Writing about the new caramel M&M's the other day got me thinking about American chocolate in general, and about the quality issue in particular. A lot of people will be happy to tell you that American chocolate is lousy, unless it's small artisanal batch stuff -- and I'm not even going to link to any of the online stories, because these people can't seem to make a point without using foul language, as if it proves their superior taste.
Most of them object to Hershey's famous milk chocolate, which many Americans don't realize is kind of strange. There's a reason for that, which I'll get to shortly, but I wonder if American chocolate haters have tried this:Whitman's Sampler; too legit to quit.) Mars makes Dove chocolate; Hershey's has products like its Pot of Gold line, featuring more expensive chocolate. And the Symphony bar, above, is just what America haters supposedly want in a chocolate bar--a creamier, richer flavor with more cocoa butter. Wikipedia says that when it was introduced in 1989 it "marked the first departure from Hershey's original milk chocolate recipe in 1894". I've had plenty (i.e.: whole great big lot) of European chocolate and I find that U.S. companies, when they make the effort, can stand with anyone.
And if it helps the America haters, Godiva has been headquartered in America since the 60's.
What got me thinking about the Symphony bar and Hershey's in general was in fact the caramel now found in some M&M's. I worked on a book about Milton Hershey some years ago, and to me, he was the most amazing of America's rags-to-riches tycoons, with the possible exception of Thomas Edison. It's a topic I've touched on before but it's fascinating.
In the 1800s, chocolate was almost unknown in the U.S., because it was dark and hard and... basically the stuff we're supposed to endure for its health benefits now. Caramels were the main candy. Milton set his sights on becoming a candy manufacturer, a goal hindered in many regards by his semi-estranged father, who "helped" his Manhattan store fail miserably. He failed twice at the game, in fact. If the senior Hershey had helped any more, we'd have never heard of Milton Hershey.
Milton did ultimately become a huge success -- as a manufacturer of caramels. Then the Swiss came out with milk chocolate, a complete game changer. Milton went to Europe to find out the secret, because inventing milk chocolate from cocoa beans is extremely difficult, as it turns out. But those Swiss fellows---guys named Nestlé---jealously guarded their secret (a dehydrated "milk flour"), and Milton returned home empty-handed. Then he did the crazy thing.
Without knowing how to make milk chocolate, Hershey sold his successful caramel business, the business that he'd worked his tail off to build, and poured his money into inventing milk chocolate all over again. Obviously he succeeded. And this is why Hershey's milk chocolate has a strange tang that no other milk chocolate does -- because he created a different method for making milk chocolate from the one that was in use by Europeans at the time.
At the end of his career, when he was one of the most wealthy and famous men in America, he got a little bored and the inventing bug bit again. He tried to create cocoa butter soap, and wound up peddling it in person on the Atlantic City boardwalk. Of course he was recognized. The soap was a failure, but I think he was just having a grand time.
If you want to know more about Hershey, one terrific book I used for reference was Michael D'Antonio's Milton S. Hershey's Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams. If you want to know something good about Hershey chocolate, try a Symphony bar.