Choc 'n' Awe

It's the end of an era as Irish 'Willy Wonka' dies

Article featured in The Sunday World - Sunday May 23rd 2010 - by Des Ekin

THE 1950s gave us many wonderful inventions the Pill, the laser the hovercraft and the credit card.

But here in Ireland, none of these is regarded with such warm affection as Thomas Caffrey's Snowball.

It was over half a century ago, in the bleak decade, that Thomas first cheered up the nation by moulding marshmallow, chocolate and coconut into a succulent sphere of scrumptiousness.

That's why the death of the chocolate making legend last week, at the age of 92, marks the end of an era.

Especially since it comes only 3 months after the death of another great spinner of childhood dreams, the puppeteer Eugene Lambert.

Dublin born Thomas Caffrey, nicknamed "Irelands Willy Wonka", was the alchemist who also gave us Macaroon bars, Big Time Bars and the sadly now defunct Marshmallow Mice.

But he will always be remembered for the Snowball, a confectionery icon which is almost impossible to describe to anyone who hasn't tasted it.

Describing it as 'a marshmallow centre milk chocolate shell covered with coconut" is like describing a Picasso as a canvas coated with oil.

The Taste is the taste of childhood: an initial blast of coconut, like a Hawaiian dancer doing a hula on your taste buds, followed by just a hint of chocolate and then that overwhelming attack of mouth watering marshmallow.

Choc and awe.

You could eat a Snowball lots of different ways.

Some play safe and eat it delicately, bite by bite.

Or, like radio star Joe Duffy, you could dunk it into your tea first. "It's one of the hundred things to do before you die" says Joe. "Dunk a Snowball into a hot cup of tea.

"It needs precision, so that none of the flakes of coconut get removed and then you just pop it in."

Thomas Caffrey's son Neville, who carries on the family business in Walkinstown, has heard them all. "I've heard of people putting them between two slices of bread" he says.

But every kid knows there's only one real way to eat a Snowball: just stick the whole thing into your mouth at once.

At first it feels like you've tried to swallow a tennis ball. You panic. Have you bitten off more than you can chew? It stays intact for a few seconds, during which you get the full coconut and chocolate flavour, before disintegrating into a gooey, marshmallowy mouthful.

It's part of our childhood memories - the taste equivalent of shooting in between two heaps of jumpers, or swinging on a rope from a branch.

Few people can claim to have left us such a delightful legacy as Thomas Caffrey. But he might never have entered the business if he hadn't traveled to the Isle of Man to help his brother Bill in a chocolate factory over there.

"He got the bug," his son Neville explains. "He loved the flavours, he loved the colours, he loved making things, and he loved working in the business.

"He came back to Dublin and set up his own business."

The 1930's were a bleak time for enterprise, but Thomas went from strength to strength.

He had a brainwave of making "marshmallow mice" when he saw young Neville pushing a wind-up mouse.

"Can I borrow this?" he asked his son ...and a new treat was born," recalls Neville.

Soon after the Snowball was created.

One former employee Julie, described, on Joe Duffy's Liveline, scenes that could almost come out of a Willy Wonka film.

"He (Thomas Caffrey) was lovely," she recalled.

"He would run up and down to make sure we were all in line, that the chocolate didn't go anywhere but in the snowball."

Now the process is all automated, but school kids can catch a glimpse of the original magic with tours at Caffreys Chocolate Warehouse.

The family business now employs 50-60 people, and thanks to the internet, the original snowballs are now dispatched all over the world to expats.

Here at home, they are still snapped up by fans.

Will Thomas Caffrey's most popular creation ever go out of fashion?

Not a snowballs chance.