After Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay had planted their flags on the top of Mount Everest in 1953, marking the first conquest of the summit, the two men sat on the snow, gazed at the panorama below and nibbled on a glistening white sugary slab that had the look of alabaster. Tenzing then broke off a bit and carefully buried it in the snow as a small gift to the gods.
The cloudy white tablet was Kendal mint cake, made by a small Cumbrian company in Kendal called Romney’s, run by Samuel Thomas Clarke, who had been approached by the expedition to provide supplies of the celebrated mountaineers’ morsel. It was probably the sweetest piece of product placement in confectionary history, subsequently encouraging thousands of climbers and ramblers to make sure they never ventured out without a slab of mint cake in their rucksacks.
Samuel Clarke’s grandson, Shane Barron, who was 10 at the time, remembers packing the specially made mint cake that had to be sealed in tins and packed into tea chests to withstand the altitude.
“I was small and was one of the few people who could get into the tea chests to pack the sweets,” recalls Shane. “It was on Coronation Day that we heard that they had made it to the top. We were watching the coronation on a TV we had just bought second-hand for the occasion. When the news came though, my grandfather was over the moon that Edmund Hillary had actually eaten mint cake on the summit. Apparently, their only criticism was that they didn’t have enough of it!”
Today, Romney’s is one of three companies still making mint cake in Kendal and is now run by John Barron, Shane’s son. It’s still very much a small family business: John’s brother- and sister-in-law also work here and Shane continues to keep an eye on things. By delicious coincidence, the company’s factory is located on the Mintsfeet Trading Estate just south of the River Mint, a tributary of the River Kent. Your nostrils pick up wafts of mint hundreds of yards before you reach the plant, which churns out two tonnes of mint slabs a week, or 120 tonnes a year.
But while, in the case of Romney’s, the address may be modern, the techniques, recipe and equipment at all the companies are much the same as they have always been: the cake is made by boiling up sugar, glucose and water in great copper cauldrons (the same ones that John’s great-grandfather used) until reaching a temperature of around 129°C. Oil of peppermint is added. The glue-like syrup is then poured into silicone moulds and left to dry overnight before being wrapped.
According to legend, the tradition started after a Kendal confectioner, intending to make glacier mints, took his eye off the cooking pan for a minute then noticed that the mixture had started to ‘grain’ and become cloudy instead of clear. When poured out, the result was mint cake.
That man was Joseph Wiper, who started production in Kendal in 1869 and went on to supply Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 1914-17 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.
Since then the cake has been made with brown sugar, and in the 1970s a chocolate-coated version was introduced, but John says the white mint cake is still Romney’s bestseller. The dietary or dentally conscious may shun it, but many mountaineers and athletes still see it as a handy form of quick energy and a godsend when weather conditions turn foul. “Last year, we got a call from Eddie Izzard saying he was going to pop in for supplies when he was doing one of his charity marathons around here,” says John. “Sadly, he never showed up.”
For years, mint cake formed a staple part of army rations too, ideal on account of its long shelf life and the fact that it doesn’t freeze in low temperatures or melt in the sunshine. Thanks to its sugar content, apparently it’s almost eternal, so Tenzing’s minty offerings to the gods on Everest may still be intact.
Lost in translation
Mint cake made by Quiggin’s, which has been making the confection since 1880, was recently put to a new use on BBC Two’s Great British Menu. It was used by chef Lisa Allen as a topping to a strawberry and cream dessert.
Attempts to export the Cumbrian speciality, however, have met with limited success, especially in America. “Somehow the mint cake loses something in translation,” says John Barron of Romney’s. “It’s a very British thing. Americans think that because it’s called ‘cake’ it will be a flour product. They want us to call it ‘candy’, which doesn’t quite have the same ring about it.”
John laughs when he remembers the company’s disastrous first attempt to penetrate the US market in 1970. “The US customs people said it didn’t look like cake so they refused to allow it into the country and threw it into the Atlantic.”
Whether foreigners appreciate the cloudy white tablets or not, today’s makers in Kendal are proud of their minty regional tradition. “We are confident that our cake will continue to be popular – sales are good,” says John. So how does his wife react when he returns home smelling of mint, I ask? “It’s actually quite nice,” he smiles. “At least I don’t smell of fish. My job beats being a fishmonger!”