Melt in the Mouth Memories

Article featured in The Irish Daily Mail - Friday May 28th 2010 - by Philp Nolan

IRELAND'S own Willy Wonka has died.

LIKE Proust's madeleines, they are the tastes that immediately can remove us from the moment and bring us back to happier, gentler times. We're talking about the Snowball, a gooey marshmallow coated in chocolate and dipped in coconut flakes.

We're talking about the Big Time bar, a slab of chocolate and toffee that could give the most energetic jaw a thorough workout, about chocolate mallows, a large box of which graced every family table at Christmas and which were as eagerly anticipated as turkey, ham and all the trimmings, and about Macaroon bars, Marshmallow Mice, Whippers and Mint Crisps.

Oh, those names that conjure up the awe of standing eagerly at the counter in Miss May's in Dun Laoghaire, or hundreds of other sweetshops like it across the country, places as mystical to us then as Hogwart's is to this generation. There were exotic smells, like aniseed and butterscotch, and glass jars high on shelves that would reverentially be lifted and Pineapple Chunks and Fruit Salads counted out, eight for a penny.

The genius behind them all was Thomas Caffrey, a master sugar boiler and chocolatier whose endless quest for new flavours and tastes delighted three generations of Irish children and whose recent death, at the great age of 92, prompted a wave of nostalgia for an era when a sweet was a treat and not a daily diet. Since 1930, when he first learned his trade, he continued to experiment for all of his life, working away at a small room in his factory, dreaming up the combinations tha t would have a nation's mouths watering in anticipation of his latest offering.

Though Tom's company, Caffrey's, continues to operate in Walkinstown in Dublin and now is managed by his children, Neville and Elizabeth, and grandchildren Neville and Natasha, it is one of a dying breed of family-run confectionery businesses. Names we loved in our childhood have passed into new hands - Urney to L.C. Confectionery, Silvermints to Jacob Fruitfield, Lemon's to Robert Roberts. In other cases, when the independents were bought by multinationals, only the bestselling products remained and the peripheral products were delisted, casting aside childhood memories with all the disregard more usually reserved for a sweet wrapper.

Yet while Tom Caffrey has been called Ireland's Willie Wonka, the comparison applies only to his professional life. Unlike the flamboyant sweet maker of Roald Dahl's vivid imagination, Tom Caffrey was not an aloof loner hidden away behind his factory walls. Instead, he was of a more benevolent mien, a patrician boss whose love for his own product was infectiously communicated to his staff and his customers. Born in Dublin in 1917, he worked as a teenager during the summers in Brown's chocolate factory on the Isle of Man, where his elder brother, Billy, was manager. There, he became infatuated with the sweetmaking process, and throughout his life returned, often with his family in tow, to meet his old workmates.

Rock was a big seller and when Tom opened his own business in Harold's Cross, that was among the first products he made. The company's first major contract came in 1953, when it was commissioned by Woolworth's to manufacture souvenir confectionery for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth. Many of the pioneers of the chocolate industry - the Cadburys, Frys and Rowntrees - were Quakers, famed for their benevolent treatment of their staff; the Cadburys even built a town, Bourneville, near Birmingham, for their workers. Though a Catholic, Thomas Caffrey upheld those principles - 'it wasn't learned,' his daughter Elizabeth says, 'it was something within himself always'.

When he set up his own business, his wife, Eileen, to whom he was married for 46 years before her death, joined him in producing handmade confectionery, though later became too busy raising their children. Success brought a home in Terenure in Dublin and foreign holidays that were exotic for the time. 'When we went to Spain, we used to go through Gatwick in London because their were no direct flights,' Elizabeth remembers.

No matter where they traveled in the world, Tom always checked out local sweets and also took frequent business trips with his son, Neville, to Germany and the US to see what was happening there. He avidly read the confectionery trade magazines to see what new candy and automated procedures had been developed, yet the simplest ideas came from closer to home. Once, on seeing his son playing with a wind up mouse, he took a plasticine mould of it. Marshmallow Mice were born and, for a child in the sixties there were a few pleasures to rival biting the head off one.

An avid sports fan, Tom believed in keeping fit, probably wise for a daily consumer of his own products. He believed firmly that lecithin, an emulsifier used in the manufacturing process, was good for the health, a supposition bolstered by his long life. A fanatical Rugby fan, he was delighted to see Leinster win the Heineken Cup. 'We all watched it at home with the sound up high because his hearing was weakening.' says Elizabeth.

She remembers being besieged as a child by school friends who wanted free snowballs, and also recalls her father, fresh from a day tinkering in his new workroom, bringing home new sweets and asking 'what do you think of this?'. Its sounds like a dream childhood but Elizabeth adds 'when you're born with something you take it for granted'. Though he retired in his seventies, Tom kept a daily interest in the factory and the up to 60 staff who worked there in busy periods, remembering all their names and frequently asking about their families. In his later years, he had more time to indulge in his other passion gardening.

In his lifetime, he came a long way from his small operation on Harolds Cross to a 50,000sq.ft factory with its own chocolate manufacturing plant where the company also made soft caramels, pralines, marzipan in milk, white and dark chocolate, and truffles flavoured with whiskey, stout, Irish Coffee and Irish Cream liqueur. Easter was the busiest time, as thousands of eggs were produced.

But while his legacy to the wider world was the sweet memories his inventions evoked his personal legacy is simple one - that of a gentleman, One contributor on an internet forum, whose mother, Maggie Lacey, worked for Tom Caffrey, wrote: 'When times were really hard for us in the fifties, she used to make lollipops in our house in Finglas to sell. She would send me over to Tommy's place, a little garage in Harolds Cross, with a note, and Tommy send me away home with essences in bottles and food colour to get her started. I did not realise he became such a big name in Ireland later on, as we moved to England in 1959, but kindness has its own reward.

And for that reason alone, never mind the fondness with which those of us in middle age always recall him, there isn't a Snowballs chance that Tom Caffrey is anywhere but Heaven.