And then there is the Toffee Shop of Penrith, where Neil Boustead makes the finest fudge on Earth. It’s a modest, bright establishment on a street that slopes down a hill at the top end of town. There’s not much in the windows, and not much in the shop, come to that, just stacks of plain and chocolate fudge slabs, all wrapped in the trademark opaque greaseproof paper; heaps of toffee, each odd-shaped piece wrapped in a little twist of paper; a plate of fudge on the counter, ready-cut to help yourself – “Oh, make that two slabs while you’re at it, no, three” – and a random collection of blue-and-white plates on the wall.
I have been eating this fudge, man and boy, for about 40 years, and in all that time it hasn’t varied in its quality or it pleasure-giving virtues. That’s perhaps because it hasn’t varied in its method of manufacture. It’s still made, as it has always been made, in a small kitchen out the back (although these days there are two kitchens out the back), sugar, sugar syrup, butter and milk, all melted together and boiled to a precise temperature, and then beaten and beaten and beaten to achieve that unique, firm/soft, flaky/dense texture. The secret, Neil says, is in the beating, and for the first time I was allowed to see this essential part of the process, which consisted of two young men pounding away at the glossy, amber, liquescent fudge mixture in large copper pans with huge wooden paddles. It looked like a serious work-out.
But that’s the way with great sweets, great foods of any kind, really. There aren’t short cuts. There aren’t cheap ingredients. You can’t make them quickly, not if you want to maintain the quality. As another Cumbrian confectioner said, “If you’re going to do it at all, you might as well do it properly.”
The Toffee Shop 7 Brunswick Road, Penrith, Cumbria CA11 7LU. Tel 01768 862008, http://www.thetoffeeshop.co.uk