Throwback Thursday: Cork cakes that were the best thing since sliced pan

Is it just me, asks JO KERRIGAN, or did the bread and cakes of yesteryear taste so much better? This week, she revisits the bakeries of bygone days
Throwback Thursday: Cork cakes that were the best thing since sliced pan

SWEET MEMORY: A Thompson’s Chocolate Slice in all its glory. Many older readers may recall they had their own unique way of eating them - making the treat last for longer!

FOOD is a hot topic at the moment. The ever-increasing prices (has anybody noticed that in some cases the pack might look and be priced the same but is smaller and lighter)? The shortages of those favourites which were usually shipped in from the UK and are now endlessly delayed due both to Brexit and general shipping delays (probably caused by Brexit too, let’s blame it all on that, why don’t we?)

What were your favourites in childhood? Not that you could afford them very often on your sparse pocket money, but what did you hope to find in the kitchen cupboard or in the laden shopping bag your mother wearily lugged home on the bus?

Iced buns from Thompson’s? Maybe a Fuller’s cake as a huge treat? But biscuits definitely. Remember Sphring-sphrongs? (aka Coconut Creams), Kimberley, Mikado? That fluffy marshmallow stuff kept cropping up everywhere. I wonder how it was manufactured up there at Jacob’s?

 Today they make them covered in chocolate, which doesn’t seem quite right. You should be able to see the bouncy layer on top or in between.

And Fig Rolls. Remember the big adverts which purported to ask, ‘How do they get the figs into Fig Rolls?’

For the more economically minded, not to mention straitened households, Marietta was the inexpensive pack of choice, and if you were lucky, you might be able to sandwich two of those plain, flat little discs together with butter (or indeed margarine).

Lincoln Creams were almost as plain. Then there was the slightly thicker Goldgrain, aka Digestive. Did they? Aid digestion, that is?

And of course broken biscuits from the small shop down the road. 

Those Jacob’s biscuits came in tins with glass lids, but inevitably there were broken bits, and these got put in a special container all their own, at a low price. The proprietress would shovel some into a brown paper bag and hand it over the counter, receiving your penny or twopence in return, and that store of comestibles would last you through a day of adventuring around the lanes of the city or the open fields beyond .

Delivery men for Houlihan’s Bakery in Clonakilty, Co. Cork, in October, 1959
Delivery men for Houlihan’s Bakery in Clonakilty, Co. Cork, in October, 1959

Tim Cagney, who grew up in Cork in the 1950s, and attended Christians, remembers that his daily journeys to and from school (in at nine, home for dinner, back for the afternoon, and finally home again) brought him past the old Thompson’s bakery, which dominated MacCurtain Street.

“I lived on Gardiners Hill, so I had a choice of two routes - either along Wellington Road, or the aforementioned MacCurtain Street. Choosing the latter meant that I walked by a large open factory door, out of which would come the most heavenly aroma of freshly-baked bread.

“These, of course, were the days preceding the widespread availability of that soul-less concoction we know today as the sliced pan. 

"You would buy Thompson’s bread as a soft loaf, with beautiful, crunchy crusts, and slice it yourself.

“I used to particularly enjoy eating the crusty end-bit (we knew it simply as ‘the crust’), liberally coated with lovely, yellow, salty butter. The bread was at its best when eaten absolutely fresh, despite parental warnings of ‘it will stick in your stomach if it’s too doughy’.

“This doctrine was affirmed, somewhat, by a man named Michael (‘Micka’) O’Keeffe, who worked in Thompson’s as a baker,” recalls Tim. “‘Micka’ was a great friend of my late father and was forever telling him that bread was best eaten when it was ‘one day old’. Most of the time, of course, I ignored such sage advice, and eagerly attacked the loaves as soon as they arrived home - still nearly warm - from our local shop.”

Now that will bring back fond memories to many readers.

USING THEIR LOAF: Children stocking up on bread ahead of a bakery strike in Cork in May, 1945.
USING THEIR LOAF: Children stocking up on bread ahead of a bakery strike in Cork in May, 1945.

Didn’t we all nibble the irresistible crust at the corner of the ‘scull’ or the ‘duck’ as we brought it back from the shop? No slice served at mealtimes, no matter how well buttered or jammed, ever tasted as good as those crisp, crunchy corners secretively consumed in the street.

The Thompson’s factory, remembers Tim, spread along MacCurtain Street and up around the corner into York Street, “which inclined its way up a coronary-inducing gradient toward Wellington Road. I paid little attention to the name-plate at the bottom of the hill, however, and elected instead to accord it the fictional title of ‘Thompson’s Hill’.”

But, Tim reminds us (as if we needed reminding) that Thompson’s not only baked bread, but made cakes, as well.

“By far my favourite, among these, was the ‘Chocolate Slice’. This was composed of two layers of munchy ‘cake’, with a spread of a firm, chocolatey, mousse-like substance sandwiched in between. On the top layer of ‘cake’ there was a very thin coating of chocolate, the whole being crowned - in the centre - by a blob of icing (usually pink).”

Now, pay attention, readers, because there could be a possible confusion of identities here. Thompson’s made two different slices which could both be called ‘chocolate’. One was the delicacy of Tim’s childhood, the other a softer sponge with dark icing, wholly chocolate throughout.

They were both, if we have our facts right, priced at 4d - back then when things stayed at the same price forever, or so it seemed.

On which theme... does anyone remember small boys daringly running into a shop and calling, ‘Hey missus, how much are the sixpenny bars?’ before running out again, overcome with delight at their own wickedness?

Tim remembers that he would eat this confection in an almost ritualistic fashion, drawing out the pleasurable experience as much as possible.

“I would first cut the whole cake in half crossways, and eat one half. I would then separate the upper and lower ‘decks’ of what remained, and eat the central mousse on its own, before finishing proceedings by eating the remaining portions individually.”

You are not alone in this, Tim, we can tell you.

A surprising number of children remember their own way of consuming a special treat, and none of them involved stuffing the entire thing into one’s mouth and chewing spasmodically before swallowing the lot. Treats were more difficult to come by back then, and we made the most of them.

Mr Cagney well remembers watching his father consuming one of these slices in what might be termed a ‘normal’ fashion, biting his way through it, from end to end.

“I used to wonder why he did not choose a more creative way of eating it.” 

Ah, age forgets the joys of youth.

Another child of the 1950s, Tom, used to buy one of the 3d Thompson’s chocolate tarts whenever he could afford it. Remember those? A little round short-crust pastry base, some white mallow layered in this, and covered with a thick layer of chocolate paste.

“I would get a teaspoon and eat the chocolate and mallow first, scraping it carefully out and not damaging the pastry base,” recalls Tom.

“Then I would get some jam from the cupboard - my mother made all her own jams, and we always had plenty on the shelves - and fill the tart again, before eating it. So I got two cakes out of one, if you like!”

Katie O’Brien applied the ritualistic mode to Fry’s Cream Bars (4d back then, and thus more expensive than the 3d Cream Bar, or indeed the tiny narrow Cadbury’s thrupenny chocolate.

“First, you would bite off the side ledges of chocolate which were thicker, and then carefully try to lift off the top layer from the fondant centre. Finally, the delicious fondant, along with the chocolate base, was eaten.”

Have you any memories of how you used to make the most of special treats, and try to make them last as long as possible? Tell us about them here at Throwback Thursday.

“Eating methodology aside, however,” continues Tim,

“I used to look forward eagerly to whenever chocolate slices appeared in our house.

“This usually happened on a Friday, as a kind of special treat, to compensate, perhaps, for the penitential fish dinner, usually served on said day.

“For me, the Chocolate Slice was an icon of Cork confectionery, as I never came across the unique design of the creation anywhere else.

“When I left Cork in 1973, I had to adapt my taste-buds to the competitive temptations of the likes of Bewleys in Dublin, but none of their creations ever matched the appearance or the delicious flavour of the chocolate slice.”

This expat Thompson’s fan had a pleasant surprise though when he paid a visit to the city of his birth in 2018.

“Of course, I took a stroll through the English Market. Imagine my delight when, in a glass cabinet at one of the outlets, my gaze fell upon an array of chocolate slices!

“I had, of course, been aware that Thompson’s had closed in 1984, and had assumed that the days of such delights had gone with it.”

Yes, Thompson’s closed, Tim, but an enterprising local bakery, which was only too aware of the legendary reputation of those delicacies, purchased the recipes and the right to reproduce them, and is still doing so. Good lads!

Mr Cagney eagerly purchased one of the cakes, and later, in the comfort of his hotel room, munched his way happily through the memories of childhood.

“I had to be content with washing-down the treat with a cup of coffee, however, as there was no sign of Barry’s tea among the in-room catering facilities - shame on the hotel, which shall remain nameless!

“I was delighted to note that the passage of time had done absolutely nothing to detract from the quality - or, indeed, the flavour - of the confection, so hats off to whoever is baking the chocolate slices these days.”

And - just in case you are wondering - yes, Tim did eat the cake in segments, just as in days of yore. Old habits die hard.

Now, before we finish, here is one query we should very much like to have answered. Rubber dollies. Remember those?

No, they weren’t toys, as today’s kids might expect. They were those inexpensive, lightweight white tennis shoes which everybody wore in summertime.

They may have been made by Dunlops, but we would like to know something more of them as they were universally seen all over Cork.

And where on earth did they get the sobriquet ‘rubber dollies’? Is it a purely Cork term, or do you find it elsewhere in Ireland?

If you know, tell us! Email or leave a comment on our Facebook page:

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