LAWRENCETOWN - Den Johnson pours a big pot of boiling fudge into a form on a marble slab – and brings back memories.
That’s his job. Den’s Fudge.
Call it the sweet aromas of childhood. A nostalgic taste of youth. A bite of the past. Call it magic – it always disappears quickly.
He creams that almost-molten fudge as it cools down. He shapes it. Then he cuts it.
“You know of course as kids we love candy and all those wonderful things – so a lot of the flavours we make are based on my childhood memories of candy from different things,” Johnson said. “Like root beer popsicles – I make a root beer fudge and you can’t find root beer popsicles anywhere.”
Ironically Johnson hardly had fudge at all when he was a kid. But somewhere along the line a few years ago he got stuck on fudge and wouldn’t let it go.
“I didn’t know how to make it so I spent about six months (learning) -- and I didn’t tell anyone what I was doing,” he said. He’d get information online, he’d experiment, he’d test it on unsuspecting friends.
“So I got pretty good at it. And usually there’s not too much of a shortage of people wanting to try fudge so I had all kinds of testers,” he said. “The feedback was important.”
Now you find him at the markets, all the big craft shows and festivals in four counties.
His Cherry Blossom fudge is kind of his trademark. You smell it, taste it and you’re 10 years old again. But it wasn’t his first.
“I started out with another one that was really kind of special to me and that was licorice, and that’s really popular too,” he said. “That was based on at Christmas time – it was only at Christmas -- we’d have licorice toffees, and I loved them. Dad loved them too. And I was always trying to get them and so that flavor is based on that sort of Christmas memory.”
He was probably not even a month into selling fudge as a business when he hit on another flavor that would become popular.
“I went and bought a Cherry Blossom, I ate it, and said ‘I think I can recreate it in the body of fudge and do it justice,’” he said. “That’s what I did. After that I put it on my banners, business cards, and I’ve been continually making new flavours since.”
“I think fudge resonates with people in the way that the flavours I create resonate with me,” he said. “I think it does kind of forge back to childhood memories for a lot of my customers. Sometimes we’ll just get chatting and they’re saying that to me. That black licorice for instance. That often is something that takes people back. They’re like ‘I had these toffees when I was a kid.’ I’m ‘ya, that’s what I based it on.’”
What are the favourites?
“Sea salt caramel,” he said. “I started making that almost two years ago, and that’s just been ridiculous. Of course Cherry Blossom. People love my peanut butter fudge – a little bit of sea salt in there makes the peanut butter kind of pop. Privateers Treasure, that’s taken off.”
He’s got another flavor that’s kind of unique for fudge that he’s proud of.
“One of my neatest ones, and as far as I know this doesn’t exist anyplace in the world, it’s my recipe, I make an actual sour fudge,” he said. “I call it Sour Patch Cherry. I had to learn about organic acids and all that stuff.”
Sour fudge may sound crazy, but it’s not.
“It has my biggest customer age range – like five to 85,” he said. “You think you should be chewing on this fudge and it just melts in your mouth and you get that actual sourness but in the body of fudge.”
In June, he created another fudge, yet again based on a childhood memory. Moonmist was his favourite ice cream from probably Grade 6 on. His fudge version is called Luner Mist.
This year Johnson went as far afield as the Garlic Festival in Avondale.
“I grow my own garlic. I wanted to go to this festival,” he said. “I didn’t have to necessarily create a garlic fudge, but I was ‘you know what? I’m up to this.’ I created a garlic fudge, called Garlic Music because of the variety of garlic I use is Music. I tell ya, I sold eight pounds of that. It sold out. It was a great event.”
“When I first told Mom, after I’d done two markets and sold out each time, I made up my mind what I was doing,” Johnson said. “So I called her up and I said ‘Mom, I’m making fudge.’ She said ‘Oh, that’s nice.’ And I said ‘Yup, but I’m gonna do this for a living.’ She said ‘No, oh no you’re not.’”
Now when he talks to her she tells him not to ever give it up.
“She gets to see I have freedom of my everyday, doing something I want to do, living where I want to live, and so much of that is because I was fixated on making fudge for whatever reason,” he said.
“I guess also I wanted to do something where I felt I could be like the best at it. So that was my intent with doing this. I went to my first market -- I still hadn’t told anybody -- sold out. Said ‘this is good.’ The next week I brought 50 per cent more. I sold out again. So at that point I said to myself ‘I’m never working for anybody else again – unless I want to.’ Two-and-a-half years now full time.”
He’s appreciative that he’s able to make a product that he believes can compete anywhere in the world for the people who live right here.
“This is a beautiful part of the world, it’s a beautiful province,” he said. “I mean we have two stop lights in Annapolis County. That’s awesome.”
Johnson loves having that hands-on interaction with his customers
“The expressions on their face, that doesn’t lie. That means a lot to me,” he said. “I’ve been doing it for a while. People will have a family event, they’re coming from the city or something to a market I’m at and kids will run down the laneway and yell my name. They’re excited because they haven’t seen me for a few months and ‘what’s new?’ And parents will say ‘that’s all they talked about coming down here. Den’s Fudge! Den’s Fudge!’”
He considers the Annapolis Royal Farmers and Traders Market to be home during that warm months from May through to October.
He’s getting events that he’s going back to each year now, so people are looking for him and they remember him. And he’s still trying new events. When he was first thinking about starting a business he wanted something people would come back for and fudge fit the bill. It never gets old, figuratively, and it’s a bottomless market. Even people who profess to not like fudge try it and come back.
In one way, fudge is simple -- whole milk, butter, and sugar. Making and flavouring it is more of an art. He uses natural flavourings where possible -- like real ginger, real pumpkin, real strawberry, real garlic. Pure 100 per cent chocolate.
Johnson studied psychology and social anthropology at university. He studied human services in college. He’s worked with kids and he’s worked with people who have mental disabilities. He’s had a children’s book published.
“I’ve kind of been all over the board,” he said.
Now it’s fudge and memories.
“People ask how I make all that fudge. Well, it’s my job. If I’ve got a market coming, Monday through Friday – some days might not be long, some days might be very long – that’s what I’m doing.”
More and more now he finds he’s got a notebook out writing. Maybe waiting for that fudge to come to a boil. Maybe it’s another children’s book. Often he has music on while the fudge is being made.
“I was listening to the Hip a little while ago for obvious reasons,” he said. Maybe a few batches infused with the spirit of Canadian-rock laureate Gord Downie. “They were my favourite band in my early 20s for a long time. Sometimes I put Christmas music on. I love listening to The Pogues. It just depends. Sometimes it’s high energy stuff and sometimes it might be Leonard Cohen, mellow.”
There’s not much of a downside to fudge.
“Part of what I enjoy about what I do is that people smile when they come to see me,” he said. “It’s happy. I have customers who say ‘you’re like family.’ That’s pretty cool.”