and Morgan Freeman. But that wasn’t Valencia’s only brush with fame. She has also provided chocolate wedding favors for several Austrian movie stars.

Of her rapid ascent, Valencia remarks, “The whole ride so far has been a big wow for me. I hope I can inspire people who have hopes and dreams to just go for it!” That same advice goes out to chocolate lovers looking for a decadent taste experience. The Shores’ chocolate and wine-pairing dinners will take place July 1, 5, 12, 19 and 26. The restaurant is located at 8110 Camino del Oro and reservations can be made by calling (858) 551-4656.

Isabella’s truffles are available at hotels, wine bars and restaurants throughout San Diego County, including La Jolla’s Marine Room and The Shores Restaurant. They can also be ordered online at www.dallmannconfections.com or purchased at Dallmann Confections’ headquarters at 780 North Second St. in El Cajon. And if you like a side of education with your sweets, Valencia will be on-hand for upcoming classes at the Macy’s School of Cooking at 1555 Camino de la Reina in Mission Valley. Visit www.macys.com/events to view the school’s course catalog.

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