Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Candyman Can

Remember that scene from the original Willy Wonka movie where poor Charlie Bucket jealously stares into the candy shop window as the shopkeeper gives the other greedy children free treats?  The walls are lined with antique wooden shelves packed with enormous glass jars of sweets.  The children stand at the candy counter, complete with old-fashioned soda machine, while the man, dressed in pink pinstripes and a bowtie bursts into happy song.  Well I always thought this was a really glamorized image and that shops like that only existed as novelties at the beach.  But that’s not the case. This candy shop setting is quite realistic and I have seen my fair share of them all over London and England.  It is quite safe to say that the English REALLY like their sweets.

I literally revert back into my childhood when I walk into these shops and, when I’m with other people, we burst into squeals of delight.  We dash for the candy bags and start filling them up as fast as our hands can move, plunging the plastic shovels into the candy jars. I suppose some of the fun comes from the sheer variety that exist and the fact that they are all things that I have NEVER seen in America.  These hundreds of sweets are pretty much true to England only.  The brands have really long histories too, as proved by a visit to the Museum of Brands where I could see the evolution of the packaging for some of these British sweets since the 1910s.   Even then, sweets were largely popular and therefore sorely missed when they were rationed during WWII.  But once the rationing ended, the sweets came back with fervor resulting in extreme prevalence of candy in London today.  They are available in places from the nostalgic old-fashioned candy stores to the booths packed with chocolate and candy bars in the tube station and street corners.  And with a sweet tooth like mine, I can hardly complain about this.

So although the variety of candy in London in numerous and quite honestly overwhelming (one can only handle so much candy) I have tasted and nibbled the selections and have found a handful of favorites.

Probably the most prevalent sweets at the confectionary are boiled sweets,  the same thing as hard candies.  These are the one’s generally making up the rainbow of colors in the glass jars.  Although the aniseed balls, peppermint humbugs, and rhubarb & custards are popular, my personal favorites are the pear drops and the sherbet lemons.  The pear drops are a little strange at first because, as described by food writer Nigel Slater, they have this sort of nail polish remover taste to them.  But once you get past the powder coating, the taste becomes better, with a delicate, realistic pear flavor.  They are just a little awkward in the mouth with their giant teardrop shape but if you bite off the long tapered end from the start, they're a lot easier to eat.  And sherbet lemons, also strange and absurdly huge in the mouth, are instantly really delicious and just sour enough to overstimulate the salivary glands and give that pinching feeling in the jaw.  And, if that’s not good enough, once it’s about halfway gone, the hidden lemon fizzy powder in the middle starts to leak out, creating a bubbly citrus party in the mouth.

Gummies are really popular here too like the wine gums, midget gems, and these really strange ones shaped like fried eggs.  I have always been a really big fan of Sour Patch Kids, so in the hopes of finding something similar, I picked up these things called Jelly Babies. They look like Sour patch kids but about four times as large and covered with confectioner’s sugar but the bite into them reveals a completely different experience.  For starters, they’re not sour but very sweet and in flavors like orange, raspberry, and lime.  They are also much less chewy and instead, although sticky, are really soft inside with a slightly crispy exterior.  Again, a little hard to get used to but after a while I kept finding my hand absentmindedly returning to the candy bag.

My final favorite is honeycomb, also called cinder toffee, and is especially good when covered with chocolate.  And no, its not real wax honeycomb.  It’s a strange concoction made by boiling caramel and adding baking soda to the hot sweet goodness, causing it to bubble up like crazy.  Once it sets and hardens, it is broken into bite size chunks each with hundreds of little holes in it, resembling honeycomb.  When covered in chocolate, it reminds me a lot of butterfingers but way better. That’s because, unlike butterfingers, they don’t break into torturous shards that stab the roof of the mouth and stick in the teeth for the next week no matter how well one brushes.  They are much crunchier too yet, once hitting the heat of the mouth, melt into creamy butteriness.  Hands down the winning confection that I will miss very much.

Of course, these few favorites of mine don’t even begin to touch the variety of English candies that exist in England.  I haven’t even mentioned toffees, fudge, Turkish delight, fruit bonbons, chocolate bars, and so many more.  So though I’ve tried many and found some that I like, I am by no means an expert on the candies that probably every English child grew up.  And although I’d like to be that knowledgeable I do have most times have to take the stance of Charlie Bucket as I pass these candy shops, only gazing into the shop windows, to avoid a potentially dangerous sugar rush.

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