Along with cider, clover honey and clotted cream, real black treacle is something you need to track down and get directly from the source.
The mass-produced imitations are never the same as the wild treacle produced according to ancient traditional methods deep in the English countryside.
Just as you should ideally buy farm produce directly from a farm shop, the best place to buy treacle is from a treacle mine, if you can find one. This will be tricky if you are not local.
Natural black treacle is far superior to the “treacle” (also known as molasses – a by-product of white sugar production, as is Golden Syrup) you can buy in supermarkets.
It is traditional to sustain a shroud of secrecy around the treacle mining industry on account of the ancient use of treacle as a much sought-after ingredient for theriac – a medical concoction originally formulated by the Greeks in the 1st century AD, widely adopted in the ancient world and used as an all-purpose panacea until well into the late 19th century.
Famous doctors and scientists throughout this long period experimented with the recipe. Nero’s physician Andromachus, for instance, added roasted viper’s flesh and drastically increased the percentage of opium.
Like melted cheese in cookery, opium does make any medicine good. You cannot argue with this.
It could take as many as a hundred ingredients to produce one jar of the mixture, which took 40 days to make, and a year to age. Called “Venice Treacle” in England, it was sold by pharmacists as late as 1884 in much the same way that Manuka honey is used medically now.
Even without the other ingredients of theriac, the English recommended the wild sugar treacle as an antidote against poison, originally applied as a salve.
By extension, treacle could be applied to any healing property – in the Middle Ages the treacle well at Binsey in Oxfordshire was a place of pilgrimage.
Before raw cotton started to be imported for spinning wholesale, the main industry of Lancashire depended on the treacle mines which honeycombed the hills around Pendle.
The Romans built a roadway there in AD 180 to transport the precious substance south for export abroad, and centuries later factories were set up to process the raw treacle into parkin and treacle toffee.
After losing the native supply of “black gold” to the invading Romans for so long, a conspiracy of silence grew up around the mines in the rural communities where they were located.
As a “grockle” or outsider, you may find that the ranks close against you.
If you are looking for a treacle mine, ask for directions if you will but do not expect a simple answer. One theory is that the secret is known only to a few village elders; another is that they have all died and the knowledge is lost.
This is purely to put you off the scent, of course.
Despite the cult of secrecy, Hemel Hempstead has been locally known as “Treacle Bumstead” since WW1 due to its exceptionally rich deposits, and the mines at Talskiddy, Wareside and Natland were still active as recently as a decade ago.
The response of “Down the treacle-mine!” is still used in Natland as a sassy response to somebody asking where you had been when it was none of their damn business.
The Dunchideock mine ceased industrial production in the 1930’s, but their offices hold copies of 17th century documents which date the origins of the mining operation back to the 15th century.
Only open for public access for a few hours every two years, this was a sticky prospect for the curious, but I was able to track down the location and capture some rare footage. Click here to see that.
Formed millions of years ago – just as forests fell, were covered over by peat bogs and compressed until carbonization took place to create coal, so wild sugar cane was compressed until eventually caramelization occurred, producing rich black treacle layered and filtered between the natural limestone strata of those regions.
If you wish to make your own experiment in caramelization, simply take a can of condensed milk and leave it at the back of your kitchen cupboard for a decade or more. When you finally open it, you will discover that the milk has taken on a new form as dulce de leche, or Caramel Treat, as this is known in South Africa.
I have personally conducted this experiment, and can promise you that this works, also that unexpected toffee is delicious. Please keep any thoughts about the upkeep of my canned food cupboard to yourself, you don’t know my life!
My friend Jane can remember when the Dunchideock mine entrance would be opened every two years at the village fete day by the owner of Dunchideock House, the late Archie Winckworth.
The local children would be allowed to go down the ancient blackened stone steps, grimed with the treacle of ages, and feast on plates of treacle toffee which would be left out for them.
After Mr Winckworth passed on in 1997, the Goodchild family took the house and latest intel suggests that they still keep up the custom, with the next fete scheduled for 2019. Other activities include plate smashing, rat splatting, and duck racing.
As any fule kno, “Treacle tart” is Cockney rhyming slang for “sweetheart”. So I’ll see you there in 2019, treacle.
I did go on an exploratory trip to The Treacle Mine pub in Essex, but it was kind of a dump, so I won’t go into that.
Until summer of 2019, I will be nervously avoiding the traditional Cornish fisherman’s celebratory drink of a Mahogany which is simply two parts Plymouth gin to one part treacle, or Somerset’s old treacle miner’s favourite, the “Thunder & Lightning” of equal portions treacle and cider.
Instead I will be making my own versions of “Treacle No. 1” and “Treacle No. 2” which are themselves variants on the Old Fashioned cocktail.
2 shots dark rum,
1/4 shot sugar syrup
1 shot apple juice
Stir half the rum with syrup and bitters with 2 cubes of ice in a glass, add rest of rum and 2 more ice cubes and stir again.
Fill glass with ice and stir again, then float apple juice.
Garnish with orange peel.
Treacle no. 2
2 shots dark rum
½ shot Nectar Pedro Ximenez sherry
1/4 shot brown sugar syrup
Stir half the rum with syrup and bitters with 2 cubes of ice in a glass, add rest of rum and the sherry plus 2 more ice cubes and stir again.
Fill glass with ice and stir again.
Garnish with orange peel.
I made a simple treacle syrup to substitute for the plain sugar syrups in these recipes, and pre-cut the orange peel garnishes, laced them with treacle and froze them before use.
If you have any questions, I’ll be down the treacle mine!
`Once upon a time there were three little sisters,’ the Dormouse began in a great hurry; `and their names were Elsie, Lacie, and Tillie; and they lived at the bottom of a well–‘
`What did they live on?’ said Alice, who always took a great interest in questions of eating and drinking.
`They lived on treacle,’ said the Dormouse, after thinking a minute or two.
`They couldn’t have done that, you know,’ Alice gently remarked; `they’d have been ill.’
`So they were,’ said the Dormouse; `VERY ill.’
Alice tried to fancy to herself what such an extraordinary ways of living would be like, but it puzzled her too much, so she went on: `But why did they live at the bottom of a well?’
`Take some more tea,’ the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.
`I’ve had nothing yet,’ Alice replied in an offended tone, `so I can’t take more.’
`You mean you can’t take LESS,’ said the Hatter: `it’s very easy to take MORE than nothing.’
`Nobody asked YOUR opinion,’ said Alice.
`Who’s making personal remarks now?’ the Hatter asked triumphantly.
Alice did not quite know what to say to this: so she helped herself to some tea and bread-and-butter, and then turned to the Dormouse, and repeated her question. `Why did they live at the bottom of a well?’
The Dormouse again took a minute or two to think about it, and then said, `It was a treacle-well.’
`There’s no such thing!’ Alice was beginning very angrily, but the Hatter and the March Hare went `Sh! sh!’ and the Dormouse sulkily remarked, `If you can’t be civil, you’d better finish the story for yourself.’
`No, please go on!’ Alice said very humbly; `I won’t interrupt again. I dare say there may be ONE.’
`One, indeed!’ said the Dormouse indignantly. However, he consented to go on. `And so these three little sisters–they were learning to draw, you know–‘
`What did they draw?’ said Alice, quite forgetting her promise.
`Treacle,’ said the Dormouse, without considering at all this time.
`I want a clean cup,’ interrupted the Hatter: `let’s all move one place on.’
He moved on as he spoke, and the Dormouse followed him: the March Hare moved into the Dormouse’s place, and Alice rather unwillingly took the place of the March Hare. The Hatter was the only one who got any advantage from the change: and Alice was a good deal worse off than before, as the March Hare had just upset the milk-jug into his plate.
Alice did not wish to offend the Dormouse again, so she began very cautiously: `But I don’t understand. Where did they draw the treacle from?’
`You can draw water out of a water-well,’ said the Hatter; `so I should think you could draw treacle out of a treacle-well–eh, stupid?’
`But they were IN the well,’ Alice said to the Dormouse, not choosing to notice this last remark.
`Of course they were’, said the Dormouse; `–well in.’
This answer so confused poor Alice, that she let the Dormouse go on for some time without interrupting it.
`They were learning to draw,’ the Dormouse went on, yawning and rubbing its eyes, for it was getting very sleepy; `and they drew all manner of things–everything that begins with an M–‘
`Why with an M?’ said Alice.
`Why not?’ said the March Hare.
Alice was silent.
The Dormouse had closed its eyes by this time, and was going off into a doze; but, on being pinched by the Hatter, it woke up again with a little shriek, and went on: `–that begins with an M, such as mouse-traps, and the moon, and memory, and muchness– you know you say things are “much of a muchness”–did you ever see such a thing as a drawing of a muchness?’
`Really, now you ask me,’ said Alice, very much confused, `I don’t think–‘
`Then you shouldn’t talk,’ said the Hatter.
Alice In Wonderland – Lewis Carroll