EATING FOR BRITAIN: WITH ME LITTLE STICK OF BLACKPOOL ROCK
OK - in the latest of our series of popular culture questions, what instrument did Mr George Formby play??
Few food items raise more happy memories than the simple stick of seaside rock. Bringing back fond images of days spent on the beach, despite howling gales and sheeting rain, of sandwiches, which always became filled with sand no matter how carefully they had been stored and of thermos flasks filled with tea for the grown ups and lemon squash for the kids.
At the end of the holiday, when the fishing net on a bamboo pole lay broken and when the swimming mask was making its way out to sea after being lost during a daring dive exactly five minutes after purchase, everyone would need a reminder of the fun and japes of the last week as they squidged into the back of a Vauxhall Victor on the way back home.
That’s where seaside rock came in and I would cling determinedly to my 10p stick of sugar work with exotic names like Pwllheli studded along their length as we made our way back from a 1970's caravan holiday in North Wales to our home in Rotherham.
Move to the present when my memories have receded along with my gums and the thought of seaside rock had scarcely crossed my mind in nearly forty years until I began compiling the list of potential items for inclusion in EATING FOR BRITAIN. How could I not include me little stick of Blackpool rock? There are few things more British.
My research into rock manufacturers showed me that there were precious few of them left anymore, fallen by the wayside as such simple pleasures have been replaced with more modern offerings. Despite that, those who have persevered have prospered and, even in the quiet season, the factory unit housing The Coronation Rock Company, a few short minutes from the sea front, was bustling and the air was filled with the pleasing smell of cooking sugar.
They have been in business since 1927 and the workers still churn out thousands of tonnes of sugar work a year and, after I donned yet another white coat and hairnet, I was given a demonstration of the skills required to put those little letters all the way through our holiday treats.
The first thing that strikes you is that it is bloody hard work. The sugar is boiled and then coloured before being cut to size by two letter makers who have been at the centre of the business for over twenty- five years. Not only does each block weigh enough to make Geoff Capes raise a sweat, it is also hot as Hades. Too hot for me to try and handle, but for the two experts, hardly an issue as they quickly but carefully cut the sugar into barely recognisable shapes that would be come the final letters.
After wrapping the chosen coating around the letters, they hefted the proto-rock over to the one small piece of machinery used in the whole process, which rolls the sugar to give the unmistakeable twists and helps more workers lined up either side of a long table to roll out and cut to the required size.
It may be a business based in tradition, but everyone needs to face up to modern times and, as well as their traditional rock, The Coronation Rock Company produce over 1000 lines of sweets including, I was delighted to see, hemp flavoured rock with the word “Ganja” all the way through it, which unsurprisingly nearly all get exported to Amsterdam.
As I was about to leave, I was presented with a sample of the rock I had just seen being made, still warm to the touch. I broke off a small chunck to suck on. Just as I remember, it brought memories flooding back, but it also reminded me of the £3000 I spent having my teeth fixed when I turned 40 and I put the rest back in the boot of my car for another day.
On my way out of Blackpool to my next port of call, I went in search of a totally new food item, well to me at least, Parch Peas. Apparently, once popular throughout Lancashire, in times of famine, when Maple peas, used as ballast on board incoming ships, were soaked in water and then cooked or “parched” until soft and then served with salt and vinegar as a source of protein.
There are few places now who still sell them. A stall on Preston Market apparently does a roaring weekend trade, but the good people at Coronation Rock pointed me towards Fleetwood, about ten miles up the coast from Blackpool and a small, old fashioned sweet shop called Rimmers.
They had just finished cooking them as I entered the shop and I came away with a 25p twist to munch on as I drove back towards Chipping. Not bad at all, like salty lentils, cooked until they still retain a slight crunch. Hardly a life changing experience but, after spending the morning trying something from my childhood, it was good to find something new and unique to the area.
Talking of which, next stop Lancashire Cheese.