Haven’s Candies Factory Tour

I spent the latter week of my spring break in Maine and managed to nab a factory tour of Haven’s Candies, which was definitely one of highlights of my break. Though I’ve taken tours of the Jelly Belly and Scharffen Berger factories, I’d never gotten anything as up close and hands-on as my tour of Haven’s. Andy Charles, the president and owner, and Art, our tour guide, were both extremely friendly, kind, and eager to share their knowledge and love of candy with my friends and me.

Haven’s has been making handcrafted candies in Maine since 1915, and even today much of their candy production process is still done by hand. As Andy put it, it gives their candy soul. On the day we visited, staff members were feeding salt water taffy into their decades old candy wrapping machine, running pretzels under one of their two enrobing machines, and making molded chocolates.

We got a lesson into how they make the cream centers of their chocolates: a mold is used to press shapes (hearts, ovals, circles, etc.) into a tray of starch, the cream in liquid form is poured into the indents by hand, and the creams are cooled to solid state before they’re removed from the starch, dusted off, and run through the enrober, where they go under a chocolate waterfall. The creams are made with inverted sugar, which causes the solid creams to turn to the proper cream consistency (or to a liquid in the case of cherry cordials) after they’ve been enrobed. Pretty nifty! Haven’s finishes each chocolate by hand with a little swirl or other decorative touch so that they can be distinguished from each other.

Art and Andy also showed us how their molded chocolates are made and colored (by painting the mold with dyed cocoa butter before the molds are filled) and then let us take turns making chocolate bars. We got to eat a bar that didn’t pass their quality control inspection (there was a tiny little indentation on the edge that I never would have noticed). Usually imperfect bars are remelted and reused, as is unsold holiday candy. After every Easter, they gather all the unsold bunnies and have a little memorial service before the bunnies get remelted.

I found their milk chocolate to be quite good. It’s somewhere around 25-30% cacao and is of what I call the “European” taste, meaning that it doesn’t have the sour tinge of Hershey’s. It was extremely creamy without feeling heavy and had a nice, not too sweet finish. In fact, I found the finish of their dark chocolate (60% with a pleasantly complex duskiness) to be sweeter than that of their milk.

The best part of the tour was the end, when we emerged behind the counter and were told we could try whatever we wanted. There had to be around a hundred different chocolates to choose from, not to mention the slices of fudge Andy cut us. I personally don’t really like eating fudge in general because it’s so sweet, but I could tell that theirs was good quality. It was smooth and not at all grainy, probably because Haven’s makes it from scratch. They also make their own marshmallow and caramel on site.

Art was patient enough to explain some of their more oddly named candies, like the checkermint cream (a wintergreen), Bangor taffy (a stiff caramel dusted in confectioners’ sugar that’s a Maine treat), and the Needham (I’ve since forgotten what it was, but it sounded tasty enough for me to buy one). And, best of all, he listened to me describe my search for dark chocolate-covered honeycomb that would resemble the Dark Sponge rather than the styrofoamy angelfood candy version before giving me one of their molasses chips to try. Success! It wasn’t quite the same as the Dark Sponge, as it was more like toffee than like honeycomb, but it had the little holes, and it was delicious! I bought a half-pound box of Haven’s chocolates to take with me: 7 different chocolates, the rest all molasses chips. I should have bought more, as I’ve already demolished most of them.

If you’re ever in the area, definitely stop by Haven’s. You can schedule a tour if you have a large enough group, or you can peer through windows and watch from all of two feet away if you don’t. Their chocolates are really reasonably priced at $14.95 to $16.95 a pound, making them the See’s of Maine, I think. If you won’t be in Maine anytime soon, they do have an online store and a monthly giveaway contest on their website. A ZOMG! for the generous tour, and a big thanks to Art and Andy for making our visit so pleasant and delicious.


Michael Recchuiti is an American chocolatier who creates elegantly sleek and beautiful truffles. I stopped by his shop (also elegant and sleek, with a predominantly brown and gold scheme and employees dressed all in black) in San Francisco’s Ferry Building. His confections and boxed chocolates are extremely pricey, so I only bought two truffles from his extensive range. It was so hard to choose just two!

I definitely could have used help making my truffle selections, and I now regret not asking for it. The store was packed when I got there, and I got a snobby vibe because one of the employees ignored me when I was standing right in front of her and instead addressed the two well-attired gentlemen behind me. That kind of snubbing isn’t exactly inviting. I also would have bought more than just two truffles had I known that the chocolates are sold by weight when you pick them out individually, which makes them cheaper than when they come in prepackaged boxes. But because no one offered to help me, that was never explained to me.

I ended up choosing a honeycomb malt (left) and a star anise & pink peppercorn (right). I love malted milk balls and will eat Ovaltine malt straight, so I was excited about the honeycomb malt. It turned out to be a sweet, honeyed truffle filling with a soft chocolate coating. The filling looked a bit grainy but was actually quite silky. However, it was not as thick and creamy as richer ganaches are. The honeyed flavor of the filling was nice and smooth, but there was no malt taste that I could perceive, which disappointed me. If I didn’t know the name of the truffle, I’d give it an OM. Because it’s called a honeycomb malt and there was no malt, it only gets an O.

The star anise and pink peppercorn carried a slight hint of anise that sat nicely in the back of my throat. I don’t like licorice, so I found the light anise touch to be just right. There was a hint of pepper without any burn. No suggestions of pink (or if there were, I wouldn’t be able to tell, as I don’t know how pink peppercorns taste different from black ones). The ganache, like that of the honeycomb malt, also had a more liquid viscosity than most truffles. This one gets an OM.

I’m choosing to give Recchuiti the benefit of the doubt here because I wanted to like the shop and the chocolates more than I actually did. I felt pretty “meh” about the two truffles I bought, but those are only two truffles out of his extensive line. And even though I didn’t rave about the truffles I got to taste, I do recognize that they are well-crafted and of a high quality. I’m not going to make a special pilgrimage to California just to visit his shop again, but if I came across Recchiuti truffles elsewhere, I’d give them another shot.

Ethel’s Chocolates Truffles

Ethel’s Chocolate Lounge is a chain of chocolate cafes owned by Mars. Think Starbuck’s but with truffles and hot cocoa and mocha lattes. For now, they’re only in Illinois and Las Vegas; I made it a point to track one down in the Fashion Show Mall on the Strip. I picked up four truffles at $1.50 each: a PB&J, a honey truffle, a cinnamon truffle, and a gingerbread tile. The stores are full of comfy couches, armchairs, and beautiful molded truffles in a huge variety of flavors.

I chose the PB&J (top right in below photo) because the girl behind the counter informed me that it was their best seller. Number two in popularity, if you’re curious, is cheesecake, which I tried on site (you get a free truffle for going into the store; the cheesecake was white chocolate, overly sweet, and could have been more cream-cheesy). The PB&J truffle was filled with grape jelly and peanut butter.

I like my peanut butter and jelly sandwiches made with strawberry preserves on 12-grain bread, which skews heartier and darker than the peanut butter and grape jelly on Wonderbread classic that I felt this truffle was trying to emulate. Its grape jelly filling was way too sweet for my taste, and I wish the peanut butter were saltier and nuttier. An O.

Moving clockwise to the bottom right, next is the Gingerbread tile from Ethel’s holiday collection. There were actually two gingerbread truffles to choose from; the other was called a gingerbread gem. I went with the tile because I was told it would be more heartily spiced and more heavily ginger-flavored.

The tile was prettily decorated, as you can see. The thin chocolate shell surrounded a rather thin but still creamy ganache with a wonderful gingerbread flavor. The ginger flavor was present without being overwhelming, earning an OM for this truffle.

The bottom left truffle with the visible grains of sugar is a Cinnamon truffle. Like the gingerbread tile, the ganache was creamy but thin and encased within a thin chocolate coating that carried a nice snap. I found the ganache flavoring to be spot on, with the perfect amount of nice, spiced cinnamon. Overall, however, I found the truffle to have a too sweet finish. Another OM.

Finally, there is the Honey truffle (top left). The ganache on this one was smooth with mild honey notes and a buttery toffee finish, which I found to be quite nice. It, too, was on the sweet side, just shy of cloying, and yet another OM.

Overall, Ethel’s truffles are nice and accessible. I wish their ganache fillings were richer and thicker, which would make them more indulgent. As they are right now, there’s nothing spectacular about the Ethel’s line, and you could get better truffles for the same price.

Vosges Haut Chocolat Truffles

The Vosges Haut Chocolat boutique was at the top of my list of candy places to hit up in Vegas (though it was a short list; Ethel’s Chocolate Lounge was the only other place on there). The flagship Whole Foods in Austin carries several Vosges bars (BUY!) and small prepicked boxes of their truffles, but I wanted to see an actual Vosges boutique in all of its chocolate glory. I visited the one in Caesar’s Palace’s Forum Shops with my mother on Christmas day, and she generously offered to buy me whatever I wanted as my Christmas gift.

The boutique was prettily laid out, with lots of clean spaces, glass shelving, and accented displays. There’s also a chocolate bar in the back, where you can buy sipping chocolate and giant cookies the size of my outstretched hand. I chose the assortment of mini-bars seen above in the top right corner (I’d known I wanted to buy those since I started planning my trip to the boutique) and picked out two of their truffles, the Tlan Nacu (below photo, left) and the Lion (below photo, right), for my Christmas present. The Vosges employee helping me put them in a pretty white box that he then tied with a purple satin ribbon (like the ones in this photo). I appreciated the decorative touch, as later chocolatiers I visited put my individually purchased truffles in paper or cellophane bags, which were far less pretty.

The Tlan Nacu, described by Vosges as Mexican vanilla bean + dark chocolate, had an incredibly creamy ganache with a sweet tinge to its aftertaste. Otherwise, though, it pretty much tasted like a softened dark chocolate, which is basically what you get when you add vanilla to chocolate.

I couldn’t remember what was in the Lion truffle, so the ingredient list couldn’t influence my tasting notes. I got a very slight chili heat that reminded me of a chocolate chipotle gelato I had a Viva Chocolato. In the truffle, it’s more of a suggestion of that peppery, spicy heat without any actual fire. I also got some slight fruity notes in the aftertaste. Revisiting my photos reveals that the Lion is allspice berry, calabaza, dark chocolate, and pumpkin seed. The pumpkin seed didn’t add much in the way of taste, probably because I picked it off and ate it on its own. Whoops. The allspice berry was probably the source of the chili almost-heat I couldn’t describe while the calabaza, a type of lightly sweet squash, accounted for the slight sweetness in the finish.

These truffles have the smoothest ganache I have ever had the pleasure to experience, and their spherical shapes are gorgeous in a minimalist manner. I wish I’d picked something more adventurous than the Tlan Nacu, which turned out to be pretty tame, but the most of the other interesting truffles overlapped with the mini chocolate bars. At $3 a pop, the Vosges truffles tie with the imported truffles at Viva Chocolato for the most expensive truffles I’ve ever bought. I’d give them a hearty ZOMG! for being decadent, interesting, and well made, but I’m demoting them to an OMG because of the exorbitant price. I probably wouldn’t buy them again for myself, but I wouldn’t turn them down if I got a chance to pick out more next Christmas.

You can also check out Cybele’s take on the Vosges brand at her site.

Jelly Belly Factory Tour

I have been wanting to take a tour of the Jelly Belly (BUY!) factory for years. I remember back when I was in middle school you could go to their website and, if your timing was right, get a free sample bag of jelly beans mailed to you. Now that they’re a beloved and well-established candy company, they no longer need to mail out free samples to drum up business.

The people at the Jelly Belly Factory were so nice! We arrived at 3:15 to find a huge line winding out of the factory through those gates. I was worried that we wouldn’t make it in for a tour that day (the website said that tours are offered until 4:00, and we were dozens of people past the hour-long wait marker), but they reassured us that, if we were already in line, we would get a tour. We made it in at about 4:20, and there was at least one more tour that went in after our group.

To make the wait easier, Jelly Belly employees constantly walked up and down the line handing out Jelly Belly samples. They had a special scooper that doled out exactly one jelly bean at a time. We got to taste a Very Cherry, a Kiwi, and a Pomegranate. I also visited the Jelly Belly sample bar (hooray for my parents, who held my place in line for me), where you can try everything they sell. Basically, you’re only limited by your shame. I tried a dark chocolate Jelly Belly (a sort of new flavor), a chocolate covered Sunkist fruit gem (not worth buying; the plain fruit gems are way better), an orange Jelly Slug (also not that great), and a lemon-lime Sport bean (super juicy!). And because I’m not a horrible daughter, I bought a little bag of buttered popcorn flavored Jelly Bellies for my patiently waiting parents, as that’s their favorite flavor.

Alas, photography was not allowed on the tour, so you’ll have to be content with their painted representation of the Jelly Belly making process. The tour basically walks you through the factory (you’re overhead on a walkway that has window cutouts at adult and kid-friendly heights) as you watch the Jelly Belly employees work. Each stop has featured video that’s introduced by your tour guide. When we visited, the panning room smelled strongly of buttered popcorn Jelly Bellys with a faintly fruity undertone (Tutti Frutti, perhaps?). I asked our guide, Desmond, if it always smelled like that, and he said the smells vary from day to day as they change the flavors of beans that they’re manufacturing.

At the end of the tour, we all got free mini bags of Jelly Bellys. My family also walked out with 3 bags of Jelly Belly Belly Flops (they were buy 2 get 1 free) in addition to the Bertie Bott’s and on sale Christmas candies I picked out for myself. If you’re ever in the San Francisco area, you should definitely make the Jelly Belly pilgrimage. It’s fun, and you get free Jelly Bellys out of it!

Candy Find – Viva Chocolato in Austin, TX

I have a new candy find for when I’m home in Austin! Viva Chocolato, founded by Mark Adams and Nino DeFalcis, is a locally owned high-end chocolate shop that recently opened in The Domain shopping center. In addition to truffles, chocolate bars, and boxed chocolates from all over the world, they also serve gelato, chocolate-covered waffles and crepes, fine wines for truffle pairings, single-origin fondue, and more. I popped in to check out their truffle selection and chatted with Melissa Adams, one of the owners, about Viva Chocolato and its chocolate philosophy. I ended up buying a cup of their gelato, which arrived generously overflowing with creamy chipotle chocolate deliciousness, and the following truffles:

From left to right, they are a Michel Cluizel Renne Champignon (caramel and nougatine), a TexCru Jack Daniels, a Grand Sumatra (dark hazelnut), a Michel Cluizel 99% Marseille Cacaoforte, and what I believe is some sort of Italian tri-layered mocha truffle. I don’t know exactly what the last one is because my fifth truffle was originally a Grand Champagne until my dear friend Cassie accidentally dropped my bag of truffles, broke the champagne one, and slipped one of her own into my bag as a replacement when I wasn’t looking. Wasn’t that sweet of her? As Melissa told me, the only thing better than a good friend is a good friend with chocolate. Truffle reviews will come later.

Believe me, it was hard limiting myself to just five truffles from Viva Chocolato’s huge selection (at $2-3 apiece, they’re a bit of a decadent splurge). On the domestic end, they carry handmade truffles made by a local Austin chocolatier, a Texan chocolatier, and a truffle maker in New York. On the international end, there are handmade truffles from Italy, France, Belgium, Switzerland, and probably more countries that I missed. All of the truffles were carefully selected by the Adams and DeFalcis couples over the course of over a year through weekly taste tests that often lasted until the wee hours of the morning. I could think of worse ways to spend a Saturday night. If you’re not lucky enough to live in or visit Austin, Melissa tells me that they plan to add a mail-order component to the business, so just be patient.

My favorite part of Viva Chocolato was their wholehearted promotion of connecting and bonding over chocolate. The seating in the shop is cute and cozy, and there’s even a semi-private Chocolate Party Pod for, you guessed it, chocolate parties that include a guided chocolate tasting, chocolate pairings with wine or champagne, the aforementioned single-origin fondue, and dessert in the form of a handmade European chocolate truffle torte with coffee and tea. I think my girlfriends and I need to treat ourselves to a chocolate party next year to celebrate our college graduations.

Melissa was incredibly gracious in taking the time to chat with me and show me around Viva Chocolato. Her love of chocolate and the shop that she helped develop was easily apparent in the little details she pointed out (like the cacao pods on the gorgeous glass light fixtures and the custom made clock below) and in the way she spoke of Viva Chocolato’s development from idea to reality. As far as I’m concerned, Viva Chocolato will handily replace the coffeehouses, the cafes, and the gelato place where my friends and I used to gather for our Thanksgiving, winter, and summer break reunions. Clearly, this place deserves a ZOMG!, and I’ll definitely be back every time I’m back in Austin.

(I’m so mad that this picture turned out so fuzzy. I want a clock like that. Except mine would say ZOMG, Candy!, of course.)