If honey has an evil twin, it must be treacle. Black treacle. Thick, bible-black treacle. Sweet, sin-black treacle. Dark, sticky-black treacle. Its origins are strange, to say the least. Chaucer uses the word in his Canterbury Tales,
“I have almost y-caught a cardiacle;By corpus boones, but yf I have a triacle,Other elles a draught of moyst and corny ale."
Pardoner’s Prologue ll. 27-9.
In the Dives Pragmaticus (‘The Great Marchaunt Man’) by Thomas Newbery, 1563, a merchant hawks his wares, crying that,
|Dives Pragmaticus - Thomas Newbery - 1563|
“I haue fine triacle of Genes, the plague to preuent,Fyne Waters, fyne Oyles, of odour excellent,Fyne Gummes and Parfumes as euer was spent,What lacke you Gentlemen, come hether to me.”
|The Compleat History of Druggs - Pierre Pomet 1737|
In The Compleat History of Druggs by Pierre Pomet (1737) under the entry for Macedonian Parsley, we are told that Andromachus, physician to the Roman Emperor Nero, used the seeds in a ‘treacle’, now called ‘Venice Treacle’, which was an powerful Alexipharmack or ‘resister of poison and pestilence’.
|From the same - entry for Macedonian Parsley|
In the recipe for this treacle, Pomet tells us the name ‘treacle’ comes from the Greek word for an antidote for the bite of an adder – θηριακη – theriake, derived from θηρ meaning a small, wild or poisonous beast. Vipers were steeped alive in white wine, and herbs added, including opium, red roses, saffron, aniseed, rhubarb and myrrh, with honey and wine; in all a total of 64 ingredients were needed to make the potion. Monsieur d’Aquin, physician to the French King, revised the recipe, halving the ingredients and including new elements, whilst retaining dried vipers, to make the Grand Treacle. A third type, German Treacle, was made from a mere six ingredients; Gentian, Round Birthwort, Bay-Berries, Extract of Juniper and Myrrh, made up with Honey.
|Pomett's recipe for Venice Treacle|
Over time, the name ‘treacle’ was applied to any medicinal syrup, and by extension, to all syrups, including those extracted in the refining of sugars, (to distinguish between the two types, the paler one is now usually referred to as Golden Syrup, and the darker one called Black or Dark Treacle, although, confusingly, Golden Syrup is used to make treacle tart).
Treacle and flowers of sulphur, better known as brimstone and treacle, is a mild laxative, and a splendid, if disturbing, play by Dennis Potter. The adjective ‘theriacal’, meaning ‘antidotal’, was applied to healing wells, and the story grew, as the original meaning was forgotten, that these were Treacle Wells. Telling them that treacle came from these wells, and, in addition, from Treacle Mines, tested the credulity of generations of children.
There are numerous Treacle Mines to be found throughout Great Britain; in East Lancashire the most famous are the Tockholes Treacle Mines (pronounced locally as ‘Tockus Traykle Mines’). In the mid 1990s, two series of animated films were made, called and about, The Treacle People. The Treacle Mines in the series were located at Sabden, on the slopes of Pendle Hill, Lancashire, where there was already a Treacle Mine tourist attraction, attracting at its best 30,000 visitors a year, (it closed in 1998).
Treacle is the vital ingredient in Parkin, a northern form of a gingerbread cake, loved in Lancashire and Yorkshire, traditional on Bonfire Night (Guy Fawkes came from York), enjoyed through the year, best eaten when slightly aged as the flavour develops. Some say Lancashire Parkin uses golden syrup and brown sugar – I don’t hold with this; always use black treacle.
A Recipe for Parkin
Melt half a pound of lard (do not use butter), mix with half a pound of treacle, half a pound of self-raising flour, four ounces of fine (or medium) oatmeal, four ounces of brown sugar, and then add two large beaten eggs, half a cup of warm milk, four teaspoonsful of ground ginger, two teaspoonsful of nutmeg and one teaspoonful each of mixed spice and baking powder. I also add grated fresh ginger to taste. Grease a loaf tin and bake for one and a half hours or so, until browned, in a medium oven (140 o C), leave to cool and put in a tin for three or four days.
It should be soft, and moist, and sticky. Eat it like cake with a hot chocolate drink, cold ginger beer, or have it as a pudding with custard. It will keep for at least a fortnight, but it never really lasts that long.
Molasses, extracted from raw sugar, is a black syrup, the word used synonymously with treacle in the US, but not really used much in the UK; it derives it name from the Latin mel – meaning honey.