THE MAGIC FAC­TORY

Kim Knight vis­its the cre­ators of a colour­ful child­hood treat and asks whether fairy bread can sur­vive a sugar-free fu­ture

Weekend Herald - Canvas - - CONTENTS - PHO­TOS BY GREG BOWKER

The fac­tory air tastes sweet. Bright, white, sac­cha­rine. Clap your hands and make a wish. We are be­hind the scenes of a fairy story.

In in­dus­trial Avon­dale, your shoes must have closed toes. At morn­ing tea, the milk is reg­u­lar and the pies are mince. Work­ers make rub­ber car mats and hot-wa­ter cylin­ders and shelv­ing units for spe­cial­ity shops.

Avon­dale is the cen­tre of the uni­verse we take for granted. Ob­vi­ously, if New Zealand were go­ing to have a fairy bread fac­tory, this is where you would find it. Wait. New Zealand has a fairy bread fac­tory? Tech­ni­cally, Car­roll In­dus­tries makes top­pings and in­clu­sions. Choco­late sprin­kles, hokey pokey kib­bles, sand­ing sug­ars and — for the pur­poses of this story — hun­dreds and thou­sands. Con­fec­tion­ers call these tiny mul­ti­coloured balls “non­pareils”, which is French for “not the same”. But any­one with a child­hood knows them for what they are: The ex­act op­po­site of car­rot sticks.

Mod­ern kids eat plant-based sausage rolls and sugar-free tomato sauce. Their birth­day cakes are sans gluten, their yo­ghurt comes from co­conuts, not cows. Fairy bread is an anom­aly. A bready, but­tery, sug­ary sur­vivor from the time when phones were still at­tached to the wall. Does fairy bread have a fu­ture? Ear­lier this month, a bunch of kids on a school hol­i­day pro­gramme trekked through the New

Zealand Her­ald’s Auck­land news­room. I cut the crusts off a loaf of cheap white bread and spread it with yel­low but­ter, soft from the mi­crowave. I pressed those slices into a plate of tiny rain­bow spheres and cut the bread into tri­an­gles. Those kids ate that fairy bread with a fer­vour chia seed bliss balls will never in­spire.

Where do hun­dreds and thou­sands even come from?

“I think ma­chines make them,” said one child. “I don’t think peo­ple work to make it.”

Ac­tu­ally: “They make the ma­chines and then the ma­chines make the sprin­kles.”

A small girl stand­ing to my left was quiet for a bit. “Maybe,” she said, “Elves make them.”

“Yeah,” said the first child. “I think they’re too busy mak­ing the toys for Santa.” The small girl rolled her eyes. “I mean, like,

food elves.” Well, duh. No­body knows ex­actly when the coun­try’s only hun­dreds and thou­sands man­u­fac­turer opened, but way back when (or, at least in 1977, when it was reg­is­tered with the Com­pa­nies Of­fice) it was called Van­son In­dus­tries.

Keith Chap­man bought the busi­ness from its Dutch own­ers, named it Car­roll In­dus­tries for his mid­dle name and ran it for more than a decade from the early 1980s. Can­vas tracked him down to a deckchair in Bris­bane.

The fac­tory was in Hen­der­son when Chap­man owned it. He re­mem­bers clock­ing off at the end of each day, sticky with sugar. “You go home like a big lol­lipop.” Where do hun­dreds and thou­sands come from?

“It’s a tricky lit­tle bloody thing to make, ac­tu­ally.”

Chap­man sold up when he turned 50. He and Di­ane jumped on their yacht and never came back to Auck­land.

“I’m one of the lucky ones,” says the now 69-year-old. “Get out and do it, don’t talk about it! Get off your butt and do it.”

NEW ZEALAN­DERS

have been sprin­kling hun­dreds and thou­sands for more than a cen­tury. A Na­tional Li­brary Paperspast search turns up an 1897 Evening Stan­dard “hints to housewives” col­umn that calls for the con­fec­tionary to be sprin­kled over a dessert of stewed rhubarb, cold custard and whipped cream. In 1910, read­ers of the Alexan­dra Her­ald were en­cour­aged to dec­o­rate their sponge and jam tri­fles with “those tiny coloured sweets”.

The Evening Star re­ports on the 1933 ar­rival of the naval ship H.M.S. Dunedin and an on­board party for more than 1000 chil­dren dressed as “Red In­di­ans, cowboys, fire­men, ‘hand­some’ women, jockeys, skaters and such­like”. There was a skit­tle al­ley, a 300ft wire rope ride and “the chil­dren, in re­lays of 500, were treated to a de­light­ful tea of buns, cakes, bread sprin­kled with non­pareils and choco­late shot, and tea”.

His­to­ri­ans ac­cept the first use of the term “fairy bread” in the con­text of a hun­dreds and thou­sands-laden party treat for chil­dren was in the

Ho­bart Mer­cury in 1929. Prior to that, in both Aus­tralia and New Zealand, fairy bread was a kind of thin, crisp toast. One news­pa­per ar­ti­cle pro­motes it as a weight-loss aid: “No rolls, only fairy bread; no pota­toes, sugar or but­ter should be in­cluded.”

The sweet ver­sion, it’s spec­u­lated, is named for an 1885 Robert Louis Stevenson poem: “Come up here, O dusty feet! Here is fairy bread to eat ... ”

In Aus­tralia, Novem­ber 24 is Na­tional Fairy Bread Day. Qan­tas once added fairy bread kan­ga­roos to a pop-up buf­fet at Syd­ney air­port. Fairy bread “ex­plain­ers” pro­lif­er­ate on­line as the rest of the world tries to com­pre­hend the rain­bow­coloured won­der of an An­tipodean child­hood. “Hun­dreds and thou­sands of what?” asked one gas­tronome when pre­sented with the recipe.

Back in the Her­ald’s Auck­land news­room, I asked our panel of ju­nior ex­perts why they liked fairy bread. “Be­cause it’s amaz­ing.” Also: “Ev­ery­one likes white bread. And it’s just white bread with sprin­kles.”

STU­ART WALKER

is a for­mer manag­ing di­rec­tor of the Hansells Food Group. Dur­ing its 12-month set-up phase, he was act­ing chief ex­ec­u­tive of The FoodBowl — a fa­cil­ity where com­pa­nies can cre­ate com­mer­cial runs of new food prod­ucts for mar­ket-test­ing, with­out the need to in­vest in ma­jor man­u­fac­tur­ing plant.

Walker en­tered Car­roll In­dus­tries as a con­sul­tant. The fac­tory had changed hands twice

since Chap­man’s days.

“How did that old shav­ing com­mer­cial go? ‘I liked the com­pany so much, I bought the busi­ness.’ And that was eight-and-a-half years ago.”

He signs his emails “aka Mr Sprin­kles”. When I phone to ask if we can video in­side the fac­tory, he says, “I sup­pose you’ll want to see the room where we keep the Oompa Loom­pas?”

Auck­land’s an­swer to Willy Wonka greets us out­side a non­de­script grey build­ing down a long right-of-way flanked by nor­folk pines. In the March storms, a branch fell and smashed through the fac­tory roof like a lance. The night shift heard the bang. An­other few me­tres and it could have been the most cat­a­stroph­i­cally New Zealand head­line in the his­tory of head­lines.

To­day, the safety brief­ing is rou­tine. Hair­nets, white lab coats and those ubiq­ui­tous closed-toe shoes. Walker shows us the ma­chine that, ev­ery month, grinds up to 20 tonnes of Chelsea sugar to a fine pow­der.

“Sugar is the main in­gre­di­ent for us. Prob­a­bly 75 per cent of our raw ma­te­rial is sugar and, while we don’t grow sugar in New Zealand, we get all ours from a New Zealand com­pany. At least the re­fin­ing mar­gin — which is around $300-$350 a tonne — is go­ing back into the lo­cal econ­omy and cre­at­ing jobs for New Zealan­ders.”

He takes us past the rib­bon blender where maize starch and mal­todex­trins are added.

“Then we take it over in tubs, to start the

“How did that old shav­ing com­mer­cial go? ‘I liked the com­pany so much, I bought the busi­ness.’ And that was eight-and-a-half years ago.” Stu­art Walker

man­u­fac­tur­ing process.”

Walker pushes through a cur­tain of wide, flappy, plas­tic strips. Once upon a time, there was a fac­tory that made hun­dreds and thou­sands.

THERE IS

no smell — hun­dreds and thou­sands are not cooked, so the sugar is never caramelised — but when you open your mouth, the sweet dust set­tles on your taste buds. The ceil­ings are high and there is a lot of nat­u­ral light. You’re in one of those movies where heaven is de­picted as a monochro­matic wait­ing room.The work­ers wear white, the ma­chin­ery is white, the walls are white. The air is very, very dry. “We have a say­ing in our busi­ness — dry­ness is our best friend. If you can keep mois­ture at bay, you won’t have a prob­lem with mould. Moulds will be present, but they won’t grow with­out mois­ture.”

Walker is not ex­actly shout­ing, but it’s noisy in here. Two rows of ma­chines that look like a cross be­tween con­crete mix­ers and vin­tage bon­net hair dry­ers emit a con­stant, dull roar. Tech­ni­cally, these ma­chines are called “pans”. They churn, round and round and round. Work­ers add a lit­tle wa­ter and, as the sugar par­ti­cles spin, they bind and grow.

“It’s like a snow­ball,” ex­plains Walker. “They get big­ger and big­ger, then we take out the size we want.”

Some quick facts about hun­dreds and thou­sands: the op­ti­mal size is 1.5mm — any big­ger and they’re too crunchy. The reg­u­lar blend con­tains seven colours (in­clud­ing white). All non­pareils start out white. It takes about 20 min­utes of churn­ing to colour one batch, an­other 10-12 hours to dry them out prop­erly. Ev­ery batch goes through a sieve and a me­tal de­tec­tor. The fac­tory has adapted tech­nol­ogy from milk pow­der plants; it com­mis­sioned women pris­on­ers in Christchurch to sew 1200 pris­tine white tray cloths. The big­gest trend?

“Nat­u­ral colour­ings,” con­firms Walker.

Pinks from beet­root, blues from gar­de­nia flow­ers and spir­ulina, orange from pa­prika, yel­low from turmeric and car­bon black from burned veg­eta­bles. “Know your E num­bers,” says the no­tice on the smoko wall.

“All the new busi­ness we’re do­ing is by de­fault nat­u­ral colours, but re­ally hard­core cake dec­o­ra­tors, they just want the bright­ness,” Walker says.

So there’s an­other list of colours: tar­trazine yel­low, car­moi­sine red, pon­ceau 4R red, bril­liant blue.

Back in our news­room, I’d asked the kids what their favourite colour was and ev­ery sec­ond child said blue. I also asked them if dif­fer­ent colours had dif­fer­ent flavours. No, they con­firmed. They all tasted like sugar.

WALKER DOESN’T

know why New Zealan­ders and Aus­tralians called non­pareils “hun­dreds and thou­sands”.

“You look at them and you say, ‘Well, there must be hun­dreds and thou­sands in there.”’

In Europe, he says, you might hear them re­ferred to as “dragees”. In the United States, es­pe­cially in Philadel­phia and Bos­ton, the longer, ex­truded sprin­kles are called “jim­mies”.

I ask a worker called Joe about the ap­peal of be­ing a con­fec­tionary tech­ni­cian. He’s lanky and heav­ily tat­tooed.

“I’m quite a fit per­son, and it’s quite a phys­i­cal job — I don’t re­ally have to go to the gym.”

He gets to lis­ten to mu­sic while he works and he loves colour. At the end of the day, he says, his al­ready inked arms are over­laid with reds and blues — and “I love that”. The in­evitable Ooompa Loompa jokes? “Oh, you should be here when we’re do­ing orange!”

Oc­to­ber is ac­tu­ally peak orange. Hal­loween colours will be in hot de­mand this month. At Christ­mas, the fac­tory does a lot of red and green. Some­times, rugby clubs will re­quest be­spoke batches in team colours and Walker makes a point of sup­ply­ing po­lit­i­cal par­ties equally. They have big com­mer­cial clients — he can’t name them all, but he’s quite proud of the prod­uct they made for a lim­ited edi­tion Whit­taker’s choco­late bar. Why do hun­dreds and thou­sands ap­peal? “I think it’s just the colour and the vari­a­tion. Any­body in the cake dec­o­rat­ing world is sell­ing colour and light.”

Car­roll In­dus­tries is the only fac­tory of its kind in New Zealand. The mar­ket, he says, is just too small for any­one who might want to start from scratch to­day.

“You’d need a cou­ple of mil­lion dol­lars, by the time you got the equip­ment, the know-how ... the bar­ri­ers to en­try for a new player are suf­fi­ciently high that it would be un­likely some­body would come in and do that.”

But the fu­ture of fairy bread is, he hopes, “good”.

That sugar has to be looked at in con­text: “Only about 2 or 3 per cent of what you’re eat­ing is ac­tu­ally the hun­dreds and thou­sands that go on top.”

In the fac­tory, we watch Joe adding red colour­ing to a pan of white balls. It swirls like rasp­berry rip­ple ice­cream, but the best is yet to come. Fur­ther along the fac­tory floor, seven sep­a­rate buck­ets of colour are tipped into a sin­gle mixer. “This where it gets quite pretty,” says Walker. The balls spin and slide like uni­corns and rain­bows and — well — fairies.

Stu­art Walker, di­rec­tor of Car­roll In­dus­tries NZ, on the fac­tory floor.

Come up here, O dusty feet! Here is fairy bread to eat ... Robert Louis Stevenson, 1885

Ma­chines called pans churn, round and round at Car­roll In­dus­tries, cre­at­ing hun­dreds and thou­sands.

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