“I’m not sure what it is about islands and fudge shops, but it seems to be a marriage made in confectionary heaven,” says Mike McCourt, general manager of Murdick’s Fudge on Martha’s Vineyard.
Mr. McCourt knows a lot about the fudge/island relationship. He has been managing the three Martha’s Vineyard Murdick’s Fudge shops and the Edgartown Murdick’s cafe for two decades. And, as he relates, the island connection was actually initiated by the Murdick family when they established the first of their shops on Mackinac Island in Michigan. Sarah Murdick started selling her fudge on the tiny island in 1887, sparking something of a revolution. The postage stamp–size island is now home to no fewer than 13 fudge shops, including four Murdick’s, earning it the title of America’s Fudge Capital.
Outside of Mackinac, the Vineyard is the only other place where one can find Murdick’s fudge (although the company does a brisk mail order business). And following the Michigan business model, the fudge is made on site and in view of visitors, making the Murdick’s shops popular tourist destinations.
Next year will mark the 40th anniversary of Murdick’s presence on Martha’s Vineyard. The company has started the celebration early by offering two new holiday-themed flavors — chocolate candy cane and eggnog.
Mr. McCourt’s 25th year with the company is also 2018. He came on board in 1993, having been recruited to oversee the local operation when one of the two partners retired. Previously Mr. McCourt lived in Michigan, and worked in the wholesale meat business and the oil and gas industry. His current position, in his words, “came out of left field.” “Running a business has always been in the back of my mind,” he says. “I fell in love with the business and the community. People can survive without fudge, but at the same time it’s very gratifying if we can create a smile. One of the things I tell employees is that kids are king in our stores.”
Bob Benser Sr., the current Murdick’s owner, purchased the Mackinac concern from his close friends the Murdicks in 1969. In 1978, he decided to expand the business to the Vineyard, and purchased the Edgartown building that still houses the original Murdick’s Vineyard store and cafe.
Shortly after, Mr. Benser bought the former Oak Bluffs home of Darlings Candy on Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs, and then opened the Vineyard Haven shop a year later. The shops have become a fixture on the Island, and the business regularly participates in fundraising events. “We try to give back to the community, and we’re proud of that,” says Mr. McCourt. Over the course of its 16-year history, Murdick’s Run the Chop annual race has raised close to $100,000 for the Martha’s Vineyard Boys and Girls Club.
You can’t do this at home
You might think that there’s not much to making fudge, given that there are only two basic ingredients — butter and sugar — but the process is actually very exacting. Murdick’s has been using the same core recipe, using all natural ingredients and employing the same types of traditional fudgemaking equipment, since the very beginning.
In both the Edgartown and Oak Bluffs locations, one can witness the entire process, as the Murdick’s fudge makers ply their trade throughout the hours of operation. The confection is cooked in a copper kettle, then poured onto marble tables, where it is allowed to cool to the point where the consistency is just right for folding and forming into a loaf shape.
Both the cooking and the cooling processes require constant vigilance. The base mixture must reach the perfect temperature in order for the fudge to gel correctly. “A half a degree in making candy can make all the difference,” says Mr. McCourt. “We test-boil water at the beginning of the day. Barometric pressure will change the boiling point.”
Once the mixture is cooked to the correct stage, it is poured onto a marble surface. Marble is crucial to the cooling process, as it absorbs the heat slowly. The three large marble tabletops used in the two candymaking stores were custom-made for Murdick’s. “The marble has to have a certain thickness to if. If it’s not thick enough, the tables will get too hot too quickly,” explains Mr. McCourt.
The setting for fudge requires constant vigilance. “There’s no set time frame for what’s going to happen when you pour it on the table,” explains Mr. McCourt. “Variables like humidity, table temperature, room temp, all affect the process. You have to be right on it.” If the mixture is not worked at the correct time, or is overmanipulated, the fudge can become grainy, or won’t set properly. The nuts or other additional ingredients are added in after the fudge is poured. Once at the perfect stage, the mixture is folded and manipulated with paint scrapers and paddles, ultimately creating a loaf that is then sliced and packaged.
The same copper kettle and marble tables are used for Murdick’s famous nut brittle. What makes this confection unique is the cooking process. “We use raw nuts — not roasted peanuts or cashews — and we roast the nuts right inside the candy while we’re cooking it,” explains Mr. McCourt. “The mixture reaches over 240°. That’s going to roast just about anything.” The brittle is almost as tricky as the fudge. The marble tabletop that it sets on has to be prewarmed. “We have to make a couple of batches of fudge first,” says Mr. McCourt. “If those tables are too cold, the brittle will set up too fast and be too thick.”
The Murdick’s shops also make their own cheese corn and caramel corn, based on Mr. McCourt’s own recipes. All three stores also sell salt water taffy. Oak Bluffs and Edgartown offer hand-dipped chocolates. Vineyard Haven also carries ice cream from a Maine creamery.
However, it’s the fudge that draws in the crowds. “When you’re walking down the street, we’re cooking fudge,” says Mr. McCourt.”People can peer in and watch it in progress. We’re also blowing the smell of chocolate out on the street. We’ve never once gotten a complaint.” In the words of the Murdick’s jingle, “There’s nothing like the smell of homemade fudge drifting through the Island air.”
Murdick’s Fudge in Edgartown will be open through Dec. 23. The other two locations are closed until next spring. Online sales are available until Dec. 15.