Food Nation

What's With the Brits and Their Toffee? A Short History for National English Toffee Day

This post seeks to to answer why the modifier English is so often attached to toffee. Is the basis for this adjective's syntactical proximity to toffee based purely on the geopolitical origins of this candy? Or is England's continued (ostensible) monopoly on the production of toffee the result of a deeper, more complicated relationship between Britain, its people and caramelized sugar?

In other, less high-falutin' words, why do "English" and "toffee" go together like "Dutch" and "apple pie"? "Belgian" and "waffles"? "French" and "fries"? (Er, wait, let's skip that last one.) What's so freakin' special about the English (full-stop?) and their toffee?

In honor of National English Toffee Day, I decided to find out.

Toffee in and of itself isn't particularly complicated. It's basically white sugar (or sometimes molasses) with butter and/or salt heated to the point of caramelization. Once the mixture reaches around 300 degrees Fahrenheit, it's rapidly removed from the heat and poured onto a surface, at which point it cools and hardens (its malleability depends on length of cooling and ingredient proportions).

Of the specific type of toffee we know as "English," Wikipedia offers this less than satisfactory explanation:

A popular variant in the US is English toffee, which is a very buttery toffee often made with almonds. It is available in both chewy and hard versions. Heath bars are a type of candy made with an English toffee core. Although named English toffee it bears little resemblance [citation needed] to the wide range of confectionery known as toffee currently available in the UK.

In addition to missing a citation, this cursory explanation also fails to account for the origins of its link to England. Further research, unfortunately, yields equally vague results. The most plausible explanation I came across for how toffee became associated with the Brits relates to the availability of cheap sugar in the 19th century. Thanks to the Crown's prolific (and seemingly shameless) use of slave labor in its Caribbean colonies, sugarcane was cultivated and harvested at an impressive and inexpensive rate. Back home in jolly old imperialist England, treacle and sugar thus become very affordable for the masses, who then proceeded to satisfy their sweet tooths by developing candy, the most popular of which was toffee.

So, the development of English toffee isn't a particularly sweet story. But it's not the first food product to have a dark history. Perhaps, then, on January 8 I'll try to celebrate the potential future, rather than the unsettling past, of English toffee by making some of my own.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Joanna O'Leary