CHOCOLATE: A Rich Massachusetts Tradition

CHOCOLATE: A Rich Massachusetts Tradition

by Marjorie R. Williams.

Exploring the topic of chocolate is like entering a universe of its own. A staggering number of varieties, sellers, and techniques have transformed once easy choices—Milk or dark? Plain or with almonds?—into a dizzying array of temptations. Fine chocolate now shares the status of cheese and wine, with connoisseurs discerning differences in taste among producers and even among cacao growers. Distinctions like “single-origin” have come into vogue as the international market has boomed. And with the abusive labor and environmental practices of some plantations coming under scrutiny, Fair Trade Certified and organic chocolates have gained more presence on the shelves. 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 the chocolate chip cookie was accidentally developed by Ruth Wakefield in 1933 in Whitman, Massachusetts. She owned the Toll House Inn, which was a haven for road-weary travelers and 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. Such as NECCO (New England Confectionery Company), previously located in Revere and was the oldest continuously operating candy company in the United States, and Cambridge Brands, Inc., makers of Charleston Chew and Tootsie Rolls. They struggle to compete against major players such as Mars, Hershey, and Nestle. 

A newer Massachusetts company—and one that specializes 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. He and Kathy opened their first candy shop eighteen years ago “for the love of it.” 

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.

For those willing to explore elsewhere in Massachusetts for their sweet tooths, some other excellent choices are Burdick Chocolates, which is particularly known for wood box assortments containing chocolate mice, Phillips Candy House, which many seek out for their chocolate turtles, and Serenade Chocolatier, which steeps itself in the Viennese tradition and makes outstanding truffles. If more extreme measures are needed to satisfy that chocolate craving, an over-the-top experience certain to delight the most ravenous chocolate lover is the Chocolate Bar Buffet at the Langham Hotel in Boston on Saturday afternoons, an all-you-can-eat extravaganza featuring over 125 treats including whoopee pies, chocolate cotton candy, and chocolate crepes. 

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. Fortunately, there are many rich, local options near at hand.

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