Ye Olde Pepper Companie

A sweet(s) story of Salem

Christina A. Traugott

Ron the candyman mans the sweet counter.

Witches still walk the streets of Salem. They hawk kettle corn, sell sausages and perhaps cast a spell or two on the side. But today the only things roasting are cashews and almonds. The Salem Witch Trials of 1692—an infamous moment in our nation’s history—are now long behind us, but this small town has capitalized on its gory past. However, ghosts and ghouls are not the only attraction. Part of the town’s history lives on in sweeter forms. The magic continues in Ye Olde Pepper Companie, America’s oldest candy manufacturer.

In 1806, a shipwrecked woman by name of Spencer landed in Salem and founded the sweets company with little more than a donated barrel of sugar. Thus was the birth of the “Salem Gibralter,” the first commercially sold candy in the United States. Akin to an after-dinner mint that, according to candyman Ron, “melts in your mouth and not in your hand,” the pure sugar candy may lose its lemon or peppermint flavor but will never go bad. As proof, the Pepper Companie displays a jar of 173 year-old Gibralters, yellowing in color but supposedly still sweet. Spencer peddled these goodies around Salem by wagon while sea captains shipped them worldwide. In 1830, Spencer’s son sold the company to John William Pepper, who expanded the product line to include the country’s first stick candy, the Black Jack, made from bottom-of-the-barrel black strap molasses.  

Then, at the turn of the century, the Burkinshaw family purchased the Pepper Companie and has since passed it down over four generations. “It’s a family business,” says Bob Burkinshaw, the current President. “The whole family works in here—I’m the president, my wife Christine takes care of the book-keeping and sales, my son Craig is the chief cook and my daughter Jaclyn is in charge of shipping. My father’s retired, but he comes in every now and then.”

Despite the change in ownership, the quaint candy shop still boasts Spencer and Pepper’s traditional recipes. In addition to jars of Gibralters and barrels of Black Jacks, the tiny one-room sweets store overflows with candies of all sorts—from hard candies such as “Sassafras Slugs” and “Root Beer Barrels,” to Grand Marnier, Amaretto and Irish Cream gourmet truffles, to white, milk and semi-sweet cherry cordials to fudge in “Fall flavors.”

While customers packed around counters featuring fancy turtles and perfectly formed truffles, they were also not afraid to taste a bit of Old Salem. According to Burkinshaw, the original candies are still the store’s best-sellers, as even the sweetest tooth would be thoroughly satisfied by the light and refreshing Gibralters. The popular chocolate was decidedly decadent, but also strikingly hard—those with braces or dentures should beware when biting into the tempting turtles (caramel and chocolate centers encircled with almonds, cashews, pecans or walnuts). Napkins are very necessary for the gooey and delicious cherry cordials. Despite difficulties in consumption your palate will most certainly not be disappointed.

At the end of the day, Ye Olde Pepper Companie is the perfect side trip once in Salem. Right down the road from Salem’s Witch Mansion and just across the street from the fabled House of Seven Gables, visitors should be sure to stop and indulge in some sumptuous sweets from America’s oldest source, for its candy continues the town’s rich magical history. And not all magic is black magic. Ye Olde Pepper Companie Ltd. 122 Derby Street

(866) 393-6533 Black Jacks: 10 sticks, $4.98. Gibralter: 4 pieces, $3.98. Cherry Cordials: $14.95/lb. Fudge: $7.50/lb. Gourmet Truffles: $2.25 each. Turtles (Dixies): $13.50/lb.