A 100-year-old Cumbrian fudge recipe has Tessa Waugh asking ‘please, sir, I want some more’
There is a moment of delicious anticipation when you bite into a piece of fudge. Your mouth waters and then, bang: your pleasure receptors erupt, your cheeks flush, your eyes sparkle and your heart begins to race. Fudge is seriously addictive stuff, definitely a Class A as far as confectionary is concerned and aficionados know that the best place for a fix is The Toffee Shop in Penrith (01768 862008; www.thetoffeeshop.co.uk).
Although white boxes bearing the shop’s name can be picked up all over Britain, a visit to the shop in which the toffee and fudge are made takes the enjoyment to a whole new level. health warnings about the dangers of sugar fall on deaf ears in a place scented with molten toffee and a glance at Tripadvisor gives a sense of how fans react on visiting the shrine. ‘Best fudge in the world,’ declares one; ‘go there, never leave, be happy,’ swoons another.
Junction 40 of the M6 (which is only a few miles from the shop) has earned special significance for travellers and owner Neil Boustead agrees that the shop’s knack of luring visitors off the motorway has provoked a mini gold rush in the Cumbrian town. He’s been associated with The Toffee Shop for 40 years and welcomes visitors all year round: ‘We get 25 year olds coming in saying “my parents brought me here as a child”.’
Perhaps customers are seeking nostalgia as well as something sweet, because the business has stayed resolutely true to its roots. Since the Furnass family started making fudge in 1910, only two other families have owned the shop and, apart from a change of premises 60 years ago, very little else—including the all-important recipe—has altered in 100 years. Although there is a website, modern marketing techniques have largely been ignored and The Toffee Shop has no presence on social media; the product has always spoken for itself. As Mr Boustead puts it: ‘We’ve never been out and about. We simply expanded through word of mouth’.
Mrs Furnass, the first owner of the business, is responsible for the recipe and, understandably, it’s still top secret. Ten years ago, the owners were required by law to include a list of ingredients on the box, which did away with some of the mystique, but the quantities are still unknown to anyone outside the company. Mr Boustead refuses to give any clues as to how he achieves that perfect density and flavour and I wonder how he maintains these intense levels of security.
‘We don’t have a big staff turnover,’he explains, ‘Chris has worked for me for 17 years, Craig for 12 years. Alison, the manageress, has worked here for 22 and Sarah and Janet have worked here for 10 or 12 years.’
Making fudge is a labour-intensive business. There are no robots to stir the eight brass pans that bubble away constantly at the back of the shop; every stage of the process is undertaken by hand. Butter, sugar and milk, which comes from a local producer, are added to large pans, heated and stirred until they reach the correct temperature, at which point the golden liquid is poured into trays and left to set overnight. The following morning, it’s cut into slabs.
It’s a similar process for toffee, but with the addition of treacle or syrup and brought to a different temperature. The next morning, the toffee is broken with a special hammer and each piece is indi- vidually hand-wrapped. Compared to fudge, toffee is high-maintenance. ‘It takes two minutes to cut and wrap a tray of fudge,’ says Mr Boustead, ‘but it takes four ladies half an hour to cut and wrap the same amount of toffee.’
When Mr Boustead took over 40 years ago, The Toffee Shop’s core customers were Barings bank, the London Stock Exchange and a few local shops. Barings, now owned by ING, continues to serve Toffee Shop fudge in its restaurant and has been joined by other customers, including Fortnum & Mason, the House of Bruar and a whole host of independently owned shops and delis nationwide.
The Prince of Wales sells Toffee Shop fudge (in Highgrove packaging) at the Highgrove visitor centre; he enjoyed a session stirring the pans when he visited the shop in 2003. It’s also sold at Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle and Holyroodhouse, albeit in the Royal Collection’s own packaging. The late Lord Lichfield was another regular customer.
Mr Boustead is uncertain about the exact volume the shop produces each year, but believes it to be a matter of tons. Next time you’re on the M6, you know where you need to stop.