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Scotland's Larder: Blair Blacklock & Sean Walker from Moffat Toffee

We talk to Blair Blacklock and Sean Walker about the changing flavours of the Moffat Toffee, and the sweet smell of confectionery success.

Published: March 9, 2022
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Many Border towns have their own unique confectionery; Jedburgh has Jethart snails, Berwick has Cockles, Galashiels - Soor Plums, Hawick ... balls, but in Moffat it is a traditional boiled sweet, known as toffee, that the locals cannot get enough of.

Sweet dreams

Blair Blacklock's great grandmother, Janet Cook Johnstone founded the business more than 120 years ago. Blair began making toffee full time in 1959 when he took over the business when his father became unwell.

Blair Blacklock's great grandmother, Janet Cook Johnstone founded the business more than 120 years ago.

His childhood sounds like a sweet dream, but Blair points out that although he had his choice of sweets, "I had to work for it." So, as a schoolboy he had helped out in the shop on Saturdays and during holidays.

Taking it easy

Blair has since retired, stepping away from the day-to-day running of the business, at one stage he ran a cafe alongside the sweet shop and had two other stores in Pitlochry and Peebles. But he decided it was all getting too much so he sold off the other shops to concentrate on Moffat.

Now, aged 85, he just pops in every so often to see how things are going.

Fortunately Blair was able to hand over the reins to Sean Walker who manages the entire operation with the help of four full-time members of staff.

Blair says: "I'm quite happy leaving everything to Sean, apart from a wee bit of advice now and again, which he doesn't always listen to!"

Moffat

Sean, a local lad, began working for Blair as a schoolboy 20 years ago and tells me: "I never left." Blair explains that Sean just worked his way in, "always clean and tidy and willing to do anything". And in return Sean said Blair is: "The most easy going boss you could ever have."

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Luckily, the business has adapted and changed to keep up with the times. In 2020 Sean was responsible for ringing the changes by and introducing new Moffat toffee flavours including: Irn Bru, Soor Plum, Blue Raspberry, Kola, Strawberry and Cream, Pineapple, and Vim Toffee (Vimto). Sean explains the Irn Bru toffee has a little secret ingredient which gives it a bit of fizz, "I haven't seen that in any other Irn Bru sweets before so we were the first to do that."

The Original

Although they sell well in Blair's opinion," they look very gaudy". Diversifying is one thing but the original Moffat toffee and tablet has been the staple product of the business for years. Blair adds: "I used to make coconut ice and peppermint tablet which no longer sell, but now Sean is making ginger tablet and salted tablet which do."

Blair was born in 1937 and just remembers the war. "There must have been some agreement that made sugar available for sweet making because we kept going right through the war. The only time we have had to close the shop was with Covid."

During lockdown production was shut down completely. Blair: “What annoyed me was that we were closed and yet the various supermarkets could continue selling sweets quite happily."

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The Moffat Toffee shop
Blair Blacklock owner of Moffat Toffee. Photo: Lisa Ferguson

Hand made

In Blair's heyday toffee was made in small batches of 10lbs by hand. The whole process, he tells us, was "hard and hot, because the factory had quite a low ceiling. You'd hang and pull the boiling sugar until it turned opaque as you stretched it."

As a result, he says, "I had pecks like nobody's business from pulling toffee."

Despite modern mechanisation, Sean tells me that it is still hard work, because they still use the old fashioned copper pans, which are "quite heavy".

They also use a big wooden paddle to stir the sugar, "so it is definitely a good workout. It takes two people to lift the pot up and pour it onto the cooling table." Seven years ago a mechanical breakdown meant they did run out of stock. Sean: “People were not happy. It was non-stop making for two weeks to get supply levels back up. I lost about a stone in weight."

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Sweet sensation

Blair's favourite sweet is of course Moffat toffee. "I always have a tin of that in my car, it is very refreshing." But nowadays he tends to go for chocolate gingers or nuts and fudge or flavoured tablet, but adds: "I suck everything, just to see what it is like." But since retirement Blair limits his consumption and refrains from taking sweets home, "as I'll eat it in minutes".

"I still have my own teeth. I think you either have good teeth or bad teeth nothing to do with what you eat".

Before the pandemic and Brexit, Moffat Toffee was exported abroad and they are both hoping that international orders return later in the year. But for just now, it is just for customers across the UK, both online and wholesale. While the sweet shop itself relies on tourists. Over the years there have been some famous people that have popped in to the shop including, Mollie Weir and Jimmy McGregor but Blair jokes, "you'll not remember them."

I ask: “What if Alan Sugar comes calling?”

Blair replies that he might be tempted to "take the money and run. If someone came along with a huge cheque for me but I would talk it over with the family shareholders and probably end up selling it."

He wouldn't blame anybody for selling up but that is a hypothetical question at the minute. Blair's secret to longevity is "everything in moderation. a little drink now and again. I have never smoked and I don't take any drugs of any kind, apart from cod liver oil."

Sean Walker weighing out Moffat Toffee. Photo: Lisa Ferguson

Tastes sweet

Stepping through the shop door the smell hits you but Sean says: "Unfortunately I can't smell it anymore; I've spent too much time round about it, which is a bit disappointing."

Sean is partial to midget gems. He adds: "We think we have the biggest selection of jars in the UK so not far off a thousand different varieties." So, plenty of sweets to choose from.

People’s tastes have changed over the years, but Moffat toffee remains basically the same, and they sold more than 15 tonnes of the original flavour last year. Describing the taste, Sean says: "It changes flavour from the outer coating, which is treacley caramel to a refreshingly lemony centre."

Blair tells us the correct way to eat it is: "Suck it, and don't chew it.”

Mixing it up

Sean loves experimenting with the sweet stuff, but he avoided changing the original recipe until recently when he introduced the new flavours. "They used to do flavoured Moffat toffee years ago but they just didn't prove to be that popular at the time."

They also make bonfire toffee which is cooked to a higher temperature which gives it a singed treacle flavour as well as normal toffee, cinder toffee, coulters candy, nut brittle, and 15 varieties of fudge and six varieties of tablet.

During the pandemic the number of customers were limited in the shop but normally it is a busy place which Sean says: "Makes you proud."

Stepping inside is like walking down memory lane. “Ssome people like to give you a challenge and ask for something from their childhood but usually we have it. If there is something you can't get anymore we will attempt to make it as best we can."

The Moffat Toffee shop
The Moffat Toffee shop. Photo: Lisa Ferguson

They are currently working on mint cracknel but haven't perfected it yet. In store, the sweetie jars are displayed by the manufacturer. Sean explains: "If one jar gets put away in the wrong space it causes a bit of chaos. The hardest bit when you start working here is trying to remember where all the sweets are."

Sean is dedicated to his work: "I'm never away from the shop and I even live around the corner and work long hours in the summer, I'm here from 6am till 10pm some nights." It was hard during the lockdown when the shop was closed for four months. “We were all on furlough, even me."

Sean adds that when the shop first reopened after lockdown, "it was just me in the shop because we didn't know how busy it would be”. However, since reopening he is delighted to report that "it is back to being busier than ever".

Cheers

Sean explains another tradition, started by locals, was dissolving crumbs of toffee into vodka. This gave Sean the idea for another new development. He approached Solway spirits distillery in Annan with an idea: "You could see the distiller’s face light up at the suggestion."

After a few attempts at experimenting with different amounts of toffee they have found the winning boozy formula with a range of gin, vodka and rum which they sell. Now they are working with Sulwath brewery in Castle Douglas to perfect a beer!

Sean says: "I was drinking a parma-violet infused beer and thought why not a Moffat toffee beer."

And some local restaurants and hotels even use the broken crumbles to make their desserts.

Moffat Toffee is a taste of Scottish history, and Sean and Blair are the only ones who know the secret recipe, Sean jokes: "We should probably write it down."

The Moffat Toffee shop
The Moffat Toffee shop. Photo: Lisa Ferguson

Moffat Toffee Shop


13 High St
Moffat
DG10 9DW, UK
01683 220032

Catriona is based in the Scottish Borders and works as part of the audiovisual team at the Scotsman but she reviews restaurants for Scotland on Sunday and writes for Scotsman Food and Drink in her spare time.

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