On a ‘Cresta’ of a wave – down memory lane to the retro sweetshop..

I appreciate that I may once again be accused of unremitting nostalgia, melancholia and a yearning for times past , (as well as an appalling propensity for puns in my titles) but there was only one significant disappointment on my recent holiday to Suffolk and the sense of it is lingering, like a little bit of Opal Fruit stuck in a filling.

Woodbridge has an ‘old-fashioned sweet shop’ called ‘Granville’s’, and learning of this in the weeks leading up to our trip I made sure I sneakily manoeuvred us to this pretty small town in search of my Holy Grail of sweets – chocolate hammers, spanners, saws and paintbrushes.  The penny sweets, not the posh ones you can get in a tin in Lakeland, or the ones that they sell in garden centres alongside chocolate secateurs and computer mice (mouses?). Granvilles is a lovely shop, rows of jars on shelves, stripy paper bags, tubs of chewy things – but they didn’t have any chocolate tools. As I paid for a packet of ‘Zubes’ for my mum (nothing better for clearing catarrh, apparently) the helpful women behind the counter empathised with my craving for doing cheap chocolate candy DIY. ‘I know they exist’, I said, ‘I get them from Cranch’s in Totnes’. This competition for my custom may spur them to put some on their next order to the Nasty Cheap Sweet Co. or whoever markets the plastic tubs we steer our children away from, but I suspect not. When I did eventually find some in Bury St Edmunds they had mixed them up with chocolate foam bananas so they smelled horrible. I suspect they are not a big seller.

They don’t actually taste very nice, really. Not as bad as Hershey bars which taste like acid reflux, or the ‘chocolate flavoured coating’ on the cheap choc ices from a van at a car boot sale, but they are certainly not the work of a master chocolatier. I am not even convinced they are currently made by the original company (Matlow’s probably) as they are not the same shape as the ones I remember and have silly names embossed on them like ‘Sammy Saw’ or ‘Percy Paintbrush’. So what makes me yearn for them still?

I think it is because I associate them so closely with my Dad, who adored them. In fact, he went into our little local  sweet shop and bought up a whole box, orange,with layers of tools still separated by dark brown corrugated paper. It sat on the sideboard, incongruous when surrounded by a bowl of fruit and a canteen of cutlery rather than a tub of Black Jacks or jelly worms. Perhaps it is also because it brings back memories of a time when my whole family sat round the Radio Rentals telly watching Dr Who, Jim’llFix It and The Persuaders.  No-one had a mobile phone or a PC and my Mum thought making curried mince was cutting edge, authentic ethnic cookery. Happy days.

So I have been led on from this to think of other iconic sweetmeats from my youth. I am not the only one with childish cravings. A simple Google of ‘Retro sweets’ brings up a host of online emporia offering a quarter of this or that. Companies have seen an opportunity to resurrect certain products, such as Old Jamaica rum and raisin chocolate, Wispa, or most recently Galaxy Counters, to tempt those of us who have never properly grown up into buying things that of course just don’t taste the same as they used to. One site ‘Retro Tuck Shop’ has a ‘Top ten all time favourites’ list. As at the end of August 2010 pop pickers, the countdown looked like this:

  1. Flying Saucers
  2. Fruit salad
  3. Black Jacks
  4. Candy Shrimps
  5. Foam bananas
  6. Lions Sports Mix
  7. Fried eggs
  8. Cola bottles
  9. Fizzy cola bottles
  10. Lassoes (what are they?)

I know my husband has a ‘thing’ for a pink candy shrimp, and my brother has a disturbing need to dissolve a sherbet (I hope) filled, rice paper flying saucer on his tongue every so often, but this list lacks a little imagination to my mind (shown by numbers 8 and 9 both being a variant of the disgusting cola bottle) and I think there are some significant omissions. My personal list would include:

  1. Chocolate tools (of course)
  2. Black jacks and fruit salad (you have to mix both)
  3. Bar Six (where the devil did that go? It was much nicer than KitKat)
  4. Paynes Poppets (in the boxes tempting you from the old machines at Underground stations – 9 out of 10 times you lost your money)
  5. Pez (why did they never find a way to get the little sweets in without them springing up in your face? There was always that one that wouldn’t lie down..)
  6. Fry’s Chocolate Sandwich (much better than hummus and roasted veg)
  7. Cola Cubes (have to be Trebor, and can’t seem to get them now)
  8. Rhubarb & Custard (with just slightly more pink than yellow)
  9. Pink Panther bar (along with Tom & Jerry banana flavoured bars, something we only ever bought on holiday in Devon)
  10. Caramac (another one that doesn’t taste the same now  – did it used to have cannabis resin in it or something?)

Clearly I am greedy, these are not all penny sweets, but they are, I believe, icons of my youth and as resonant of times in my life as The Osmonds, Keith Chegwin, certain songs, or books. I love a trip to Cranch’s in Totnes not because I am going to come out with anything particularly delicious, or even edible to be honest, but because it brings back a childhood in the ’70s that seems in retrospect to have been so entirely innocent. My brother, sister and I had the freedom to roam about, aged 10,8 and 5 in a way that now would be frowned upon, and perhaps dangerous. We knew nothing of additives (we all got high on ‘it’s frothy man’ Cresta on a number of occasions I am sure – does anyone actually know what they put in it make it different from ordinary fizz?), or iniquitous global ‘brands’. We were not conscious of being influenced by anyone other than the owner of the sweet shop, standing there holding the little paper bag and counting as the penny sweets went in, (and probably cringing as he heard ‘how much is that so far?’ for the millionth time that day..).

Or perhaps it is the different way in which I have responded to sweets with my children that makes me feel so nostalgic? They may have similar yearnings for Haribo and Millions in thirty years time, but when faced with a Caramac now I would first see it is made by Nestle and choose something else. I would pretend to look a bit shocked when Auntie Jane brought a bag of  sugar and additive filled stick-to-your-teeth chewy sweets round just before dinner, and I will chomp my way through a horrible Christmas-only box of Cadbury’s Roses when, apart from the maker, I like Quality Street so much better.

So maybe my craving for chocolate tools or cola cubes is the same as any other   – a need for the forbidden, illicit pleasures of something that will make your tongue sore, has no nutritional value whatsoever, will make you feel sick if you eat too  many and will possibly keep you awake all night.

Maybe not so innocent after all…

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19 Responses to On a ‘Cresta’ of a wave – down memory lane to the retro sweetshop..

  1. Jane Earthy says:

    Cranch’s of Totnes is the place to go for candy sticks by the quarter – although in my day they were called cigarettes and even had a red ‘lit’ end! They never persuaded me to take up smoking! They do taste the same, though. And milk bottles arent thsame anymore, they used to be quite hard ,covered in cornflour and delicious. Now they’re bendy,shiny and tasteless!

  2. sally snaddon says:

    Sue we have a shop that sells its sweets in jars, half a wall, about 5 shelves high with sweets in jars -the kids have always called it the sugar shop, cause they used to like the different coloured sugar/sherbert. give me a call if you come my way and i’ll give you directions. thomas and scott like the alphabets. and i love the edinburgh rock. yum yum

  3. grace says:

    there’s an old fashioned sweet shop in Falmouth with jars full of sugary horrors that I remember from childhood – I’ll have a look to see if they have chocolate tools next time we are there & buy you some if they do! I remember as a child, discussing with my father how much black jacks & fruit salad chews cost when HE was a boy in he 1920s- think they were a farthing- 4 for a penny- and when I bought them they were ‘penny chews’ – one OLD penny, which went up to 1p with decimilisation. My favourites were sweets shaped as peas, potatoes and rashers of bacon- with the peas the same size as the potatoes- and twisted hard caramel sticks that had chocolate running through the middle and lasted for ever! I’ve never managed to track either of those down. And chocolate…the smell of Cadburys chocolate fingers as my grandad opened the tin…today’s chocolate simply doesnt have the same smell.

  4. Phil Furneaux says:

    You have me spot on with the Flying Saucers – I can see why they’re number 1 in the list – but I also remember sherbet in a straw, which I recall one had to unravel to get to the contents. Not great as it inevitably got damp and the contents stuck to the paper. As if to prove how little I considered my impact on the planet back then, I was impressed in the late seventies or early eighties when they changes the straws to plastic – countless brightly coloured (empty) straws are probably still sitting in Land Fill because of me, with only another 970 years to go until they biodegrade!

    Great writing as always Suzie – took me back!

    • keatsbabe says:

      The plastic straws weren’t the same – it made it too easy. But anything that was long enough to stick out of the top of the bag made it more exciting as far as I was concerned!

  5. Emma says:

    It’s flying saucers everytime for me! I shamelessly admit to doing exactly the same thing as your brother with them!

  6. Ahhhh Pink Panthers, I LOVED those when I was a kid. That’s a few memories of childhood stirred.

    • keatsbabe says:

      You are the first person who remembers those! Goodness only knows what they made them with. The Tom & Jerry banana version with puffed rice bits was equally sickly and wonderful :-)

  7. MrsW says:

    I had completely forgotten about Pink Panthers and now I am reminded I can taste them. My top picks were Pineapple Cubes, Sweet Peanuts and Mint Cracknell…. ah the joy of stabbing onself in the roof of the mouth with those needles of sugar mint – nothing like it :)

  8. Val Erde says:

    “the sense of it is lingering, like a little bit of Opal Fruit stuck in a filling.”
    “Not as bad as Hershey bars which taste like acid reflux”

    Heeee!!!! Your sense of humour’s like mine!! And – oooh, you bad bad person giving that link to Cranch’s in Totnes (which I don’t think I’d come across before) and which has an online store… soon my dentist will despair of my remaining gnashers even more…

    I wonder how it is that the 1970s were so like the 1950s and the 1960s for their sweets and the ‘innocence’ of childhood and at what point it all began going horribly wrong (which it has!)

    In the 1950s there were toys sold in the form of food play-packets, such wonderful stuff as miniature oxo cube boxes and custard powder boxes and they were filled with sweets, mosty dolly mixture, and they all without exceptions tasted like they’d been living in those cardboard boxes for a hundred years. The taste was ghastly. But of course we ate them… Why? I still don’t know the answer to that.

    Thanks for these memories! Great stuff. Hope you found your chocolate tools. If not… a suggestion – some shallow biccy baking trays and just melt some chocolate in them, let set, and eat!

  9. Ian W says:

    Our local sweet shop carried many of those items in the ‘sixties, but my personal favorite was the sherbet thing in a yellow paper tube. You had a hollow stick of licorice to slurp the fizzy powder through. I’m sure it had almost no ingredients that either a dentist or child nutritionist would ave approved of–but we loved them.

  10. Brendan O'Neill says:

    Does anyone know how many blackjacks/fruit salads one could get for an old penny in the 60s?

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