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Jamaica: Keeping Alive the (Almost) Lost Art of Making Peppermint Candy

It was faint at first then as I trained my ear, a rhythmic slap-slap-slap sound filled the spaces within the noise of the festival. Was someone chopping wood? Curious, I moved quickly towards the direction of the sound. That’s when I spotted her.

Standing in front of a board that was hung about arms’ length above her head, she was wrapping a brown, sticky mixture around a nail that protruded some 6 inches from the board. Each time she folded the mixture over the nail, she slapped it against the board — that was the sound that had caught my attention. I inched closer and watched, fascination spreading over my face. What was she doing?

The crowd around her stall grew larger as more people were drawn to her stall. Using smart phones and digital cameras, they recorded her movements as she stretched, slapped and wrapped the mixture for several more minutes. When she stopped, it had turned from brown to beige. A whiff of peppermint floated through the air as she added a few drops to the mixture and continued to stretch and fold  until it glistened. Finally, she took it off the nail and added a few dollops of red that produced vibrant swirls as she stretched and twisted the mixture. Cutting off small pieces, she shaped them into canes and laid them on a small table.

Peppermint Candy swirl

Peppermint Candy

My excitement at seeing the Peppermint Candy Lady, as I started to call her, turned to pride. I had no idea that peppermint candy was ever made from scratch, let alone here in Jamaica. In a country that is often quick to embrace the new, I was thrilled to see someone who was carrying on the tradition.These are the kinds of experiences that, for me, make travel rewarding.

I was to learn something else that night: peppermint candy making was an art that my paternal grandmother had practiced. I never knew my grandmother and as I watched the Peppermint Candy Lady, I imagined, for a moment, that I was watching her.

After she finished and everyone had walked away, I approached. We didn’t get to talk long as Fay, that’s her name, had to set up her booth for the independence celebration that would begin the following day in Kingston. I wanted to watch her again and promised I’d meet her at the festival. I arrived just as she began setting up and we talked as I captured these photos of her at work.

Fay Thomas, 52, learned to make peppermint candy by hand from her great grandmother. She was 13 or 14 when her great grandmother brought her into the business saying she was getting older and needed her learn and eventually take over.

Back then, her grandmother used to turn 12 lbs. of sugar — boiled in two pots — into candy. Now, Fay does 6 lbs. and mostly displays her art at fairs and festivals. It’s a laborious process that she carries on for the love of it; it’s not enough for her to make a living at.

It’s All in the Fingers

The key to making peppermint candy rests in the fingers. Only by manipulating the mixture by hand that you know whether it’s at the right consistency. And that, as can be imagined, takes years to master.

To make the candy, Fay boils the sugar and water down to a syrup then strains it to remove anything extraneous, like rice grains, that sometimes get into sugar. To test whether the syrup is ready, she drops it into water. If shouldn’t be brittle.

Once the syrupy base is ready, she spreads it to cool on a special marble stone that has been washed with lime – everything gets washed in lime prior to use. The stone is the same one her great-grandmother used. While on the stone, Fay deftly scrapes the edges of the base and folds them towards the center so that it doesn’t flow over the edge. Working quickly and with her bare hands to sense when the mixture has reached the right texture, she gathers it into a ball then drapes, slaps, twists, pulls and turns it over the nail until it is a long, shimmery ribbon.

Asked which of her children she thought would succeed her, Fay said it would more than likely be her son, a chef, as her daughter doesn’t like handling the hot mixture. That could explain, at least in part, why there are so few people making peppermint candy from scratch these days.

Comments

  1. What an interesting post – and too bad I don’t like peppermint but I can appreciate the candy making as an art form. I did make marshmallows with my nieces one afternoon and that was fun, messy and delicious.
    Leigh recently posted..The Malaysian Wet MarketMy Profile

  2. Wow…that is absolutely NOT how I pictured peppermint candy being made. Absolutely fascinating to hear about, and I can only imagine how interesting it must have been to watch. I don’t even like peppermint, but I’m really wishing I could reach into your picture and grab one of those canes. Hopefully the tradition does get carried on.
    Steve recently posted..What I Want Hotels to Know About Me (and What I Don’t)My Profile

  3. What a sweet post…pun intended! I watched candy being made the other day for the first time and was mesmerized by the process. Good to see these guys are holding on to the tradition!
    D.J. recently posted..Carnival vs Royal Caribbean vs Norwegian – Comparing Cruising’s Big ThreeMy Profile

  4. Truly a labor of love. One of the reasons I travel is to see people doing things the old-fashioned way. I\’m always intrigued. Now I want a peppermint candy 🙂
    Sherry recently posted..Scenic Drive to Maui’s WineryMy Profile

  5. What an interesting process and I never knew all that hard labor into making peppermint. That must have been such a great experience to watch the whole process from start to end. How great to find out about your grandmother.
    Mary recently posted..Five Fun and Free Things to do in Reykjavik Iceland with KidsMy Profile

  6. I agree, Mary. It’s an interesting process, a great experience and a treat to learn about my grandmother.

  7. I love to see that too, Sherry. It makes travel so much more interesting.
    Wish I could have saved one for you.

  8. Hahaha! It’s quite an amazing process, glad you were able to experience it.

  9. Hope so too, Steve. I’ve been asking around, especially the older generation to see if other people remember, practice or teach it. So far, I haven’t met anyone else who knows about it. Okay, next time, I’ll send you a few.

  10. Thanks, Leigh. I’ve never made marshmallows but I can just imagine how much fun it was, especially with kids.

  11. Wow! I bet that tastes good.

    I can see why it’s not made by hand so much any more.
    Hakea recently posted..4/52My Profile

  12. I do, too, Narelle. It wouldn’t be cost effective but it sure tastes good!

  13. Great post! Making peppermint candies is a tradition Jamaicans are preserving. I love peppermint candies as well.
    Sarah Park recently posted..How to Open a Laundry BusinessMy Profile

  14. Great article! I think homemade candy canes would be delicious!
    Michael Figueiredo recently posted..Greetings From… Carlsbad Caverns, New MexicoMy Profile

  15. Thanks, Michael. They’re quite delicious.

  16. Me too. Peppermint candies remind me of childhood and outdoors.

  17. That is an amazing labor of love! WoW! 🙂
    ElizOF recently posted..Weekly Photo Challenge: KissMy Profile

  18. You’re right, Elizabeth. It is an amazing labor of love.