Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Childhood sweets

I have just been reading the Twelve by Twelve blog.  The theme of their latest challenge was 'sweet' and this prompted Brenda Gael Smith to write Sweet Memories about sweets in her New Zealand childhood. http://twelveby12.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/sweet-memories.html  When she asked her readers what they remembered, my memories included many that were similar to hers because I also grew up in New Zealand although I am somewhat older.  A second thing that tempted me to write on this topic was that on Saturday I went to a Christmas Open Studio where I bought as a present a dish and spoon from Samme Charlesworth http://www.sammecharlesworth.co.uk/ who is a local ceramicist.

The dish is made of five separate pieces, each like a shell.  The underside looks like this.

It is crying out to be given with some sweets in it and then the whole thing wrapped in coloured cellophane.  Of course in this part of the world I could simply buy some Cornish fudge but the idea of making sweets quite appeals.  So what shall I make?

Sweets were forbidden in my family when I was small and as we did not get pocket money we could not go out and buy our own.  At the same time, I do not remember New Zealand having sweet rationing in the way that the UK did.  Sweets were very much part of the culture and home made ones seemed to be in a slightly different category from the ones you bought in shops.  It may have been something to do with the Celtic heritage as I know this is the basis of the extensive New Zealand repertoire of cakes and biscuits, many of which can be traced back to Scotland.

So what are my childhood memories of sweets?  Bazaars, bring and buys and other fairs happened all the time and there was always a sweet stall.  These sold delicious things such as fudge, toffee, coconut ice, hokey pokey and peppermint creams.  They were sold in small handmade boxes made from coloured card (I did know how to make these once and am asking myself if I can still remember how to do it) complete with a handle that was stapled on.  Girls, and possibly some boys, learnt to make sweets from about the age of eight and it was a popular activity when you went to play with someone.  My forte was peppermint creams.  Very easy as they did not require cooking.  My sister made coconut ice and we both made a lot of hokey pokey with the exciting volcanic effect when you added the baking soda.  Both my parents were very partial to that.  A bit later I mastered fudge but I shied away from toffee because it was so tricky getting the setting point.  At school 'sweet stalls' were a major form of fund-raising.  A year group or a House would have a stall to raise money for charity.  Of course all this was very bad for our teeth and we have the dentists' bills to prove it.

But we did get some manufactured sweets.  We were allowed them at the pictures or theatre and when travelling.  Adults gave them to us and I remember Quality Street toffees and a lot of mint flavoured things.  Barley sugar is the first sweet I remember but I was given it after pills that I was allergic to and in a very Pavlovian form of conditioning I grew to hate it and have never eaten it since.   My grandmothers were of the generation that ate a lot of sweets, or maybe it was just because they were older.  They both usually had a packet of Minties or Humbugs or liquorice allsorts around and one of them was very fond of fruit pastilles.  Like Brenda Gael we knew what we didn't like: anything aniseed flavoured such as the liquorice allsort that was covered in hundreds and thousands just got spat out in our household.  My maternal grandparents used to treat themselves to a very small peppermint filled chocolate bar a bit like an After eight but bigger, each Saturday evening while my grandfather read 'The Sports Post' and they listened to the radio.   (TV only reached New Zealand when I was fifteen.)  When I went to stay with them the chocolate was very carefully cut so that it went round three people rather than two.

Another feature of New Zealand at that time was the lolly scramble.  I well remember this at my father's office family picnic.  Handfuls of boiled sweets, the sort that came wrapped in cellophane, would be thrown into a crowd of children who were on an area of lawn or grass and you fought to get them.  The smaller you were and the more politely brought up, the less likely you were to be successful!  I guess it was good training for rugby scrums.

As we got older we seemed to be able to have sweets but I think perhaps it was thought not so bad once you had your adult teeth.  I remember 'cigarettes' made of some tasteless sugar, toadstools with tops that were dipped in coconut and stalks of a different colour, liquorice straps, favours with writing on them and many of the things that Brenda Gael mentions.  I also agree with her about 'foreign' sweets.  A lot of the sweets mentioned in children's books were completely unknown in our part of the world.  I don't remember any American ones apart from bubble gum and I was a student before I got 'into' Mars bars and Bountie bars.  By that time I was in control of my own purse and these were popular items to add to our packed lunches in the student canteen.  The problem with so many of these sweets is that if you try to eat them as an adult they taste disgusting.

And finally, we had a special family story about the power of toffee.  My maternal grandmother seems to have spent the First World War baking fruit cakes and making Russian toffee to send to her brothers and fianc√© who were fighting in France.  The story goes that one of my grandmother's brothers survived a direct hit on his trench because he had just put a piece of her toffee in his mouth.  I assume it deflected the shock waves.  I think the story is probably true, not least because this brother was invalided home with shell shock.

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