Most of us think nothing of reaching into a pocket or rustling through the bottom of a bag to find an old, squashed packet of Murray mints to chew on when craving a quick sugar buzz. We rarely pause – except to think about our dentists or our waistlines – to consider what’s shaped our nation’s sweet tooth. In a new BBC2 series, The Sweet Makers, which starts tonight at 8pm, a group of modern-day confectioners are taken back in time to look at the origin of the sweets we eat now, discover the history of the sugar industry, and put their 21st century skills to the test to knock together some Tudor treats.
Dr Annie Gray, a food historian and presenter on the show, explains that our love of sweets dates back to the early Tudor period. “The coriander comfits that they sucked on back then are the nearest thing to what we consider a sweet now, and they were the preserve of the very rich, because sugar was incredibly expensive. Sweets didn’t become mass-market until the 19th century, and they tended to be slightly medicinal as well as pleasurable.”
Sweets historically used to treat such ‘medicinal’ purposes that are tasted in the show include candied eryngo root, “a cure for floppy willy syndrome” according to Gray, who says “it’s all nonsense, but in the 17th and 18th century it was supposed to improve your sperm count, or as they put it, ‘strengthen the spirit procreative’.” Others are sugared roses, a surprising (and also ineffective) early treatment for gonorrhoea, and liquorice, which even now is used to cure stomach ails. “Nearly everything supposedly had a really good effect on either bowels, or genitalia and lust,” Gray says. On the menu for the confectioners there’s also the once-popular and now-revolting ‘rotten open arse fruit’ which Gray enjoyed but admits, “they are disgusting”.
Dr Annie Gray shows four confectioners how to make Tudor sweets
Our tastes are shaped by fashion: where now things like chocolate and chewing gum are among the most popular, both are relatively recent products. “Chewing gum was completely unknown and eating chocolate, rather than drinking it, wasn’t done until the very late 19th century.” We used to prefer fresh fruit, nuts, sugar sculptures, blancmanges, and ice cream – which once had hundreds more flavours, including parmesan, tutti frutti, bergamot, orange flower, and even curry.
“You name it, and in the 19th century they’d make it into an ice cream! Curry ice cream really is vile, but so much of what we consider to be edible is entirely culturally constructed.” Rogue ice cream flavours are now trendy, but they’re not the only thing to have died out from our palettes. “Our interest in jellies has disappeared completely, and candied flowers are relatively rare now but were once phenomenally popular. We’ve become much more conservative in our tastes.”
What hasn’t waned is our love of boiled sweets – still largely unchanged from those early coriander and aniseed comfits. “They were very glossy and naturally flavoured, but are still not that different from a humbug.”
Also unchanged is the guilt some of us feel when indulging in the pic ‘n’ mix – which, Gray says, isn’t purely because sugar has become “the Devil”, but that the emergence of sweets was tied up with how Britain developed its moral compass in the 17th and 18th centuries. “In puritan, Protestant Britain, there was idea that something giving you pleasure must be wrong in some way.”
The Sweet Makers: a Tudor Treat airs tonight at 8pm on BBC2