Do they still make ‘em like they used to? When it comes to sweets, in many places around Britain the answer is a resounding yes. Today we’ve spent all our pocket money to bring you a bag of the ten best traditional sweets the nation has to offer.
Even the most grown up of grown ups can have a hard time resisting a shop window filled with jars of sweeties. Boiled, chewy or crunchy, some have names that describe what you’re going to get, some definitely don’t, and some are redolent with the innuendoes of seaside holidays. With hundreds of different treats to fill your white paper bag with, are your favourites on our list?
A trip to the seaside isn’t the same without a stick of rock, and that’s true of Blackpool, home of all that’s bright and brash, more than anywhere else on the English coast. It’s made from sugar and glucose syrup boiled to cracking point at 147C, and then quickly cooled. The lettering that runs right through is added and then the toffee is pulled and rolled down to make ‘sticks’. But even rock hasn’t escaped the march of technology, today production is sophisticated enough to be able to customise individual sticks with your own words, choice of Pantone colour, and your own flavour.
Give them to your grannie and watch the beggar go… In a bright red tin with the smiling face of Uncle Joe beaming down at you and the strapline ‘keeps you all aglow’, Wigan’s famous Uncle Joe’s Mint Balls are an institution. They’ve been made to the same secret family recipe since 1898 when Ellen Santus made her first batch in the kitchen of her terraced house. Today they’re still made in Wigan from three ingredients and hand cooked on open gas fires. Wiganers are so proud of the sweets they’ve even been immortalised in song.
3. Hawick Balls
If you’re a rugby fan then you might know Hawick Balls best as the sweet of choice for Hawick-born rugby commentator Bill McLaren, who by sucking them through every match, made the sweets more well-known than their Borders cousins Jethart Snails and Berwick cockles. Like most traditional British sweets the recipe for the buttery mints is a secret, but legend has it that Hawick Balls were ﬁrst made in the 1850s by Jessie McVittie. The sugar is caramelised in open copper pans, with oil of peppermint and sets to look a little like a pickled onion.
They’re an acquired taste and for some reason immensely popular with the Japanese, but Fisherman’s Friends lozenges were originally created for fishermen from Fleetwood, Lancashire when the town was the centre of the UK fishing industry. James Lofthouse, a young pharmacist, developed a strong liquid using menthol and eucalyptus, which the fishermen took to help relieve their ailments on long, freezing sea voyages. The choppy waters made taking the liquid difficult, so in 1865 James made them into lozenges. It wasn’t long before the fisherman referred to the miracle lozenge as their ‘friends’, hence the name.
Toffee with a twist, this sweet tastes like a cross between butterscotch and barley sugar. Farrah’s still make Harrogate Toffee in the town using the original recipe of three different types of sugar, butter and a bit of lemon. It was first made by John Farrah in 1840 to help Victorians who had come to the town to take the waters for its healing properties to get rid of the putrid taste of Harrogate’s sulphur water.
Made by Swizzels Matlow, a sweet company founded by brothers Alfred and Maurice Matlow in 1928 in London, parma violets are a strange treat. Their perfumey taste and the way the tiny tablets’ concave centre feels on the tongue makes it very distinctive. Part of their appeal is the pocket-money perfect price, and the number of tiny sweets makes them easy to share without the loaded message of their sister sweets, Love Hearts.
Before Liquorice Allsorts were even a twinkle in Bertie Bassett’s eye, Pontefract Cakes were being stamped and sucked in Yorkshire. Liquorice was grown in the area around Pontefract, brought from the Mediterranean by monks, and was being made into Pontefract Cakes as early as 1614. Pomfret or Pomfrey Cakes were so synonymous with the town that until the mid 20th century they were handstamped with the image of Pontefract Castle. In 1760 liquorice was apparently mixed with sugar for the first time by George Dunhill, an apothecary who transformed the Pontefract Cake into the distinctive sweet it is today.
8. Everton Mints
Don’t confused these black and white striped hard-boiled mint toffees with the mint humbug. Though similar, Everton Mints have very specific origins. The tale goes that the owner of a sweet shop called Mother Noblett’s Toffee Shop near Everton FC’s Goodison Park ground, created a mint candy with toffee in the middle and made it black and white to match the colour of the football team’s kit at the time. The name and the matching stripes made the Everton Mint so popular with fans and locals that Everton FC gained the nickname the Toffees.
9. Yellow Man
Depending one where in the UK you’re from you might also call this cinder toffee or honeycomb. The holes are made by adding vinegar and bicarbonate of soda to create a reaction within the toffee as it boils. Cinder toffee is traditionally eaten in northern England around Bonfire Night, and Yellowman with its slightly harder exterior has been sold in Ballycastle at the town’s annual Ould Lammas Fair on the last Monday and Tuesday in August since the 17th century.
10. Kendal Mint Cake
In spite of the name, Kendal Mint Cake is nothing like a cake. It’s so potently minty and sweet it will make your eyes water, but at the top of a mountain, no one will notice. Maybe that’s why Sir Edmund Hillary chose it to sustain his climb up Mount Everest – if he cried at the summit it was the mint cake not the moment… Maybe not. It’s still made in Kendal by three companies – Romney’s, Wilson’s and Quiggin’s – and it comes in three types – white, brown and chocolate covered, each as powerful as the others.
Read the piece as it appeared on flavourfirst.org here