The Art of Confectioning
James Moore, co-owner of Aunt Sandra's Candy Factory in Belfast, on making clove rock, selling shamrocks and putting on a festive show
Is making sweets an art form? It certainly is to me. I've been making chocolates, fudges, candies and honeycomb for years, along with my brother David Moore, and it took us a long time to learn and develop all the different techniques, techniques that the big candy companies can't afford to use anymore. It's not something you can do with your eyes closed, I assure you.
I suppose you could call us chocolatiers, or candy makers. Sugar boilers, that's what people who worked in our profession were known as in former times. These days people appreciate the effort involved in artisan enterprises like Aunt Sandra's Candy Factory, and we enjoy what we do very much.
What we have here is unique because all of our candies are handmade. Nowadays, when the big candy companies make sweets, all of the ingredients go into a big machine, someone presses a button, and every sweet comes out the same size, the same weight, the same flavour, the same shape. But, rightly or wrongly, all of our candies are individual and, in my opinion, they're all the better for it.
We make an awful lot of sweets, some of which are quite unusual. We make macaroons and chocolates, Iron Brew and whiskey drops, Bailey's Cream fudge, brandy ball milkshakes, lollipops, chewy sweets, clove and rhubarb rock, candy canes, and truffles at Christmas. A massive range of stuff. I could make you an Ulster Fry fudge if you wanted it. It's all about flavors and textures. We like to experiment using natural products as much as we can.
We also make shamrock lollipops, which are very popular all year round across Northern Ireland, not just on St Patrick's Day. The very first time we made them was for a community event on the Falls Road, 500 lollipops. But this being east Belfast, one of the girls working for us at the time wasn't too happy about making green shamrocks. I said, 'Don't be silly, they're only sweets!'
She made them eventually. I always test everything before it goes out. So I'm looking at this green shamrock lolly, and licking it, and thinking that the flavour doesn't quite match. I asked, 'What flavour is this?' And she says, 'It's orange!' Typical Belfast humor. But that group on the Falls Road have ordered them ever since, so maybe they saw the joke – though these days we flavour them properly.
My favorite candy to make is clove rock. There's much more of an art to it. We start off with raw materials. You have your sugar, glucose, colours and flavours. We put water and sugar into the pot and boil it up. Then, once we get it to a certain temperature, we add glucose, which is what gives the formulae it's substance. I love the smell and the extra working of the candy. It seems like you're doing more compared to other sweets that are a little easier to make.
Obviously it takes a long time to learn how to make rock, with the writing in the middle and the swirl of the two different colours. The handmade technique is quite an art: it involves mixing the ingredients, pulling and blending the candy, checking the weight and cutting. That all comes with experience.
Perhaps it's not so well known, but making candy can be very dangerous. When we're making honeycomb, for example, the candy solution is extremely hot, twice as hot as boiling water, so we have to use two pairs of rubber gloves when we're molding it and cutting it. We also cut all of our rock with an axe, believe it or not. Thankfully we haven't lost any fingers yet.
These days we have diversified. We hold chocolate workshops, birthday parties, a scary halloween show and a Christmas show with Santa and Willy Wonka's cousin, who comes out in a top hat – the children love it. It's all about creating an illusion, and I enjoy that theatrical side of things, the performance element that we've introduced in recent years.
People enjoy learning how to make candies and chocolates. We work with integrated schools, charities, disabled children and pensioner groups, and it's worth all the hard work just to see the look in their eyes when we bring the candy out, or when they make something that they're proud of and are able to take home to show their families. I get choked up just thinking about it.
We've been asked to supply the likes of Tesco, Sainsburys and House of Fraser, but we refused – I'm sure all that sugar has made us go slightly mad! But we like to keep it local. We don't have amibitions to take over the world, we don't even advertise, everything is word of mouth. Like I said, we just enjoy making sweets. And there's no better time of year for candy makers than Christmas time.