I, too, was just about to write this stuff off as pencil erasers, when I stumbled upon taffy revelation at Seaside Sweets in Cape May.
For a one-year-old candy store, it has an impressive history. Seaside Sweets sells the kind of artisan-made taffy that I couldn't stop eating - slender, wrapper-twisted tubes of chew-at-its-own-pace soft pleasure that burst with intense flavors to mirror a rainbow of vibrant colors. Banana tasted like banana. Orange tasted fresh-squeezed. A gray pinstripe of anisette sends a streak of old-fashioned licorice across the palate. And if there were such a thing as a root-beer tree, its fruit would probably taste like this taffy - effervescent, richly dark and woody.
Cape May aficionados will eternally remember this storefront across the street from the promenade as Petroff's, which closed in 1997 after 80 years in the same family. But the Petroff spirit is clearly in good hands with its new owners, three married couples with 85 years of local candy-making experience between them.
"Candy-making is a dying art," concedes Gary Montgomery, one of the partners who purchased the Petroff store with its original machinery intact. Montgomery and partner David Adams have been turning out fudge and taffy at a large candy factory in Wildwood since 1974, when they hitchhiked there together from north of Pittsburgh and never left.
"I had a vision," said Adams, "the world needed candy."
Together with their wives, Sandra Adams and Leslie Montgomery, along with Kay Weiser and her husband, Randy, the six partners hope to translate that vision from their large-scale experience at the candy factory into artisan success in this little shop.
Given the equipment they inherited, there may be no other choice than to procede the old-fashioned way. There is a 1920 Hildreth taffy stretcher in the window, still used every day, which Montgomery claims is the oldest stretcher in service at the Shore.
There is a one-ton cast-iron table from the early 20th century that cools candy with cold water that rushes through the interior of its indestructable metal top. There are the ageless copper cauldrons that roil with molten confection over the same crusted gas burners that have fired them for decades. There is the antique mixer with brass blades that turns with the force of cast-iron weights.
And then there is the 1924 taffy wrapper. It lops off segments of candy rope thinned by long canvas rollers, then spits them out like a batting machine. Perfectly wrapped taffies fly into a box at a pace of 85 pieces a minute.
Montgomery seems amused as the wrapper chugs along. The machine he's worked for years at the candy factory shoots out 600 pieces a minute.
The retro-equipment may help Seaside Sweets bring a little more handmade love into the candy process. But the key to great taffy, as with Seaside's whole line of excellent candies, boils down to know-how and good ingredients.
Taffy, for example, needs to be pulled exactly the right amount of time - four minutes - to give its elastic alliance of sugar, corn syrup, salt and water just the right fluff of air. Too much, and it gets funny. Not enough, and it sticks to your teeth.
And from the natural oils that flavor most of the taffies to the whole cream that gives the fudge a luxury richness that powdered milk imposters can only dream of, a tour of Seaside Sweets' candy case reveals very few corners cut. Peanut butter melt-aways dissolve like nutty clouds on your tongue. Almond crunch is toasty and brittle. Sourdough pretzels glazed in good dark chocolate pique the thirst with an underbite of salt. Old-style plaited mint breaks off the thick twisted braid like chalk, then melts like cream in the mouth.
All the sweets were far better than average. But few could conjure up the sensation of seaside summers past like the taffy. Stretched with history and crafted with old-fashioned care, a single soft plug of this taffy between your teeth is enough to make up for the boxes of pencil erasers that can give taffy a bad rap.