Sweets are an integral part of modern life in Great Britain. They are a quick source of energy, a snack; they are used as rewards or for comfort, as an enticement or a token of gratitude. In addition, sweets are a massive contributor to the economy, with over £3000 million spent on chocolate and sweets in Britain every year.
The sweets as we know them today have a long history rooted in apothecaries. Read on to find out more.
During the Tudor era, comfits were extremely popular. Comfits were spices, nuts, seeds and other small food items given a hard sugar coating. These comfits are thought to be the earliest iterations of sugared sweets, and many believe that they originated from Middle Eastern apothecaries as treatments. These would have been brought into Europe and used for trading. During this era having access to sugar was considered a real status symbol. As a result, many people locked their sugar away as it was so valuable.
Affluent households often employed their own confectioners. These confectioners had highly sought-after skills and could often earn an annual wage three times higher than someone employed as a labourer. Sugar banquets were regularly held by the aristocracy, where many items on the table were edible, including sometimes the plates themselves.
The 1760s marks the first appearance of a sweet that remains available for sale today. Liquorice also has links to apothecaries and was first introduced to Britain around the 11th century. It is thought to have been brought by monks or crusaders returning from the Middle East. Liquorice became known for supposedly having medicinal properties – so much so that the former dungeons of Pontefract Castle were used as a store for the roots.
An apothecary in the Pontefract area decided to add sugar to the liquorice creating a chewable version consumed purely for pleasure. These round black discs adopted the name Pontefract cakes, and by the 19th-century, thousands of these cakes were made daily in factories across Yorkshire. Each one is stamped with an image of the Pontefract Castle.
In the early 1800s, sugar became less accessible, and so the prices went up. Eventually, an alternative to cane sugar was found in sugar beet, which tasted incredibly similar, but it was grown in Europe, making the importation cheaper and easier. This era also saw many technological advancements during the industrial revolution half of a town’s population was linked to their jobs.
Shops dedicated to selling sweets also became more commonplace. Confectionary started to become something that people of all classes enjoyed. This era also marked the first time that sweets were made with children in mind. Mass production also meant it was easier to produce these sweets in larger quantities. In the latter half of the 1800s, a French confectioner brought the recipe for pastilles to Rowntree. Fruit pastilles are still enjoyed today, although the recipe has never been made public.
This era also saw the beginning of another famous British sweet still beloved today. This invention is widely thought to have been an accident. In the 1860s, an Austrian confectioner worked on some jelly-based sweets for a Lancashire based company. These jelly bears didn’t come out as planned and looked more like babies. It was costly to reject sweets and waste the ingredients, and so instead, they were marketed under the name ‘Unclaimed Babies’. However, the name didn’t last, and these sweets soon became ‘Jelly Babies’.
By the early 20th century, the art of the chocolate bar had been perfected; this was unusual as previously chocolate had been drunk. The British company Frys produced the first chocolate bar in the mid-1800s; through trial and error, they found that cocoa butter worked exceptionally well in the mixture. Meanwhile, in Switzerland, Lindt was developing a technique to make chocolate smoother than ever. Easter eggs were first mass-produced at a chocolate factory in the 1930s. Chocolate has been a mainstay ever since.
Whilst it took a while for chocolate to become accessible for everyone of all classes to consume, sweets were part of British culture long before then. Sweets are a much-loved part of British life and can be found in almost every home in Britain. In fact, chocolate and sweets are so beloved by the British that many people give them as gifts. However, gift-giving became difficult during the pandemic as there were safety issues to contend with, many companies adapted. For example, the Sweet Hamper Company allows you to send a sweets hamper or buy one for yourself. They have a vast choice, and they became trendy as a way to spread joy through the pandemic, and the popularity has continued.
The history of sweets in Britain is long and storied. However, the appeal of sweets has never been called into question because they serve so many purposes. Sweets transcend language; they have a universal value around the world. Human’s like treats; it’s as simple as that.