Chocolate: A Rich Massachusetts Tradition

by Marjorie R. Williams.

Exploring the topic of chocolate is like entering a universe of its own. The options for chocolate are endless, and so too the appetites. Happily, one needn’t travel far to satisfy them.

Within the United States, chocolate history began in Massachusetts. The first chocolate manufacturing started in a converted sawmill on the banks of the Neponset River in Dorchester. In the fall of 1764, Dr. James Baker teamed up with a young and down-on-his-luck Irish immigrant named John Hannon who knew how to make chocolate. Harnessing the power of the river to grind cocoa between massive circular millstones, they created chocolate “hard cakes,” which were more like bricks in weight. Customers scraped and then boiled the chocolate in water to concoct a sweetened drink. After the Boston Tea Party, patriots drank it instead of tea. With the outbreak of the American Revolution, Baker and Hannon smuggled cocoa beans from the West Indies through the web of Royal Navy warships patrolling the eastern seaboard. Walter Baker—grandson of the original Dr. Baker—continued the tradition and renovated the mill into a state-of-the-art chocolate factory, which produced the world famous Baker’s Chocolate along the Neponset until 1965, when it moved out of state. But the heritage remains a vivid memory to many who lived or simply passed through the area. Michael Hart, co-publisher of edible South Shore, fondly remembers visiting relatives in nearby Milton Lower Mills when he was a child. “The Neponset looked like flowing chocolate, and the aroma was astonishing. We called it the Chocolate River.”

Other local chocolate legends abound. In 1855, a chef at the Parker House Hotel decided to top a cream pie with a chocolate glaze, inventing the now historic Boston cream pie. And Ruth Wakefield accidentally developed the chocolate chip cookie in 1933 in Whitman, Massachusetts. She owned the Toll House Inn, which was a haven for road-weary travelers and also a popular restaurant. Her policy was to give diners an extra helping of their entrée to take home, along with several homemade cookies. There are conflicting stories about her discovery. One version is that she was baking chocolate cookies but ran out of chocolate powder. She substituted broken pieces of semi-sweet chocolate, assuming they would melt and mix into the batter. They did not, and the chocolate chip cookie was born. Later she sold the recipe to Nestle in exchange for a lifetime supply of chocolate chips.

Every bag of Nestle chocolate chips sold in North America still includes her recipe on the wrapper. During World War II, soldiers from the area wrote their families asking them to send Toll House Cookies. As the GIs shared their care packages, the cookie’s popularity spread through the armed forces. Soon began the nationwide craze.

The competing version of the story claims that Mrs. Wakefield, who was an accomplished chef, knew very well that chocolate pieces would not melt into the batter. But one day while mixing a batch of sugar cookies, the vibrations from her electric mixer caused bars of chocolate stored on the shelf above to fall into the mixing bowl. Mrs. Wakefield was about to discard the batch when, out of frugality, she decided to proceed.

Numerous candy companies originated in Massachusetts, many of them clustered near the wharves where sugar and rum, both slave-powered trades, came into the ports. Only a few remain, such as NECCO (New England Confectionery Company), now located in Revere and the oldest continuously operating candy company in the United States, and Cambridge Brands, Inc., makers of Charleston Chews and Tootsie Rolls. They struggle to compete against major players such as Mars, Hershey, and Nestle.

A Massachusetts company—specializing in actual “bean-to-bar” chocolate making—is Taza, located in Somerville. Being “bean-to-bar” means they control the entire process of making chocolate, starting with roasting raw cacao beans all the way through to hand-wrapping each chocolate bar in foil and paper. Taza sources its beans mostly from the Dominican Republic, but it’s in Somerville where the beans are roasted, then broken into small pieces and their shells removed (referred to as winnowing), and then stone-ground in old-fashioned grinding machines (called molinos) straight from Oaxaca, Mexico. Minimally processed and somewhat coarse in texture, Taza chocolates pack an intense flavor. The company uses 100% certified organic ingredients and buys directly from small farm cooperatives at prices above fair trade.

Far easier to find than bean-to-bar manufacturers are the traditional confectioners and chocolatiers who buy bars of chocolate (known as couverture), re-melt them into unique blends to achieve certain flavors and colors, and then create delicious sweets. The southeastern part of Massachusetts boasts some of the best.

For example, Fedele’s shops in Plymouth and Pembroke make their own confection centers, such as chewy caramels and cream fillings, which they dip in chocolate. Ron Fedele explains, “What sets our handmade chocolates apart is their taste. They leave a smooth, silky feeling.” By contrast, commercially mass-produced brands contain wax and additives to extend their shelf-life and hold up in widely ranging temperatures. One of Fedele’s most popular items is fudge. In addition to traditional flavors, Ron and Kathy Fedele experiment with other kinds, such as cranberry walnut, pumpkin, and even a sugar-free variety. Another reason customers keep coming back is the friendly service. Ron, who previously worked as a quality-control manager in a plastics plant, enjoys selling a product that makes customers so happy.

A deep love of the family-owned business is shared by other local confectioners. Judy Hilliard McCarthy and her husband Charles McCarthy run Hilliards Candy, which was started in 1924 by Judy’s grandparents. They uphold the quality standards and follow the time-tested recipes that have been handed down for generations. They use natural ingredients and no preservatives. An old-fashioned favorite is chocolate turtles (chocolates, nuts, and caramel), but they also offer new items such as caramels dipped in chocolate with a sprinkling of sea salt on top for a delectable sweet-salty combination.

Dorothy Cox’s Chocolates is another exceptional local confectioner and in continuous operation for eighty years. They are known particularly for their buttercrunch as well as “panned” chocolates, which are created by hand-dipping each center over and over again in gourmet chocolate until a delicious morsel emerges to delight the palate. Favorites include chocolate-covered cranberries, raisins, and nuts.

Gowell’s Home Made Candy has been family-run for almost fifty years. Among their best sellers are the turtles and the dark almond bark—a favorite of John Wayne’s, who ordered their candy monthly.

What these local confectioners have in common is their use of high-quality ingredients and the time-honored practice of producing small batches in copper kettles. They will ship individual candies as well as made-to-order boxes, party favors, seasonal items, and corporate gifts.

If you’re suddenly finding your appetite for chocolate increased, avoid the big commercial brands and opt instead for the slightly more expensive but significantly more pleasurable and healthier small-batch chocolates. Quality chocolate is one of life’s more affordable luxuries.

Where to Find Local Chocolate:

Taza Chocolate

Fedele’s Hand Dipped Chocolates

Hilliards House of Candy

Dorothy Cox’s Chocolates

Gowell’s Home Made Candy

Original Toll House Chocolate Cookies

  • 2 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
  • ¾ cup granulated sugar
  • ¾ cup packed brown sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 cups (12-oz package) semi-sweet chocolate morsels
  • 1 cup chopped nuts

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Combine flour, baking soda and salt in small bowl.

Beat butter, granulated sugar, brown sugar and vanilla extract in large mixer bowl until creamy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Gradually beat in flour mixture. Stir in chocolate morsels and nuts. Drop by rounded tablespoon onto ungreased baking sheets.

Bake for 9–11 minutes until golden brown. Cool on baking sheets for 2 minutes. Remove to wire racks to cool completely.

Slice and Bake Cookie Variation: Prepare dough as above. Divide in half; wrap in waxed paper. Refrigerate for 1 hour or until firm. Shape each half into 15-inch log; wrap in wax paper. Refrigerate for 30 minutes. (May be stored in the refrigerator for up to 1 week or in the freezer for up to 8 weeks.) Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Cut into 1/2-inch-thick slices; place on ungreased baking sheets. Bake for 8–10 minutes or until golden brown. Cool on baking sheets for 2 minutes; remove to wire racks to cool completely.

Makes about 5 dozen cookies.

Updated and condensed from original Winter 2009 article printed in edible South Shore.

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