As we grudgingly move farther away from youth and toward the prosaic shelf of adulthood, so too does the feeling of the holiday season at times. What was once the happy mirth of familiar songs accompanied by the closeness of family now has the habit of feeling replaced by obstinate seasonal responsibilities. Often though, we gaze back over our collective shoulders, searching fondly for the nostalgic thread that links the innocent wonder of holidays past with our desire to once again be filled with kinship in our present.
What can often yoke these two realities is found in the physical objects that ignite our cathartic memories of seasons gone by. The traditions that remain rooted in our lives, hanging lights, for example, on a tree decorated with items passed down through generations, backdropped by songs whose lyrics recall our adolescent introduction to this unique time of year. Even Mother Nature herself does her part to shepard our hearts back to wonder as she pulls her wintery blanket over the sky with the first snowfall of the season. Most often however, it’s the savory and sanguine treats the season offers that rekindles our holiday spirit. From butterscotch to fudge, English toffee to peppermint, and holiday staples like candy canes and Christmas cookies, the Tri-corner area is home to a veritable wonderland of sweet offerings to both dazzle the taste buds, and satiate the urge for a taste of youth. Here are a few shops that present locals with the opportunity to reintroduce the spirit of the holidays to young and old alike, the stewards of warm memories, and the gatekeepers of triumphant joy.
Robin’s Candy Shop – Great Barrington, MA
The power heartfelt memories have on our present couldn’t be more evident than in the story behind Robin’s Candy Shop located on Main Street in Great Barrington, MA. Owner Robin Helfand says she grew up hearing stories about the candy shop her grandparents owned in Washington Heights, NY, during the early half of the twentieth century. Robin herself spent much of her youth in the shop and fondly remembers the taste of those sweet treats while gaining first-hand knowledge into the business of candy from suppliers traveling from Manhattan.
In 2004, after moving out of New York City and into the haven of the Hudson Valley, Robin used her decades of marketing mastery to open Millerton Market in Millerton, NY. A bakery and gourmet speciality food shop that baked bread so hot it would melt the chocolate inside the store, giving Robin an idea inspired not only by her unique intuition, but by a familiar sense of the nostalgic sweets from her childhood. As a result, Robin decided to focus her talents exclusively on chocolate and headed for Great Barrington’s Main Street.
Today, Robin’s Candy has since expanded from its original offering of handmade chocolate truffles to the “broadest array of sweets, including American classics, imported delicacies, and creative gifts.” Customers are encouraged to explore every nook and cranny of this local sweet spot to conjure the kind of warm memories only the smell of sugary delicacies can.
This season, Robin is excited to bring an international flavor to her holiday customers celebrating each occasion, “I am delighted to welcome holiday shoppers with a bounty of Hanukkah and Christmas treats from the world over. Sourcing hand-crafted artisanal sweets to share with guests is my passion – in fact, I’ll be bringing back new delicacies from my recent trip to South Africa and Kenya!”
In addition to an array of international treats, Robin’s team recently expanded their award-winning licorice department – generally known to be the largest selection in the country.
Not a licorice lover?
Robin’s chocolatier is busy hand-dipping holiday bonbons including intense dark chocolate gingerbread truffles, as well as her ever-popular pumpkin pie truffles. Despite the variety of new offerings, Robin has no qualms with bringing back a few holiday favorites: “We will again have genuine Israeli Gelt coins, Brooklyn-made sesame Halvah, German Marzipan, and hand-pulled candy canes stuffed with chocolate (really!)”
Robin’s Candy is open daily throughout the holiday season –weather permitting. As always, they suggest a call in advance to check hours before planning a visit, (413)528-8477.
Oliver Kita Chocolates – Rhinebeck, NY
There are few things that can touch the heart of our collective holiday sentimentality quite like our sense of smell. A holiday roast in the oven, whose smell permeates throughout the home and lingers around the table where we gather with those we love, the brisk smell of cold air on a December night as the snow settles, softly veiling the warm glow of holiday and porch lights, the unmistakable smell of pine, even those musty stow-away attic ornaments carry their own unique nostalgic tinge.
At Oliver Kita Chocolates, located at 18 West Market Street in Rhinebeck, NY, scent remains the soul of this artisanal chocolate experience.Chef-owner Oliver Kita, whose philosophy maintains the principles of being, “Aware. Exquisite. Passionate. Joyful. Powerful. And Conscious” has perfected the art of cooking and baking his flavors of chocolate with distinct perfumes.
For the last 20 years, the master chocolatier has incorporated unique scents like flowers, herbs, citrus, exotic fruits, berries, nuts, and spices gleaned from years of professional experience spanning two continents. The result is an unforgettable mix of delicious confections using both fair trade and organic chocolate that has helped Oliver Kita Chocolates earn the title of Top Ten Chocolatier by Dessert Professional Magazine.
This holiday season, as it does each year, Oliver Kita Chocolates will again roll out its much anticipated Elegant Gold and Onyx Holiday Collection. Sustainability remains at the heart of each holiday confection with collections presented in recycled and recyclable packaging. Inside the alluring and eco-friendly packaging are treats worthy of sharing with generations including the Birchwood Box Holiday Collection, Luxurious Hot Chocolate, Almond Studded Butternut Crunch Toffee, and the instant classic 16-piece Gold and Onyx Tower Gift Box.
Vasilow’s – Hudson, NY
“The taste you remember;” for almost a century the titular family name for upstate New York confectionery has embodied the spiritual connection between taste and memory. From their choice of ingredients, and the cut of their famous Cinnamon Squares, to using the very same chocolate that brothers Louie and Jim used in 1923 when they opened their first store in the Hudson Valley. In 1969, much to the chagrin of locals across the area, the original Vasilow Brothers retired and for the next thirty years the community would wait in earnest for the opportunity to revisit and taste the delights of yesteryear. In 1999, the Vasilow name would once again return to the city of Hudson, NY, to recapture its bond with local families longing for communal spirit and a place that will forever link generations of holiday memories.
Louie Vasilow’s grandson purchased a store just a few short blocks away from his grandfather’s original location. Today, with their tradition firmly entrenched in the hearts and minds of children and those nostalgic nomads wanting to transform seasons past into holiday present, the twenty-first century Vasilow’s maintains, “times may have changed, but our commitment to produce candy of superlative quality has not. Having had the privilege of observing true masters creating their finest offerings is a secret unto itself, and the endeavor to replicate the treasures crafted by them has been a tremendous undertaking, one which has not been taken lightly.”
Vasilow’s recipes, many of which come from the founding Vasilow brothers themselves, have happily married the taste of true homemade craftsmanship with some creative and contemporary offerings completely unique to the modern-day iteration of this preeminent family establishment. This holiday season, Vasilow’s will continue to churn out holiday classics in a way that remains timeless to those in the know, while introducing local youth to a taste they will forever recall as a definition for what it means to be a child at this time of year.
“Since its inception eighty years ago, customers have always associated the Vasilow’s name with excellence in quality confections. Although our location today is a few blocks away from the shop where Grandpa and Uncle Jim started it all, the commitment to provide our customers with the freshest, finest, and best tasting candy available remains unchanged.”
Samuel’s Sweet Shop – Rhinebeck, NY
Despite its reputation as perhaps the most recognized candy or sweet shop in the Hudson Valley today, Samuel’s Sweet Shop, located on East Market Street in Rhinebeck, NY, happily maintains its classic corner store spirit while thriving on an atmosphere built by its bond with the community. For decades, Samuel’s has provided the small town with a sanctuary for classic confections, creative concoctions, and locally-sourced, handmade treasures.
Owner John Traver relishes in his commitment to stay connected to the area where he has spent most of his life. Despite the popularity of his business partners, John is undoubtedly the star of Samuel’s, whether behind the counter or enjoying a coffee at a table in front of the shop.
The screen door swings open and the bell attached to its hinge happily chimes as both locals and travellers step onto the hardwood floors and back in time somewhere in the recesses of their minds, nearly all greeting John by name, and most stopping for a quick, neighborly chat. How appropriate then, that such a visage of the American ideal began with what most consider the quintessential beginning to any American life – a dream.
In 1994, Ira Gutner followed that dream from New York City up the Hudson River Valley to open what was then called Samuel’s of Rhinebeck, a boutique candy and coffee shop. Ira’s intuition to start a candy store stemmed from his growing love of the town of Rhinebeck, and its friendly rural aesthetic, as well as the memory of his late uncle Samuel, who introduced Ira to penny candy as a young boy. The shop itself recently celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2019 and was getting ready to celebrate its 20th anniversary when Ira suddenly passed away in April of 2014. “I worked for Ira six days a week since the age of fifteen,” John says of the man who started it all. “It’s hard to even say how much he meant to me, we were all stunned and heartbroken when he passed.”
John’s preceding diligence working at the shop during summers and holidays on break from Union College, where he majored in economics and English, transformed into an unremitting passion for keeping the beloved community candy shop going. “I managed the store for years while Ira was with us, the day after he passed I had no idea what to do, so I opened the store the next day.”
John’s modest dedication to keeping Samuel’s the centerpiece for the Rhinebeck community eventually paid off when three families, including notable actors Jeffery Dean Morgan of The Walking Deadfame and his wife Hilarie Burton, along with actor Paul Rudd and his wife Julie threw their support behind John and the future of Samuel’s and helped buy the store. John recalls the moment another investor, actor Andy Ostroy, explained his reasoning for providing the shop with financial hope, “Andy told me the greatest way that we can honor Ira’s legacy would be to keep this store open and ensure it thrives within this community.” Five years later the shop has been renamed Samuel’s Sweet Shop and has shifted its focus toward a wider offering of candy and other sweets.
In a short time, Samuel’s Sweet Shop has reaffirmed its presence both locally and beyond as the Hudson Valley’s premiere attraction for one-of-a-kind simple and specialty candy, as well as for an atmosphere sure to carve itself into the minds and memories of anyone stopping by this holiday season. “We aspire to be a trophy case for as many local artisans as possible,” John says of the eclectic offerings on display. “We have an exclusive on local caramels, our own chocolate maker who handcrafts our chocolate goodies, even my mom’s chocolate chip cookies are in stock here.”
Along with offering the straight-forward classics, Samuel’s does not hold back on creativity. One such hard-to-resist innovation is John’s Oreo creation, where two of the famous cookies are “unlocked” and the cream filled halves are sandwiched with a unique item like – get ready – a peanut butter cup! Or the “next level sensation” of a York Peppermint Patty, subsequently dipped in chocolate for an indulgence worth travelling miles to experience. This year, John feels compelled to out-do himself after winning best dessert in Rhinebeck two years in a row. For the 2019 holiday season, Samuel’s is incorporating their shelf-stable edible cookie dough and combining its irresistible flavor with two unlocked double-stuffed Golden Oreos, dipped in dark chocolate and topped with sea salt, dubbing the alluring creation the “Simply Doughlicious” cookie.
Samuel’s also enjoys being an integral part of the Rhinebeck holiday Sinterklaas Festival by hosting the Teddy Bear Beauty Contest, where children bring in their favorite stuffed friends to be judged by the venerable members of the Samuel’s team. “We strive to give everyone a real authentic and awesome experience by working hard and simple. Learning customers’ names and getting to know families, turning customers into clients and clients into friends not only encapsulates our mission, but represents the heart of the holiday season in the Hudson Valley.”
By Griffin Cooper