The story of the treacle tart is not as simple as it seems. Not only does treacle’s history go back to the beginnings of western civilization, but there are different types. It’s not as simple as “treacle.” There’s black treacle, medium brown treacle, and light treacle, also known as golden syrup.
The term “treacle” is used mainly to describe the black or brown forms of the syrup. However, it seems that the term is used loosely to describe several different kinds of sugar syrups, including golden. My mum insists that this isn’t so and, since she’s all British and stuff and would know first hand, I’m inclined to believe her. But what I really think is that there isn’t any sort of consensus on when which syrup is called what and why.
Further, the name confusion makes it unclear about which treacle Mr. Weasley is pouring onto his porridge. Is it golden syrup or the black/brown treacle? It might be the traditional black treacle because the wizarding world, while advanced in so many ways, is also rooted firmly in older traditions. Golden syrup has only been around since the 1880’s and…well now I’m babbling.
The only real way to know is by asking J.K. Rowling herself. Could you imagine her opening a letter that said “Hey, JK, I was just wondering, what type of treacle is Mr. Weasley putting on his porridge? Yours truly, Esther.”
Black treacle is comparable to blackstrap molasses, which is made largely the same way. However, black treacle’s flavor is lighter and more palatable. Still, it’s got a slightly bitter, burnt caramel flavor that is sometimes used in western candies to offset the intensity of the sweetness. It’s best used in toffee and baked goods like ginger cakes for its flavor and color. Baked goods made with black treacle will darken more quickly than those made with light treacle. It can also be used in rich sauces, glazes, stews, and casseroles. Despite it’s thick consistency, black treacle is still runny and can easily be drizzled from a spoon. It’s what the original treacle tart was made with, even though the tart is often made with golden syrup or medium brown treacle now.
Medium brown treacle is produced by partially refining black treacle. It has fewer impurities and is sweeter than black treacle. It’s not made much anymore. A comparable flavor would be to mix black treacle and golden syrup together, another acceptable filling for treacle tart.
And then there’s light treacle. Light treacle is more commonly called golden syrup and, while I want you to know about it, there’s too much information to squeeze into this here post. I’m going to feature it separately, but to give you an overview, it’s lighter in color with minimal impurities and much, much sweeter. It’s kind of like corn syrup (not of the high fructose persuasion). And you should never substitute black treacle in for golden syrup in a recipe because of the extreme difference in flavors. Also, it’s delicious. Nummies.
Because the word “treacle” was interchangeable in the 19th century and a large part of the 20th, it’s difficult to know what type of treacle you’re supposed to use when baking or cooking with older recipes.
Things you can make with treacle and golden syrup: sauces, stews, glazes, scones, cookies, cakes, candies, puddings, toffee, gingerbread, fruit cake, puddings, ginger beer, sponge cakes, casseroles, hasty pudding, other savory dishes, barbecue sauces, and (of course) tarts.
Things you can put treacle and golden syrup on or in: tea, porridge, pancakes, ice cream, toast, milk, and ale (to name a few).
Things you can’t do with treacle and golden syrup: take a successful bath in it.
Which seems like the perfect segue to treacle tart.
Treacle tart is a simple dish. It’s a shortcrust pastry (the kind used for most tarts and pies) made with breadcrumbs and treacle or golden syrup. It’s served hot, usually with clotted cream, pouring cream, custard, or vanilla ice cream. Treacle tart was a frugal way to use up excess or stale bread.
A piecrust is filled with breadcrumbs. Warmed up treacle is mixed with lemon juice and poured over the breadcrumbs, then baked. Softer bread will result in a softer tart, but allowing stale breadcrumbs to soak in the treacle will help reduce toughness.
Modern treacle tart is usually made with a mix of dark treacle and golden syrup and often makes use of eggs and cream to make it even softer. This practice may have stemmed from the Norfolk Tart, which is also known as the Walpole House Treacle Tart, named for Robert Walpole, the first British Prime Minister.
The dish was supposedly invented at Houghton Hall, Walpole’s home between King’s Lynn and Fakenham, probably in the late 1600’s or early 1700’s. [SIDENOTE: My grandparents live near King’s Lynn in a tiny village called Castle Rising. REPRESENT.] A cook would line a pie or flan dish with shortcrust pastry, which would then either be baked blind or not. “Blind-baking” is the practice of pre-baking the crust before adding filling. Baking a piecrust blind makes it crispier.
Black treacle was warmed to make it runny and mixed with lemon zest and juice, unsalted butter, single or double cream, and eggs. The result was a softer, fluffier treacle tart that was just as ooey gooey and delicious. It was served warm with pouring cream.
Another way to acquire some tasty treacle is via treacle mines. Seriously, you can mine chunks of treacle out of the ground. Millions of years ago, wild sugar cane growing in Great Britain was covered in sediment. Like coal, when the sugar cane was subjected to high pressure and temperature, it was compressed into fossilized, treacle bearing rocks. A couple places you can find these mines are Bisham, Chobham, Surrey-Tadley, Skidby, Ditchford, Crick in Northamptonshire, Dunchideock in Devon, Natland near Kendal, and of course, the famous village of Wymsey.
Here’s a documentary about the people who work tirelessly to provide treacle for the rest of us.
Still to come, golden syrup.
Keep eating and asking, my friends.
Photos, in order of appearance: