Suck it and see

The sweets of yesteryear are making a comeback. Martin Hickman samples the new wave of 'retro-confectionery'
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Sherbet lemons, pear drops, rhubarb and custard, aniseed twists... The names evoke a simpler age of long summer days and a sweet shop on every corner, when the British Empire was a force in the world. The boiled sweet has a special sticky place in our affections; it stays in your mouth for an age, and can transport the elderly back to their youth.

It is also making something of a comeback. Of late, the food companies responsible for fulfilling the nation's sugary cravings have been noticing a trend for "retro confectionery".

Sweets like Chewits and Fizz Bombs have returned to the shelves of newsagents, along with the Texan bar, which Nestlé Rowntree revived after requests from the public.

But boiled sweets are leading the rush backwards, and a thriving cottage industry of websites with quirky names like "Aquarterof" and "Cybercandy" has been selling old-style sweets.

From next month, though, premium boiled sweets will go on sale in the high street - indeed, in some of our poshest thoroughfares. Department stores such as Selfridges, Harvey Nichols, Liberty and The Conran Shop have agreed to stock a range of traditional treats such as acid drops, strawberry bon-bons and pear drops.

The Hope and Greenwood range is the work of Kitty Hope and Mark Greenwood - "Purveyors of Splendid Sweets" - who started a Victorian-style sweet shop in London last year. The shop, in North Cross Road, Dulwich, displays old-fashioned boiled sweets in 185 glass jars. It is the result of a bout of nostalgia. Hope recalls: "We were just sitting around the table one day and one of us said, 'Wouldn't it be great to have an old-fashioned sweet shop?'"

A network of small British suppliers make the sweets in the traditional way, by hand in big copper pans, which intensifies the flavour. The Hope and Greenwood collections have swish boxes and jars containing boiled sweets and school favourites such as Black Jacks, Fruit Salad and Dib-Dabs. They aren't cheap; they will sell at £5.95 for a 200g box, up to £50 for the Jolly Big Jar of Sweets.

The "premium" tag is far removed from the origins of boiled sweets at the start of the 19th century, when the country was flooded with cheap sugar from the Empire's Caribbean plantations. Sugar produced by black slaves poured into the western ports such as Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow, the latter becoming so clogged with the stuff that Greenock was dubbed "Sugaropolis". Mass production and the abandonment of the sugar tax fuelled demand at a time when chocolate was still in short supply.

"England's sweet history is entirely different to the rest of Europe because we had vast amounts of sugar - and we just ate it all," says Tim Richardson, an international confectionery historian and the author of Sweets: A History of Temptation."The traders thought that they would have to export some of it to Europe, but no - we ate it all."

Regional producers sprang up, many of them still in business today, each producing their own unique recipes. Woolworths, the modern-day home of pic'n'mix, popularised the sweets even further through greater mass-production. The sweets on sale in the chain's first shop in Church Street, Liverpool, in 1909 seldom cost more than a penny.

By the middle of the 20th century, the nation had a decidedly sweet tooth. When rationing of sweets was lifted in 1949, demand so far outstripped supply that the order had to be re-imposed four months later. Another four years went by before children could again experience the pleasure of entering a sweet shop, pointing to a jar and having their sweets weighed out in quarter-pounds and put into a white paper bag.

Then, the 1980s arrived. Business rates and property prices rose, corner shops became convenience stores and chocolate became ever more popular, thanks to aggressive marketing. The old British sweet - and the old British sweet shop - became an anachronism.

In November 2001, Michael Parker, a marketing executive, was sitting with his brother in a pub when they began reminiscing about the sweets of their childhood. Parker set out to discover whether his local cash-and-carry still sold Anglo Bubbly, his favourite bubblegum. To his surprise, it did. Four years later, his online sweetshop,, has an annual turnover approaching £1m.

"When I started, I was in a little corner of a 400-square-foot office and I would stop at 3pm and go down to the Post Office with boxes for the few orders I had," Parker says. "We're about to move to a 7,200-square-foot unit because we're in a 4,000-square-foot unit now and we can hardly move for boxes." He employs nine people, and will take on up to 20 more at Christmas at his base in Buckinghamshire.

So why is the boiled sweet resurgent? "The nice thing is that we get lots of lovely e-mails," Parker says. "A box of sweets isn't very expensive, but it's a talking point and people love it.

"Something that you remember and see again is great. I think something that you have forgotten and then see again is even more nostalgic. It can also trigger off other things that you used to see, such as the comics and the television programmes.

"I have yet to meet someone where a sweet has brought back bad memories. Summers were hotter then, and there were jumpers for goalposts, and people don't remember things like the three-day week when we had to use candles. We get an awful lot of orders from the City of London."

Websites such as, which uses original sweet-makers like Gibbs and Golden Casket, are also doing good business.

"Retro is one of the biggest retail trends of 2005," Graham Walker of Nestlé Rowntree told The Grocer magazine. "We have seen it in clothes and music; now it's the turn of confectionery to delve back in time."

Kitty Hope , who used to work as a book illustrator, says: "I think there's a hankering for the days of yore when the sun was always shining and we were all very happy. Everyone has a memory - 'I used to eat those while I was trampolining,' or 'My grandad used to give me those on a Friday night.' Everyone has a story. It's lovely."

Tim Richardson simply regards boiled sweets as "one of the great vernacular inventions" of British culinary history. "They are one of the great innovations, which tend to be overlooked because people think they are childish. The appeal of many boiled sweets is the eternal dichotomy of cooking - sweet and sour. The sweetness of the sugar, cut by lemons or oranges.

"You get pensioners in their nineties, and they are transported back to when they were four. Sweets are very powerful things."