Our Hearts Belong to Chocolate
[This story originally appeared in the Jan./Feb. 2015 print issue of Merrimack Valley Magazine. We’ve made minor edits, but note that some information may be out-of-date. Be safe and contact businesses before visiting for information regarding COVID-related special offers and protocols. – Ed.]
Chocolate has the bewitching ability to warm the heart and soothe the soul as it melts on the tongue. Mike Cross, a chemistry professor at Northern Essex Community College, has a passion for the stuff. He travels the country offering insights into chocolate’s hold on us. “Chocolate contains a compound known as anandamide, which is naturally produced in the brain and is responsible for ‘runner’s high.’ The active ingredient in marijuana, THC, targets the same receptor,” Cross says.
Cross explains how chocolate and romance became associated. “Cocoa beans were part of Mayan marriage ceremonies, and chocolate was used in dowries of Spanish royalty,” he says. As for aphrodisiacal properties, Cross says, “There are two chemicals found in chocolate that may enhance feelings of romantic love. The first, phenylethylamine, is a chemical stimulant produced when someone falls in love. The second is tryptophan, the raw material for making serotonin, which produces feelings of elation and ecstasy.”
Cross also explains the difference between mega-chocolates and treats made locally. “The biggest difference between mass-produced chocolate and the good stuff is the amount of cocoa used,” says Cross. “Many brands contain as little as 7%. Big companies skimp on cocoa butter and substitute partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. They’ll also add extra sugar to cover up the lack of quality ingredients.”
The luscious aroma of chocolate embraces you the moment you cross the threshold of Huckleberry’s Candies (formerly Sanborn’s Fine Candies) in Hampton, N.H., a store that has been family owned since 1954. News clippings and photos on a wall tell stories about the shop from as early as the 1960s and reveal three generations of candymakers. One picture shows current owner Ted Sanborn Jr. making chocolate at age 4. Ted’s mom, Joyce Hovnanian, who bustles behind the counter, boasts: “You can’t find a finer caramel than my son’s!” She waves her hand toward the cocoa-laden display cases. “Everything here is a labor of love,” she says. “This is all cooked in a copper kettle with butter, chocolate and cream. The snowflakes are made in a 60-pound batch and scooped out by the teaspoon. The coconut cakes are toasted in a toaster oven in small batches. The caramels are individually hand wrapped.”
And it all tastes just as good as Ted’s proud mom claims. You’ll find all the expected bonbons, along with less common options such as wintergreen, banana and pistachio creams, chocolate-covered ginger, and “queen-of-alls” (the original Mr. Sanborn’s invention: a whole Brazil nut atop a mound of caramel in a nest of crushed Brazil nuts). Bargain hunters will appreciate displays of overstocks and irregulars, the same delicious chocolates at slightly lower prices.
Pearls Candy and Nuts in Salem, N.H., is the place to go when you want to relive the “kid in a candy store” experience. The store specializes in confections from the 1950s to the 1970s, with nostalgic offerings such as old-fashioned candy cigarettes, candy buttons, giant rainbow suckers and Mallo Cups. As a gift for the person who has everything, you can pick up ant candy and scorpion lollipops, or the elusive sugar-free gummy bears. Chocolate cordial cups make Valentine’s Day toasting special, and who knows, nine months from now you might be back for “It’s a Girl!/Boy!” bubble gum cigars.
Salisbury Beach is home to Swell Willey’s (formerly Willey’s Candy Shop), where you’ll find Bill Silsby behind the counter, just as he’s been since 1971, when he and his wife took over from her parents. Customers range from summer tourists who pop in for saltwater taffy, regulars who buy their weekly pound of peanut clusters, and regional travelers who stop by for beach pizza and chocolate whenever they’re in the area. “People come back all the time,” Silsby says, “They say, ‘It’s the same as when I was a kid!’” The shop offers a few unique options, such as chocolate-covered Swedish fish and coffee noodles (java-flavored nuggets coated in chocolate jimmies). Chocolates are all the same price per pound, so select a mix, and Bill will speedily fold a locally made box to hold your choices.
Eighty-year-old Arthur Mapes, owner of Mrs. Nelson’s Candy House in Chelmsford, began making sugary confections at age 12. He’s been in the business for more than 60 years, starting as a candymaker at Santa’s Workshop and later working for the Bailey’s, the legendary ice cream chain in Boston that invented the hot fudge sundae.
Mapes purchased the Candy House 40 years ago from the Nelson family and kept the name. The shop is cheerful and decorated to fit the season. High shelves display vintage metal candy molds. You can watch sweetmeats being made through glass windows behind the counter. “When I took over the place, that was a wall,” Mapes says, “But I’ve always worked in front of the public, so I opened up the windows.”
The shop offers the usual array of handmade chocolates, along with a number of packaged novelty items, including “chocolate body powder,” which comes with a purple feather applicator. Some of the more unusual candy produced in-house includes jalapeño truffles, Kelly green “Irish chips” (mint-flavored white bark squares), and chocolate-covered candied orange peel in curving, pinkie-finger-size strips.
In order to get the perfect color and flavor profile, Mapes combines several chocolate varieties for his signature milk and dark products. Adding chocolate liquor to his “double-up dark” results in a deep, rich noir bark. As an option for those who can’t eat cocoa butter, all the white “chocolate” options in the shop (such as a pink “ombre ballerina”) are made using palm oil, so you get the same melty mouth feel without the allergens. A variety of packaging options are available, along with luxe wrapping paper and ribbon selections that are sure to make your gift irresistible.
If you have food restrictions, check out Pure7 Chocolate, which is made in Carlisle. The company offers “raw” honey-sweetened confections that are free of preservatives, chemicals, dairy, soy, gluten and refined . Pure7 Chocolate can be found at Whole Foods Markets and The Natural Grocer in Newburyport.
Pearls Candy and Nuts
Mrs. Nelson’s Candy House