Their Bay State of the art calls for chocolate
We’ve never conducted a scientific survey, but we suspect that if asked to name the perfect food, nine respondents out of 10 would say “chocolate.’’ But even chocolate comes in good, better, and best. In Massachusetts, we are richly endowed with chocolatiers dedicated to the further perfection of the perfect food. They see their craft as both an art and a way of life, and Valentine’s Day, above all, is their day.
Hallie Baker, who founded Turtle Alley in Gloucester in 1999, specializes in those concoctions of caramel, nuts, and chocolate that vaguely resemble the hard-shelled reptile. Among her unusual turtles are those that combine macadamia nuts with coconut; cherry and apricot with almonds; and white chocolate with cashews and dried blueberries. “Every time I find a new product, I sit in front of the TV and eat too much of it to figure how I’m going to use it,’’ she says. Baker used to be a painter, but now channels her energies into chocolates because she finds that “something creative happens that’s equally fulfilling.’’
When Christopher Flynn isn’t fashioning turtles, caramels, or dipped chocolates at Prides Crossing Confections in Beverly he’s painting gorgeous icons in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Best known for his caramels, Flynn prepared for Valentine’s Day by casting cupid and heart chocolate lollipops, and made chocolate hearts with cherry fillings. The shop occupies the old Prides Crossing rail station, and manager Charlie Bermani observes that “on Valentine’s Day and the day before, there’s a line of husbands out the door.’’
Kathie Williams, who runs Richardson’s Candy Kitchen in Deerfield with her mother, Barbara Woodward, confirms the stereotype that real men buy chocolate at the last minute. “On Valentine’s Day,’’ she says, “the parking lot is full of trucks.’’ Two of the shop’s Valentine’s Day specialties are a stemmed cherry dipped in ganache and then chocolate, and dried apricots dipped in chocolate and sprinkled with pistachios. Richardson’s is also known for dixies (turtles entirely enrobed in chocolate) and hedgehogs (similar but made with crisped rice). For hard-nosed regional traditionalists, the women also make pink wintergreen mints as both chocolate patties and dipped creams. “It’s a real New England flavor,’’ Williams says, noting that many of the recipes are original with the founder of the 55-year-old shop.
Chocolate never seems to go out of style, making candy shops typically long-lived businesses. A sign in the back of Hebert Candy Mansion in Shrewsbury proclaims, “Making your day a little sweeter since 1917,’’ the year Frederick Hebert started up the confectionery. He moved his operations into the Candy Mansion in 1946, which the company claims is America’s first roadside candy store. The joint will be jumping today - “We’re expecting a line of 50 or 100 guys in the parking lot when we open at noon,’’ a clerk said - but if you show up on a weekday, you may actually get to see the candy makers at work behind glass in the store’s kitchen. Traditional boxed chocolates are the big draw here, though the Hebert signature candy is the bite-sized block of white, milk, or dark chocolate called a Geneva, available with or without an almond on top.
Perhaps the most truly European candy in Massachusetts is the Viennese truffle of Serenade Chocolatier in Brookline Village. The original recipe came from William “Uncle Bill’’ Federer, who grew up in Vienna, sang in the legendary Vienna Boys Choir, survived the Dachau concentration camp, and opened Serenade in 1960. Federer taught the recipe to current owner Nur Kilic, and the layered treat of dark chocolate and hazelnut butter remains a signature of the shop.
Priscilla Hand Made Candies in Gardner became locally famous for the French roll, a slightly flattened chocolate center dipped in milk chocolate and rolled in crushed cashews. “Once upon a time, if you weren’t from Gardner, you’d never heard of a French roll,’’ says Ginny Trudel, daughter of Charles Stephano, who founded the shop in 1936. While some Valentine’s Day shoppers will no doubt pick the boxed assortments, many will come for the French roll. “It was my father’s recipe,’’ says Trudel. “It was actually a mistake but it turned into a big seller.’’
Raymond “Sugar Ray’’ Hebert of Stage Stop Candy in Dennis Port appreciates the value of trial and error. “My grandfather always told me that you never throw anything away,’’ he recalls. “You can always think of how to fix it; it doesn’t become a mistake until you throw it away.’’ Of course, his grandfather was Frederick Hebert of Candy Mansion fame, and when Raymond moved to Cape Cod, he brought some of his forebear’s notebooks. Ever the artisanal chocolatier, Raymond created chocolate-covered bacon for Super Bowl Sunday, and has crafted a passion fruit truffle that’s a Valentine’s Day favorite. Some years back, he also invented the whole-cranberry cordial as a signature Cape Cod taste, akin to a chocolate-covered cherry but not as sweet. “I went to the bog and started picking berries and experimenting,’’ he says. “I got it right on the third try.’’
For a less juicy treatment of the Bay State’s official fruit, consider chocolate-covered dried cranberries from Dorothy Cox’s Chocolates in Fairhaven, one of the first confectioners to introduce the treat. Founded in 1928 by the eponymous great-aunt of the brother and sister team of Francis and Dorothy Cox, the shop is also known for its chocolate-coated buttercrunch (a butter toffee) rolled in crushed almonds. One Valentine’s Day special is the romantic chocolate rose on a stem. The shop anticipates a rush business. “It’s a busy four days from February 10th through the 14th,’’ says Francis Cox. “The women stop by around February 1st. The guys tend to wait, if you know what I mean.’’
Candy-maker Matthew Sinico must have syrup for blood. He’s the fourth generation to work at Catherine’s Chocolates in Great Barrington, where the favorite single item remains a chocolate-coated cashew “butterkrunch’’ made from his great-great-uncle Emile’s recipe. The store’s Valentine specialty is a fresh strawberry dipped in white chocolate, then in either milk or dark chocolate. “Good berries are at a premium this time of year,’’ Matthew says, “so we put in our order months ago.’’
The heart-shaped boxes and chocolate lollipops stand ready at Tuck’s Candies in Rockport, a fixture since 1929. The signature chocolate-covered buttercrunch remains a top seller, but owner Carol Tuck notes that saltwater taffy is a year-round favorite. The shop also makes a superb peanut butter cup from scratch. Procrastinators will welcome the candy shop’s secret weapon in the Valentine’s Day competition. “We also have a card store,’’ Tuck says, “so we can do double duty.’’
The second edition of “Food Lover’s Guide to Massachusetts’’ (Globe Pequot Press) by Patricia Harris and David Lyon will be published next month. They can be reached at email@example.com.