There’s a wonderful passage in Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon where an American GI based in England during the war is introduced to classic English sweets and finds the choices becoming increasingly surreal. It’s fair to say that classic English sweets are a bit of an acquired taste, but then I never acquired a taste for Hersheys chocolate so perhaps that’s only fair. In fact, the somewhat baroque nature of classic sweets was also parodied by Roald Dahl in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, where Mr Wonka is experimenting with various flavours of boiled sweet.
There are essentially four types of classic English sweet – mints, toffee/fudge, fruity chews and the boiled sweet. Mints come in all shapes, sizes and strengths, but are all characterised by their distinctive taste and slight chalkiness to the taste. Toffees and fudge may have different flavours – usually butter or chocolate – but they are characterised by being soft and chewy, even if they contain nuts. Fruity chews have a similar consistency to toffee but are brightly coloured and (unsurprisingly) a fruity flavour. It is the boiled sweet in all its forms that fascinates me.
The boiled sweet is so called because during its manufacture, the sugar is brought to boiling point, meaning that the resulting confection is hard, rather than chewy. A good example, actually, is the mint humbug, which despite its flavour is not a classic mint. They come in all shapes, sizes and – amazingly – flavours. Hands up who’s eaten a clove ball or a pear drop? Boiled sweets have to be sucked and held in the mouth until they disintegrate – or get small enough to crunch – and take time to eat, so the pleasure isn’t over in a couple of minutes. This may also be why they come in such peculiar flavours.
I’ve already mentioned the clove ball, which is a highly flavoured ball shaped sweet and really isn’t to everyone’s taste. It’s a variation on the aniseed twist (which I also like) but shaped like a cinnamon imperial. There are sherbet lemons, the cause of many watery eyes and cleared sinuses – acid drops, barley sugars, cough candies and the delightful bulls eyes, which have probably broken more teeth than the average football terrace punch up. It’s that combination of spicy, sweet and sour all merging together into one delicious treat that, if eaten right, can last ages. There really isn’t anything quite like a proper old fashioned sweet is there?