Many families have their own particular traditions and mine is no exception. Every Christmas my Mother-in-law makes two special confections. One of which, "Coconut Ice", is quite widely known but the other has been something of a mystery. Called "Russian Toffee" by the family, these are pale brown squares which are sweet, rich and buttery, but unlike the similar looking fudge they have a firm and finely granular texture. As they quickly melt in the mouth, this gives the impresion of creaminess without being cloying. We knew little of the origin of this sweetie, other then that it was brought to Australia from Dundee sometime in the late 1930's and has always been thought of as Scottish by the family.
So it was a great surprise when looking through a recently published Sri Lankan cookery book (the excellent "Serendip" by Peter Kuruvita) that I saw a photgraph of two Sri Lankan sweets that looked very similar to Coconut Ice and Russian Tablet. In this case the sweets were called "Coconut Rock" and "Milk Toffee". A little bit of research indicates that "Milk Toffee" is found in many parts of India and is especially popular in Sri Lanka. The interesting question is if there is any connection between these these two widely spaced group of sweets?
In terms of a Scottish origin for my families recipe, once my wife and I moved back to Scotland, we found the exactly the same sweetie being sold all over Scotland. Exactly the same in all respects, except for the name. In Scotland the confection was sold as "Tablet". Until recently I have assumed that "Russian Toffee" was a self-conscience renaming of Tablet, so it was quite a surprise to find a recipe for "Russian Toffee" in the 1938 edition of "The Scottish Women's Rural Institutes Cookery Book". A little futher research indicates that "Russian Toffee" was hugely popular by the end of the 19th century and into the 20th century. Recipes are found in cookbooks as widespread as Scotland, Kenya, Zimbabwe and New Zealand.
While there are now thousand of similar recipes for Russian Toffee online, this 1913 recipe from New Zealand published "Evening Post" gives an indication of it's early origins:
Russian Toffee. – To make proper Russian toffee thick sour cream should be used, but condensed milk will answer the purpose admirably. Add half a pint of sour cream to one pound of sugar, and boil together until the mixture thickens. Add one teaspoonful vanilla essence and one tablespoonful of sherry. Boil again until the mixture leaves the sides of the pan clean. Turn into a oiled tin, and cut into squares when set.
So what is the relationship of Scottish Tablet with Russian Toffee?
"Tablet" is a celebrated and iconic sweetie in Scotland. Its early Scottish history is usually traced back to at least the begining of the 18th century where the household book of Lady Grisell Baillie (1692-1733) mentions the purchase of "taiblet for the bairns". The two earliest Scottish cookbooks, Mrs McLintock's "Receipts for Cookery and Pastry-Work" (1736) and Mrs CleLand's "A New and Easy Method of Cookery" (1755) give very similar recipes. Essentially sugar is boiled in water until it begins to form a candy, flavourings (Cinnamon, rose, orange or ginger are common) are added and this is poured out and as it sets in is marked to break into squares. Some recrystallization of the sugar is mentioned as important, especially if the boiling mixture is rapidly mixed just before it is ready to be poured, this would give a granular texture, not unlike modern "Kendal Mint Cake". While the modern Scottish confection is called "Tablet" these older recipes mention "Tablets" and this gives the clue to the origin and purpose of these confections.
Above: the fine granular texture of Tablet.
In fact the early recipes for Tablet(s) are not so much confectionary in the modern sense, but rather medicine. Lady Baillie's "taiblet for the bairns" may have been appreciated by the children for its sugar content, but its primary purpose was medicinal. This 18th century recipe from The Edinburgh Pharmacopoeia demonstrates how these Scottish Tablets straddled the line between medicine and confection.
"TABELLÆ ROSACEÆ. (Rose tablets).
.....The sugar of roses was formerly made, by boiling a pound of fine sugar with four ounces of the juice of red roses, over a gentle fire, till the juice was almost all evaporated ; then throwing in an ounce of dry red roses reduced to a very fine powder; after which the matter was poured out upon a marble, and formed into lozenges. ....These preparations are chiefly valued for their agreeableness to the eye and palate. .Some likewise esteem them, medicinally, as light restringents; and look upon them, not undeservedly, as an excellent addition to milk in phthisical and hectic cases. "
In most of Britain the term "Tablet" was dropped in as a term for confectionary during the 19th century, but in Scotland its use continued into the present era.
These pre-20th century Scottish Tablet recipes do contain milk or cream, this now standard additon (mostly in the form of condensed milk) seems to have occured in the early 20th century. The 1938 edition of "The Scottish Women's Rural Institutes Cookery Book" gives an indication of how this inclusion occured, giving very similar confectionary recipes for "Russian Toffee", "Swiss Milk Toffee" and "Swiss Milk Tablet". "Swiss Milk" is simply condensed milk produced by Nestlé. The main difference between these early Toffee and Tablet recipes was not the ingredients, which varied slightly from recipe to recipe, but in the technique. In the toffee recipes the ingredients were often boiled to a higher degree then Tablet, and in Tablet recipes the mixture was always well beaten just before boiling, giving the characteristic granular texture of earlier non-milk/cream Scottish Tablet. Later the two recipes converged so that in my families recipe for "Russian Toffee", the mixture is also well beaten to give a granular texture. In effect "Russian Toffee", Swiss Milk Toffee" and Tablet are now all the same type of confection, with the usual variation in recipe to recipe that you would expect from an item that is still largely produced on a domestic, rather then commerical scale.
So why "Russian Toffee"? According to the Glasgow journalist and writer John Joy Bell, a "Mr. Assafrey had just invented, compounded and produced the first Russian Toffee". A. T. Assafrey was born in Estonia and became ran a well know confectionary business in Glasgow (establish in the 1870's) who produced Scotlands first chocolate. It seems that Assafrey's produced a locally famous confection known as "Russian Toffee", this was copied by other Glasgow confectioners and a recipe for Assafrey's "Russian Toffee" was then published in "The Queen Cookery Book" series (1902). Other Russian Toffee recipes were widely published within the next three deacdes. After the 1950's the term "Russian Toffee" seems to have been largely dropped in Scotland, although still remembered by older people as a special treat. Confectionary made by boiling cream (sour, fresh or condensed milk) and sugar is still made in Russian and throughout the Scandinavian and Baltic States, where they are known variously as "kinuski, tšinuski, russisk fløtekaramell, rússnesk rjómakaramella, rysk gräddkola or тянучка". In other words "Russian Caramel". Many of these recipes now also substitute condensed milk for sour cream. So it would seem that thanks to Mr Assafrey, in Glasgow a cream toffee was introduced at the end of the 19th century and this recipe is likely to have influenced the development of Tablet in the early 20th century.
This is not to say that modern Scottish Tablet is simply a redeveloped version of Assafrey's Russian Toffee. This isn't simply the case of a direct linear descent, more the combination of several well established recipes to produce somthing new. There are likely to be more contributing factors in the development of modern Scottish Tablet then I have mentioned here (how do other similar confectionary items like "Helensburgh Toffee" fit into the story for instance?). However, at its most simple it seems modern Scottish Tablet is the combination of a widely known European technique for making cream toffee, combined with a Scottish technique for producing a granular textured confection. This new style of Tablet was so popular that it is now the only variety of Tablet in Scotland that is made commonly.
In reference to the original question of whether there is a connection between the Scottish and Sri Lankan confections, well both Cream and Milk Toffee recipes are common in Anglo-Indian cookery books at the end of the 19th century and into the 20th century. "The Ceylon Daily News Cookery Book" (1964, first edition 1929) gives recipe for both old style Scottish Tablet ("Peppermint Tablet", Rose Tablet") and Milk Toffee using condensed milk (and also a Coconut Milk Toffee). Is this a case of the Scottish Dispora disseminating recipes from home or simple coincidence? Did the various Milk/Cream Toffee recipes published in 19th century Anglo-Indian texts influence the development of Scottish Tablet? It would be interesting to fine out.