Lehigh Valley and Philly-area candy makers offer chocolate nostalgia for Valentine’s Day

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I love the exquisite beauty of a refined European truffle or the intense cocoa intensity of a single-origin chocolate from bean to bar as much as the next food writer. But Valentine’s Day, I learned many years ago, is not about my latest curiosities in the world of chocolate. What matters is what Elizabeth LaBan wants. And my wife infallibly prefers old-fashioned chocolates, from chocolate-covered cashew turtles to chewy caramels, to the salty sweetness and crunch of chocolate-covered pretzels. The more retro, the better. And if they come from Premise Maid in Breiningsville, I’ve fully scored.

There’s a deep family nostalgia tied to Premise Maid, as this Lehigh Valley institution was always where Elizabeth’s late mother, Barbara Trostler, stopped for holiday candy on the way to their home in Westchester County, NY, to visit relatives in Reading. Our family has since also visited this boutique vintage half-timbered complex near Kutztown University, where they also produce ice cream and cakes.

“We sell a lot of atmosphere with our candy,” says Joe Damiano, a second-generation co-owner of a company his father started in the 1970s.

The chocolates, however, are also top notch for their kind, which reminded me of that year when I ordered a few boxes early to beat the holiday rush for a change, but then devoured them so quickly that ‘As Valentine’s Day approaches, we’re already nearly sold out. The deadline for shipped orders is fast approaching, with February 7 being the last date that Premise Maid can reliably deliver before the holidays. That takes into account COVID-related delivery issues which, along with supply chain issues that triggered a national chocolate shortage, have raised prices by 10-15% this year for many producers, Damiano says.

The good news is that if you don’t have time to travel to the Lehigh Valley, there are plenty of other venerable chocolatiers in the immediate Philadelphia area that can provide you with that taste of chocolate nostalgia. Shane’s Confectionery at 110 Market Street in the Old Town, whose roots date back to 1863 and is currently operated by the owners of Franklin Fountain, is an exceptional choice for high-quality retro treats. But we’re also fans of Aunt Charlotte’s Candies in Merchantville, which, at 102 years old, was opened before the Ben Franklin Bridge was even built.

I’m thankful we no longer need to take the ferry to South Jersey for chocolates, but Aunt Charlotte still makes her sweets by hand using the same recipes Charles Brooks Oakford started with in 1920. Oakford’s great-grandson, Ryan Trost, is now the fourth-generation confectioner who oversees the production of chocolate crabs (Aunt Charlotte’s version of turtles with nut pieces still sticking out) and Typically old vanilla caramels that have enough chewiness to just bite into one forces you to slow down for a moment to savor its creamy sweetness.

I especially love the dark chocolate nonpareils that are still hand-poured into button-shaped drops through vintage funnels onto trays of sugary pearls. These non-pareils are one of the annual holiday gifts we look forward to every year from former Inquirer Food editor (and South Jersey resident) Maureen Fitzgerald. But, of course, that batch of Christmas non-pareils is also long gone. So, now I know where we’ll be stocking up for Valentine’s Day part two.

Chocolates range from $21 to $24/lb. at Premise Maid, 10860 Hamilton Blvd, Breinigsville, 610-395-3221 firstmaid.com; and $21.95 to $22.95/lb. at Aunt Charlotte’s Candies, 5 W Maple Ave, Merchantville, 856-662-0058; auntcharlottescandy.com.

Order by February 7 for Valentine’s Day delivery, but both are currently open with extended hours for walk-in visitors.

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