Archive for the ‘Fringe Candy’ Category

img_1636It’s not that I have anything against peanut butter and chocolate. In fact, I remember one night with a friend back when I was sixteen or seventeen when we split a hand-packed quart of Baskin Robins peanut butter chocolate ice cream for DINNER. So I understand the appeal. But in a world of Reese’s everywhere (and in every seasonally appropriate shape–eggs for Easter, trees for Christmas, pumpkins for Halloween, butt plugs for Father’s Day…no…wait…that’s next year they roll those out) it’s nice to see someone mixing it up.

The Smoothie Peanut Butter Cups swap out chocolate for butterscotch. Not white chocolate. Not dark chocolate. Butterscotch. And despite the fact that it’s disturbingly flesh colored…like, mannequin skin…it lives up to it’s name. And that name is Smoothie.

The history of the the butterscotch peanut butter cup reads almost like a footnote.

Take a trip back with me to Depression-era Pennsylvania. And no, I’m not talking football post season. In 1936 in the town of Altoona, Pennsylvania, brother Bill and Bob Boyer started up the original side hustle–making candy in their home kitchen to bring in extra income. These Boyer Brothers (hence the name of their company), started small, doing chocolate clusters, like peanut raisin chocolate clusters which was apparently a thing at the time. And as their candy became more popular in the area, they started branching out into new flavors.

They hit gold with the Mallow Cup in the mid-late 1940’s. If you’ve EVER had a Boyer chocolate outside of the greater Pennsylvania area, it’s probably this confection. Imagine a deep peanut butter cup, except instead of peanut butter, it’s filled with whipped marshmallow. It’s…distinctive. *Side note, I don’t get the appeal.*

Another thing that sets the Boyer Brothers candy  is the Play Money program. Each of their candies comes with a cardboard piece printed with fake Mallow Cup coins in random amounts. Collect them and cash them in for valuable prices in their prize catalog. Apparently you can also redeem them for cash, but at 500 points for $2, it’s not exactly a retirement scheme, especially now that you can only redeem $50 per person in a calendar year. That sounds like a lot, but one candy junkie redeemed for around $350 in 2006. Hopefully he spent it on insulin.

So, at some point, as often happens, Boyer Brothers got bought out by American Maize Products, a company specializing in corn products. Apparently, they had a sweet tooth, too. American Maize sold the Boyer Brothers concerns to the founder of Consolidated Brands in 1984. And it was here, in this twice-removed (yet still manufacturing in Altoona) incarnation that someone had the ingenious idea to swap out chocolate for butterscotch.

And holy shit, it really works.

I mean, it’s sweet. Don’t get me wrong. Butterscotch always seems a little bit sweeter than most chocolate, but it’s not overwhelming here. It has a a nice balance of richness, sweet, and salty. And true to it’s name, it’s pretty smooth. The peanut butter has a slight hint of nutty chunky texture, which I like. It sets it apart from those OTHER peanut butter cups just a bit. That said, I can’t imagine going on a binge of these, which is probably for the best. I needed to add a touch of bitterness and chase my two cups with a black Americano because I’m not a savage.

Jesus, I hope the guy who redeemed $350 of play money is okay. Could someone go check on him please? Last seen in Ohio? Maybe just ask around. I’m worried about him.

As for you, if you manage to track these little gems down, I encourage you to take a chance on them. The Smoothie Peanut Butter Cups from Boyer are a pleasant variation on a theme that will satisfy lovers of both peanut butter and butterscotch.

Advertisements

Fringe Candy: Polvoron

Posted: May 10, 2015 in Fringe Candy
From the Philippines straight to your heart.

From the Philippines straight to your heart.

I have this friend who makes knives.

Hear me out. I’m going somewhere with this.

See, he used to work for “The Man” doing complicated computer stuff that I couldn’t even begin to understand. Then he and his wife had a conversation about what he’d really want to be doing with his life, and his answer was that he wanted to make knives. Since his wife is also a Maker by nature and their budget allowed them to do that, he makes knives now. Like, truly amazing knives.

Now, the other day he and his wife were checking out this new Asian grocery that opened up near us, and they chanced upon the candy aisle. Knowing my Fringe Candy geekery, they picked up a little something for me–a sampler pack of Polvoron from from House of Polvoron in the Philippines.

The interesting thing is that despite being on the candy aisle I’d normally hesitate to call it Fringe Candy for two reasons. For one, in many ways Polvoron is more of a cookie than a candy. And two, it’s only “Fringe” from my admittedly limited cultural perspective. In other parts of the world, Polvoron is part of a rich tradition that dates back a long damn way.

Let’s start there, shall we?

From polvo, the Spanish word for “dust,” Polvoron appears to have originated in the Levantine culinary tradition of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Israel, and parts of Turkey. It traveled across northern African and into Spain during the expansion of the Caliphate in the early 8th century where it took root in the Islamic culture of the Iberian Peninsula for roughly 700 years, give or take. Currently, there are over seventy factories in Spain alone that manufacture Polvoron, and there are variations on the recipe around the world. The Mexican wedding cookie is a more cookie-fied version of the same concept, while in the south of Texas they make Pan de Povo which is essentially Polvoron with anise.

So, what exactly is it?

Imagine the most crumbly shortbread you can. Can you do that? Now imagine it even more crumbly, by a factor of ten or so. Made of flour, sugar, powdered milk, and nuts with just enough oil to hold it together (olive oil in some instances, but beef or pork fat in others–check your ingredient lists if you’re vegetarian or Kosher), a Polvoron is a bite-sized piece of goodness with the texture of a fresh sand castle.

They’re delicate and not too sweet which is a huge plus for me.

The Filipino take on the recipe uses a larger proportion of powdered milk than the Spanish version, and that’s the one I tried. Made by House of Polvoron, it started in 1987 with an old family recipe that was fiddled with until it was perfect and then tirelessly hand-delivered. The whole family took part in the company’s growth, building it into the international brand it is today.

The sampler I tried featured the Classic, Crisp Rice, Cashew, and Cookies & Cream. Each was distinctive and delicious. But again, not really quite like candy. There was something like a raw cookie dough quality, something delightfully…unfinished about them. Of the ones I tried, the Cookies & Cream was the sweetest, but even that was restrained. The rich nuttiness of the Cashew was my absolute favorite, but I’d readily enjoy any of them again. I’m tempted to seek out the Purple Yam or Green Tea flavors for comparison. And for chocolate geeks, they even do a chocolate covered variety that I imagine not only be sweeter but also more candy-like.

If you can find them, they’re well worth checking out, both for flavor and for a chance to dip your toe in some rich history and culture. But treat them gently because they’re fragile as hell. If you’re not careful you’ll just be sucking sweet sand out of a foil packet.

And if anyone can find the Texan Pan de Povo, can you hook a brother up? Those sound excellent.

Two ingredients and an owl!

Two ingredients and an owl!

Have you ever watched the TV show Leverage? If not, you really should because it’s perfection. Basically Oceans 11, the series, but there’s only 5 of them. Or a modern Robin Hood. Or…you know what? I’m getting off track. The leader of the merry band is an alcoholic, and he sets up shop, for most of the series, upstairs from a bar.

It’s pointed out to him what a bad idea that is.

When you have a problem, ease of access to your given vice is, to put it mildly, a bad idea. But hey, that kind of tension creates some good stories in the world of fiction. So bad idea, but good entertainment.

A high-end, nay, FRINGE candy store opened up in my neighborhood by the name of Violet Sweet Shoppe. It’s on my bus route. I pass by it every night on the way home. In fact, there’s a stop right goddamned in front of the store. The same stop I get off at when I go to meet friends of mine who live a block away. (It is, in fact their second location which only sells candy. Their primary store is not as convenient and is a vegan bakery. It looks delicious. Fucking Seattle. It is what it is.)

So, in general, fuck my life. I know my strengths. I know my weaknesses. And I knew that eventually I was going to end up going there. And if you haven’t been paying attention to the world of fancy candy in the past few years I have some news for you: it’s a hipster fringe candy geek’s Garden of Earthly Delights out there.

I’m not even going to go into the goddamned preciousness of the name. (Shoppe? Sure. Because when I’m buying expensive candy, I want to think of motherfucking Chaucer.) The interior has shelves along the sides and two small, round tables stacked high with chocolate bars I’ve never freaking heard of before (along with glass containers of taffy-like chews and other delectables). The clerk was helping the other sole customer for a bit, and when done, turned her full tattooed charm upon me.

“Can I help you find anything?”

Gotta admit, I was overwhelmed. Maybe she saw me drowning and was lowering me a branch. Usually I can recognize most brands of sweets. Not the case here. I hadn’t heard of most of the chocolatiers represented there. And they had no white chocolate which I’ve been on the lookout for on account of my cohort’s recent white chocolate cravings. So I got handful of chocolate chews because I like that kind of thing, and a single bar of chocolate.

Why the Parliament Chocolate bar, you may ask?

Other than instinct, which is usually pretty good when it comes to candy, I liked the simplicity of the design. Nice font choices. An owl (which what I can only assume is a walrus mustache) done in the same black ink on an eggshell white cardstock with a nice tooth to it. Plus, it’s from Redlands, California where one of my brothers lives. I like Redlands. It’s a cool town. I’ve since gone to their site and checked them out and I love their mission statement, their commitment to fair trade and artisanal, small batch chocolates. I would totes share a craft brew with these guys. Maybe a regional wheat beer with slice of orange straight from the groves in Redlands while we talk about the Kimberly Crest Manor or something.

I love that they have 3 flavors of chocolate bars differentiated not by additives (mint, nuts, tortilla chips), but by where the single origin cacao comes from. Yeah. That’s right. Their flavors are Dominican Republic, Bolivia, Guatemala. And if the tasting notes are accurate (and I have zero reason to suspect otherwise), each are distinctive.

The Parliament bar is small. Only 1.7oz, but it’s rich like Scrooge McDuck with flavor. It has only two ingredients: cacao and cane sugar. The cacao (or cocoa to you neophytes) of the one I tried is ethically sourced from the Dominican Republic and is a nice, mellow 70%. The chocolate has a nice, sublime bitterness but isn’t overwhelming, and it melts smoother than satin. It has a complex finish and deserves to be savored.

This sumbitch will transport you. This is the kind of chocolate that can end a feud.

At around $6 a bar, it’s too pricey for every day consumption. But who says chocolate needs to be an every day treat? This is a chocolate to be shared among loved ones, broken out for special occasions like a great day at work, anniversaries, or when you just want to spoil yourself. Pair it with a good, bold red wine and turn it into a party. You’re an adult now. Live it up.

I mean, shit, you probably can’t afford that new Audi, but you can spring for the fancy chocolate. You deserve it.

If you can find it.

That will not be a problem for me. No, my problem now will be too much access.

Pray for me.

Big flavor from paradise

Big flavor from paradise

I was the weird kid who ate the black, licorice-flavored jelly beans at Easter that most kids set aside. I’m the weird adult, like my friend Rosemary Jones, who enjoys Good ‘n Plenty.

Licorice (or Liquorice, for some), is somewhat of an acquired taste. True licorice is derived from the root of a legume and is not related to star anise, despite the similarity of flavor. (So similar, in fact, that star anise is often used to supplement the flavor of licorice candies.) The root itself is quite popular in parts of Spain and Italy where it’s sometimes chewed raw as a breath freshener. In Scandinavian countries, it’s sold as a salted confection. It’s even brewed into a liquor in some places (which even I have a hard time drinking, to be honest).

It’s been around for a while. Long enough that it’s used for medicinal purposes in some cultures. Long enough that Alexander the Great gave liquorice root to his troops because it made them less thirsty.

Despite it’s longevity, it just isn’t a popular flavor.

But there are other flavors…well, until recently ONE other commonly known flavor, and that’s red licorice.

And then there’s the Hawaiian Licorice Company.

I was fortunate to have stumbled upon their Kickstarter when they were getting up and running. The prospect of gourmet, all natural licorice was appealing enough. But they were doing something magical. They were adding flavors I’ve never seen in licorice form before. I’m sure I shouted something along the lines of “Shut up and take my money!” as I pledged for a stack of flavor.

Flash forward several months and there I was, unboxing approximately three pounds of delightful, brightly packaged, gourmet licorice in such flavors as Big Island Orange, Sunshine Pineapple, Garden Isle Mango, Aloha Cherry, and of course, the classic Black Tropical Storm.

Let the party begin!

Each pack has what appear to be long ropes cut up into bite-sized pieces then stacked in rows for ease of packing and consuming. The colors are extraordinary on the fruit flavored varieties. Vibrant, almost alien in their bright hues. As for texture, they’re smooth and softly chewy, not as tough as Red Vines or Twizzlers, but not quite as soft as the Panda brand natural licorice (a childhood favorite). You’re not going to get the Hawaiian licorice stuck in your teeth like other chewier snacks, so that’s a bonus.

But I know what you’re thinking. How do they taste?

The pineapple was a huge hit, delivering amazingly true and fresh pineapple flavor. So much so that friends who don’t like licorice at all loved this particular flavor. It’s rare to have a pineapple candy. It’s rarer still to have it taste so completely like real pineapple. This was simply amazing.

The same could be said for the mango, which is not a candy flavor you’re going to see outside of lame, chemical attempts at “tropical” fruit chews. I had recently made a mango-chipotle BBQ chicken, so I was well acquainted to real mango flavor, and I felt that this delivered well above expectations.

The orange was…well, you couldn’t deny that it was orange. It didn’t have the sweetness of other orange candies. In fact, all of the Hawaiian Licorice Company flavors did a great job of not being too sweet, which was a nice surprise. The sugars were very nicely balanced. The sole hesitation on the orange is that I got a bit of astringent orange peel flavor that was on the edge of overwhelming the fruit tones. Still incredibly tasty, but perhaps in smaller doses than the mango or pineapple which both vanished almost as soon as they were opened.

Then we get to the cherry, and I expect this to be a divisive flavor for some people. Cherries have a range of flavor. These did not have the cloying sweetness that one expects from most cherry flavored candy. Nor did it deliver the super tartness of sour cherry, though it was closer to that side of the spectrum. It was undeniably cherry, and amazingly so. But it might throw people to have a candy that tastes so much like the real fruit without playing to one of the two extremes they’re used to from cherry candy.

Then we get to the real deal. A licorice company needs to be able to deliver a true, black licorice. So this was the real test: the Black Tropical Storm. Again, color, texture: all of it pitch perfect. And the flavor: incredible without being overdone. This is not the Altoids of licorice. It is undeniably black licorice, but there was restraint used, and it’s not overpowering. I didn’t find it quite as strong as Panda licorice (which has been my standard against which all others are measured), but that’s a good thing. It brings a true licorice flavor with a great chewing density.

I’m delighted that these guys got their funding and are making candy. Honestly, I’m a bit tired of all the places making gourmet chocolate bars or shitty novelty candy. Natural, uniquely flavored licorice is a brilliant niche, and I’m happy that someone is doing it.

I highly recommend picking up a pack or two–especially the pineapple or mango if you’re not into the real deal. Or mix it up and get a couple of packs as a sample of something new.

It’s a hell of a lot cheaper than a trip to Hawaii. But I’d venture your mouth won’t know the difference.

Fringe Candy: Box of Boogers

Posted: January 20, 2014 in Fringe Candy
The Pick of the Day!

The Pick of the Day!

“Blog about candy,” the little voice in the back of my head told me ages ago. “You love weird candy! How could this possibly go wrong?”

Last October a good friend presented me with a box of candy she had picked up. Saw it and thought of me. Had to get it for me. Needed to see a post about it.

It’s amazing the effect packaging and presentation will have on a person.

Box of Boogers is made by Flix Candy just north of Chicago (though the candy itself is made in China). It’s part of their seasonal Halloween line, because late October is when boogers ripen and are picked and packed…

Sorry. Couldn’t help myself there.

Flix Candy is a special kind of fringe candy maker. One that I haven’t really touched on before. Most of the candies I review here are niche or fringe because they’re out of the mainstream, but enduring, candies that have been around for generations and have history. And I’ve also looked at things like artisan candies, particularly chocolate because that’s a huge and varied market filled by tons of small confectioners. This is neither, but it is undeniably fringe.

Flix Candy doesn’t have a lot of history. They started in the 1990’s and don’t try to make any claims about deliciousness. No, their own website proudly touts them as an “innovative and reliable source of quality candy products.” I know. Not much of a hook. But they aren’t selling the sizzle. They’re selling something else.

They make candy for licensed properties, like the broad spectrum of Disney-owned IP (from princesses to Spider-Man), or Klondike, or Angry Birds. They also make seasonal candies for those of you who want Monsters U Halloween candy or candy Spider-Man Easter eggs. You get the picture.

Fringe, but not exactly artisan, not exactly mom and pop.

And then there’s the Box of Boogers. They have a monster in a chef’s hat on the box because hey, Halloween. These are described as “Tangy gummy boogies that look & feel real!” I was understandably reluctant to open these up and dig in. Presentation counts for a lot. The market for these is most likely 12 year old boys. And I’m more than 3 decades removed from finding these appealing.

Upon opening the box, I find that these look boogers in the same way Mickey looks like a mouse. They’re cartoonish malformed blobs in shades of green and yellow. They have a slight powder coat, so they don’t have the high gloss of a good gummy bear. They’re more akin to a classic cinnamon bear by texture, but chew like a gummy. Texture and mouth feel is perfectly inoffensive. As for taste, these are nothing to write home about. They’re no more tangy than your average gummy. Bit of fruit flavor, but I couldn’t tell you what kind of fruit. Let’s just call it “Froot” flavor. The back of the box says “Watermelon/Green Apple/Lemon Lime”(actually, they call them “Snottermelon/Sour Green Boogy/Lemon Loogy) but I call bullshit. Maybe if I took time to savor each one…yeah. That wasn’t going to happen.

I’ll be honest. My expectations were low. When it comes to gummies, I’m a bit of a traditionalist unless you’re doing something kind of extreme like Sour Patch Kids. And I found that by putting these just out of sight so I didn’t really LOOK at them over much as I was eating, these were just…meh.

As a novelty, I can see the appeal if you’re a pre-teen boy looking to get a reaction from an adult. But if you’re an adult who likes candy rather than just a superficial sugar high and interesting presentation, look elsewhere. Glad I got to try them if for no other reason than they make me crave a good pack of cinnamon bears.

 

 

 

 

Can't stand the heat, get out of the Congo.

Can’t stand the heat, get out of the Congo.

Another chocolate bar review? What the hell is it with this guy? He rails about how he’s not a fan of chocolate, and how it’s evil

Sit down. I’m getting to that.

I know, I owe you all a non-chocolate candy post sometime in the near future, but this is bigger than candy.

I’ll give you a second to collect yourself.

Good? Ok, let’s continue. It’s a circuitous route, but worth the trip. After all, there’s candy at the end of it.

When I started college and picked my major, I chose history. Couldn’t help it. I love history. Thing is, it’s a BIG subject, so they make you narrow it down. At my college, they did this–pretty arbitrarily might I add–by continent. In public school, all we really learned was American History (and a pretty inaccurate view of it as well…less history, almost more propaganda). The only time we talked about other places was when they impacted our shit. That meant world wars and the slave trade and that was pretty much it.

So there I was, college, deciding where to focus my historical lens, and I thought about Africa. Because all I had really been taught was “That’s where slaves came from.” And even then I knew that was bullshit. There had to be more to it. After all, it was a pretty damn big place. And, you know, what I was able to glean from Tarzan movies and various adventure novels (which, to no one’s surprise, were as accurate and culturally sensitive as my shitty history classes).

Let’s overlook for the moment that I lived in a very small, still pretty backwards (read: racist) town deep in cowboy country. Let’s overlook the fact that there was one, and only one, teacher for the subject. Let’s instead consider that I was in college in the late 80’s. And most of the countries in Africa were having a hard, hard time in the late 80’s as they were shaking off the legacy of colonialism Europe gifted them with (Thanks, Europe!). It was grim. The only bright spot that comes to mind was South Africa as international pressure on Apartheid started to create some change, leading to it’s repeal in 1991. Of course, Gil Scott-Heron had been singing about it at least 15 years

Among the grimmest of those was The Democratic Republic of the Congo, previously Zaire (1965-1997) under the Mobutu regime, previously Republic of the Congo (1960-1964), previously the Belgian Congo (1908-1960), previously the Congo Free State (1885-1908). And, for the record, the Congo Free State was anything but. That was just the name King Leopold II of Belgium gave to land he had wrangled under the cover of humanitarian and philanthropic aid. It was an audacious land grab. But hey, welcome to the colonial period of Africa. It’s amazing how completely Europe screwed over an entire continent even 150 years ago and less. But that’s another lecture. We’re here to talk about chocolate.

And hey, Belgium makes some pretty awesome chocolate, don’t they? They’re kind of famous for it.

Honestly, fuck Belgium.

Go to the source.

That’s what Theo did.

They paired with the Eastern Congo Initiative to empower Congolese farmers and small farming groups to grow cocoa beans for the international market.

Cocoa is a fast growing, sustainable, high yield crop that commands high global prices, requires minimal re-planting, prevents deforestation, supports food security, and is a major source of income for women. It’s also ‘militia proof.’

-Dhena Bassara, Director of Greenhouse, Congolese cocoa cooperative

This partnership has doubled household incomes, allowing families to provide educations for their children and better health care for the entire family. Chocolate that makes everyone’s lives better. That alone is worth sampling. And hey, helping out in the Congo is cool. Heck, Ben Affleck has been doing it for over 5 years. In fact, he’s the founder of the Eastern Congo Initiative. As he puts it:

The primary reason I am here is to urge people to give money to the NGOs and charities doing hard work in eastern Congo on meager funds. And if people out there have an existing relationship with a charity, to urge that charity to get involved in eastern Congo. To let people know, ‘Don’t just read the horror stories in the newspapers and turn off.’

Ben Affleck, Actor, Director, Batman

Plus, the package was so damn sunny. I had to pick up a bar this morning to share with a friend of mine who loves spicy chocolate. The only condition was that she saved me the wrapper and shared the chocolate with me. In her own words:

The sunny packaging was staring at me longingly, so my post-lunch intentions for consumption were essentially kiboshed. The chocolate is nice and super smooth for dark chocolate. For a gal that loves heat, it has the perfect amount of kick where it leaves a welcomed tingling chili flavor on the tongue a few minutes later. This bar nails the juxtaposition of sweet and savory perfectly.

Bonnie, chocolate connoisseur

I know she likes the heat, so I was impressed that this held up to her discerning tastes, so I was excited to try it myself. I’m not as picky about chocolate as she is, but as a child of the southwest, I do love me some chili. As any heat-lover will tell you, it’s not just about the Scoville Scale, it’s also the flavor. A green chile from around Santa Fe tastes different than what is fundamentally the same pepper grown in California. This bar uses Pili Pili which I’ve never heard of, likely because they’re a pepper grown deep in the eastern part of the Congo. That’s what goes into this bar, along with locally grown vanilla and pure dark chocolate (65% to be exact).

Bonnie wasn’t fooling around, and neither is this bar. The chocolate is smooth with a bit of bitterness, and the heat is unlike anything I’ve ever tasted in chocolate before. By the time the cocoa-goodness is melting, you can feel the burn–enough that it might be too much for you sensitive types. I’d rank it a 3 on the typical 4-star restaurant spice guide. The pepper also has a bit of a bitterness to it, but rather than detract from the bar, it pairs nicely with the chocolate.

Well worth checking out if you can find it. Not for the timid, mind you, but you’ll love the burn.

They're even shaped like maple leaves. How awesome is that?

They’re even shaped like maple leaves. How awesome is that?

I know what you’re thinking. I have maple on the brain right now. Blame Canada.

This was another part of my box of Canadian candies, swapped for Seattle chocolate like some kind of confectioner Cold War exchange. For the most part, what was going to be in the box was going to be a mystery. I made one or two small requests, but a lot of what was in the mix I couldn’t have predicted.

And how did my Halifax connection know I liked hard candies?

Man, do I love hard candies.

You know those ribbon candies that people used to joke about, the ones that grandmothers put in candy dishes that were probably more sculptural than edible treat? I’d knock over a hundred babies to get my hand on those when I was younger. Not that my grandparents every had ribbon candies (though my paternal grandfather hid Fruit Stripe gum in the butter keeper of the refrigerator for some reason.) The moral of this tangent is not all stereotypes are true, and additionally, I liked sugar.

For most kids, the hard candies we know are from Brach’s, either the butterscotch disks or the familiar red and white peppermint Star Brite Mints. Occasionally you’d find a cinnamon disk (which were my favorites) or even the chocolate mints, but those never impressed me much. And while I didn’t like these as much as ribbon candy (maybe it was the look of ribbon candy…there certainly was nothing memorable about the taste), I still consumed more than my fair share of these little individually-wrapped sugar bombs.

Except I’m not a patient man. Nor was I a patient kid, for that matter. One of those candies has a life expectancy of about a minute–two, if they’re lucky. I tend to chew.

So here I was with a bag of Maple Syrup Treats from Acadian Maple Products in Nova Scotia. The presentation is a bit fancier than the Star Brites–the plastic around each is sturdier and not a crackly twist on wrapper. Plus, each candy is a warm, amber colored lozenge shaped like a maple leaf. Ok. I’ll admit, the look of these little bastards had me on their side before I tasted one.

Oh, the ingredients, you might ask?

Maple sugar and glucose. Two ingredients. Two. And I suspect the glucose is only there for structural reasons. Maybe give it a bit of shine.

Ok, that’s a bonus.

I opened one up, popped it in my mouth, and was rewarded by a sweet but not over-powering hit of pure maple flavor. These taste cozy, like a hug from mom, or a blanket on a cold, blustery day.

Did I mention that I’m not a patient man?

After about 2 minutes, I slid the candy between my molars and gave a bite.

Holy crap. No dice. The damn thing was solid. It was like sucking on amber. If I really wanted to work on it, I might have been able to break it up, but these things dissolve nice and slow and have some serious structural integrity. This is actually a great thing, as far as I’m concerned, because it gives you a nice, controlled level of flavor and lasts a lot longer because you can’t chew it up.

I found myself savoring these candies.

SAVORING them.

I may never be able to really enjoy a butterscotch disk again. It will only be a pallid reminder of these maple syrup treats.

And here’s the truly odd thing about it all–I don’t have any particular fondness for maple syrup. Growing up we got whatever was cheapest for our pancakes and waffles, either Log Cabin or Golden Griddle, depending on what coupon was in the paper that particular week. I must have tried it at a friend’s house at some point, or maybe at a fancier restaurant, but it was never my groove. Now, the Butter Pecan syrup they have at IHOP, that was where it was at. Or maybe one of the fruit syrups. But maple? I didn’t see the appeal. I admit that it has a distinctive flavor, and it’s a nice change, but it still isn’t my first choice at the breakfast table.

But for candy, it adds a slight spin to the sweet that I find to be a nice change.

If you have a soft spot for hard candy, try and get a hand on some of these. The concept is simple enough that there are probably other places that make a similar candy. If you live in maple country (I’m looking at you New England) you might luck out there as well. Just remember what Uncle Nate says: “Simple is better. Avoid ingredients you can’t pronounce.”

Maple Crusted Milk Chocolate from Nova Scotia

Maple Crusted Milk Chocolate from Nova Scotia

Many good things came out of going to Toronto for the World Fantasy Convention last year. I got to network my ass off with a bunch of peers, and meet some of my writing heroes. I got to live on poutine and crullers for a few days (and some amazing Indian food). I also got to make some valuable connections around the world–like a fellow candy aficionado in the Halifax area.

After a discussion about good chocolate prompted by my previous post about Theo and fair trade chocolate, a plan was hatched. Addresses were exchanged, and the first Fringe Candy Prisoner Exchange took place via mail. I broke my bounty out and have decided to do four reviews/posts based on what was contained within.

First up, we have the deceptively simple Maple Crusted Milk Chocolate bar from Sugah, a confectioner in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

And I’d like to go on record and say that when it comes to food, simple is often a good thing. Sugah makes their weapon of choice the old fashioned way, with authentic ingredients and a big copper kettle and then worked on marble slabs. Starting with the basics–making a smooth, quality chocolate base–is essential. If your chocolate is too sweet, or chalky, or waxy, then it doesn’t matter how you dress it up. And at the heart of Sugah’s chocolate bars is a very high quality chocolate.

Now here comes the twist.

Maple sugar.

I can hear some of you skeptics saying, “Wait, so they added sugar to a chocolate bar and that matters HOW exactly?”

Shut your PEZ hole and let me lay some learning on you.

There’s all kinds of sugar. Most people think it just comes from sugar cane, if they think of it at all. In 2009, 20% of sugar produced worldwide came from beets. And this isn’t a new thing. They’ve been extracting sugar from beets for over 250 years. And then there’s maple sugar, like what is used on this particular candy bar. Maple sugar has been cultivated before Europeans came over the pond and started fucking up the place. Maple sugar is about twice as sweet as cane sugar, plus it’s only about 90% sucrose, the other 10% being fructose or glucose, which accounts for the slight (but undeniable) difference in flavor.

The crusting of Sugah’s milk chocolate bar is light, and primarily on one side. It gives the bar a light crunchiness. I expect the sweetness of the chocolate itself might have been toned down to keep the maple sugar on top from being too overwhelming, but I can’t prove it. The overall effect was a very light crispness to the bite, followed by a delightfully melty chocolate. The actual maple flavor wasn’t something that hit me over the head immediately. Instead, it was a warm glow of flavor that lingered as the chocolate tones faded. There’s no mistaking maple flavor, and it’s perfectly balanced here.

As an introduction to gourmet Canadian chocolates, I found this bar to be a beautiful starting place.

Would I go out of my way for one again? If I lived in Canada where I could get them easily, this would certainly end up in a regular rotation. I can see it pairing wonderfully with a croissant and coffee, or maybe some tea on a rainy day. If you ever get a chance to try one, or anything from Sugah, don’t hesitate. I have two more bars from them I’m saving for my near-future review that are well worth seeking out. At this point, they could dip a beaver paw in chocolate and I’d probably take a whack at it. I don’t know how long they’ve been around…since 2005 at least, but I can’t find a comprehensive history of the company. But with a chocolate like this, I expect they’ll be around for a while.

Organic & fair trade cherry almond dark chocolate.

Organic & fair trade cherry almond dark chocolate.

So, I have a problem with chocolate. It’s not that I don’t like the flavor. I mean, it’s candy for fucksake, so of course I like the taste of good chocolate. I’ve even reviewed a few of my favorites here (the Ritter Sport still my favorite despite the ethical dilemma).

The problem is that chocolate, or more specifically the process by which it’s produced, is pretty goddamned evil. It is, sadly, one of those evils we find it convenient to overlook, because to address it would mean uncomfortable choices. The steps in creating chocolate from the pods harvested in the forest to the actual cocoa are many, and that means a lot of people have to get paid along every step of that process. To keep the prices low, it’s just generally accepted that cocoa growers are paid next to nothing if not outright enslaved.

How that chocolate tasting now?

Now, that’s not to say there aren’t options. Fair-trade chocolate, like that used by Seattle’s Theo Chocolates, lets you enjoy your endorphin rush without contributing to the perpetual impoverishment of an entire region. Do I still occasionally get a mainstream chocolate bar from Nestle or Hershey that doesn’t really care that much how they get their cocoa as long as it’s cheap? On rare occasions, yes. I’m not perfect. But try to remain very conscious about who gets my money. And this small, locally-grown chocolate house is Fringe Candy in the best way possible. Not only do they make a superior product with innovative flavors, they do it ethically.

Theo makes a very wide array of chocolates. I have yet to try one I didn’t like, though the bread and chocolate one didn’t move me as much as others. For the purpose of this review, I picked up their Organic Fair Trade Cherry Almond 70% Dark Chocolate bar. By the way, it’s also non-GMO project verified. It’s 3 oz of heaven. Not too sweet, seeded throughout with chewy bits of tart cherry and crunchy kernels of almond in perfect distribution. It’s heaven. I love fruit in my chocolate. I’ll admit it. True, a bar runs just shy of $3 at the store downstairs from my office, but this is not a bar to be eaten by one person in one sitting. Theo bars are for either savoring or sharing. I prefer to share, breaking it into pieces and walking around the office.

How many ingredients does such a bar have, one might ask?

Six.

That’s it.

Hell, if it didn’t have both cherries AND almonds, it wouldn’t even have that many.

When you use good chocolate, you don’t have to use a lot else. And let me tell you…this is GOOD chocolate. Damn if it isn’t GREAT chocolate. A little over a year ago, I shipped five of their coconut curry bars to a Seattle ex-pat living on the other coast because they were needed. You don’t do that for a goddamned Almond Joy.

They make less exotic bars. Straight up chocolate, or mint, or coconut? They got you covered. They also do some amazing, innovative flavors. Pretty much wherever your chocolate desires take you, they will have a bar for you. (Except for bacon, that is. I think they’re one of the few gourmet chocolate houses that resisted that particular craze. But with options like Pili Pili Chili, or Fig, Fennel & Almond, you’re not going to miss the bacon.)

And if you’re in the Seattle area, you can tour the plant, learn about the process, and sample the magic. It’s like Willy Wonka without the creepy guy in the hat, the golden ticket, or enslaving the indigenous Oompa Loompas.

Because, you know, chocolate…

…evil.

Emphasis on "artificially"...

Emphasis on “artificially”…

There are few things like not having money to make a person into a “value shopper.” For example, kids with a limited allowance who depend on every precious nickle to feed their candy addiction. When I was a kid, a whole candy bar was maybe 50 cents, but damned if there aren’t times when a pre-teen candy fiend jonesing for a fix doesn’t have two quarters to rub together.

Thank Wonka for cheap candies, individually wrapped, and sold at the glass counter of the Circle-K out of a plastic tub for a fraction of the price. Most of these aren’t chocolate–the only exceptions that comes to mind are Andes Mints or the somewhat sketchy Ice Cubes (ok, some people like them, but I was never a fan). The figurative monkey on my back was the Banana Laffy Taffy.

Originally created and sold by Beich’s as caramels, they were really just fruit flavored taffy, somewhat bigger than a Starburst, and chewier. They were acquired by Wonka at some point in the seventies, and then Wonka was in turn acquired by Nestle in 1988. There were other flavors: sour apple, grape, fruit punch, and cherry come to mind. There are a total of seven flavors now, adding  watermelon and blue raspberry to the mix as well. But the banana…wow…I don’t know why, exactly, but those were something special.

Part of it might have been mouth-feel. There was something silky about it. And no, it didn’t really taste like banana. Not really. There is something more banana than banana in the experience. After eating a Laffy Taffy, the real deal feels a little bit like a letdown. The fake banana flavor is a point of contention among the candy crowd. A good chemist friend of mine can rattle off the chemical name for that flavor. She knows exactly what’s in those delightful chewy treasures, and she loves them as much as me.

Laffy Taffy has changed over the years, but mostly in how it’s been packaged and proportioned out. The little individual squares have given way to longer pieces, the wax paper wrapping given way to the plasticy wrap that most candy bars favor these days. I don’t think they still have the crappy jokes and puns on the wrapper, but that used to be part of the appeal. It helped justify the name, at least.

Flavor-wise, it’s still pretty much the same as I remember it: sweet, silky, smooth, and unlike pretty much any other taffy I’ve ever had. Everyone has green apple, citrus, cherry, or grape flavors. Watermelon and blue raspberry are also pretty common. And has anyone ever seen a blue raspberry in nature? I call bullshit on that! It takes huevos to try the fake banana. Not a lot of places try it.

They’re no longer three cents or a nickle or however much I used to pay for them. But they’re still a sweet little jolt of nostalgia. And for the uninitiated, it’s a low cost entry point into the mysteries of flavor fakery.

Because delicious as it may be, there’s no denying that Banana Laffy Taffy is as artificial as King Kong.