So… why Treacle?

Treacle  ˈtriːk(ə)l

noun: treacle; plural noun: treacles

  1. a. British: a thick, sticky dark syrup made from partly refined sugar; molasses.

         b. syrup of a golden-yellow colour; golden syrup.

  1.  cloying sentimentality or flattery.

“enough of this treacle—let’s get back to business”

Origin: Middle English (originally denoting an antidote against venom): from Old French triacle, via Latin from Greek thēriakē ‘antidote against venom’, feminine of thēriakos (adjective), from thērion ‘wild beast’. Current senses date from the late 17th century.

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According to various online sources, the word treacle goes back to a borrowing from Old French triacle, a word referring to the sugar-syrup base into which apothecaries would decant whatever nasty-tasting cures they wished their patient to take. The word derives ultimately from a Greek word thēriakē, meaning an antidote against venom, which suggests that its early applications were topical (i.e. slather it on the outside, rather than apply it to the inside).

This dark, viscous product of sugar refining thus gained its name due to its association with apothecaries and their products. All the syrupy by-products of sugar refinement were known as treacle, but later the British firm Lyle perfected the refining process to produce that other, more popular, sugar syrup known as golden syrup. You can still buy treacle – these days it’s often called black treacle (or, in the US, molasses), to distinguish it from its golden cousin.

While sugar can be produced from beets as well as sugar cane, only the latter produces a pleasant tasting treacle.

The 17th century seems to mark the time when treacle made the jump from a medicine to a foodstuff. https://britishfoodhistory.wordpress.com/tag/treacle/ suggests ‘bread tart’ and ‘sweetmeat cake’ as early recipes using treacle, and the earliest recipes for ‘treacle tart’ in the 1870s precede Lyle’s development of golden syrup, even though most modern recipes call for golden syrup rather than black treacle. Gingerbread, which has been around at least since the 1400s, switched to using treacle as an ingredient during the 18th century. But the popularity of ‘Mary Poppins’ suggests that the association of sugar syrup with medicines remains as strong as ever.

I’m rather drawn to the idea that a substance famed for being sickly sweet (as in the famous treacle tart of my story – the favourite dessert of Harry Potter – and the treacle wells mentioned by the dormouse in Alice in Wonderland) ultimately derives its name from medicines which were so bitter that they required a sweet coating. That seems a good metaphor for this story collection.

In Treacle and Other Twisted Tales I take some well-known tales and retell them with a twist, a difference, or a wee flicker of darkness. There are new stories, too, some drawn from imagination and others from experience. There are no entirely happy endings – I don’t really believe in them – but some at least come to satisfactory conclusions. If there’s a moral in the story, it’s that beneath sweetness there is always a small, sharp tang of bitterness, and sometimes the sugar coating is very thin indeed. Life isn’t fair, and nothing ever turns out exactly the way we want it to. These aren’t fairy stories, you know.

As for the second meaning – sentimentality or flattery – isn’t that the business of we fiction writers? I employ my words as the appetising coating to encourage some unpalatable suggestions to go down. Did I sweeten the mixture enough?

And am I genuinely channelling my East End ancestors, or merely mocking Eastenders the soap, when I say to you, “Don’t worry, treacle* – if you don’t like this story, maybe the next one’ll suit you better”?

*Treacle (tart) = sweetheart

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Spring at last, or so the blackbird says

flowering cherry

Over the last few weeks there have been several days when I’ve thought to myself, sun – check; not raining – check; flowers appearing – check; oh, it must finally be spring. Snowdrops have come and gone, daffodils have appeared all over the place and cheered us up with their yellow radiance. There have even been some periods of actual warmth.

But every time I start to think that spring has won the battle against winter, the clouds descend, the temperature drops and we get another blast of it. Two days ago I spent the day off sick from work: curled up on my armchair, clutching a mug of hot lemon drink and a box of paper hankies, wrapped up in a big blanket and shivering. It seemed that every time I glanced out the window, it was snowing again, or sleeting, or snailing, or fleeting – or some other variation on winter precipitation.

Today is different. Okay, it rained a lot during the night, and now it’s grey and cool and drizzly, but there’s a promise of mildness in the air, a new freshness. And when I walked up the hill from the post office this morning everywhere I turned my ears I could hear birdsong.

In my garden it’s not only the usual suspects – chaffinches, tits and blackbirds. When I put my head out the back door I saw that the hedge was crammed full of the little local flock of sparrows, which I’ve hardly seen over the winter. Jenny Wren is back on the fencepost, and there’s a new robin patrolling the lawn (replacing the one my naughty cats ate in February).

Up the hill at the back, an entire army of blackbirds is pulling out the dead, long grass to line their nests, and tits are swooping back and forth in every direction. Even the hooded crows up in the old tree sound a little less mournful now that there’s light in the sky and a sense of warmth behind the clouds.

Out on the roadside there seems to be a nest in every tree, and the battle for territory and mates is hotting up. Bluebell spikes are pushing through (down south I expect they’re already beginning to flower, but here in Bonnie Scotland they are true May denizens) and pussy willows and hazel catkins waft their yellow pollen over everything. Yes, it’s definitely spring. The anti-histamines in my medicine cabinet confirm it, whatever the weather.

And down on the Main Street there’s not a parking space to be had; the cafes are full of damp tourists knocking back Death by Chocolate and giant pieces of gateau, and every house painter on the island is hard at work on one façade or another. We may yet be blessed with another flurry or two of snow, or a run of hard-frost mornings, but the tide has turned. Spring rises, on moontide or storm surge or sun-drenched sea mist, or maybe on a week of sunshine to mark Eastertide. No matter – it comes, regardless, as the blackbirds know. There’s no stopping it now.