I walked into The Cheese Shop on Center Street in Healdsburg, CA to buy some feta and perhaps another treat. In this shop, owned by Doralice Handal, that is a dangerous frame of mind. The store contains nothing but treats. All food related but really, is there any other kind that counts? Don’t answer that.
Clear glass candy jars covered the top of the cheese display case. Various types of caramels, my favorite candy, filled many of them. A comparative tasting was in order. Don’t you agree?
“The French seem to make their caramels square,” said Doralice as I contemplated the assortment, most of them colorfully dressed in foil wrappers. Each piece would be just a bite or two. Hmmm. Many featured fleur de sel, so I made that my theme. With variations such as: goat’s milk caramel with buckwheat flakes? And what is a Carambar? Who knew the French were as hung up on caramel as me?
In this small tasting (happy to do a larger one sometime) there seemed distinct differences in style between the French and American caramel candies. The French caramels were more complex in flavor, not very sweet, texturally they were firmer, and the flavors, to me, were more integrated. The American candies were very soft, intensely sweet, and very “short” in the mouth. They melted and dispersed almost immediately.
When I asked my friend, the talented pastry chef, Gabriel Mitchell of Maison Mitchell, about these seeming differences, he reminded me that caramel is burnt sugar. The darker you dare to take the caramelization process, the less sweet and more complex the flavor.
Fleur de Sel goat’s milk caramel with buckwheat flakes, France, $0.75
Does have a “goat-y” taste (not a negative) that gives a strength of character, not just pushover sweet milk. The buckwheat flakes are interesting texturally—almost act the way grains of butterscotch do in aged gouda—little bits of butterscotch flavor. Outer wrapper has a little outline of a goat on it; inner is white with foil liner.
CaramBar Caramel, France, $0.50
Yum! Very chewy, not quite hard but definitely chewy so takes longer to soften in the mouth. Rich, intense flavor, almost chocolate-y. Very fun, nostalgic looking packaging, all in French including the jokes on the inside of the wrapper. Very fun to eat.
Bouquet Celtic Sea Salt Caramel, Montana, USA, $.75
This is just one of a number of flavors each identified by a different colored wrapper. Teeth crunch on salt grains in a very soft, intensely sweet caramel. The salt finally melts almost too late to alleviate the sweetness and then leaves a salt taste in the mouth. Too soft, too sweet, too salty. Doesn’t come together.
Chocolate Caramel, Paris, France, $.075
Nice balance of chocolate and caramel. Doesn’t lose the caramel texture (get too hard) and the caramel not overwhelmed by the chocolate. Not too sweet. Slightly chewy. Bits stick to your teeth so it keeps your tongue busy and makes the candy last longer since you have to suck and pry at the parts glued to your teeth. Anonymous packaging—a cool-looking metallic, bronzed-brown, foil-lined paper.
Fleur de Caramel, a la fleur de sel, France, $0.75
An almost almond/floral caramel flavor with a very distinct salt flavor. Good texture, not overly soft and not as sticky on the teeth at the chocolate caramel, above. Not sure what the logo is—some blue shape printed on clear cello over the white paper with foil lining.
Bon Bon Bar—caramel with Scotch Whiskey, made by Sally Car in Berkeley, CA, $1.00
Long, slim roll. Very soft and, like many the American caramels it seems, very soft. Disappears in the mouth; just dissolves. Mild Scotch flavor. Meant, I suppose, to play the caramel tones of the candy against the caramel tones of the Scotch. If it were not so sweet, might actually have an adult candy. Anonymous, clear cello wrap.
Caramel lollipop: Caramel a la Fleur de Sel, by Pinson, France $1.00
Nice depth of flavor, complex vanilla/butter flavors as in the CaramBar but not quite as rich. Salt flavor apparent but not too strong, melds into the candy’s overall flavor. It’s hard like a lollipop but not glassy. And because it is hard and you can suck on it, the candy does not disappear down the hatch in too brief an instant. Instead, have time to enjoy the flavor so it’s more satisfying. Also fun. As long as you are in a place where having a lollipop stick rolling around your lips will not cause glances and remarks. Yellow and white wrapping with dark blue type and drawings of a salt “farmer” raking the fleur de sel grains from the top of his salt pond into a pile. A church steeple and town buildings can be seen in the distance.
I wouldn’t throw any of these out of my Halloween goody bag, but given a choice, I’d prefer the CaramBar and the Pinson lollipop.