Day 641: Our Home And Native Candy

originally published October 2, 2013

When I was eight years old I endured the most boring vacation of my life. There were a few glorious days spent in Disney World and the newly-christened EPCOT, and also an imagination-tickling stop at Cape Canaveral to gawk at Columbia, asleep at her launch pad. But the majority of those two weeks were spent at my grandparents’ Fort Lauderdale “condo”, a tight-knit community where you couldn’t so much as sneeze without an elderly Jewish lady telling you pipe down.

There was no internet to numb my curious mind, and figuring out when I could find my Happy Days reruns in this insane town was a daunting challenge. I found myself reading a lot, and eventually drifting down to the corner store with a crinkled dollar bill to ingest a purposeless sugar rush. While I was fortunate to find a handful of chocolate munchables (and always the tongue-inspiring flavor of Black Cherry Shasta), I would return home to Canada feeling that our snack selection was somehow… better.

Could this be? The nation that was dwarfed, both population-wise and culturally by the glorious USA, had a better offering of chocolate bars on our store shelves? I’d later learn it was the Commonwealth influx of British brands like Cadbury that put the ‘oooo’ in our candy store oomph. Allow me to share with my American friends just a little taste of what you’ve been missing.

I have sampled the American Caramello, and it ain’t no Caramilk. Caramilk is made up of 8 bite-size segments, each bursting with velvety caramel so smooth and sweet you’ll think your tongue went and rented a tropical timeshare and is simply broadcasting the warm sunny bliss back to your brain.

The local gimmick – actually the ad campaign that Caramilk has stuck with since my childhood – is that we’re all supposed to believe there’s a grand mystery behind how they get the caramel into the chocolate squares. Of course we have a Food Network now, and we’ve all seen enough chocolate mould assembly lines to know we won’t need to hire Simon & Simon to get to the bottom of this mystery.

I’m told there are American stores that import the Crunchie bar. I’m sure there are American stores that import all of these treats, but you may need to dig around. Crunchie features an outstanding honeycomb toffee slab coated in some of the finest chocolate you’ll find in mass production. None of that deceitful low-budget compound chocolate here – Cadbury has standards.

Crunchie’s name is an ignoble suggestion; the bar is best enjoyed at a gradual dissolve, optimally accompanied by some lazy smoke from your best potted herb, if you catch my meaning. I have little use for the bar’s past flavor variants – champagne, orange, lemon flavors, or with pesky Pop Rocks embedded in its sticky toffee – though I would like to try the bourbon flavored Crunchie that slipped into the Nashville market for a spell in 2003. The Southern Baptists were appalled, then organized a boycott that killed the flavor.

Some people just can’t stand others having fun.

I know, I’m leaning a lot on Cadbury here, but that’s because our nation’s finest home-grown brand, Neilson, sold off what was left of their chocolate bar bounty to Cadbury back in 1996. Among their gems was the Crispy Crunch, created by William Neilson himself back in 1912. The bar is similar to Butterfinger, but it’s made with real chocolate, not that chocolatey coating crap.

I’d like to rave a little more about Crispy Crunch’s applause-like mid-mastication crackles, but Cadbury actually muffed the punt return on this one. Crispy Crunch used to possess the kiss of salt, which bolstered the peanut butter toffee into something extraordinary. Cadbury made the recipe a little sweeter, and thus a bit of the magic has drizzled away.

An online petition brought Coffee Crisp to the USA, but only for a brief period between 2006 and 2009. Nestle cut their losses and left this one to us canucks. Rowntree, the UK company who brainstormed the Kit Kat into the world, brought us Coffee Crisp back in the 1930s as one of many flavors of the Biscrisps candy bar line.

I don’t think any American bar drives down the same road as Coffee Crisp, featuring sweet vanilla wafers interspersed with a luscious coffee-infused fluffy goo that weaves taste-bud dreams and soft-palate sunshowers with every bite. The bar’s dalliances with alternate flavors – French vanilla, raspberry, maple, café caramel – have all been kicked to the candy curb. There’s no need to mess with crispy perfection.

Mr. Big is Cadbury’s grandest offering (at least in size) of delectable confection, featuring a massive vanilla wafer hanging out with rice crisps and peanuts, while a sticky swab of caramel pulls a warm blanket of chocolate over the whole mess. You could glue your two Twix fingers end to end and they’d still feel inadequate and ashamed beside a Mr. Big. This is one massive bar, and like most of the entries on this list it mostly sticks around home, except when a few opportunistic export companies fling the bars around the world here and there.

William Nielson gets credit for this one too, which got a little awkward when Nestle owned the brand but their biggest competitor, Cadbury, owned the name’s trademark. The Mr. Chew Big variety, which features a veritable travel-mug of caramel between its chocolate sheets, is a level of bliss that even millennia of religious texts have yet to describe.

I’m not going to drone on at length about the Eat-More. It’s a slab of chocolate, dark toffee and peanuts, and as a kid it was the least friendly candy bar on the shelf. It was chewy, not too sweet, and I find its slogan (“It’s unique, but are you unique enough to eat it?”) to be condescending.

That said, the caramel version, which forsook all claims to chocolate within its ingredients, was nothing short of exquisite. Alas it has gone the way of so many great snacks – into the tome of memory.

Don’t get me wrong – M&Ms are a fine candy. But where ‘Smarties’ south of the border refers to a solid disc candy (we call them Rockets), up here they are M&M-ish treats, but with a flatter footprint and a sweeter candy shell. Rowntree was making these back in 1882, though they didn’t get the Smarties name until 1937. In England they are sold in tubes (actually hexagons, but let’s not pick nits), while over here they’re more commonly found in plain old rectangular boxes.

A few years ago, Nestle (who now owns the Rowntree fortune) yanked the blue Smarties in an effort to switch over to purely natural colorings. They simply couldn’t find a blue that would work. Luckily for all of us – and they should really have declared a holiday when this happened – they came across an extract of cyanobacterium spirulina that did the trick. Of course, while M&M’s will melt in your mouth, not in your hand, Smarties will stain your palms with a rainbow of residue if you hold on to them. Just a helpful snacking tip.

So sure, Florida had palm trees and a lack of snow in December, but it was missing some of my favorite edibles on that dull trip (which we repeated the following year, dammit). Almost makes me feel a little bit patriotic.

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