GHENT, N.Y. — When someone you know heads down to New York City these pandemic-y days, and they’re of a certain age, the typical explanation for travel is a doctor’s appointment. So, I’d like to offer a more uplifting excuse to visit the big city, and one I’m about to embark upon: a self-guided holiday season chocolate tour.
Nature in the Berkshires and the Hudson Valley has much to offer. But, its many attractions do not include a commercialized feast for the senses. In other words, festively decorated department store windows (among the few left standing), the aroma of chestnuts roasting on pushcart grills, sidewalk Santas and a great mass of humanity to delight in it all. For that, you require a major metropolis.
The omicron variant is reason for concern, but look at it this way: If it’s not as transmissible as feared and you’re fully vaccinated, you probably have no more to worry about than you did with delta. And if it is more diabolical, better to get your kicks now, before it forces us to retreat back into our shells, at which point a socially distanced walk in snow-frosted woods will feel very festive, indeed.
My chocolate tour isn’t completely novel. With one exception, See’s Candies, I’m not planning to scrutinize the counter at any establishment I haven’t previously patronized. I’m using the expedition more as an opportunity to indulge in urban holiday cheer with a mission.
I’ll be limiting my vanilla cream and cherry cordial ambitions to a walkable square mile or so in the Greenwich Village area. Anybody who has spent time at a Western U.S. airport and has a sweet tooth is familiar with See’s unadorned white boxes of assorted chocolates. But, I’ve never had the run of one of their stores and the opportunity to pick and choose.
Among the things I admire about See’s business model is the considerable size of their chocolates, such as their Milk Bordeaux. Where other candy-makers err on the side of less-is-more restraint and hedonic 90 percent cacao dark chocolate bars, See’s harkens to an era when health took a back seat to happiness.
For those unfamiliar with Milk Bordeaux, allow me to quote from its website: “One of our most requested candies, See’s Milk Bordeaux is a heavenly blend of creamy brown sugar covered in milk chocolate and decorated with chocolate sprinkles.”
From See’s, I’ll be heading west and slightly uptown, to Li-Lac Chocolates on Greenwich Avenue. Perhaps I should add that I’m not selfishly shopping solely for myself. I have a wife, two daughters and one son-in-law. They deserve candy, too. Li-Lac has several locations, but none possesses the funky Old New York charm of its original store on Christopher Street. Opened in 1923, it sadly closed in 2005. Still, its lilac-decorated boxes manage to trigger the taste buds of youth.
The excursion, not to mention the transporting scent of chocolate at these emporiums, will also have sparked a powerful appetite. Something of a purist, I try to resist raiding the purchased boxes on the spot, particularly those I plan to give as gifts. But, if the purpose of my journey is self-indulgence, then I feel an almost moral obligation to drop by Mary’s Fish Camp on Charles Street for its overstuffed lobster roll and shoestring fries.
The delicacy, as talented a lobster roll as any Maine has offer, doesn’t come cheap. Then again, I recently spent a few hundred bucks getting my furnace repaired, and that provided no satisfaction whatsoever. The big question is whether I’m willing to risk sitting at the counter during these perilous times? I’m thinking of choreographing my journey to visit Mary’s, and the candy stores for that matter, at an off hour.
My last stop, and a holiday stocking stuffer perennial, is Myers of Keswick on Hudson Street. The store traffics solely in traditional British grocery store fare, including bangers, meat pies and a full range of Cadbury and other British chocolates. These aren’t the candy bars made under license in the U.S. and available at your local supermarket. It’s the real thing flown in from the U.K. or Ireland.
The difference in flavor is subtle but stark, the ever-so-slightly sour quality of the milk in the Diary Milk and Flake, a crumbly log of chocolate that literally melts in your mouth, produces a savory sweet soliloquy on the tongue worth the price of a fully masked subway ride and perhaps even the airfare to London or Dublin.
I buy multiples of each bar — also Rowntrees Fruit Pastilles, Maltesers, Fry’s Chocolate Cream (when available), and a couple of pounds of bangers — and dispatch them to the North Pole to be delivered by reindeer on Christmas Eve; my stocking included. But, not the bangers. The bangers go straight into the fridge.
I’d also like to give a shoutout to a couple of other chocolate shops not quite on my downtown route. Laderach, an artisanal Swiss chocolatier on Lexington Avenue just south of Bloomingdale’s, has helped see me through the darkest days of the pandemic, its snack packs of Florentines and chocolate-covered candied orange peel earning a place of honor in my basement chest freezer. Also, allow the pralines and truffles assortment to encounter your tongue and, I swear, you can hear the tintinnabulation of cowbells in the Alps.
I’m also fond of Myzel, one of New York’s few remaining mom and pop chocolate shops, a truly endangered species. It’s opposite City Center on West 55th Street. Myzel carries perhaps the largest licorice selection in the city. You might consider going to its GoFundMe page and contributing to its survival.
Or just visit the store and buy 50 pounds of licorice. It’s for a good cause, and licorice is said to promote digestion.