Bob Burkinshaw, owner of Ye Olde Pepper Candy Companie in Salem, Massachusetts, grew up in the candy business. “I’ve been around candy since I was born,” Bob said. “I used to deliver with my father when I was 6 or 7 years old, and I started making candy when I was 10.” Today, Bob uses recipes perfected by his grandfather to make treats that can only be found at his shop, the nation’s oldest candy maker.
“We do everything,” Bob said, as he walked into the shop’s kitchen. Fudges, brittles and chocolate confections filled the marble countertops and prep tables. “Ninety percent of the candy we sell is made right here.”
Keeping Two Centuries of Experience Alive
“Today we’re making Gibraltars,” Bob said. He grabbed a long wooden spoon and began stirring a kettle of syrup boiling on the kitchen range. “Gibraltars were the first type of candy manufactured in the country, and they’re what we’re famous for today.” These traditional candies have been the Ye Olde Pepper Candy Companie’s signature sweet since 1806.
“The Gibraltar is a very hard piece of candy when it’s first made,” Bob said. “Then it mellows over time until it’s like an after-dinner mint. It gets very soft and stays that way forever. They never go bad—we have a jar of Gibraltars here in the store that’s 200 years old.”
When the Gibraltar syrup was ready, Bob poured the kettle out onto a wide table, letting the viscous sugary liquid cool and congeal into a flat sheet. “Once it cools, we’re going to take it off,” Bob said while he used a spatula to lift the flexible pane of sugar from the tabletop. He slowly bundled the sheet of candy over itself, which formed a long, stretchy cord of hot sugar.
“Now we’re going to put it over the hook and pull it until it turns white,” Bob said. He hung the thick cord around a brass hook fixed on the kitchen wall, then pulled the ends of the candy. He doubled the stretched filament back over the hook and pulled down on the remaining slack, repeating the motion over and over until the candy began to turn pale from aeration.
Then it was back to the bench, where Bob laid the Gibraltar out in a long ribbon for cutting into individual pieces. “We’re going to cut it with a pair of scissors,” he said. “Just like it was done back in 1830.” At the far end of the bench, a worker snipped the ribbon into bite-sized pieces and laid them flat on a tray to harden.
Sticking to a Sweet Tradition
The Gibraltar is the shop’s best seller. “We make roughly 400 to 500 in every batch,” Bob said. “We’ll make 15 batches in a day, and we do it twice a week.” Despite the demanding production schedule, Bob takes pride in sticking with the traditional methods that make his candies special.
“There’s a lot of easier jobs out there that I could have done,” he said, “but I really like what I’m doing. In our busy season, I work seven days a week. It doesn’t bother me; I really enjoy the work.”