The Hartford Courant

Spun Sugar In Ribbons And Bows

- by Linda Giuca, Courant Food Editor

It is as fragile as fine porcelain, as colorful as a painter's palette and as sweet as a spoonful of sugar.

Ribbon candy is a Christmas specialty, especially in New England, says James Gilson, co-owner of the F.B.Washburn Candy Corp., in Brockton, Mass. From March until Thanksgiving eve, the company's candy maker mixes, colors, flavors and stretches the sugar-candy mixture into the curled, paper-thin ribbons destined to appear on holiday tables.

Gilson and his cousin, Douglas Gilson, are the third generation to own and operate what is now the only major ribbon-candy producer in the country. Some mom-and-pop shops still make the delicate confection by hand and sell it regionally, Jim Gilson says, but his company is the only supplier of ribbon candy to large chains such as Wal-Mart and CVS, as well as other retail stores throughout the United States and Canada. Russell Stover, Fannie Farmer and other companies buy ribbon candy from the plant to sell under their own labels.

Spun Sugar article about FB Washburn Candy in the Hartford Courant

There is an air of nostalgia surrounding ribbon candy, Gilson says. Many people remember it as something that their grandmothers always served during the holidays, properly displayed on a decorative candy plate. It is a true seasonal specialty, he says, unlike year-round treats such as M&Ms and Hershey's Kisses packaged for the holidays.

For almost nine months of the year, Christmas is on the minds of the staff at the Brockton plant. Spring and summer, the factory produces ribbon candy, which is boxed and stockpiled in air-conditioned and dehumidified storage rooms until the fall, when it is shipped to stores.

With more than 30 years' experience, Thomas Dias, whom Gilson describes as "a very talented candy maker," oversees the production. Some automated equipment, patented by Washburn, has streamlined the process, but Dias still is very much the "hands-on" candy maker. "It's still not a very high-tech [process]," Gilson says. "It is still very labor intensive."

The candy base is a mixture of granulated sugar and corn syrup. Gilson says his candy is made with a higher percentage of sugar, which is more expensive than corn syrup, to achieve the necessary crunch and glistening shine that is a sign of good-quality hard candy.

The sugar mixture is heated to 450 degrees in one cooker, then transferred to another vessel that reduces the temperature to 296 degrees and draws out the moisture. As the mass cools, it begins to solidify. "You have to keep the product cooling evenly, and that's where the candy-making skill comes into play," said Gilson. Humidity and temperatures both inside and outside the plant can affect the candy. "You have to know what you're working with and adjust according to the conditions," he says. "It's fairly physical work."

Colors and flavors are added and blended in another machine, and then the mixture is ready to be aerated on taffy-pulling machines. Pulling the ribbon candy base on a taffy hook lightens it, making the candy less dense. The candy maker also can fine-tune the candy's color during the pulling process. "We pull it to make a dark color into a pastel," Gilson says. "If you took dark orange and pulled it, it will become a light orange."

Whether brilliant or pale, the colors are as varied as one might find on the spools of ribbon displayed in a fabric shop. Still the most traditional and most popular color is the Christmas stripe, white candy with a red and green stripe. "But people like the variety [of different colors], and they get different flavors," Gilson says. "I liken it almost to a Necco wafer. Even if you don't like all of the flavors in a roll, you want to try them anyway."

Gilson also likes to experiment with different colors. "I try to throw a new color in once in a while," he says, mentioning baby blue as an example. "It's a very popular children's color. It's something I do and then wait for the feedback."

Over the years, customers have shared their uses for the ribbon candy with Gilson. "Some people hang it from their [Christmas] tree," he says. "One woman called and said she liked to smash it and put it on ice cream."

Lifestyle maven Martha Stewart used white ribbon candy once as a decoration on a bride's table, says Gilson, who spied the familiar shape while watching Stewart's television show.

"I picked up on it, but a lot of people might not have noticed."

Most fans use ribbon candy the way grandma did, set out for guests to admire and eat.

Washburn Candy, which began as an offshoot of a bakery in 1856, is the oldest privately owned candy company in the United States. Harry Gilson, the current owners' grandfather, took over the company in 1933, when the previous owners had financial problems. In 1986, when Harry's two sons were running the business, Washburn bought Sevigny Candy, its major competitor in the ribbon candy business. The Gilsons continue to use the Sevigny name as their ribbon-candy brand.

The competition for shelf space from the giant candy makers is keen. "It's hard to get on the shelf with the big guys," Gilson says. But as long as there is a market for ribbon candy and for the hard and filled sugar candies that are Washburn's specialty, the Gilsons will continue to produce the bows and sugarplums that add sweetness to the holiday season.

"We feel it's a tradition worth preserving," Gilson says. Although Washburn turns out more than 1 million boxes of ribbon candy each year, Gilson says, "I wish more people would buy it. It's such a unique product. There's nothing like it. It is synonymous with Christmas."

- Thursday, December 12, 2002, © 2002 The Hartford Courant