Tuesday, February 14, 2006
We all have Valentines stories and I’ll wager that a good many of them involve candy of some sort. The holiday is inextricably tied to the motto “sweets for the sweet.”
There are lots of stories about Valentines on the news, whole TV specials on the Food Network and of course blog entries. You don’t need me telling you about the history of the heart-shaped box or give you a profile of a man who collects Victorian Valentines. This is the one day where you can get your sugar fix anywhere and everywhere. And I hope you do, because days like this are pretty few and far between.
In a way, CandyBlog.net isn’t about any of that. I’m about candy every day and everyday candy.
That said, this is a good time to talk about Candy Season.
I know I’ve mentioned Candy Season quite a bit. Basically there are four major Candy Holidays in the United States and it starts with Halloween. Then there’s Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Easter. Candy Season happens to also coincide with cooler weather, which is good for chocolate treats.
Candy Season is a time of great plenty for candy ... limited editions, special shapes and colors and of course sales. Indulgence in candies is perfectly acceptable and encouraged. But what’s best is the fact that candy is packaged for each holiday and quickly becomes dated. Which is great on November 1st, December 26th and of course, tomorrow, February 15th. Half off days.
The candy is just as good (if not better) when it’s cheap. Maybe you buy something you’d never tried or twice as much. Valentine’s candy is even better because it’s cute and often meant to be shared.
While this is supposed to be a day for Lovers, when I was growing up Valentine’s was celebrated in our household as a purely candy holiday, a holiday of giving, usually smaller gifts like mini-Christmas stockings.
Usually my mother gave each of us children a little box of candy. It was usually a heart shaped box of Russell Stovers from the drug store (and of course I’d promptly trade my chocolate covered cherry for a nut cluster or caramel with my brother or sister). But one year, for some reason, she went above and beyond. She went to real chocolate shop in the city and picked out a custom tin for each of us with a specific mix. Mine was full of caramels, chocolate covered nuts and coconut creams and not a single cherry in the mix. I kept the tin for years, putting my tips in there and usually spending the money on candy (my brother thought all the cash was in my Tootsie Roll bank ... hah!).
I’ve certainly gotten plenty of other candy gifts for Valentines since then. Even a goofy little box of Necco conversations hearts are always welcome. I know it sounds hokey, but it is the thought that counts and when someone thinks of buying me candy and they don’t present me with a box of chocolate covered walnuts, cherries and marzipan ... it’s all good. It’s all love.
And I’m gonna love stopping at the store(s) tomorrow. That’s when you can expect some special things on CandyBlog.net. Only one more Candy Holiday to go after this before the end of the season!
Wednesday, February 8, 2006
I guess as Valentines approaches candy is more on the mind of adults than usual. Here are a few links about candy and chocolate from around the web:
The New York Times has a great story in their food section about single origin chocolates that starts with chocolate tastings, which may become the new wine tastings, where customers are given brief histories and specs of the growing regions and then taste samples but also discusses the politics and practicality of fair trade and organics as it pertains to quality product.
Chocolate that Flashes Its Passport by Kim Severson
The Los Angeles Times has a great story that traces the origins of chocolate making in California (which is a far longer history than you’d suspect) and how the new mavericks of chocolate crafting are making the West Coast their home. The photos are tasty too (incuding a huge shot on the front page of the Food section).
Toodle over to a Travel article about Barcelona and hard candies, with a delicious photo to boot. Barcelona: Hard Candy by Lisa Abend about a couple of Australians making traditional pulled hard candies in Spain.
A Bag That’s Good Enough to Eat (shown) by Ken Bookman
Taste Test: From Local Chocolatiers - a lovely gallery, tasting notes and recommendations on DC’s favorite candies. (Remember, the Washington Post was the one who helped folks sort through their holiday gelt.)
For those of us not in the area or shipping elsewhere, you might want to check out Taste Test: Valentine’s Chocolates by Mail.
While you’re on the site you might want to check out their interesting article about Chicago, which was once the candy capitol of North America. Sugar subsidies and corporate consolidation has led to a downturn in domestic production of candy in the Windy City. Chicago is Home Sweet Home to Fewer Candy Factories by Kari Lydersen.
Read up! Eat up!
Monday, February 6, 2006
Consumer Reports, the bastion of stodgy and unbiased reviews of common products has tackled the confusing world of boxed chocolates just in time for Valentine’s Day.
Their top picks?
Norman Love Confections but they give Candinas and Jacques Torres Jacques’s Choice a best buy, probably because they’re half the price.
In the Very Good category See’s Famous Old Time Assorted got high marks and of the recommended (Very Good or Excellent) chocolates, it’s by the far the least expensive (at $.88 per ounce) which means you can give your sweetie MORE for the same money!
The worst on the list? Whitman’s Sampler.
(Link found via A Full Belly - thanks!)
Thursday, January 26, 2006
In a strange marketing move, M&Ms started informing its online vendors that they will no longer be able to carry the M&Ms ColorWorks 21 color plain chocolate candies, effective immediately. I’ve been in contact with several “candy insiders” (who did not wish to be named here) but are alarmed at this turn of events.
ColorWorks are still available online at many candy stores, but consumers can expect supplies and variety to dwindle as vendors are not able to reorder through M&Ms’ wholesale division. I have not been able to ascertain if this will apply to brick and mortar stores like Candy Station and Sweets Factory that also sell the ColorWorks candies. I would expect this to be the case as M&Ms open more of their branded stores as their flagship store in Las Vegas has become and hot destination there.
M&Ms has been making great strides in the viral marketing of its custom printable M&Ms online along with the ColorWorks line. Their webstore has an incredible selection, though they are at the moment priced about the same as the online candy stores in the large quantities but when it comes to smaller quantities (one pound or less), buying directly from M&Ms means at least a 20% premium. (Yes, you’d think buying direct would mean you’d pay less, wouldn’t you?) When you knock out the middleman, I can imagine that M&Ms profits on these are pretty high. Even with economies of scale it’s clear that the ColorWorks are a huge moneymaker for Mars. A half pound of ColorWorks (whether part of a color blend or a single color) are $4.69 for eight ounces ($.59 an ounce). M&Ms cost about $3.50 for a 12 ounce bag (not on sale) at your local grocer ($.29 an ounce). Find an in-store sale on M&Ms for $1.99 a bag and you’ve brought it down to $.17 an ounce.
What does this mean to you and me? Well, less choice. If you want the expanded color selection that M&Ms offers, you’ll have to go directly to them from now on (unless they’re planning to create “official resellers”). This means that you’re beholden to their product pricing and their shipping fees.
It also means that shopping for candy just got harder. Say you want to plan a party or event and want to have some ColorWorks M&Ms as well as some Jordan Almonds or Pillow Mints. Well, you’re going to have to put in orders at two different places now. Those are some of the best things about webstores - selection and bulk discounts. It’s a pain in the ass, to say the least, as you’re not going to get the benefit of consolidating your shipping costs and then you’re stuck waiting around for two shipments instead of one. What else does it mean? It means that the price is now firmly controlled by M&Ms directly. Oddly enough, you can’t even buy Peanut M&Ms in bulk on the M&Ms website. You can only get the Plain ones, so forget about picking up some of the Almond, Crispy, Peanut Butter or Mega ones.
Also, M&Ms seems to be threatening resellers that they’re not allowed to buy from middlemen on this and I’m guessing anyone caught reselling ColorWorks would be in big trouble, too. It’s not clear if Mars wants to just reel in the selling of their premium ColorWorks or if this will eventually apply to all bulk buys of Mars products, such as Skittles, Starbursts, Snickers, 3 Musketeers, Milky Way and Twix.
I understand the whole “official resellers” thing when it comes to products that require support and knowlegable staff, like computers or electronics—you know, things that require a certain amount of troubleshooting or perhaps expertise in installation. But this is candy. As long as their storing it correctly, it doesn’t require any support. Also, candy is not like soda. There aren’t candy stores that sell only Mars or Nestle products like when you go to a fast food restaurant and have to go with either the Pepsi sodas or the Coco-Cola sodas. Imagine a world where you can’t purchase a Twix bar at the same time as a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. I have to wonder if this is the direction we’re going.
As far as I can tell, this is a move on M&Ms part to control their product and corner their marketshare. Candy is a pretty cut-throat business. There are slotting fees paid by the candy companies to the major retailers like grocery chains and drug stores and the candy companies are fiercely protective of their trademarks and products. Witness Hershey’s reaction when a book was trying to use their candy logos. This is not limited to the United States either and it’s well known that Roald Dahl based the Charlie and the Chocolate factory book on the industrial espionage allegations between the UK candymakers of the time.
It may be coincidental that M&Ms made this move just after Hershey’s introduced their new candy-coated Kissables. I think they’re feeling threatened and are looking to maximize their profits. Maybe they’re looking to shift the current model of candy retailing to one more akin to soft drink manufacturer’s deals with fast food chains. Sugar prices are expected to go up markedly this year, which means they’ll have to reduce overhead (they’re already a very efficient company), raise prices, reduce product sizes or create new marketing models. At a time when markets are opening up world-wide and people have access to more of a selection of candy from all over the globe, M&Ms could benefit from making their candy more readily available for purchase, not less.
Tuesday, January 24, 2006
Now, I’m not one to be throwing stone from my glass house where I consume expired candy, but this might be ill-advised:
Yes, hop on board folks, this auction ends in less than a day, you don’t wanna miss out on a 16 year old candy bar!
There are five bids and the current price is GBP 3.20 (Approximately US $5.65) with free shipping. The same seller is also offering a circa 1990 Wispa bar.
When I find old candy at the bottom of a suitcase or purse when I’m cleaning, I usually throw it out. It never occurred to me to put it up on eBay.
Of course if that’s a little hard to swallow, you might want to check out the other interesting things you can find, like eBay sellers that specialize in all the variations of KitKats worldwide and limited edition candy bars.
On Saturday morning I arrived early for my whalewatching boat because of the freakishly light traffic. So I wandered around the Ports o’ Call village there at the harbor to see what it was all about. I’d been there once before for a wedding reception at one of the restaurants years ago, but we didn’t explore the area at all. The anchor of the area is this is where the huge cruise ships harbor, so the tourists often stop by for brief shopping trips and of course locals come down for the boat rides and fine dining.
I found Candy Town tucked away in a corner, only a few hundred feet from the Spirit Cruises berth and was happy to find that they had a HUGE selection of candy. The store is not at all like the bin type candy stores like Sweet Factory or Candy Station, this appears to be a real small business with an enthusiastic woman behind the counter.
I walked around, checking out everything before I even considered any purchases. The store isn’t jam packed with goods, it’s spacious and has very simple, perhaps antiquated, displays. They have a hodge podge of shelves and racks, some that might be better suited to selling deli products, jewelry or perhaps magazines. But they make it work. They had a nice selection of import chocolate bars such as Toblerone and the Ritter Sport assortments as well as those little tins of French Pastilles. Then there are small bags of individually wrapped candies like Mary Janes, Bit ‘o Honey and Walnettos. There was a corner devoted to bulk candies that included a huge selection of taffy (necessary for any seaside shop) that also included a healthy assortment of Mexican and Italian hard candies (well, “healthy” as it applies to Mexican candies is not something I can back up with their issues regarding lead content lately). Then there were the American shelves which seemed to include just about every common bar in production right now.
At that point the woman behind the counter, a woman about 10 years older than me and with a rather strong accent (I think Taiwanese, but I could be wrong), enthusiastically wanted to help me. She pointed out candies and asked if I remembered them. Wax Bottles? Bottle Caps? Pixy Stix? Licorice Pipes? Cinnamon Toothpicks? Sen-Sen? Okay, the Sen-Sen got me. She really didn’t think I was THAT old, did she?
The prices were decent. I got some Bottle Caps, Razzles (including sour ones) and a tin of Orange Blossom Pastilles. There were quite a few things in there I’m looking forward to trying and after the excellent ride on the Spirit Cruises whalewatching tour, I know I’ll be back.
Friday, January 20, 2006
On December 2nd I had a fabulous day filled with seeing candy go from raw materials to finished product.
After my morning at the Jelly Belly Factory in Fairfield, CA, I toodled back towards San Francisco and hopped off the freeway in Berkeley to see Scharffen Berger.
Though I wouldn’t consider myself a huge fan of their stuff (or at least I wasn’t at the time), I was excited at the prospect of being let into the factory to actually see the process. There are very few factories in this country that allow people to just walk in off the street to see how they make their producuts. Scharffen Berger is the only chocolate factory and the tour is FREE. Scharffen Berger chocolate is like wine, it’s got a distinctive taste and is more for savoring its complexity than its hedonistic sweet satisfaction.
The building itself was started just before the great quake of 1906 (not quite finished at the time) and was completed and occupied immediately after that. It’s been through a few different incarnations but is a wonderful example of brickwork, with an impressive curved/vaulted brick ceiling in the winnowing room. The 27,000 square foot facility houses the chocolate manufacture, factory store and their cafe. The company only makes the raw chocolate here, the basic chocolate is then sent to an additional facility up north (I think Napa) to be molded into the their consumer bars.
The tour starts in a little room next to their cafe. People sit on the plain benches for a little lecture about the origins of chocolate and how Scharffen Berger makes theirs. Some of it is rather well known stuff and other bits of info are interesting. The lecture is long and I was antsy to see the factory itself. The environment of the factory itself is rather casual and of course it’s a small company so everyone seems to know each other. It gives a homey feel to the candy, that someone really cared about it. They also give plenty of samples during the talk, which helps everyone pay attention.
The chocolate making process starts in the jungles where Cacao is grown. The cocoa beans are harvested from squat, strange little trees that grow under the high canopy of the forest. They gather these large pods, as big as a large papaya and then hack them open to reveal the flesh and seeds within. The mush from inside is scooped out and allowed to dry. The seeds are separated from the fleshy detritus and allowed to bake in the sun to ferment at bit.
After the cacoa beans are ready, they’ll be loaded into big burlap bags and shipped around the world.
Scharffen Berger mixes their beans from different regions of the world and from different varieties of cacao to make their basic bars. Most of the bars (except for the single origin bars) contain beans from at least eight origins. This gives them a great deal of control over the consistency of the bars from year to year. Most manufactuers do this, otherwise chocolate bars would taste different every time we opened one. However, with the big guys like Hershey or Nestle, they have the advantage of quantity to give them consistency. Little guys like Scharffen Berger have to do it with variety.
After the lecture is over (about 40 minutes later) we’re given lovely hair nets and ear muffs. The machinery is literally deafening and without it on, we wouldn’t be able to hear the tour guide anyway.
The first room processes the raw beans. It holds the “winnower” which is a machine that removes the chaff and shell and skin from the cocoa bean to reveal the part that’s good for making chocolate, the nib. The nibs are then roasted, just like coffee would be in this large roaster. All of the machines are steel so the team at the factory uses magnetic labels to identify what origin of bean is inside.
The next part of the tour is the money shot, it’s the thing that people come to see, the image that lasts a lifetime. It’s the melangeur. What is that? It’s the mixer/crusher. The roasted nibs are put into this spinning bowl along with the additional cocoa butter and some vanilla and sugar (if it’s sweetened chocolate) and then it’s macerated by two huge rollers that crush the stuff together. During the tour everyone gets an opportunity to stand on a little riser to look into the machine. It smells quite good and the batch that was being worked on while I was there seemed to be rather grainy still and must have been far from done.
The next part, the conching, isn’t terribly sexy, as from my vantage it’s just a huge, closed tank. The concher is where everything is combined further under precisely controlled temperatures.
Next was the tempering process, which we didn’t get to see, but is basically where the melted chocolate is raised and lowered to particular target temperatures to aid in the formation of the perfect crystaline structure to the chocolate. If chocolate isn’t properly tempered it melts too easily, looks cloudy or may separate (bloom) more easily.
After that it’s ready for molds. At the Scharffen Berger factory they are only processing the basic chocolate product. The chocolate gets flavored and further made into bars or shapes at another facility. When they’re done with the tempering here, they make them into simple bars, which travel down this simple conveyer and meet a rather strange end falling into boxes where they’re shipped up to a facility north of San Francisco that ages the chocolate (chocolate is one thing you do not want fresh from the factory) for a few weeks before making the signature bars.
As free trips go, it’s pretty good. They have a rather cramped parking lot, but it’s close to public transportation if you want to take the BART and a bus from San Francisco if you’re in the area. I wish there was more to the factory part, but as a tiny working factory, there’s not much else to do other than breathe in the scents and take a few photos.
The building itself is rather interesting too, and the way that the company has cobbled together various bits of machinery from different time periods is also rather remarkable. I’m rather fond of old buildings and machines and I wish I could have spent more time looking at them. The gift shop is also really nice. I bought a few posters that I’m going to frame and of course I’ve mentioned their sassy tee shirts before. They have plenty of books, baking supplies and of course all sorts of their chocolate (some which they’ll let you sample there). The prices in the store are the same on the web, though sometimes they have little sale offerings.
There’s also a highly regarded cafe as well, Cafe Cacao, so making an afternoon of it is also a nice little treat. Tours require a reservation.
Weekday tours at 10:30 AM, 2:30 PM & 4:30 PM.
UPDATE: Scharffen Berger has closed their Bay Area factory and no longer offers tour at this location.
Thursday, December 29, 2005
Chocolate Obsession is on board with the “candy season” idea. There are some great sales out there (I found some good things at Sav-On yesterday on the sale table, including 10 cents for York Peppermint Patties in the shape of snowflakes and filled raspberry hard candies for 49 cents instead of $2.49).
Lake Champlain is having a pretty amazing sale that’s not just holiday themed stuff, you can get their 5 Star Bars for $14.40 instead of $24.00. I might have to order that up, or drop lots of hints for my upcoming birthday. Hint, hint.
Godiva is also posting their “Chocolate Covered Sale” items at up to 50% off. Not my favorite brand, but I certainly wouldn’t turn up my nose at it.
I also shopped at Cost Plus World Market yesterday and found that all of their holiday candies were 50% off (even the Hanukkah stuff, even though we’re only half-way through). Much of it had been picked over, but they had some nice tins of candy that you can still bring as hostess gifts for New Years or of course just snuggled down with yourself.
Crate and Barrel has some stellar mark downs on their candy as well, you can pick it up in the stores or order online. 18 ounces of Mint Cookie Joys for $4.50? Buy a dozen! I loooooove Mint Cookie Joys.
No sign of sales on Dean & Deluca or Zabars and Williams-Sonoma doesn’t have the treats on their site at the moment. Look sharp, there are some great deals out there. Post if you’ve found something!
Meticulously photographed and documented reviews of candy from around the world. And the occasional other sweet adventures. Open your mouth, expand your mind.