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Ye Olde Pepper Companie - A Historically Sweet Spot in Salem,Massachusetts

On a recent visit up to the North Shore of Boston to spend some time in Salem - my favorite haunt in Massachusetts (cue rimshot!) - I had occasion to stop by the House of the Seven Gables to check out a few new galleries in the Nathaniel Hawthorne Birthplace House which are well worth a trip to see, especially if you're a fan of Nathaniel! Following my visit, I had some free time so decided to take a walk to the small and unassuming building that sits directly across the street from the Gables Complex.

America's Oldest Candy Company on Derby Street in Salem, Massachusetts

Candy kettles as viewed through the windowsA glimpse at some of the candy making machinery through the window122 Derby Street is the home of Ye Olde Pepper Companie Ltd. which has been around since 1806 and as such, has the honorable distinction of being America's oldest candy company. I tell ya, all this chasing history can be a sweet thing sometimes! Before entering the store and walking into what could only be described as Candy Heaven, I peered through the windows into the candy kitchen where I could make out a taffy-pulling machine and also several large kettles that looked like they may have been around since close to 1806 and had probably produced more candy than I could imagine during their time in service!

Sign for Ye Olde Pepper CompanieYe Olde Pepper Companie has been a part of Salem ever since a gentlewoman by the name of Mrs. Mary Spencer found herself and her son shipwrecked and stranded in Salem in what was referred to then as "a rather destitute condition" or what we would probably call today "flat broke" with not much more than the clothes on their backs.  After she and her son settled on Buffum Street, they did their best to get by barely making ends meet until one day their neighbors found out that she knew how to make candy so they pitched in together to buy her a barrel of sugar. I'm sure their hopes were that she'd be able to produce some candies and sell them in order to make some money for herself and her son to help get them out of their dire financial straits and be able to put a little food on the table, etc.

What those nice neighbors didn't know though was that through their one act of kindness they would give Mrs. Spencer the opportunity to start a very lucrative business selling a candy that she had produced called the "Salem Gibralter" which is said to be the very first candy made and sold commercially in America. It became quite popular with the citizens of Salem as well as with ship captains and their crews as they sailed around the world in search of foreign treasures to bring back to the shores of Salem and America.

When she first started out in business, Mary Spencer sold her candies from the steps of the First Church of Salem and carried her wares in firkins - small wooden barrels. When word got out how good her candies were and their popularity grew, she purchased a horse-drawn wagon (which is now in possession of the Peabody Essex Museum) and business really took off as she traveled to other towns in the area and provided delicious confections to appease all of the Sweet Tooths (Teeth?) on the North Shore.  In her honor, the company uses a horse and wagon logo to recognize Mrs. Spencer's humble beginnings.

After Mrs. Spencer died her son carried on the candy business until 1830 when he decided to return to England after he had heard that he had inherited a fortune in his native country.  At that time the company was sold to John William Pepper who christened his new business Ye Olde Pepper Companie.  The company prospered for many years as Mr. Pepper continued to produce the original Salem Gibralters and other candies as well as adding the very first stick candy manufactured in America, an all-natural candy made from black strap molasses that was called the Black Jack.

The first Burkinshaw (the family that now owns the company) went to work for Mr. Pepper in the late 1800s; starting out simply sweeping the floors, the young man worked his way up through shipping and manufacturing before eventually buying the company and all of its original recipes, including those of Mary Spencer herself, around the turn of the century. The current owner of the company is that first Burkinshaw's grandson Bob who began making candy at the age of ten and has been in the candy business practically all his life taking up the business reigns after his own father laid them down. With son Craig following in his father's footsteps as the Head of Manufacturing, the company is now fourth-generation owned and operated as they continue the fine art of candy-making and the tradition of high quality confections that were started by Mary Spencer and John Pepper over 200 years ago.

History and candy, what more could a gal want?  Walking into Ye Olde Pepper Companie, I was glad that I was there on a day when I had the shop practically to myself rather than going elbow-to-elbow with the crowds that they get in October and other times throughout the year when they have lines practically wrapped around the building. Looking at the confectionery wealth that lay before me I knew it was going to take some time to pick out a few treats to take home and I was glad that I wasn't going to be holding anyone else up in the process!

The inside of Ye Olde Pepper Companie
The Candy Counter

As the store's manager (a lovely lady whose name I of course have forgotten!) told me, they were in the process of transitioning between Valentine's Day candies and Easter candies but it being only a few days since that holiday that I rather pointedly ignore, there were still quite a few Valentine-type sweets to be found.  Unlike the local CVS or WalMart they don't "drastically reduce" the price of their candy the day after Valentine's Day as just because the holiday is over doesn't mean that the candy isn't still fresh and of high quality.  It's just wrapped in a heart-shaped box or in paper with hearts on it and who says you have to be in love to eat candy from a heart-shaped box or one wrapped in paper with hearts on it? Of course, once you do eat the candies that are in the box I suspect you'll be in love - with the company that makes them!

The remainder of the Valentine's Days treats.

Taffy, Toffees, and Caramel CornIn addition to more types of chocolate behind the counter than you can imagine (and I know a lot of you can imagine a lot of chocolates!), the store also sells Salt Water Taffy that is softer than most so it won't pull your teeth out in flavors like Cape Cod Cranberry, New England Maple Syrup, Chocolate Mousse, and Peanut Butter; Cranberry Corn and Caramel Corn; Toffee in assorted flavors;  Fudge made in those copper kettles I spied through the windows in flavors like Chocolate Walnut, Penuche, Peanut Butter, and Maple Walnut; and a selection of hard candies made from original recipes that will take you right back to the days of your youth (if you're old like me!) - Butterscotch Drops, Sassafras Slugs, Molasses Peppermint Drops, Root Beer Barrels, Peppermint Kisses, and Cherry-Flavored Peach Stones to name a few.

Behind the candy counter on a pretty pink shelf and tied with purple bows are jars of treats to tempt the tastebuds - Black Jellybeans, Chocolate-Covered Gummy Bears, Crystallized Ginger, Chocolate Sea Shells, Cinnamon Imperials, Espresso Beans, Salem Beach Rocks, Malted Milk Balls and more. On tables and racks in the center of the room are tins of mini-fudge, bags of Humbugs, packages of Peeps, and baskets overflowing with sugary goodness vieing for your Sweet Tooth's attention.

Jars of assorted candies behind the counterFudge and Humbugs and other goodies
Turtles and Cherry Cordials

What got Oprah's attention - and yes, that would be Oprah as in Oprah Winfrey - can be found in the picture above - Ye Olde Pepper Companie's famous Turtles that were available in more flavors than I think I have ever seen Turtles available in before!  Apparently Oprah's cousin once visited Salem's sweetest destination and brought her famous relative back a Turtle or two to try.  Ms. Winfrey thought they were so good that the Turtles made "The O List" in the November 2009 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine  making them a very popular item for folks coming in off the street as well as orders from outside of Massachusetts and even the country. When Oprah speaks, people listen!

As I walked around the little shop trying to make up my mind what selection of goodies I was going to take home with me as there was no way that all of it was going to fit in my car no matter how much I might want it to, I checked out the candy-making machines that were on display.

Hand-turned ribbon candy machine (circla 1890) still used in the kitchens at Ye Olde Pepper Companie.

This squiggly-looking gadget is used to make ribbon candy and was patented in 1890.  It's still used in the kitchen at Ye Olde Pepper Companie and I would imagine that it gets quite the workout around Christmastime! The two machines below are used for making hard candies and like the one above, they're still used by the company's candy makers today just as they were many, many years ago. No mass-machine-produced candy here, let me tell you, everything is handmade with the freshest ingredients to produce a quality candy and they do it the old-fashioned way!

Hard Candy Machines that are still used.

Near the front of the store is a copper kettle with a display of Black Jacks - the stick candies that John Pepper first produced when he took over the company in 1830. I have to admit that I didn't buy any Black Jacks as I'm not a huge fan of molasses but in retrospect I think I might give them a try next time I'm in the area. For the sake of historical research I really should give them a go and who knows? I might find out I actually do like molasses in the process!

Blackjacks - Molasses Stick Candy

Of course one of the highlights of Ye Olde Pepper Companie are the Salem Gibralters - a confection made with sugar, water, cream of tartar, cornstarch and either oil of peppermint or oil of lemon.  The staff explained to me how Gibralters were made in a process that is similar to taffy but producing a candy that is nothing like taffy.  If you'd like to watch a short video from click here and towards the last part of the video you'll see how Gibralters have been made since Mary Spencer started producing them way back in 1806.  Conversely if you've got a SmartPhone and want to show off and scan the QR code, that works too!

The Origin of the Gibralters plus Video Barcode

Behind the information on how the candies first got their start is a sealed jar of Gibralters that is approximately 175 years old.  According to Bob Burkinshaw, they tested them when they were 150 years old and the candies were still fresh however, because flavoring is like perfume and it evaporates over time, the Gibralters had lost their flavor.  As they were a candy that maintained its freshness for long periods of time, that was how Salem Gibralters became so popular on long sea voyages.

Gibralters - the first candy sold commercially in the United States

After sampling a small piece of a Lemon Gibralter in the store, I decided to buy a package which contains four packets - two Lemon and two Peppermint.  Even though they never go bad I get the feeling that I won't be putting that to the test as no candy seems to last long around my house and as soon as my kids realize I have them, they're going to be history in the who-ate-all-my-Gibralters sense of the word!

A packet of Lemon Gibralters
The back of a Gibralter package.

Sold individually-wrapped in tissue paper in the envelopes above, the picture below shows you what a Salem Gibralter looks like. The picture doesn't really do it justice as it's actually quite a pretty candy and rather large too as you can see in the picture further down.

A Lemon Gibralter
This is how big a Gibralter is.

So, by now you're probably wondering what else I finally walked out of the door with, aren't you?  To be honest, I'm really not a chocolate addict like a lot of people I know and can usually take it or leave it but I must admit to a penchant for chocolate with nuts in it.  Almonds, pecans, macadamias, peanuts ... if it's chocolate combined with nuts then I like it and Ye Olde Pepper Companie doesn't come up short when it comes to nuts & chocolates! I might have thought I was relatively safe walking through the shop doors but apparently not!

A pile of goodies from Ye Olde Pepper Companie

Now ... before you start thinking that I brought all of that home for myself, allow me to explain!  A friend of mine has a birthday coming up on March 1st and tradition has always been that I get her something chocolaty as unlike myself, she is somewhat of a chocolate addict.  Usually I get her something from Godiva but with lots of beautiful Truffles staring right at me from the candy case I decided they'd be perfect for the occasion and I picked out three for her. That's one box!

Three truffles - the middle one is an Amaretto!

After picking out the Truffles I decided that I simply had to buy a couple of Turtles as if they're good enough for Oprah then they're good enough for me! With several different types of nuts as well as dark chocolate or milk chocolate to choose from it was a tough decision but I finally settled on one dark chocolate pecan and one milk chocolate cashew Turtle. I figured that way I could share ... maybe!  That's another box!

A Pecan and Cashew Turtle

Oh, and just as a point of reference, allow me to show you how big these suckers are! 
That's one ginormously delicious Turtle right there! 

These Turtles are HUGE!

Finally, for the third box, I decided to buy a one-pound assortment of chocolates and let me tell you, picking them out was NOT easy at all!  I was afraid I was going to wear a hole in the floor walking back and forth trying to decide!  Having just had a discussion with my friend Juli about how I didn't care much for cream-filled chocolates (she concurred) I soon found myself eating those words as I picked out several different cream-filled varieties simply because they sounded so darned good!  Granted, I made sure I had plenty of chocolates with nuts and peanut butter and pretzels and coconut and even one with pomegranates for my daughter but I did acquiesce to a couple of creams and nougats.  What can I say?  I'm weak.

A pound of assorted yumminess!

Above is the box when first opened ... 
Below is the top layer of chocolates removed. 
And below that is the one singular piece of candy that I have allowed myself to eat prior to writing this post -
a Butter Rum cream-filled chocolate that was simply delicious! 

A pound of assorted candies from Ye Olde Pepper Companie
Butter Rum Cream Candy Collage

Even though right now I just like to look at the box of chocolate deliciousness and indulge myself in the aroma, I know that sooner or later I'm going to have to stop channeling Gollum from The Lord of the Rings trilogy chanting "My precious" and share my candies while they're still nice and fresh but for just a little longer I'm going to enjoy the fact that the girls don't know where I have them hidden and for now the historically good chocolates are mine, mine, all mine!

Business card for Ye Olde Pepper Companie

If you'd like to enjoy your own taste of history but can't get to Salem anytime soon you're still in luck as there is another shop located in North Andover, Massachusetts at 59 Main Street or if you're still nowhere near Massachusetts, you can place a phone order Monday through Friday from 10 am to 4 pm EST toll-free at 1-866-393-6533. Or if you'd like to do it the new-fangled way just go to Ye Olde Pepper Companie's website and visit their on-line store. I'd highly recommend a box of Salem Gibralters or maybe some Turtles or perhaps a bag or two of hard candy or maybe some taffy or perhaps ... !

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