Mess with Toblerone at your peril

From Oatfield Emeralds and Club Milks to Milk Duds and ‘Luxury Mountain Bars’, our taste for sweets says a great deal about who we are

Toblerone: now looks like the sort of knock-off mean aunts give at Christmas. Photograph: Darren Staples/Reuters

Toblerone: now looks like the sort of knock-off mean aunts give at Christmas. Photograph: Darren Staples/Reuters

 

Let’s ignore the stink of brimstone for a moment and consider the Toblerone controversy. Tempers were raised when, this week, it emerged that stupid Brexit had interfered with everybody’s favourite airport impulse buy. The manufacturers denied this was the case. They did, however, admit that rising costs had led to a radical reconstruction of the faux-Alpine delicacy. What was once the 440g bar has become a 360g model. The 170g edition has lost 20g. But they haven’t just lopped off a few peaks.

In order to maintain the traditional lengths and leave packaging unaltered, the people at Big Chocolate have increased the spaces between each triangle.

The result is an aesthetic monstrosity on a par with squeezy Colman’s mustard and James Bond books for teenagers. The spatial dynamics are all wrong. Bizarrely, a Toblerone now looks like the sort of Toblerone knock-off that – recipe altered to avoid legal action – calls itself Luxury Mountain Bar (or something). Mean aunts give such things at Christmas and, when junior turns up nose at the grey “chocolate-flavour treat”, unconvincingly argue they’re all made in the same warehouse.

The arrogant fools at Toblerone Mansion misunderstand a key element of their product’s appeal. Nobody was ever that keen on the taste. Made with triangular honey from triangular bees (that’s a reference for old gits there), the bar occupies uncertain territory between luxury confectionery and everyday Chocolate of the People. It has neither the honest heft of a Marathon (I’ll call it what I like, buddy) or the guilty richness of the proper Belgian gear. But it did exhibit a pleasing novelty structure that generations of half-loved children have come to associate with presents bought hastily by fathers who wish they could be away on business forever. Those parallel isosceles prisms speak of evenings that were a little less miserable than those looming before and after. Mess with those consolations at your peril.

Brash Americans

The brashness of American sweets still seems a little exhausting to European palates. They’re always cramming peanut butter into places where no peanut butter should go. US chocolate has a work-hard doughiness that calls one to yearn for the relative gaiety of a Crunchie.

They’ve never got us to drink Dr Pepper and they’ve never got us to enjoy Milk Duds either. We’ll listen to their music, watch their films and wear their jeans. But American confectionery remains almost as foreign to us as their ludicrous sports.

We Irish have cherished our own confectionery brands. I don’t mean those luxury things that come in ornate boxes decorated with pretentious ribbons. I’m thinking of treats like the underrated Oatfield Emeralds. The distinguishing factor was a hint of coconut that, in days when such drupes were rarer than avocado pears, gestured towards unimaginable exotic paradises.

An earthy people, we, unlike the sissified English, allowed biscuit on to the confectionery shelves. The Club Milk and its various cousins – whither the exotic Club Fruit? – was invented in Ireland before being introduced to Britain in the middle of the last century. Where’s our thanks? Yes, I do like a lot of chocolate on my biscuit and I would like to join your club. I appreciate the offer.

More should be made of the extraordinary achievement of the Catch Bar. “Catch it when you can. On the outside is chocolate, and underneath the chocolate are . . . crispies!” the commercial told us while young women in bell bottoms flung the product irresponsibly at each other’s heads.

There was a model here that the GAA would subsequently (I assume accidentally) follow. No prohibition on “foreign” confectionery was required. Released in 1978 with that stylish ad, the Catch soon came to outsell imperialist invaders such as the Flake and the Topic. The Catch is still available, and I’d murder for one right now.

“The true expression of a nation’s subconscious is its secret service,” somebody says in John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Baloney. We can learn more about a country’s collective psyche from its taste for chocolate than from its attitude to espionage. Some chocolate bars cross borders and tell us things about the universal experience.

Which brings us back to the Toblerone. Not many people rate it among their favourites. It occupies a strange place on the confectionery spectrum. But it’s a design classic, and it should be treated with more respect.

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