Rowntree’s : The Chocolates of Downton Abbey


I was giddy with glee at the preview of the Downton Abbey movie this past Thursday.    One of my favorite lines was delivered by Tom Branson to the Princess Mary: “We can still love the people with whom we disagree.”    That’s what I like about DA – it can be incredibly sweet, while being incredibly funny at the same time.   And I admit that I cried near the end when Maggie Smith, the Dowager Countess, told Lady Mary why she went to London.


But one of the coolest parts of the movie for a food etymologist like me was an historical English chocolate reference.   In the beginning of the movie, the villain, Captain Chetwode, is walking down an alleyway in town to scope out the King’s Parade, where he will attempt to assassinate King George V – the grandpa of current Queen Elizabeth.   Right as he’s about to leave the alleyway, he passes a porcelain sign reading “Rowntree’s Chocolates, Makers to Their Majesties, the King and Queen.”


I was giddy seeing this sign because Rowntree’s is responsible for inventing my favorite candy, the Kit Kat in 1935.   Leave it to the English to lightly coat a crispy biscuit in chocolate and invent a confection that would be flavored in hundreds of ways over the next almost 100 years.   The Japanese have been largely responsible for this, releasing Kit Kat flavors like cantaloupe,  wasabi, watermelon, and my favorite, Green Tea.   Originally called the Chocolate Crisp, the Kit Kat was what took the then struggling company from close to bankruptcy into the power house they are today.   It wasn’ t until a licensee agreement in 1970 with Hershey that the delicious Kit Kat immigrated to America.


Rowntree’s was established in 1862 in York, by Henry Isaac Rowntree.   Even though fictional Downton Abbey is set in York, Highclere Castle is about three hours south of York – it’s actually closer to Cadbury’s headquarters.      But as set in York, of course the town around Downton’s estate would have  been loyal Rowntree chocolate lovers, even though their cocoa wasn’t as popular or as good as their competitors Cadbury and Fry.   They with Rowntree’s were the Top 3 confection companies in the UK in the large part of the 19th and 20th centuries.   It is also appropriate for the movie that Rowntree’s were makers to the King and Queen.

Starting as a cocoa and chocolate company, they introduced Fruit Gums – think our US Jujubees – in 1893.   Then, staying on trend with the English palate transitioning from bitter dark to milk chocolate, they released their first milk chocolate bar in 1899.


In 1923, during the time of the movie, Seebom Rowntree took over the helm of the company from his father and inherited a struggling company.   Cadbury and Fry offered to Rowntree an offer to throw in the towel and join their conglomerate, but they refused, like Lady Mary and the Downtoners, risking to go it ahead on their own.    Oddly enough there are no known scenes of Downtoners drinking cocoa or eating chocolates or fruit gums.   But I imagine Mrs. Patmore sneaking in a small Rowntree chocolate bar on her walk back from the grocer in town.   Maybe the Downtown children received Rowntree’s gums or chocolates at Christmas.

Rowntree introduced After Eight Mint Chocolates in 1962, which made a brief appearance in the U.S., and then the Yorkie and Lion Candy Bars in 1976, which stayed in the UK.   They merged with Macintosh in 1969, and then were acquired by Nestle in 1988.  They licensed the Kit Kat with Hershey in 1970 and then the Rolo in 1971 for the U.S. Market.

So, like historical dramas and baking show competitions, the English with Rowntree’s dominated the creation of great chocolates with Kit Kat and Rolo – but maybe I’m biased.   And Cadbury stole the Cincinnati Opera Cream with their Cadbury Crème Egg.


Chicken Karahi – The Pakistani Threeway


Our Macedonian and Greek Chili owners were brilliant marketeers.   They listened to their largely Germanic customers and adapted an ethnic Balkan dish – chili spaghetti or saltsa kima – into a shredded cheddar cheese-topped  All-American dish called the Threeway.   We all know that a Threeway means three things – a starch covered with meat sauce topped with cooling dairy.   In our case it was spicy-sweet Cincinnati Chili over tender noodles topped with a mound of shredded sharp cheddar cheese.

This threeway concept applies to many foods around the world – think lasagna, moussaka, pastichio, bacon and cheese topped spaetzle – the list goes on.    I found Cincinnati’s new ethnic Threeway in the spicy Chicken Karahi dish at a new Pakistani Halal Restaurant in Sharonville called Nawab Pakistani and Halal Meats.

I was on sort of a roundup of Indian restaurants near where I work this past week.   I gotta have a go-to Indian restaurant for lunch.   I ate at some really bad ones, but saw this small little restaurant with about 6 tables and though I’d try out their Friday buffet to get a scope of their dishes.

They had some of my faves – like the curried cauliflower dish, chicken tandoori, and their naan, which is puffy, crispy and delicious.   But there was this new super spicy chicken dish that I fell in love with and went back for seconds.

I told the owner I thought the red spicy chicken was awesome and he told me it was called Chicken Karahi – a dish from his native Pakistan, and this was the only place in Cincinnati that served it.    I was intrigued.

So when served over rice and drizzled with a necessary cooling portion of the creamy yogurt, cucumber and mint sauce called Raita – the spicy meat over starch with cooling dairy formula of the Threeway is met.    The side Greek salad to a Threeway becomes the kachumber salad.   And, the oyster crackers of the Cincy Threeway are replaced with naan bread to sop up the luscious leftover spicy sauce.    The after dinner chocolate mint is replaced by candy coated cardamom seeds that are available at the register, dolled out by a classy silver spoon.

Chicken Karahi is a spicy, homestyle curry that you can find apparently everywhere on the streets and homes of Pakistan (and Northern India) – sort of like the Pakistani national dish.   It’s named after the two handled deep wok-like pot its made in – the karahi.    There are goat and beef karahis as well with similar sauces, but chicken karahi seems like what you’d find the most of on say a market on Food Street in the Gawalmandi Quarter of Pakistan.

Nawab describes their chicken karahi modestly as “chicken with onion, peppers and tomato sauce,” which doesn’t give it near the justice it deserves.  I would describe it as a delightfully spicy orgy of the tastebuds with every savory Indian spice you can imagine.   Like the 18 spices of Cincinnati chili, chicken kahari contains a long list including cumin, coriander, ginger, Kashmiri red pepper or other suitable hot pepper, garlic, turmeric, garam masala, onion and tomatoes.  It’s garnished with fresh cilantro and julienned ginger, and of course a drizzle of cooling Raita.

I will definitely be going back and am now a devoted convert to Cincinnati’s new Pakistani Threeway.


The Unknown Lineage of the French Burnt Peanut


It’s rare when a food item has no history on the web.    It seems there’s always someone who wants to take credit for invention.   But, when I recently found no history associated with an old time candy – the French Burnt Peanut or the FBP, I was, of course intrigued.

I encountered the French Burnt Peanut when learning about an old time market called Peluso’s on Monmouth Street in Newport.  They have a candy corner that seasonally carries old time handmade candies, one of which is the FBP.   The Peluso name might be familiar – they’re all over Newport – they descend from an Italian immigrant family from Naples – Giovanni and Antoinette Peluso – who had 19 children!     They’ve been in Newport politics since the sordid gambling days.

The FBP is the rustic Granddad of another beloved old candy, the Boston Baked Bean.   Both are red, candy coated Spanish Peanuts.   The difference is that the FBP has spikes and a rustic coating, while the BBB has a smooth shiny outer coating.  Boston Baked beans are ‘cold panned’, a process that goes back to France in the 1700s, invented for another ancestor of both the FBP and the BBB, the candy coated Jordan Almond.     Ferrara Candies in Chicago introduced the Boston Baked Bean candy in 1924 when electric panning equipment became available in the American Candy Industry, and is the last producer around.    They got their start in 1906 making ‘confetti’ or Jordan Almonds for the Italian immigrant community, who used them for gifts at wedding receptions.    The burnt sugar flavor of the FBP is made up for by introduction of molasses and potentially smoke flavoring in the cold panning process of the BBB, which can’t use the caramelized or burnt sugar of the FBP.   So, like the other mass produced products of the early 20th century, all authenticity was taken out of the FBP for the BBB, if you follow, even though they’re still delicious.

So there were tons of unanswered questions hanging out there on the Internet – what is the origin of the FBP?  No one seemed to know any origins.


I turned to my bible of the candy industry – the extensive 1918 candy catalogue of our own Mullane’s Candy Company.    John Mullane was trained by a Hugonaut French confectioner near Montreal after the Civil War, so I thought there might be some clues to the origin of the FBP.   The candy catalogue  shows their massive line of candies, in color, with descriptions and history and was so well done it was reviewed in the National Confectioner’s Journal at the time.     And sure enough there was a section on candy coated almonds and a mention of their Burnt Almond – “one of the oldest confections” – flavored with burnt sugar and Mexican vanilla.     There was a Cinnamon burnt almond as well.

The BA’s – both cinnamon and vanilla – don’t have a French ancestry, like the Jordan Almond, or , assumedly, the FBP.    They have a German one.   The are called Gebrante Mandeln in Germany, and have been a staple at the Christmas markets there and in Switzerland and Austria for centuries.   You can see and smell their wonderful aroma as they’re panned at local Oktoberfests this month.

In the confectionery world, it was the almond that was first candy coated and used in other mostly French confections.   It was used in pralines, French nougat and nut brittles.  The French were more known for their confections, while the Germans were more known for their pastry.

So, it was America’s confectionery industry that brought the peanut into the mix.    Before WWI, our national obsession with peanut clusters (like Goo Goo and its copycats) and then after WWII with the candy bar – Snickers, Payday, etc. solidified the Spanish peanut as our confectionery nut of choice.     There was a brief period from the 1910s to the 1920s where the hazelnut (then called the Filbert) was paired with butterscotch in candy clusters like the short-lived Sheik candy made by Allen-Qualley Company of Minnesota.   But then the hazelnut became expensive and the Europeans took it over for their chocolate hazelnut spreads like Nutella and Americans latched onto the peanut.


The Spanish peanut has made up about 20% of American peanut production for the last 100 years and is primarily used in candy.   The Runner makes up the other roughly 80% and is used in peanut butter production.   The Virginia nut is used for salted and snack nuts, and the long shells we see at baseball stadiums, and make up a small amount of the total peanut production.

It seems like the FBP might have descended through the Burnt Cinnamon Almond, because of its rustic reddish coating, but it’s hard to pinpoint.

So, while the origin of the French Burnt Peanut is spotty – it may have been an American adaptation of the German burnt almonds, named French for a more upscale branding – it’s descendants continue to dominate the candy and snack markets.     It indeed spawned our beloved candy coated M & M, and all of the other panned coated nut candies.   Recently, there’s a Mexican savory snack product called Cacahuate Japones -or Japanese peanuts – hitting the Cincinnati gas station market.   They have a crunchy, spicy wheat flour coating around a Spanish peanut that’s deep fried and I’ve become a huge fan.   They’re certainly a  fusion grandchild of the FBP.

But we may never know what confectioner invented the FBP.