Talking With A Candy Making Legend
Alan Hilliard launched a sweet legacy In Easton
Yes, Alan Hilliard eats candy. He likes chocolate. He doesn’t eat a large amount of chocolate, but he is a fairly consistent consumer of a food that is closely and prominently aligned and linked with his name in this region.
His favorite candy?
“Mint crème dipped in dark chocolate,” says Alan, a youthful, witty, and sharp-minded 89 years old. “And when I eat the chocolate, I am analyzing. I take a small bite and I analyze.”
I asked Alan what he is analyzing.
“The coating of chocolate – how much of it there is,” he replied. “And I look at the center, and analyze its consistency; is it nice and whether it has a flow to it.”
Sitting and talking with Alan Hilliard was a delight – he who for years was a master craftsman of confectionary delights. He has passion for candy and candy making.
For me, a chocolate lover, it was like being …. nah … I’m not going there … OK, yes I will … a kid in a candy store.
A little more than 60 years ago, in 1950, Alan Hilliard, a World War II Army vet, and his wife, Barbara, moved to Easton and opened a branch of Hilliard’s Kitch-In-Vue Candy on the corner of Main Street and Washington Street/Rte. 138 in Easton. Its candy was made on the premises, “in view” of the customer.
Alan’s father, Perley, had started learning the trade of making candy, in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Boston, right after World War I. In 1924, Perley and his wife, Jessie, opened their first candy store, in the Wollaston section of Quincy.
Candy became the fast and growing vocation and avocation of the Hilliard family. Alan was one of seven children, all of whom were involved in candy making and the family business, which would establish several candy stores, with locations in Greater Boston, Martha’s Vineyard, and one in West Hartford, CT.
Last Friday afternoon, I sat with Alan in the beautiful Falmouth home of his daughter, Judy, and her husband, Charlie – Oliver Ames High School sweethearts. The view from the house is also gorgeous; it overlooks a large salt water pond. Alan lives with his daughter and son-in-law.
Alan’s wife, Barbara, passed away four years ago. They had been married 65 years.
In 1981, Judy and Charlie McCarthy bought Hilliard’s Kitch-In-Vue Candy and renamed it Hilliard’s House of Candy. Hilliard’s House of Candy also has stores in Canton and Hanover.
The couple has been making all-star candy and growing and maintaining a winning enterprise ever since. And, all the candy for all the stores, with the exception of jelly beans and few other candies, is made in the North Easton location. Hilliard’s makes its own delicious ice cream, and has a seasonal ice cream parlor open at its North Easton store.
Alan Hilliard can talk passionately and in depth for hours about the art and craft of candy making. Indeed, for him, candy making is an art and a craft – and a science.
Why is Hilliard’s candy so good? What sets it above the competition?
“The basis for all of it is the quality of the ingredients,” says Alan. “It is just like so many things in life; you need to start out with quality ingredients. Hilliard’s has always used the best ingredients.”
During a recent tour, I took of the Hilliard’s House of Candy kitchens and candy making facilities, Judy discussed with me Hilliard’s candy and quality ingredients. She told me that the ingredients are expensive, such as pure vanilla – and which not many other candy makers use – but that Hilliard’s would not make candy any other way.
Alan Hilliard told me that for the first 13 years he ran Hilliard’s Kitch-In-Vue Candy, he and Barbara, and his growing family, lived over the store. The three Hilliard children, Judy, Marjorie, and David, were born during that period.
(For a few years after they took over the Hilliard’s, Judy and Charlie McCarthy lived above the store.)
Alan and I talked about the craft and science of dipping chocolate. Almost every single Hilliard’s House of Candy chocolate is dipped in machines.
He explained how the nature and constitution of chocolate, with its cocoa solids and sugar crystals and butterfat, make it an unstable substance when melted, and, while dipping a candy center, if you don’t keep the chocolate moving and “tempering” it in a delicate and certain manner and at a constant temperature – whether by hand or machine – then the chocolate is going to seize up and get clunky and break from the center.
“You have to consistently build up the crystals and break down the crystals,” says Alan. “When you do this correctly, it results in a beautiful seal with a shiny surface – like all of Hilliard’s chocolates. And when you bite into the chocolate you get his nice snap and release of flavor.”
Alan says that it takes about two to three months for someone to learn and be adept at dipping chocolate by hand.
Alan and Alan’s father, Perley, are pioneers in the mechanized process of dipping chocolate.
“It was early on in his business, and the workers were dipping chocolate by hand,” said Alan. “So one day, my father saw one of the women who was dipping chocolate come out of the bathroom – and he just started thinking that there had to be a better and cleaner way to dip chocolates.”
Perley Hilliard, with the help of a friend who was a machinist, started building machines that could move candy centers along and temper and properly layer chocolate over and around them. The machines worked and were a major innovation in the history of candy making. In 1925, about 125 machines were made, and sold to other candy makers.
This enterprise of Perley Hilliard would grow into the Hilliard’s Chocolate System, now based in West Bridgewater, with customers – including, of course, Hilliard’s House of Candy – throughout North America, and in South America and Asia. Godiva uses a Hilliard’s Chocolate System to coat fresh fruit in its stores.
Alan Hilliard would actually improve on his father’s machine, inventing a way that the temperature could even be more precise in the process, never wavering from one half of one degree.
So, what is the story behind that landmark prop – the box of chocolates – that adorns the façade of Hilliard’s House of Candy?
“My brother, Douglas, he was a sculptor; he made the box in 1952,” said Alan. “The outside of the box is made out of metal, and each chocolate in the box is actually a separate piece.”
For years, the box was located on the porch of the building, but now it is affixed to the second story side of the house.
Alan Hilliard and I talked a lot of candy and chocolate the other day. It was fun and an education.
We talked about how it has been discovered that dark chocolate is good for your health – and that Jeanne Louise Calment, who reached the oldest authenticated age for a human, 122 years, ate a lot of chocolate.
This chocolate lover does not have to be told twice that chocolate is good for you.
Alan told me that fudge can be put into the refrigerator to keep it fresh and moist – but that if you do that with candies that have dipped chocolate on them, it will ruin the confections because it will pull moisture and sugars to their surface.
So I asked Alan if, then, the only option you have to eat fresh tasting dipped chocolate is to eat it right away.
“No, what you can do is keep it sealed in a box and put in dresser under clothes,” he said. “That way you will keep the temperature even in the chocolates. It is fluctuating temperature that ruins chocolate."
For sure, Alan Hilliard knows candy.
And Alan Hilliard knows chocolate.