The Sophistication of Candy

When returning from my overseas journeys, I make it a habit to bring back some souvenir or foodstuff from where I’ve been, and then share this bounty amongst friends and co-workers. It’s no surprise that I brought back candy from the last trip, but what I didn’t expect was the response to it. Several friends sought me out to mention that many of the candies brought them back to their childhood.

In the back of my mind, I thought back to the other recent trips to Europe, when various types of chocolate were brought back, and although the response was appreciative, no mention of childhood was made. This got me to thinking – what’s the difference, culturally, between chocolate confection and sugar confection? What makes us think “I’m too old for Jolly Ranchers, but a box of chocolates is perfectly okay?”

It’s an interesting question, I think, because the world of candy carries such a juvenile stigma to it, especially here in America, but it certainly occurs overseas as well.

My first thought is to blame the sugar confections themselves. After all, these aren’t the most complex of consumables on the market. While a few sugar confections have ingredients that provide deep and interesting flavor characteristics (I’m looking at you, licorice), most sugar confections do nothing more than assault the taste buds with an excessive of flavors, whether it’s sweetness from sugars, or sours from citric acids, or even savories from cinnamons and anise. When it comes to sugar confection, the word “subtle” is rarely used in descriptions.

Chocolate, on the other hand, is extraordinarily complex, with some estimates reaching as high as 800 different flavor profiles found within a finished piece of couverture.

But hang on a minute. There are plenty of chocolates which are perceived as juvenile, mostly low-end types. And here’s the interesting bit. Point of a Hershey bar, and ask anyone “Is that a piece of candy?”, you’re likely to get an affirmative answer.

When one gets to the upper end chocolatiers, the vernacular begins to change. One is no longer looking at candy. Rather, people are looking longingly at truffles, bars, caramels, creams, and assortments. The language becomes more specific and with it comes the inference of sophistication. One thing that sophisticated items are not is juvenile.

This is really nothing more than a trick of our language. What you see being sold at these upscale chocolatiers and confectioners is candy. You know it, I know it, and children most certainly know it. You can take any product found at a high end chocolate shop and find a lower end variation of it that has been mass produced. The only difference between high end and low end is packaging (most certainly), production techniques (in some instances), quality of ingredients (in some instances), and mass produced chocolates have extra ingredients added to give their product a shelf life of a bajillion years (give or take).

What’s amusing, to me at least, is that some of the more nefarious chocolate producers use packaging to presume an extraordinary value upon their product. Because higher-end confection has taken on the air of sophistication, and because those who find value in sophistication often aren’t the same sort to understand the true cost of quality ingredients and production techniques, the chocolatiers have been able to push retail costs to absurd levels. The most famous of which is Noka Chocolates, who in 2006 were selling a 4-piece “Vintages Collection” in the “Signature Box” for $39. That’s $9.75 per piece of chocolate. After Dallas Food embarrassed them with an in depth report, they lowered their prices by nearly half.

This doesn’t even take into account the entire bean-to-bar question that many chocolatiers are afraid to answer, for fear of exposing the wizard behind the curtain. For the record, many chocolate shops that say they make their own chocolate, actually don’t. But more on that at a a later date. The point here is that candy is candy, regardless of how one dresses it up.

Here’s an interesting test that you can run if you wish. Head to your favorite chocolate store, and take mental note of the candies being sold. Then head to your favorite grocery or drug store that has its own large candy selection. Try to find a low-end product that is similar to a high-end one. You should be able to place over 90%. Leaving the question of quality aside, what is the difference between candy and confection? Nothing more than perception.