WHICHEVER way your political compass points, there’s no denying we’re living through interesting times. The world stage has become a topsy-turvy Wonderland in which impossible things routinely happen before breakfast. How nice it would be, we might be forgiven for thinking, to go back to a gentler, sunnier time when things were straightforward— childhood, in other words. And nothing semaphores a return to innocence like a bag of sweets.
Other countries have a tradition of sophisticated confectionery (think of baklava, with its 1,001 layers of honey-drenched filo pastry), but ours has always been about simple pleasures, swirled and striped like circus tents or deckchairs. It’s cheerfully uncomplicated stuff. When you pop a boiled sweet into your mouth, you can switch off your critical faculties completely for 10 minutes and that, we can all agree, is a good thing.
In spite of sugar getting the thumbs down from successive governments, sales of confectionery are rising. In 2015, the British bought £1.157 billion worth of the stuff, which is the equivalent of each of us spending £18. We’re rediscovering our sweet tooth and the classics—household names such as Bassett’s Allsorts—are more popular than they’ve ever been.
In Sweets: A History of Temptation, Tim Richardson suggests that the continuing success of these big hitters is a testament to ‘a curious coupling of hard-headed business sense and a high regard for the vagaries of human psychology, that of both children and adults’. And he’s right: most of them have a generous sprinkling of whimsy, fluke or happenstance in the mix.
Take Allsorts. The Bassett firm’s founder, a lavishly bewhiskered Sheffield entrepreneur named George Bassett, made the news in 1856 after he baked a giant cake to mark the end of the Crimean War. That might have been as
❍ One of the most traditional British boiled sweets: sunshineyellow and made with extract of barley water (below) and still the best antidote
to car sickness
Army and Navy
These punchy liquorice-and-herbflavoured lozenges were handed out to servicemen during the First World War, hence the name. Supposedly, they used to contain tincture of opium far as his legacy extended had it not been for a clumsy salesman called Charlie Thompson.
In 1899, Thompson was showing off Bassett’s wares to a prospective buyer when he knocked his trays full of sample sweets onto the floor, jumbling the contents. Mortified, he started picking them up, but the buyer was so delighted by the effect that he commissioned an identical mix on the spot. The blunder was the making of the firm: Bassett’s now produces tens of millions of sweets each day and ships them all over the world.
Not all pocket-money purchases have quite such a wholesome vibe. Consider pear drops: looks-wise, they’re the pin-ups of the confectionery world, with their blushing undersides and Marilyn-esque silhouettes. In terms of taste, they’re a gateway drug to cocktails, petrol and Chanel No. 5.
No wonder Roald Dahl, poet laureate of forbidden pleasures, was drawn to them from the word go. ‘Pear drops were exciting because they had a dangerous taste,’ he wrote in his first autobiography, Boy. ‘They smelled of nail varnish and they froze the back of your throat.’
Hungry for bigger thrills, he ended up dropping a dead mouse into hated local sweetshop owner Mrs Pratchett’s gobstopper jar. Today, pear-drop devotees make pilgrimages to the Wonka-like set-up at Stockleys Sweets in Blackburn, Lancashire, where the world’s largest example is kept under lock and key in a glass case next to the more convention
ally sized offerings.
‘We’re rediscovering our sweet tooth and the classics are more popular than ever