Welcome to Part III of Harry Potter and the Treacle Tart. This is going to focus mainly on golden syrup, the light treacle that I’ve mentioned a couple times but still haven’t explained to you. The thing about golden syrup is, its history is inseparable from Lyle’s Golden Syrup so this is the story of both.
Also, at the end I’ll be revealing a secret that will literally knock your socks off. Seriously, you’ll be like “I HAD NO IDEA!” and weep that you were fortunate to gain such important knowledge.
In older books, the terms treacle and golden syrup were interchangeable. When using older recipes or doing research on the subject, there’s no way to distinguish between the two. This is rough because the two have distinct but completely different flavors.
Golden syrup is a pale syrup that, like treacle, is a by-product of the sugar refining process. The difference is that golden syrup goes through further refining removing more impurities, which it gives it a rich caramel, toasty flavor. It has a clear, golden color and the sticky consistency of corn syrup. In fact, the two syrups are great substitutes for one another. I made a chocolate pecan pie last night and replaced the corn syrup with golden syrup. It was delicious.
Golden syrup is much, much sweeter than black treacle and more palatable. It’s possible to eat it off the spoon without cringing, but I wouldn’t suggest it. Could cause some pretty severe tummy aches. It’s extremely high sugar content keeps it from spoiling or allowing any organisms that could spoil the syrup to grow. It can stay liquid for years if kept in a cool, dark place and can be eaten way past its expiration date. Like 100 years past . There’s one employee of Lyle’s that refuses to eat it until it’s several years expired, saying the flavor is superior to the fresher stuff.
To understand the process of making golden syrup, you’ll need a crash course in sugar so you really get it.
White sugar, the crystalized kind, is called sucrose. Sucrose is a disaccharide, which means it’s a double sugar composed of two different monosaccharides, or single molecule sugars. The first is dextrose, which is often called glucose. It’s found naturally in fruits and vegetables and in the blood of animals. Fun fact, the blood of animals is where some ancient people got their sugar.
Let’s talk about that some other time.
The second sugar molecule is fructose. Fructose is naturally found in plants and abundantly found in honey. Put the two of these together, and you get sucrose.
Golden syrup can stay liquid so long because it’s an inverted sugar syrup. To invert sugar it is heated and/or treated with acid to split some or all of the sucrose (sugar) into dextrose and fructose. Single sugars are much less likely to crystalize than combined sucrose. Then it’s all mixed back together to make an impossibly gooey, sweet syrup.
Common uses of golden syrup are to make scones and cakes, but it’s most often used on pancakes (I tried it, it’s delicious), porridge (I tried it, it’s delicious), in desserts (like my pecan pie), or on suet or sponge puddings (which I have not yet tried, but do have a tin of Heinz Treacle Pudding at home just waiting to be eaten).
The most popular brand of golden syrup is Lyle’s. That’s partly due to the fact that it’s the oldest kind and partly due to Abram Lyle inventing the stuff in 1883.
Abram Lyle was born in Greenock, Scotland, and originally worked as a cooper (barrel maker). He eventually started a shipping business and got involved in the sugar trade. He then went and got himself into debt. As a payment he took a part-share in a sugar refinery business in town and it was at this refinery that he realized during the refinery process, a lot of sugar syrup was thrown out. He figured out how to salvage it by inventing a top-secret process. The result was golden syrup.
Now that Abram was out of debt and very well off, he became kind of a big deal in Greenock. He was mayor and contributed to many local institutions (charities, schools, etc). But Abram wasn’t happy sitting in a small town in Scotland twiddling his thumbs. In 1881, he sent two of his six sons to London to buy up a bit of land to start their own refinery business.
He began production in 1883. At first, golden syrup was not terribly popular, but the people of London soon realized it was freakin delicious and dead useful and it began to sell very well. Workers at the factory affectionately dubbed the syrup “Goldie,” the nickname it still carries today.
In the early days the syrup was delivered in casks to stores and customers. In 1884, it was so popular he started delivering it in special “Lyle’s Golden Syrup” dispensers. Customers could come to stores and fill up their own jars or tins with Goldie. And then Lyle was like “Hold up. I think we should start making some real packaging for this. It is kind of a big deal.” So Lyle went with a dead lion surrounded by a swarm of honeybees. Which seems kind of weird. Ya know. Kind of.
Abram was a religious man. He decided to make the packaging of his golden syrup reflect that. He found the image of the lion carcass surrounded by honeybees in chapter 14 of the Book of Judges. Samson slays a lion and returns later to find that a swarm of bees has formed a honeycomb inside it. Samson, clever man, made it into a riddle: “Out of the eater came forth meat and out of the strong came forth sweetness.” So Abram picked the lion image for the green and gold tin, below which is printed the slogan “Out Of The Strong Came Forth Sweetness.” The packaging hasn’t changed since 1904.
By the end of the Victorian era, golden syrup had become so popular that George V gave it a royal warrant to show that Lyle’s was an official supplier of the royal family. Every monarch since has done the same. Captain Robert Scott wrote a letter to the factory declaring how important golden syrup was to him and the members of his expedition to Antarctica. This was, of course, before they completely disappeared for like…ever.
Lyle’s Golden Syrup is the oldest brand in the world that hasn’t changed their product in any way. The recipe remains the same as it was in Victorian times and the tin is exactly the same as well. They even produce it the same way, by breaking up the sucrose and mixing the dextrose and fructose back together. There are still parts of the process that are kept secret.
The only change happened in 1914 during WWI when there was a shortage of metal and Lyle’s had to sell the syrup in heavy cardboard “tins” instead. During that time, they employed mostly women, some of whom could produce up to 2000 tins a day. During WWII, the factory was hit 68 times during the Blitz and stayed standing.
Two miles away from Abram’s factory was a sugar refinery called Henry Tate & Sons. Tate produced white sugar formed into blocks. The two men had an understanding that neither would try to produce what the other was making, but in 1921, Abram Lyle & Sons merged with Tate and the factory became Tate & Lyle. The only condition was that Goldie could only be produced at Plaistow, the original Lyle factory.
There are other makers of golden syrup now, but to this day Lyle’s remains the face of golden syrup industry. Ok fine, it’s mostly his dead lion and bees, but you know what I mean.
And that’s golden syrup. To think, all this came from wanting to know what treacle was.
But now for this crazy revelation…
Treacle mines aren’t real.
They’re a British folk tale that has become an elaborate joke. How elaborate? The town of Wymsey is a completely fictional town created to perpetuate the treacle mine rumor. “Plausible” explanations for the phenomenon included the fossilized sugar cane beds I mentioned in Part II and Cromwell’s army burying barrels of molasses that leaked and seeped to the surface. The seeping explanation may have a few origins. In southeast Dartmoor in Devon, there’s a black, shiny, specular hematite that oozes out of cracks in rocks. It looks similar to black treacle so that’s what locals call it. The hematite is used to make rustproof paint for battleships. In the Tar Tunnel near Blists Hill in Shropshire, natural deposits of tar ooze from the walls. And finally, treacle (in the medical sense of the term) was sometimes mixed with bituminous seeps from coal deposits as part of a remedy.
When I snarkily asked my grandfather on Facebook whether any of our ancestors were treacle miners, my uncle snarkily replied that no, but we were related to some Italian spaghetti farmers. Touché, Uncle Mark.
I hope you’ve learned all you’ll ever need to know about treacle in the last few reads. And I encourage you to try cooking with both treacle and golden syrup. It’s rather quite lovely. And sticky. Really sticky. Annoyingly sticky, actually.
Keep eating and asking, my friends.
-Fidler, Margaret Sheppard. Basic Recipes: The Foundations of Modern Cookery. London: Spring, 1954. 148. Print.
-McGee, Harold. On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. New York: Scribner, 2004. 675-78. Print.