Many days, the heavenly aroma of chocolate wafts through the halls of my apartment building, greeting me on the way in or out. When I moved to Chicago, I was lucky enough to pick a place that’s three blocks from the only remaining operational chocolate factory in a city that was once the candy capital of America. Blommer Chocolate Company in the city’s West Loop/Fulton River District sits right near the train tracks, and you can still see railroad cars pull up with deliveries of ingredients. Although Blommer has a small retail shop, the company mostly sells its chocolate to end users like Mars.
When Women Chefs & Restaurateurs held their annual conference in Chicago earlier this month, I took part in the Candied Chicago Walking Tour, led by pastry chef Jenny Lewis, instructor at Washburne Culinary Institute and founder of Chicago Candy Tours. As we walked, Lewis talked, detailing how Chicago became a mecca for candy makers. It all began with the 1893 World’s Columbian Expo, where the first chocolate enrobing machine was displayed and Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit and Spearmint gum made their debut.
Waves of immigration followed, bringing Germans, Swedes, Italians and other Europeans—each group carrying their confectionary skills with them. Along came caramels, introduced by Emil Brach, and nougat made by Ferrara Pan Candy, a company started by two Italians. The first Fannie May chocolate shop opened in 1920, giving Chicagoans their famous Pixies and Trinidads. Frank and Ethel Mars built a factory in northwest Chicago in the 1920s and eventually, such famous brands as Tootsie Rolls, Dots and Red Vines were manufactured in the Windy City as well.
But it was time to feed our bodies as well as our minds. First stop: Vosges Haut-Chocolat boutique on North Michigan Avenue—one of the new wave of artisanal chocolate makers. It was started by chocolatier Katrina Markoff, who studied in Paris and apprenticed with Ferran Adria. Her truffles, made from sustainable ingredients, are infused with spices, flowers, roots and herbs. There are some “ordinary” varieties, such as hazelnut and praline, but we each were treated to just one sample so most of us went exotic. My choice—Black Pearl with wasabi and ginger—didn’t disappoint.
Next stop, Fannie May—as much a Chicago icon as Wrigley Field. Lewis explained that the invention of refrigeration at the turn of the century made it easier to work with chocolate and prolonged its shelf life, downgrading its status as an out-of-reach luxury ingredient. This enabled companies like Fannie May to build chocolate empires, although the number of retail outlets has diminished considerably. But the one on Michigan Avenue is bustling and I was impressed with the flavor of the Trinidad I sampled. It has a creamy, dark chocolate filling covered by a white chocolate coconut shell.
As we made our way to our last stop, Lewis handed out goody bags filled with candies that have claimed Chicago as their manufacturing home at one time or another. M&Ms, Three Musketeers, Skittles and Milk Duds were among the loot. After a quick detour to the Oriental Theater, a gilded palace that sells plenty of candy in its lobby, we entered Macy’s and took the elevator up to the seventh floor. Smack in the middle is an operational Frango Mints mini-factory.
Macy’s now occupies the flagship Marshall Field’s building on State Street, much to the dismay of native Chicagoans who miss their hometown department store. But the Frango Mints that Marshall Field himself introduced in 1918 remain, most of which are still manufactured on Chicago’s south side. Lewis told us that Field discovered the creamy but solid chocolate-mint candies on a visit to Seattle’s Frederick & Nelson department store and brought them back. He renamed them Frango after the Tango, a dance that was gaining popularity at the time. They’ve been a favorite of mine ever since a friend gave me a box back in the late 1970s. Now that I live in Chicago, I can enjoy Frango Mints any time.
Fueled by a sugar rush, I made my way back to my neighborhood. As soon as I got to the river, I couldn’t help but notice the smell of chocolate in the air. It was a Saturday, but Blommer was in full chocolate production mode.