For many people, a fondness for sweets is formed in childhood, and in much of the Western world that means brightly coloured processed sugar. Yet worldwide, sweets take on many forms, and away from mass-market global brands the diversity of confectionery can reveal a great deal about the country of origin and the migration of humans around the world. The wide range of ingredients available in Europe and the eclectic tastes of the nations, have resulted in remarkable diversity for both handmade traditional sweets and mass-produced candy.
The History of Confectionary in Britain
Although known as a nation with an addiction to sweets, Britain’s affection for sugary snacks began relatively late. Trade routes brought sugar to a country with no natural climate for sugar cane in such small numbers that from the 13th Century to the end of the 19th, it was a prized and valuable commodity. The industrial revolution aided packaging, refining and distribution alongside the Victorians’ rapid adoption of branding & marketing, and in 1874 Prime Minister Gladstone removed taxation on sugar. Once the cost fell, there was no stopping the inventive minds of Victorian & Edwardian Britain, and the world of Rowntree’s, Maynard’s, Bassett’s, Fry’s and Needler’s emerged.
From steam-engine processing of cocoa beans, to liquorice and jelly shaped sweets with bright colours and strong branding, each firm became such a household name that even two centuries and countless mergers and acquisitions later, they’re still associated with specific products. Typical of British confectionary, Bassett’s Jelly Babies date back to the end of World War 1 in 1918, where they were launched as Peace Babies, before relaunch in the 1950s. Though similar sweets existed before, the Sheffield firm captured the flavour, texture and branding blend for success, and the sweets became part of the British national identity – thrown at the Beatles, brandished (and occasionally, eaten) by Doctor Who, and frequently top of the list of requests for any Britons visiting friends abroad.
Many towns sported their own variants on boiled sugar sweets, usually mint flavoured, such as the Scottish Border towns of Jedburgh & Hawick. Perhaps the most identifiable regional sweet is, however, the classic stick of rock. Whether George Formby’s little stick of Blackpool rock, the edgier Brighton Rock, or perhaps a Dracula-themed blood-red candy from Whitby, this candy became a central part of the new British culture of seaside holidays.
It is almost impossible to cover all the variations of British confection, but there is no doubt that the identity of the sweet in Britain is inextricably linked with the Victorian passion for mass production, mass marketing and ultimately, mass consumption.
Eastern European Sweets and Treats
Heavily influenced by Asian invasion, trade and wars of Ottoman empires, Eastern Europe enjoyed the fruits of cultural integration with a wide range of sweets, sponge cakes and layered pastry treats, flavoured with almonds or other sweet nuts or honey mixed with floral essences. Where Britain’s fondness and attachments were formed through commercial ventures, across the Balkans and beyond the sweets became part of folklore, with the restorative powers of a particular recipe rather than a single manufacturer driving customers. For many visitors to the region, the colourful sweets are part of street food and tourist culture.
The layered/folded pastry Baklava has continued as a traditional and popular sweet in Turkish, Balkan and Middle Eastern countries as well as spreading to the rest of Europe.
One Turkish confection travelled well and grabbed the attention of Europeans, famously making an appearance in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, when the White Witch gives the demanding Edmund enchanted Turkish Delight to gain his trust. Traditionally made with mastic and honey, modern recipes use cornstarch and sugar – despite the texture and appearance this is a vegetarian-friendly sweet if made correctly. Rose flavouring is traditional, but many variations exist, and Lokum – the actual name for these delights – is available in a broad spectrum of flavours, including coffee and pistachio. Turkish Delight is also geographically vague, as the only protected geographical indication is for Cyprus-made Loukoumi Geroskipou.
Along similar lines, the resin of the pistachio plant is combined with wild Orchid derived salep, to create ice-cream with elastic qualities and ribbons of candy flavoured with herbs and spices. Some of these remain exotic treats, only available in Turkey due to the geographically restricted ingredients and a natural desire to protect the culture that attracts so many visitors. Salep Dondurma may not be the only reason to visit Turkey, but it’s an essential part of any trip there.
Northern European Confectionary
The Netherlands and neighbouring countries perfected the art of baked sweets and cookies. Europe’s passion for bite-sized cakes comes to the fore at Christmas, with the classic Pfeffernusse or Peppernut – a Dutch invention – being the most popular form of a style that originated in the middle ages.
Originally a convenient bake that offered exceptional longevity, Jumbles were produced from roughly the 14th century onwards, and combined flour, water and sugar in a tight and traditionally knotted shape, usually flavoured with aniseed and easily available substitutes. Because these cookies could last for up to a year when prepared, they provided an excellent food source for pioneering voyages, and having originated with middle-eastern influences spread to the New World along with the nations that had developed their own take on the sweet.
Belgium’s expertise with chocolate, Germany’s fondness for the gummi, and Austria’s delicate cakes all shaped the national identity in the era of tourism, and that success is perhaps best reflected in the UK by one of the most popular brands. Haribo, known for their Starmix, Tangfastics and other gummi treats are a German company, though they manufacture in the UK including continuing production of Pontefract Cakes in Pontefract, a 250 year old sweet that began as a medicinal cake.
Closer to the Arctic circle, the sweets take on a particularly interesting set of flavours and textures. Swedish Fish may simply be gummi fish, but in Norway, Sweden and Finland, liquorice fish are exceedingly popular – covered in salt. Salt Sild are perhaps the most recognisable of the salted candies, though there are plenty of more conventional sweets to be found, including marzipan and licquor based chocolate bars and the addictive chocolate-coated marshmallow bears, Bamsemums. Most of these are textures and tastes familiar around the world, but there is no comparison for the way Salt Sild manage to combine the gummi liqourice and salty coating to become tacky & slimy. In a nation where pickled herring is a thing, this might be desirable, but they’re very much an acquired taste.