The cake is air dried then cut to shape
The famous confection from Kendal
By Helen Skelton
Known throughout climbing and walking circles, the famous mint cake contains no flour or eggs and is banned in some places, so how is it made? We visit one of the original mint cake factories in Kendal to find out ...
According to legend, a Kendal confectioner, intending to make glacier mints, took his eye off the cooking pan for a minute and then, resuming his task, noticed that the mixture had started to 'grain' and become cloudy, instead of clear. When poured out, the result was Mint Cake.
Despite claims from various manufacturers, the discovery must be accredited to one Joseph Wiper, who started closely-guarded production at his tiny Ferney Green factory in Kendal in 1869.
In 1910 Mr. Wiper retired to live in Victoria, British Columbia where one of his sons opened a shop selling Wiper's Mint Cake.
Kendal Mint was supplied to the 1914-1917 Trans-arctic Expedition under the command of Sir E Shackleton.
George Romney Limited was founded by the late Sam T. Clarke, who owned a wholesale confectioners in Kendal. Sam found it difficult to obtain Mint Cake so in 1919 he decided to buy an old Mint Cake recipe, and started a factory in Leightons Yard, Highgate.
Mint cake is made in a half hour cycle, 75 kilos of mix makes approximately 160 of the large bars and 480 of the small bars that sell at about 25-30p.
The name George Romney came from the well known portrait painter and also, the family home happened to be in Romney Road.
Kendal, a growing market town in South Cumbria, is famous around the globe for a product which was found by accident over a century ago. Kendal Mint Cake, a cloudy slab of sugar and peppermint, ships by the van load from a tiny factory in the town.
The mixing takes place in copper bowls
In theory a trip to a sweet factory is a dream for someone with a sweet tooth as prominent as mine but with menthol induced runny eyes, the Willy Wonka fantasy is somewhat clouded.
Since 1936 Romney's have been mixing up this glue-like mixture to make the Kendal Mint Cake that lines the shelves of every other shop in Kendal. Only ten paces in length and much less in width this small factory on the outskirts of Kendal can churn out a ton of mint cake a day.
A simple mixture
Once the sugar, glucose and water have reached boiling point it’s poured
Pouring the sugar syrup
Shane puts the success of his product down to traditional methods and old fashioned routines that are part of Kendal Mint Cake’s charm. The wooden stick in Shane’s hand is further evidence of this: “Mixing the mint cake is a skill, you know when it is just right to pour. We stir it back and forth until it’s cloudy and then it's ready.”
From clear to cloudy
The continued stirring unearths a lesser known fact: “We’re doing it the wrong way round really,” teases Shane, “Mint cake is really an accident, if we didn’t stir it we’d be left with a clear toffee but someone stirred it too long and that’s how we got mint cake.”
Once optimum 'gloopiness' and cloudiness are achieved, the mix is poured over the moulds ... half an hour later it’s set and broken up into different sized bars.
A family tradition
Many of the customers have been dealing with Shane’s family for 70 years. Shane’s grandfather, Mr Clarke, started as a sweet wholesaler in 1918. The rest, as they say is history, not that history hasn’t passed without a few defining moments.
Product awaiting packaging
Perhaps the peak of Romney’s fame is that Shane’s grandfather made and packed the mint cake that Sir Edmund Hilary and Tin and Sirdar Tensing carried to the top of Everest on the first successful expedition to the summit in 1953.
Mint cake has an enviable reputation among mountaineers and explorers for its energy supplying ability and has accompanied many trans-arctic expeditions.
Another stamp in Romney’s passport is America. New York customs barred Kendal Mint Cake on the grounds that products labelled 'cake' should have flour in them, and a ship load of the product was dumped in the Atlantic in the 1950’s.
Mint Cake has been taken on many Everest climbs
These days mint cake is sent up the Panama Canal via Seattle twice a year to satisfy customers across the pond.
As for the European market: “Frankly it’s too much paperwork to re-label and translate it all” admits Shane. The same goes for distributing mint cake on a large scale all over the country , “it’s expensive and with the name we have people come to us. We‘ve had some of our customers for 70 years.”
The future, as far as Shane is concerned, holds much the same. “People will always eat sweets, mint cake can go to the top of a mountain and is not affected by adverse conditions and won’t even melt. It’s even good for people driving long distances as it gives them a sugar fix.”
last updated: 29/10/07