In general I don't have much of a sweet tooth, but in spite of this I am absolutely mad for Kendal Mint Cake. Of the brands made today the, I prefer the product of George Romney's. Sweet, but never cloying, hard and crisp, but always creamy. It remains a special treat when we go to the Lake District, when most other such sugary treats have been left behind in childhood. So what are the origins of this regional English product? Well according to legend it was invented by Joseph Wiper in the 1860's, when he ruined a batch of Glacier Mints. Although the ingredients are the same, Glacier Mints are a hard clear, glassy candy, where as Mint Cake is white, friable and crystalline. These differences are because of the how the candies are made. Sucrose sugar syrup boiled to 154°C and quickly cooled will form a clear, glassy candy, whereas sugar syrup boiled to soft ball stage (115°C) and continuously stirred will upon cooling will form a mass of tiny interlocking crystals, which give the candy the familiar crisp, but melting texture.
Modern Kendal Mint Cake lists sugar (sucrose), glucose, water and peppermint oil as the only ingredients. As the formation of sucrose crystals is dependent on the of fructose and glucose in the sugar syrup, the addition of extra glucose will change the relative proportions of fructose to glucose and this is one way in which the degree of crystallisation can be controlled during the manufacturing process. While glucose was first named in 1838 (by Jean Baptiste Andre Dumas) and first isolated from grapes in the 18th century, its usefulness in candy manufacturing wasn't appreciated at first and oftens described by many sources as a form of adulteration.
"grape-sugar, most abundant in the grape, but existing also in most fruits, especially in those with pips and kernels, figs, dates, gooseberries, various cereals, the stalks of maize, &c ......grape-sugar, the manufacture of which was attempted at one time in France, but is now for the most part abandoned, has proved of no practical importance. (1865).
"Grape Sugar.—Glucose; Sugar of Fruits,.—This variety of sugar includes the sugar of grapes, of ripe fruits, of honey, and of seeds; together with the. sugars artificially produced from starch and woody fiberIt is more generally diffused in nature than cane sugar, and is the product of most plants which contain acids or sour juices.
Grape sugar may be abundantly obtained from the juice of ripe grapes and pure honey, by washing with cold alcohol, which dissolves the fluid syrup. It may also be prepared by treating starch with sulphuric acid in the manner already described - sugar from this source has received the distinctive name of glucose, and is very largely employed in Europe for ordinary sweetening purposes, for confectionary, for adulterating" cane sugar, and for the manufacture of spirituous liquors by fermenting and distilling." (1868).
"Cheap candies are not only often poisonous, but badly adulterated with terra alba, corn-starch, and starch-sugar or glucose" (1888).
"Glucose is extensively used as a substitute for cane-sugar in the manufacture of table-syrup, in brewing, in confectionery, in making artificial honey, and in adulterating cane-sugar, as well as in many minor applications" (1886).
So if Joseph Wiper did inventMint Cake at this time it would have been seen by many contemporaries as an adultered product. As it happens though he didn't invent Mint Cake. I have a manuscript cookbook listing recpes from towns in Lancashire and Cumbria, in this a recipe for "Mint Cake" of 1837 appears.
Manuscript Mint Cake recipe:
1/2 Ib Loaf sugar- same of Brown which are boiled with 1/2 teacupful of water. When sufficiently enough take it off the fire and have ready three pennyworth of Oil of Peppermint dropped upon moist sugar in a table spoon and stire it very well into the boiling ingredients which must be taked off & not put on the fire again but poured upon tins."
In fact this isn't a particularly isolated recipe, although "Mint Cake" as the name of the confection is more restricted. In Scotland the same product as Mint Cake was know by the "Tablet", a confection name that is also locally restricted. Other names by which this confection was known were peppermint lozenges or drops.
The new whole art of confectionery (1828) by W. S. Steveley
"In this Work will also be found the various methods of Sugar Boiling, and Directions how to make Barley Sugar, Lozenges, Paradise Twist, Peppermint Cake, Candied Ginger, Horehound, Lemonade, Peppermint, and all other sorts of Drops...."
Boil three pounds of raw sugar in a pint of water till you perceive your sugar candy round the pan side, then take your pan off the fire, and drop sixteen drops of the oil of peppermint therein, then pour it out into little round hoops made of tin, or butter a large piece of paper, and lay it on your stove, with a square frame on your paper, and pour your sugar on the paper, and it will become all over beautifully spotted, and you may with a knife cut it into what size or shape you please."
Mrs Somerville's Cookery and domestic economy (1862) by Mary Somerville (Scotland).
"PEPPERMINT TABLET. Put one pound of loaf sugar, broken in small pieces, into a small preserving pan; pour over it a breakfast cupful of cold water, stir it with an iron spoon over the fire gently, until it boils. Cover a baking tin, about half a yard square, with cartridge paper, brush it over with pure olive oil. Stir the sugar over the fire continually, for fifteen minutes, keeping it boiling moderately quick. When you feel it candying on the sides of the pan, remove it from the fire, and scrape the candied portions from the sides of the pan, strew in an ounce of powdered loaf sugar and oil of peppermint to taste, return to the fire, and stir it continually till it boils. Hold it over the fire for one minute, and pour it immediately into the baking pan which has been prepared for it. When cold score it with a knife in square tablets, when it is quite easily broken."
The inclusion of peppermint in these early confectionery may have resulted in deliciousness, but in the main the intent was medicinal. Peppermint oil was said to have the properties of being "....stimulating and carminative, and is much used in flatulence, nausea, spasmodic pains of the stomach and bowels, and as a corrigent or adjuvant of other medicines. It is most conveniently given rubbed up with sugar and then dissolved in water". So this medicine was usually taken in the form of mint water, but for the sake of convenience was also used to make candies of various forms. Modern Kendal Mint Cake, famously used as an energy source by climbers and hikers, is a derivative of this process. The major difference between modern Kendal Mint Cake and the older confectionery was the inclusion of glucose to aid in the creation of a desired texture.