In 1918, a candy dipper in Chicago commented that the pecan-studded chocolate-covered caramel patties a salesman was hawking looked like turtles. Though the name stuck, these days most turtles we encounter are just dull brown blobs with no more resemblance to a reptile than a burrito (Spanish for “small donkey”) has to an ass. But when we stepped into Turtle Alley Chocolates, a charming candy shop in Gloucester, Massachusetts, the moniker started to make sense. The turtles here exude chelonian personality, the nuts peeking out like flippers from underneath glossy chocolate shells. Made by placing a nut-spangled round of soft homemade caramel atop a hand-molded chocolate base, then funneling on a bit more chocolate, each candy is as singular as a snowflake.
While no match for nature with its upward of 330 species of hard-shelled reptiles, Turtle Alley proprietor Hallie Baker, who opened the store in 1999, is the creator of an ever-expanding turtle population with unpredictable physiognomy that includes domestic white, milk, and dark chocolates; gargantuan roasted macadamias, cashews, and almonds, in addition to pecans; and under-the-shell surprises that range from East Coast cranberries to chipotle chile, Turkish apricots, and bacon. “What I love most about the turtle is that it’s a launching pad for so many different combinations,” Baker says. “Whenever I find a great new product, chances are it will inspire a turtle.” When we last visited, she only recently had come across extraordinarily delicious dried strawberries. When she combined them with milk chocolate, pecans from Georgia, and her buttery caramel, a new luxury turtle was born. Although some of what Baker makes is seasonal—cranberry-pecan turtles are generally a fall and winter offering, and white chocolate—blueberry a spring and summer combo—you can special order any flavor in her repertoire any time. Baker believes that the secret of turtle excellence is balance. Her caramel is especially supple, a gentle presence that provides a tender counterpoint to the crunch of the nuts, which are covered by just enough chocolate to ensure their maximum exposure. “If you are using good nuts, fully enrobed turtles are a mistake,” Baker says. “Underneath the veil of chocolate, those nuts are going soft. That’s why I want them sticking out as much as possible. A turtle needs to breathe.”