Roadtrip Wales (By way of Belfast. Kind of.)
In which I discover, with a level of glee unparalleled by any news in the political or financial spheres, that Newport is the UK’s premier exported of fart-flavoured sweets to the former Soviet Union.
The Dear Old Lady of Kidwelly (Hen Fenyw Fach Kidwelly)
An old woman from Kidwelly
Was selling black sweets
Counting ten for a ha’penny
But eleven for me
Well that’s the best news I’ve had
Counting ten for a ha’penny
But eleven for me
Kidwelly, in Carmarthenshire, in Wales, is situated about ten miles to the north west of Llanelli. And the generous old lady referred to in this nursery rhyme is rumoured to be the beautiful and kindly Lady Hawise de Londres, who as a child had lived at Kidwelly Castle at some time in the thirteenth century. A popular Kidwellian legend describes how, returning to the town to reclaim her rightful place as Castellan (governor) of the castle, she disguised herself as a humble peddler of sweets in order to get inside the castle itself. The history of this noble Norman fortress, a grandly-imposing edifice bounded on one side by the Gwendraith River, is a chequered story of sieges, , sackings and restorations, and was at one point (in the middle of the thirteenth century, to be precise) taken over by the Chawise family; perhaps this was due to the efforts of the ‘Dear Old Lady’ who could have been a beautiful young heiress in disguise. The Chawises undertook to rebuild, re-vamp and improve the castle during their tenure there, although subsequent years would see further skirmishes, take-overs and make-overs.
Castles there are in Wales a-plenty; the same cannot be said, however, for the range of regional sweeties that still exist today. This in itself is something of a mystery, given that Scotland has heaps and heaps of them (as well as an abundance of castle, too). Perhaps the Welsh don’t have such a sweet tooth? Or perhaps Scotland is unique in its adoration of all manner of wonderful sticky stuff? It’s also likely that the sheer volume of sugar that tipped into Scotland is the defining factor. And although sugar came into Bristol in great quantities, the same cannot be said of Cardiff.
The ‘black sweets’ mentioned in the nursery rhyme are likely to be ‘Taffi Triog’ (in North Wales) or ‘Losin Du’ (in South Wales). Essentially, this is treacle toffee, which appears all over Great Britain in various guises. The other sweeties which are documented as belonging to Wales include a paler toffee made with golden syrup, peppermint sweets, and a boiled-sugar confection called Lossin Dant (later, keen-eyed Welsh speakers will find out why ‘Lossin’, in this case, is spelled incorrectly). Of course the generic picture-postcard boxes of fudge proliferate in Wales as they do in any picturesque area, as do the boxes of the same sort of stuff aimed at a gift market (‘Thanks for feeding my cat/dog/aspidistra’).
But why is there such a small range of specifically Welsh sweeties? To try to find the answer, first we have to ask ourselves if there were enough of the right ingredients. The Port of Bristol was the biggest importer of sugar in the UK in the 18th Century, followed by Liverpool and London. Bristol, closest of course to Wales, had a thriving industry in sugar processing, and treacle is a by-product in the processing of sugar. So we can guess that the treacle used in the ‘black toffee’ would have been available. So, too, would golden syrup. The refined sugar which would have been used in the boiled-sugar mints and rock, we must assume, would also have been present. We know that toffee was made on domestic stoves in the industrial towns by housewives as a way of supplementing a scant household income. It was sold either from the home or on market stalls, and was known as ‘cyflaith’ or ‘india roc’ in the North of the country, and as ‘taffi dant’ or ‘losin dant’ in the South.
There’s also the possibility that unique local sweetie delicacies might have been lost during the time that the speaking of the Welsh language was frowned upon in the country, during the Industrial Revolution and beyond. After all, the nuances in the names of sweeties lend a lot to dialect in Scotland and we might expect the same to be true in Wales. To add insult to injury, in her excellent book ‘Traditional Food from Wales’, Bobby Freeman tells us that the main manufacturer of rock candy in Wales was established in Caernafon by a Yorkshireman!