Recently, I began re-listening to the Harry Potter series on audiobook. This isn’t anything new for me. I spent an entire summer listening to all seven books on repeat. It’s relaxing. Don’t judge me.
I love the magic and fantasy. I love that even the names of the characters have a history (“Sirius” is a dog constellation and “Remus” was one of Rome’s founders who was suckled by a she-wolf). But what I love the most about the series are descriptions of the food. The idea of anyone being fed such succulent dishes in a British boarding school, after hearing about my mom’s own British boarding school food experiences, is magically in and of itself.
So yea, I love Harry Potter. But let’s get to the point.
In The Sorcerer’s (or Philosopher’s, depending on your continental persuasion) Stone, a dessert called treacle tart is referenced. In Order of the Phoenix, it’s mentioned that treacle tart is Harry’s favorite dessert. I assumed it was just the name of the dish until I heard Mr. Weasley putting treacle on his porridge in Goblet of Fire. And remember Amortentia? That extremely potent love potion that smells different to everyone who takes a sniff? One thing Harry smells is treacle tart. Damn, that boy loves him some treacle tart.
[SIDENOTE: Let’s take a moment and marvel at the fact that I remembered those tiny bits of information without marking them in the book and coming back to it later. Three months of repeat will do that to ya]
Naturally, I was intrigued. I should be ashamed, considering my British background, that I did not know exactly what treacle was. But you can’t know everything, ya know? Interestingly enough, my quest to find out about treacle and treacle tart led me to another related item – golden syrup. So I complied a bit of info about treacle, its uses, and its cousin, golden syrup, in three acts.
Let’s take a second to talk about what treacle is. The simple explanation is that it’s a by-product of the sugar refining process. During the process, sugar cane is crushed and boiled in multiple stages until it thickens enough to grow sugar crystals. In the process the multiple boilings create syrups. Light treacle is the product of the first boiling after the raw sugar crystals have been centrifuged* off.
*Centrifuge – (Engineering / Mechanical Engineering) any of various rotating machines that separate liquids from solids or dispersions of one liquid in another, by the action of centrifugal force (http://www.thefreedictionary.com)
Black treacle is made from subsequent boilings and is the least pure form of cane sugar syrup. So once you remove all the sugar (sucrose) from the cane syrup, you get this leftover black, sticky stuff.
The black-brown color of black treacle is due to the intense caramelization of the remaining sugars and chemical reactions during multiple boilings at high temperatures. The more the syrup’s sugar has been transformed by caramelization and browning, the more bitter it tastes. In addition, the high concentration of impurities (mostly minerals) gives it a harsher flavor than light treacle. Harold McGee, author of On Food and Cooking, claims that black treacle is unfit for human consumption, but you know those British. Always eating things normal people couldn’t stomach.
Now that you know what treacle is, let’s talk about where it came from (and where it went).
It all began with the Ancient Greek phrase theriake (or theriaca) antidotos, meaning “antidote to a wild or venomous animal.” The Romans applied the term to a medical electuary, which is a medicinal paste made of powders and other medicinal ingredients, mixed with sweeteners to hide the taste. Kind of like “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” In fact, these electuaries are where that practice originates. It continued long into the 19th century when people took brimstone (sulphur) with a spoonful of treacle to treat pretty much everything.
Electuaries were supposedly invented by Nero’s (Roman Emperor from 54 to 68 BC) physician, Andromachus, who made them with a large amount of drugs and spices combined with a honey emulsion.
The practice carried on into the Middle Ages and was considered a powerful remedy for all poisons. On its way to England in the 14th century, the practice set up shop in France and the name was changed to triacle. That’s where the word gained its “L.”
Around this time, refined sugar was being made and the process left those sugar syrups behind. Medieval pharmacists began using sugar syrups to bind their medicines rather than honey. They also began referring to the syrups with the term for the remedy. And so triacle (now “treacle”) came to refer to any medicine mixed with sweet syrup. The treacle’s compositions varied from apothecary to apothecary and were kept secret. However, most of them included some sort of viper’s venom. In the 16th century, these sticky packs of drugs fell slightly out of favor. The word came to mean “sovereign remedy” and had negative connotations. Treacle carrier or treacle conner were 17th and 18th century terms for whack-job doctors. Probably because treacle was being used more as a food than a remedy.
Venice was originally the main production location and supplied most of Western Europe with treacle. In the 15th century, England began using Genoa and Flanders treacle as well. When sugar refineries were set up in London in the 1600’s, apothecaries began something that could be considered an early form of buying local: they used the locally produced sugar syrup to make their own London treacle medicines. Treacle was already cheap, but it became even cheaper when you could walk down the street and pick some up from the manufacturer.
The refineries began to out-produce what was needed for medicinal purposes. Since the sugar syrup was sweet, distillers and producers figured they could sell it as a cheap sweetener. It was an easily accessible product and more people could afford it than refined, white sugar. It was dubbed “common treacle” in Britain, and soon it just became “treacle.”
After that, treacle was used to make pretty much everything and anything, from baked goods to ginger beer to savory sauces. But its first, most noticeable use was in gingerbread. In Medieval times, gingerbread was made with powdered licorice to get the dark color and honey as a sweeter. When treacle was used instead of the licorice, some of the honey could be excluded and a much smaller amount of sugar could be added instead. No color was sacrificed since the treacle was already so dark.
Plus, licorice. Ew.
Charles II was apparently extremely fond of treacle gingerbread:
“Treacle gingerbread, said to have been made for Charles II, had as ingredients three pounds of treacle, half a pound each of candied orange peel, candied lemon peel and green citron, two ounces of powdered coriander seed, and flour to make it into a paste. But ordinary folk made do with no more than two ounces candied peel and one ounce ginger and new spice to three pounds of flour and two of treacle.” (Wilson 305)
A dessert called “thunder and lightning” was popular in the Devon and Cornwall areas. The dessert seemed to change from place to place, but one thing was sure: it always involved clotted cream and it always involved treacle (light and dark).
“About Devon, and Cornwall, Clotted Cream is eaten with every practical form of sweet thing, from stewed fruit to Christmas Pudding, treacle and Cream being an approved combination. This is colloquially known as “thunder and lightning;” and orthodox lovers, ou [sic] for the day, order it with their tea, in Fuschia [sic]-covered cottages; then the correct and mystic practice is to smother a ‘split cake’ (a sort of small Sally Lunn) with some of the thick cream, and to trace on its surgace [sic], in casual letters formed by the golden syrup, trickling fomr [sic] a spoon, the beloved one’s name, or its initial letters.” (W.T. Fernie, Meals Medicinal, 1905)
Later in the 18th century, treacle consumption changed. It was much more popular in the Northern part of England than in the South. The diets of the poor (main consumers of treacle) differed greatly between the two regions. In the North, oatmeal porridge (a dish the South did not have) was eaten with a spoonful of treacle. The Northerners also had more fuel to burn, so they could continue baking whereas those in the South could not. The Northerners used treacle in “parkin” (a Northern form of gingerbread made with oatmeal) and in oatmeal biscuits.
The refined golden syrup did not make an appearance until the 1880’s when Abram Lyle perfected the refining process. We’ll come back to that.
Treacle has also made several literary appearances, besides the ones in Harry Potter. The book of Jeremiah in the Bible contains the question “Is there no balm in Gilead; is there no physician there?” Miles Coverdale, who did a translation in 1535, actually changed the word balm to triacle. Before that, Geoffrey Chaucer refers to treacle in the medical sense in Canterbury Tales (1400): “Christ, which that is to every harm triacle.”
Lewis Carroll makes reference to “treacle wells” in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). Treacle wells, which really existed, got their names from the supposed curative properties of the water. The Dormouse tells Alice that three sisters, Elsie, Lacie, and Tillie live at the bottom of the treacle well.
Finally, Charles Dickens mentions it in Nicholas Nickleby (1839). The students of Dotheboys Hall (the school where Nicholas gets a job) only “had the brimstone and treacle…in the way of medicine.”
So there’s the (kind of) short history of treacle. Next up, types of treacle, what you can make with them, and a little bit of folklore for fun.
Hint: one of the things you can make might be treacle tart.
Keep eating and asking, my friends.
Pictures, in order of appearance: