Friday, August 19, 2011

Berkeley Sweet Shop, Seaside Heights, NJ

Imagine a carnival that never closes, and never picks up and moves on to a new town. Now imagine that carnival  stretched out along a beach in one of the most populated areas of the country. The place you'll see in your imagination should resemble many of the popular small vacation towns that dot the New Jersey Shore. The Boardwalks of these Shore towns are the centerpiece- huge pedestrian malls that are part main street, part carnival, and part tourist destination. It's hard to imagine visiting such a place without bringing home a few treats...

No trip to the shore is complete without bringing home a few classic treats. Right on the famous (or infamous, if you're into reality television) boardwalk in Seaside Heights, New Jersey is a shop that has just what you need to relive a little bit of your childhood - Berkeley Sweet Shop. Their selection of in-house made sweets was enough to make my kids' eyes bulge out of their heads. 

The most iconic candy associated with the shore has to be salt water taffy. There's something about a beach environment that just helps the taffy get to the right consistency. We've all tried those gift-shop boxes of salt water taffy that just don't get it right. You know the kind- the taffy is usually too firm or too chewy and it becomes a chore to eat- or it's far too soft and sticks horribly to the wrapper. When it's just right it has a great balance of texture- hard enough that it peels away from the wrapper easily, and has just a little bite to it, and still soft and flexible enough to melt down and release it's flavor without making you work too hard for it. Berkeley gets it right, and has a great selection of flavors including grape, root beer, banana, peanut butter, and the kid's favorite, chocolate. We went for the one pound bucket, loaded it up with a handful of each flavor that looked interesting, and tried not to make pigs of ourselves when we got home.

The other must-have treat is a candy apple. There are many varieties available- but I like the old school red-candy coated ones, especially ones coated with a little shredded coconut. Berkeley uses nice big Granny Smith apples, that stay firm and juicy through the trauma of being impaled on a stick and dipped in hot candy. They have that great bust of sour-tart flavor that cuts through, and balances out all the sugar. That combination of flavors prevents the sugary elements from crossing the line into "cloying" territory. Likewise, the sugar tempers and takes the edge off of the sour bite. The coconut seems to help tie both of these flavor elements together, and adds an interesting texture to the mix as well.

As visually stunning as a large candy coated apple can be, it's not practical to eat them whole, so you have to get out a knife and do a little hack job on them. All of Berkeley's offerings play up the visual appeal in different ways- walking around the shop to look at all the candy is just as much fun as indulging in them, or watching the kids' faces light up when you let them pick something out. They even have their vintage candy-making machines set up so you can watch them chug away at their work through the store windows as you walk by.

There is a shop like Berkeley in just about every vacation town on the Jersey Shore- to me their taffy stands out as one of the best - and since nearly half of their shop is dedicated to it, I think the owners know it.

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