For centuries, chocolate has captivated the senses—and sensibilities—of its legions of loyal subjects. It’s the perfect gift, a fail-safe fix for a stressful day, an edible expression of love, and a go-to treat in times of celebration. Plus, it possesses downright healing qualities. It’s also the perfect pick-me-up when summer’s warmth seems so far away, which is why we went in search of the North Shore’s most decadent and unique chocolate creations.
Stoway Sweets is a house and candy business in one. The current owners, Alicia and Mike Cannife, have lived upstairs since they bought the business in 1980. They bought it from the Moore family, who founded Stowaway Sweets in 1929 in neighboring Swampscott before moving it to Marblehead.
Of all the places we visited, this shop gets our vote for the most romantic setting: Swing open a wooden gate and follow the walkway to the retail room. Step inside and you’ll feel as though you’ve entered an old-fashioned parlor, but instead of couches and chairs, there are rows of glass cases filled to the brim with chocolates. With the exception of a handful, these are all made on the premises.
Loyal customers in the early years included Queen Mary of England, Lady Astor, Calvin Coolidge, and Katharine Hepburn, who even had her own card on file that listed all her favorites. During the entire 11-year FDR administration, the White House received weekly shipments. There are letters from the 1930s posted on the wall from the White House housekeeper, Henrietta Nesbitt, singing the praises of their chocolates. 154 Atlantic Ave., Marblehead, 781-631-0303, stowawaysweets.com.
What to try: Pralines These are filled with a silky cream and tiny bits of toffee. It’s a great combination of flavors—especially that little toffee crunch. Melt Aways The thin chocolate shell collapses as you bite down, and inside is a buttery, not-too-sweet, thick and dreamy chocolate filling. Kings and Queens Each of these delicious creams has a single almond on top. We can just imagine these arriving at Buckingham Palace.
Winfrey’s Fudge & Chocolates
Back in 1979, when the Winfreys’ twin baby boys came home from the hospital, life changed dramatically. Each baby weighed just four and a half pounds—less than a gift box of chocolates! The couple decided to stay home to care for their sons. To earn a living, they began making fudge in their home and selling it locally, gradually branching out from there. Since then, the family has grown, and so has the business. Now there are 23 varieties of fudge, 22 kinds of taffy, more than 100 kinds of chocolates, and five locations. Hamilton: 44 Railroad Avenue, 978-468-7448; Wenham: 143 Topsfield Road, 978-468-0549; Rowley: 42 Newburyport Turnpike, 978-948-7448; Newburyport: 21 Market Square, 978-465-8200; Stoneham, 41 Main Street, 781-279-7448; winfreys.com.
What to try: Candied Orange Rind in Dark Chocolate Wonderful, velvety dark chocolate wrapping a moist candied orange rind. Chocolate-Covered Pretzel with Caramel This chocolate concoction is all about a big contrast of textures—crumbly, crunchy pretzels with smooth, creamy caramel. Chocolate with Dried Cranberry, Walnut, and Caramel This is like a turtle and bark joined together for a big taste sensation.
Owner Wendy Smith learned the business when she worked at another chocolate store. When practice made perfect, she opened her own shop in the heart of Newburyport. She prides herself on making small batches to keep it all fresh. Smith, who has a following for her unusual chunky bark and chocolate-covered apples, combines good, tasty ingredients that make for those delicious lumps and bumps in her hefty, hand-split pieces. 12 Inn St., Newburyport, 978-462-3226, simplysweet.com.
What to try: Dark Chocolate, Coconut, and Cranberry The chocolate reigns, but the extras give this its perky personality. Cranberry and Pistachio with Milk Chocolate Pistachio and cranberry? Seems an unlikely marriage—until your first bite. Cheers to this happy couple! Oreo Bark Our favorite. A great buttery cookie surprise with yet more deep, rich chocolate.
Walter and Margaret Nichols opened up shop back in 1932 and had a few downtown Gloucester locations before building here, right off of Route 128 just before the bridge, on a beautiful oceanfront spot with water views. It was an inspired move, one that would take advantage of newly mobile America taking Sunday drives on what was a state-of-the-art highway back in the 1950s. Today, Nichols remains a family-owned operation, and the big red house by the bay that is so familiar to locals continues to catch those heading to and from the beach. 1 Crafts Road, Rte. 128, Gloucester, 978-283-9850, nicholscandies.com.
What to try: First, a note: Although we were told their turtles are pretty popular, we wanted to try more unusual offerings. Here’s what we discovered: Milk Chocolate Peanut Butter Sticks Great classic combo with a generous coat of chocolate over crunchy peanut butter candies. Molasses-And-Coconut Clusters Toasted coconut with molasses cream, wrapped in chocolate—an unexpected but heavenly combination. Snowflakes It’s the classic candied coconut dipped in top-quality chocolate, well balanced with interesting textures.
Ye Old Pepper Company
Ye Olde Pepper Company is billed as the oldest candy company in the country. In fact, its roots go back to a woman who ended up in Salem, desperate and destitute, after she was shipwrecked offshore in 1806. With no money and a son to raise, neighbors heard she knew how to make candy and brought her a barrel of sugar. With that, she created the Salem Gibraltar, the first candy (according to their history) made and sold commercially and which sea captains and sailors were said to take with them on their travels. Early on, she sold her candy on the steps of the First Church, and then later bought a horse and buggy to sell the chocolates all over the North Shore. Sold in the late 1800s to the Birkinshaws, it is now in its fourth generation of this family’s ownership. It’s a small, quaint shop—right out of a storybook—across the street from the House of Seven Gables, and it’s filled to the brim with chocolates. 122 Derby Street, Salem, 978-745-2744, peppercandy.net.
What to try: White Chocolate Cherries These are so pretty you feel bad biting into them. But, once you do, you’ll feel a lot better. The cream, the chocolate, and the cherry are brought together with what is obviously a passion and deep understanding of what distinguishes this classic. Orange Mousse This is a new one for their collection and is the invention of manager Amanda. These have a big, fresh orange taste swimming in a flavorful cream, all wrapped in a creamy, melt-in-your-mouth chocolate shell. Pomegranate Jelly Who would have thought this combo would bring a smile to a chocolate lover’s face? Here we have a brilliant, perky fruit-flavored jelly (with a nice squish in the bite!) dipped in a generous coating of chocolate. Maple Cream This is the quintessential New England classic, with deep maple flavor infused in a buttery cream and finished in a thin chocolate shell.
As the story goes, it was back in 1973 when local Ben Strohecker’s declared his goal to create the “best piece of candy in the world,” regardless of cost. His home kitchen experimentation brought the world what we now know as Sweet Sloops. This chocolate, which resembles a sailboat, is made of almond butter crunch covered in white chocolate and dipped in dark chocolate and crushed pecans, and is a huge commercial success. Today, Phyllis LeBlanc, who started here 25 years ago as a chocolate dipper, is the president and CEO who presides over scores of other creations, all meeting high standards for quality ingredients and craftsmanship. We also love the big glass-walled work rooms here that let you watch these sinfully delicious confections being created. Palmer Cove, 85 Leavitt St., Salem, 978-745-7648, harborsweets.com.
What to try: Sweet Sloop If you live on or visit the North Shore and still have not had this pass your lips, shame on you. It’s a must have in your chocolate repertoire. Harbor Lights The image of the Salem lighthouse has been made into a chocolate mold to make this truly fabulous chocolate. There’s a white chocolate base and dark chocolate top, and it is filled with a cranberry-raspberry truffle. We think this is the most enjoyable way to get your daily dose of fruit. Marblehead Mint This raises the bar on mints as we know them, made by filling a pretty little sailboat mold with solid dark chocolate and peppermint crunch.
Here we have a great chocolate shop tucked off Main Street in what was once a run-down old warehouse. Owner Barbara Vogel created this little island of chocolate Nirvana after a career in the corporate world. Fascinated with the artisan food movement and history, back when specialty stores served a town’s residents, she turned a passion into a reality. She learned the chocolate business while staying with her chocolate-making family in the Midwest. Back home, she designed and remodeled the warehouse space, opened in 2007, and has been creating her own recipes ever since. Cream and butter come from local dairies, and artisan food producers supply her with natural flavorings. Small batches and handmade delectables are her focus. She also serves coffee and baked goods, and she says she really wanted to create a place where people would love to hang out. Mission accomplished—and then some. 36 Main Street, Amesbury, 978-388-7700, ovedia.com.
What to try: Cracked Peppercorn Truffle Unusual, intriguing and memorable, it features a fabulous chocolate truffle base, with a skillful blend of sweet and bitter plus the subtle heat of the peppercorn. Salted Caramel Exquisite, buttery caramel wrapped in a crunchy coat of chocolate, a hint of salt, and voila—a chocolate to write home about.
Prides Crossing Confections
Chris Flynn, owner and chocolate maker who was first trained to be a chef, but as he says, he quickly realized that the lifestyle was a bad match. He turned to candy making, learning the business by working for three different candy makers before taking the plunge and opening up his own shop. We know this place well for their spectacular chocolates. Asked how he does this without faltering, he says simply he buys the best ingredients he can find—from cream to nuts, the biggest and freshest. Also amply on hand are a high degree of skill and obvious dedication to perfection. 590 Hale St., Prides Crossing, 978-927-2185.
What to try: The turtles, the bark, and the butter crunch are all worth sabotaging your diet. For this testing, we opted for a few classics: Pistachio Buttercrunch We hadn’t had this combo before. Those plump pistachios made for a great contrast with the buttery crunch. Snowflakes What’s wonderful about this is the freshness of the coconut and the velvety chocolate shell—delicious combination. Turtles with Pecans Three things here: fabulous, buttery, balanced caramel (among the best we’ve tasted); giant pecans; and thick chocolate coating that is simply unsurpassed.