The Chocolate Shell… a Pearl Among Sweetshops!
By Charmagne Eckert/photo by Jeffery Lilly
“Nine out of ten people like chocolate. The tenth person always lies,” proclaims the banner running across the website for The Chocolate Shell of Old Lyme, Connecticut. I am not that tenth person. On the other hand, I’m not what one would term a chocoholic either; my epicurean vices tend more towards the savory lure of salt and garlic than the sugary. I am a devotee of kettle crisped potato chips, artisanal cheeses, tart pickles,and the addictive heat of the endless variety of chiles the world has to offer. The dessert table held little temptation. Until now.
The Chocolate Shell, this diminutive temple to sweet innovation, might just be the site of my conversion. The enthusiastic acolyte to all things chocolate is the shop’s owner, Barbara Crowley. Crowley was not always such a chocolate enthusiast; her mother was the family member who adored the rich concoctions of the cocoa bean. And quite possibly, Crowley speculates, it was her mother who led her to purchase the business in 2011 from the previous owner. “It was one year to the day since my mother had died; and I visited the [Chocolate] Shell, where I frequently went with my children or to buy presents. Something made me notice this little index card with small writing on it, taped inside the window. It said, ‘Business For Sale, Inquire Within.’ That was it. I spoke to the owner; and when I walked out, I knew. I was going to buy the chocolate shop,” Crowley explains. With a background in bookkeeping and a warm and outgoing personality, Crowley was well equipped to take on her own business. Over the last three years she has come to love the process of selecting the most sumptuous confections available and is thrilled when she discovers a unique new item to carry. She has kept the candy lines that loyal customers have enjoyed through the years, but has also added a number of new chocolatiers, each of whom offer a distinctive product.
The most local of these additions is a collection of delectable toffees of unparalleled airy crispness that are produced just across the river in Old Saybrook. Another Connecticut product is from Divine Treasures of Manchester. These beautifully crafted chocolates combine innovative flavors and textures molded into elegantly whimsical forms, all of which are vegan and entirely gluten and dairy free. These are sweets with a conscience, made with organic,socially responsible European chocolate. 2 Chicks with Chocolate, featuring rainbow hued chocolate and a sumptuous collection of wine infused sweets, is located in New Jersey. Pennsylvania based Zoe’s Chocolates offers sweets accented with Mediterranean flavors inspired by the Greek heritage of this family owned business. For the truffle aficionado, Birnn Truffles of Vermont provide a delightful selection of creamy filled bonbons. From the west come Moonstruck Chocolates out of Portland, Oregon and a deluxe assortment of caramel-pecan turtles from Sweetshop of Texas.
The chocolate creations carried by Crowley are beautiful as well as delectable, and she has many customers who order items to decorate holiday tables or who come to her for one of a kind wedding,shower,or party favors. There are ‘barks’ studded with jewel-toned cranberries, glossy nuts, and translucent preserved orange peel, peeping out from white, dark, or milk chocolate that make a fitting accompaniment to fresh fruit and cheese displays. Exquisite bonbons, hand painted with accents of gold leaf, or molded candies in elegant or whimsical shapes might be placed with the settings for a sophisticated dinner or themed brunch. Recently Crowley provided a truly memorable favor for a customer hosting a 30th wedding anniversary celebration. “My [client] came to me months in advance wanting something really spectacular for this party. Traditional for the 30th is pearl. The couple being honored owns a boat and loves the ocean, so I thought of an oyster shell. I found Andie’s Specialty Sweets out of Dallas; and they worked with me to make the most gorgeous, realistic oyster shell with a pearl inside…each one hand made so they are all different. I filled a silver box with candy sand, then rested the oyster with its pearl in the ‘sand.’ Just gorgeous,” she says with a broad smile.
Grownups aren’t the only patrons of The Chocolate Shell. The business has a long tradition of being the “rite of passage” destination for Old Lyme Elementary School students when they reach an age where they are allowed the responsibility of the short walk of independence down the street to the shop. To accommodate the younger customers, there is an entire room devoted to treats sure to delight children. Three tiers of shelves stretch along the walls; none of them out of the reach of eager hands. Crowley doesn’t restrict kids in their explorations – everything in this section is wrapped and neatly organized in small glass apothecary jars. Violently sour Nerds, jawbreakers the size of baseballs, Swedish fish, and media themed novelties are found alongside treats that parents and grandparents will recall from their youth. Atomic Fireballs, Pixi Sticks (in traditional and giant size), candy bracelets, gummies of every shape and flavor, and even sweets dating back to the 40’s and 50’s such as Necco wafers, Bit-O- Honey, candy buttons, Sugar Daddy pops, and Gold Nuggets in their drawstring cloth bag can be found. On a Friday after school it is not unusual for there to be nearly thirty young people in the shop. “I love when the kids come in,” Crowley says, “and what’s really exciting is that lots of them [venture] beyond the kids’ items. They’ll get their penny candy, then they’ll come up to the counter and choose a few special chocolates from the cases. They are adventurous. They are starting to expand their tastes, trying interesting things.”
Nothing makes Crowley happier than being able to bring joy and meaning to her customers, and it’s not only the children who unearth unexpected treasures as they sample the nuances of fine bonbons. Just as often, adult patrons seeking sophisticated chocolates find themselves transported back to childhood when they discover the nostalgia collection. The vintage confections frequently inspire customers to ask Crowley to search for a particular treat from a bygone era that holds special significance for them. These sweet windows into the past are not only a marvelous gift for a friend of the same generation, but also provide a delightful way to share history with younger family members. It makes sense to Crowley that her shop attracts sweet lovers of all ages, and she is certain that her mother would approve. “I like to think that my mom had something to do with leading me to this business. I never would have thought of it; just all of a sudden that day, it hit. She would have been delighted knowing that not only does her daughter own her own business, but a chocolate shop – nothing could be better!”
As I leave the cozy shrine to the magic of confections, I find myself dreaming of jalapeno infused caramel wrapped in dark chocolate and topped with smoked sea salt. I know that very soon I will be back at The Chocolate Shell to satisfy my new found devotion to all things chocolate. Crowley’s mother would indeed be proud.
The Chocolate Shell is located at: 18 Lyme Street, Old Lyme, CT
Phone: (860) 434-9727 For additional information visit: www.thechocolateshellct.com