A tour with sweet rewards
"You hit a wall, didn't you?" Steve Almond asks. I am hanging onto the counter at the Chilly Cow ice cream store in Arlington Center as the server looks at me quizzically. I've just sampled a frozen pumpkin custard, rich and vivid as pie filling, and my brain has gone into orbit.
"It's OK," he says. "Lots of amateurs think they can keep up."
I'm on my third stop with Almond, local author of "Candyfreak: A Journey through the Chocolate Underbelly of America." In his book, he claims he's eaten a piece of candy every day of his known life, including pulverized pieces when his jaw was wired for dental work. Today's sugar tour of local favorites is a small chocolate chip compared with the odyssey Almond undertook in "Candyfreak," visiting the last independent regional candy producers all over the country, purveyors of candies with names like Twin Bings, Valomilks, and Abba-Zabbas. I'm surprised Steve Almond is so thin.
Our first stop is the Danish Pastry House (330 Boston Ave., Medford; 781-396-8999), sister to the one in Watertown. The place is hopping with students from nearby Tufts, and there's a nice selection of salads, drinks, and sandwiches. but our eyes are focused on the pastries: traditional Danish cheese and fruit-filled kringles, florentines, croissants, brioches, Sacher torte.
"What I always do," Steve says, scanning the glass cases astutely, "is ask the people who work here what's good." We get into an extended discussion with the staff about the offerings, including the marzipan featured in the Kermit-esque frogs in bright colors and matching fruit flavors less sweet and more utilitarian than traditional Italian marzipan, we're told, and we are led to a glass case dedicated to handmade chocolates. Since Christmas, partner-proprietor Ulla Winkler has been going all over the country learning how to make deluxe chocolates. "She's becoming a chocolatier?" Steve asks reverently.
For chocoholics, two words about the Pastry House selection: go there. Imported Belgian chocolate is crafted in many and whimsical ways including Danish mint chocolate frogs, cinnamon-rolled truffles and much, much more. Steve and I sit down with little plates of pastry and chocolates.
"Do you know how to eat chocolate?" Steve asks, demonstrating with a bite of hazelnut ganache. "Exhale deeply through your nose a few times, and close your mouth tightly." Steve compresses his lips. His eyes drift to the tip of his nose, and I want to ask him if he knows this is a classic meditation technique, but he is gone, vanished to an inner realm of amazing sweetness.
He's back a few seconds later: "They call it 'getting the notes,' " he explains. "Chocolate may be the single most complex food on the planet, with thousands of chemical components. I always say God created certain delicacies to see just how fetishizing people can be."
We ask for glasses of water, and I try to heed Steve's admonitions to pace myself. We split a rum and kirsch truffle. "Boozy," Steve remarks. Try as I might, I can't finish my half of a cream-filled chocolate-dipped double Florentine, and pass it along to Steve, realizing uneasily we still have two stops ahead.
Next is the mom-and-pop storefront of Johnny's Candy Corner (1193A Massachusetts Ave., Arlington; 781-643-7700), an offshoot of the Candy Corner in operation summers in York Beach, Maine, for more than 20 years. The owners drive back to Maine at least once a week where Agnes Biagioni and her daughter make fudge and hand-dipped dark and milk chocolate turtles and almond bark in the larger space there. The Biagionis trade their specialties with another candy-maker for his hand-dipped chocolates, expanding both of their repertoires.
"They have kits," Steve says, fingering the strawberry-flavored rectangles lovingly. The Maine store has a huge selection of penny candy but here there are only a few sampler boxes to gladden Steve's heart. He's a contradiction, a man with a sophisticated palate who is also a "cheapskate," by his own definition: "I'm happy with a box of hot tamales." He knows he won't find high-end imported chocolate here, but appreciates an atmosphere as comfortable as owner John Biagioni's Red Sox sweat shirt. When I ask about store hours, Biagioni chuckles, hands me a card, and says, "Call first. We're here by noon most days."
Our last stop is the Chilly Cow (451 Massachusetts Ave., Arlington; 781-648-4360), another sentimental favorite. Steve was dispatched here regularly many nights when his wife was pregnant with their two children. Steve's lifestyle has changed dramatically since he wrote "Candyfreak" a few years ago as a freewheeling bachelor: "Within six months I bought a house, got married, and had a baby on the way, " he tells me.
At the store, he chats familiarly with our server. Like the proprietors of Johnny's Candy Corner, the store's owner has developed a symbiotic relationship with another aficionado, trading his rich, eggy homemade custard for homemade ice cream. Steve points out the frozen yogurt on the menu. "What's the point, really?" he asks. "It's like those people who say they prefer vanilla to chocolate." He shrugs.
There are only a few hard-core fans in the Chilly Cow on this wintry day. Steve takes the server to task for not having his wife's favorite flavors, cake batter and turtle, on hand. "Someone else was just asking for those," the server says. "What does that tell you?" Steve asks. She obligingly mixes caramel topping with cookie dough as a compromise.
As we drive back, I ask Steve about his children's relationship with candy. Judah, at 3 months, is exempt so far, but 2-year-old Josie "has the gene," Steve says. "She wakes up every morning and says, 'I want a treat today!' We try to keep her away from that stuff, but I wonder what will happen when she finds out her dad wrote the book on candy. How long can we keep that from her?"
My guess is Josie will have her dad pegged long before that, the first time he takes her trick or treating.