Black treacle is a heavy, thick, dark syrup, similar to molasses.
In fact, it is made from sugar cane molasses that is refined a bit further, until it has a slightly more burnt, bitter taste than does molasses.
Sugar Australia says,
“TREACLE is a viscous dark brown to black liquid that has a stronger flavour and aroma than golden syrup. It is produced from a partially hydrolysed sugar syrup.” Liquid Sugars. Sugar Australia. Accessed August 2020 at https://www.sugaraustralia.com.au/sugar-australia/products/industrial-products/liquid-sugars/
The BBC food site compares it to the blackstrap grade of molasses:
“Treacle is the British term for uncrystallised dark syrup, known as dark or blackstrap molasses elsewhere.” Treacle recipes. BBC food. Accessed August 2020 at https://www.bbc.co.uk/food/black_treacle
Black treacle is very popular in Britain, where it is used as North Americans would use molasses.
Perhaps the best known brand is Lyle’s Black Treacle, made by Tate & Lyle and sold in tins. In Australia, there is a brand called “CSR Treacle”, sold in plastic bottles.
Different types of treacle
Note that just the term “treacle” by itself doesn’t necessarily mean black treacle. The Penguin Companion to Food says:
“A term which in Britain may be correctly applied to various sugar syrups including golden syrup obtained during the process of sugar-refining, ranging in colour from just about black to pale golden, is in practice used mainly of the darker syrups, brown or black, which are called molasses elsewhere.” Davidson, Alan. Treacle. The Penguin Companion to Food. London: The Penguin Group, 2002. Page 966.
It also notes: “the dark, thick treacle… was more common in the 19th century than now.” Ibid., page 954.
A related syrup, “light treacle”, is now better known by the name of “golden syrup.” This syrup is slightly less bitter than black treacle.
Black treacle uses
Black treacle is loved for the caramel flavour it lends to items, particularly baked products, it is used in: “Treacle… is used to give a rich, caramel flavour to sticky toffee pudding, ginger cakes, fruit cakes and sweets.” Treacle recipes. BBC food. Accessed August 2020 at https://www.bbc.co.uk/food/black_treacle
Sugar Australia says,
“Treacle’s colour and flavour make it suitable for baking applications and for the production of certain confectionery items.” Liquid Sugars. Sugar Australia. Accessed August 2020 at https://www.sugaraustralia.com.au/sugar-australia/products/industrial-products/liquid-sugars/
Black treacle is especially known for its use in the dessert known as “treacle tart.” It is also used in various English desserts known as “thunder and lighting.” Davidson, Alan. Treacle.
Some recipe writers feel that black treacle lends spicy, gingery overtones to a dish that molasses does not. Nigella Lawson writes on a sticky toffee pudding made with black treacle: “It seems redolent of ginger, cloves, allspice – and yet none of these spices are used.” Nigella’s sticky toffee pudding. Accessed August 2020 at https://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/sticky_toffee_pudding_05454 . A recipe blogger who had to substitute molasses for black treacle wrote, “So I used molasses instead. Which is NOT the same. I love the result – bits of spicy ginger, damp, dark, and not overly sweet. But it was very molasses-y, rather than gingery.” In bed with Jane. Blog entry, 13 January 2009. http://www.calamityshazaaminthekitchen.com/2009/01/in-bed-with-jane.html
The makers of CSR (Colonial Sugar Refining) Treacle in Australia say,
“Treacle is used in baking and helps to increase the moisture content. With its deep colour and slightly bitter taste, Treacle is ideal for gingerbread, rich fruit cake or any recipe that calls for Golden Syrup but where you’d like a bigger ‘hit’ of the molasses flavour.” Sugar Kitchen: Your complete usage guide for CSR Sugars and Syrups. Accessed August 2020 at https://csrsugarkitchen.com.au/content/uploads/CSR-SUGAR-KITCHEN-USAGE-GUIDE.pdf
Owing to its pronounced flavour, many recipes call for just a few tablespoons of it.
When measuring out treacle by the spoonful, heat your spoon until warm first. This allows you to take a spoonful more cleanly from the tin.
Black treacle expiry date
In recent times, expiry dates have appeared on the tops of tins of Lyle’s Black Treacle, along with the ominous warning, “Dispose of on expiry”.
Lyle’s addresses the expiry date on their site, “It is recommended all Lyle’s products be consumed within three months of opening. Over time pressure can build up in the tin in the space between the syrup and the lid, therefore it is not advisable to use these products if they are past their best before date.” Accessed August 2020 at https://www.lylesgoldensyrup.com/faqs
The FAQ on Lyle’s site does not address the issue of whether the treacle is still safe to consume.
Googling on “treacle explode”, it appears that explosions of the expired tins, while rare, are not entirely uncommon either. Here’s one food blogger’s experience:
“Let me take a minute to explain here about the warning label that comes on the can of black treacle. It says “After expiry date DISCARD IMMEDIATELY”. I take such expiration warnings lightly. If something is expired but still under seal, chances are if it doesn’t smell terrible, I will still eat it. Hey, I am still here aren’t I? However, those black treacle folks mean that when black treacle expires, it explodes. Yep. Yep, it does. Which is how I got black treacle on the ceiling and in my hair and on the floor. And all over the shelves. Oh, and everywhere.” In bed with Jane.
Sugar Australia says that quality wise, treacles don’t require a use-by date:
“Flavour syrups, particularly golden syrup and treacle are quite stable and have a useful life in excess of 2 years and thus do not require a ‘use by date’. There may be some darkening of golden syrup over time.” Liquid Sugars. Sugar Australia. Op. Cit.
CSR Treacle gives no warning about treacle containers exploding:
“Treacle should be stored at ambient temperature, although it may be warmed just prior to usage. Sugar Australia will expect a useful shelf life of 2 years for drums as delivered and remaining in their sealed and unopened containers.”
It’s interesting to ponder whether the exploding issue might be related to the Lyle’s brand being sold in tins. While the Lyle’s brand is shipped in tins, the CSR brand is shipped in a plastic bottle, with a screw-on plastic cap. This might make the CSR brand more likely to let off any pressure building up in storage gradually.
Heating tins of treacle
Do not heat tins of treacle.
An unsulphured, light molasses.
1 tablespoon = 15 ml = 20g
In the 1720s, the word treacle was still appearing in some writings with its original sense of a healing liquid or balm (see Language Notes below).
But by 1725, it appears to have also been common to use the world treacle to mean the sweet syrup that it does today. Here are directions on using treacle in brewing. Note the writer conflates the term treacle with molasses:
“As for molusses [sic] spirits, if rum is so wholesome that is distilled from the first scum of brown sugar, what must that be which is distilled from the moist clammy part of the sugar when boiled and refined again in England, which is called mollusses [sic], or treacle, only two names for one and the same thing: now the spirit made from treacle must be finer than rum, because refined here, therefore hath not so great a small as rum hath; also age doth admirably help it….
The use of treacle hath prevailed abundantly within these few years, especially in the country trading towns, where manufacturers are settled, so that many hundred hogsheads a year are used with bread instead of butter, and it being palatable, warm in the stomach, and very nourishing, good in colds, against scurvy, and very nourishing, and (the doctors say) useful in many diseases. It hath this disadvantage in London, ’tis sold very cheap, therefore rich folks do not like it.
In brewing, treacle is not only very wholesome, but also very cheap; for 12 pounds of mollusses [sic] is of equal strength or rather stronger, than a bushel of the best malt, and by consequence; now molusses [sic] is cheap, much cheaper than malt. The way is using treacle is thus, half a quarter of an hour before you cease boiling your wort, put in your treacle.
This is the method I take, and now I care for no other beer, and I never knew it turn sowre. I advise you to try, and then, my friend, you’ll say as I do.” Caledonian Mercury. Thursday, 15 July 1725. Page 3, col. 1.
From this point on in articles, if “treacle” is mentioned in a newspaper article, to determine whether the medicinal or sugar syrup is meant, you have to look for a qualifier such as “Venice”, or judge by the context. How much is being called for — one or two ounces, or a pound or two (the medicinal is used in very small quantities) — or what ingredients is it being used with.
In 1757, a letter-to-the-editor writer advised that treacle was good with rice:
“I am content to furnish him with some expedients, which I have heard mentioned in discourse. The poor, he says, want bread. I suppose he means wheat bread. We are told, that in default of this, they may make use of potatoes, and the means have been pointed out, by which they may serve, not only for bread but for meat too. Then there is rice, which is said to be a delicate food, more especially when mixed with treacle, and some other things of the same kind, which I do not at present recall.” A letter to the editor, originally in the London Evening Post, reproduced in: Oxford Journal. Saturday, 25 June 1757. Page 1, col. 1
By 1770, at least some people were using treacle in their Christmas baking:
“We hear from Hopton in the parish of Mirfield, that a farmer in that village, remarkable for his sweet tooth, made a plumb cake on Christmas-eve, without the assistance of his wife or any other woman, consisting of four pecks of flour, 12 lb. of treacle, 5 lb. of butter; 8 lb. of raisins and as many currants, two quarts of marrow, with other suitable spices, and sweetened with sugar to this own taste: He baked it in three large stone bowls, and a double-sheeted dripping pan of an uncommon size; the whole is supposed to have weighed nearly 90 lb. and the voracious epicure nearly devoured it all himself.”  Leeds Intelligencer. Tuesday, 23 January 1770. Page 3, col. 3.
An advertisement for treacle appeared in the Derby Mercury on Friday, 04 April 1777. It was offered by the pound, or the hundredweight.
In Yorkshire, in 1774, a man was “treacled and feathered” for sexual improprieties:
Extract of a letter from Middleham, in Yorkshire: “Since I wrote to you last, an extraordinary affair happened here. A reputable married tradesman (whose name is L –) had been attempting to use some violence of a particular nature to his servant girl. She next day complained to the neighbours; the story with amazing rapidity ran from mouth to mouth through the village, when a mob of people arose, beset his house, and took him prisoner. They proceeded much after the Irish form, but with more decorum; for after having instituted a tribunal of justice of their own, with proper officers (pro tempore), they passed sentence, that the culprit be treacled and feathered, and carried in a chair upon a hand-barrow (on the shoulders of two tall men) round the village; which sentence was most rigorously put in execution, to the no small diversion of the inhabitants. Being thus disgraced, he obtained a warrant to carry some of the ringleaders to a neighbouring magistrate; but the Magistrate, like an honest country squire, upon hearing the parties, he thought the tradesman merited the punishment inflicted upon him; and, finding the precedent new in England, advised him to pocket this outrageous insult, and dismissed the prisoners.” Hampshire Chronicle. Monday, 01 November 1784. Page 1, col. 3.
Fowler’s West India Treacle
A now defunct brand was Fowler’s black treacle, which they called “West India Treacle”. Fowler’s were based at Glasshouse Wharf in Blackwall, London. We’re not sure when the business began, but it was listed in “Morris’ Business Directory” as of 1884 as being at Orchard Place, Blackwall, 24 Mark Lane.  Sugar Refiners & Sugarbakers Database. Accessed August 2020 at http://www.mawer.clara.net/sugarff.html
The firm continued to expand in the Blackwall area.
“No. 31 Orchard Place: Upper Wharf: About 1902 the wharf was acquired by the Fowler Brothers, the sugar merchants and refiners already established at Glasshouse Wharf on the opposite side of the road (see below). Fowlers immediately erected a new refinery here which soon superseded the older premises at No. 34. The new building was designed in 1903 by John Clarkson, whose firm and its successors also designed additions to the refinery in 1924 and 1927, as well as a new warehouse (1912–13) and a sugar store (1928). The largest structure on the wharf was the single-storey, brick-and-corrugated-iron sugar warehouse of 1912–13. Along the north side of this was a range of other premises, including the refinery itself, a three-storey brick-and slate building comprising on the ground floor a caramel room, and two caramel floors above. Fowlers continued to refine sugar here until the 1970s.” ”Leamouth Road and Orchard Place: Individual wharves and sites.” Survey of London: Volumes 43 and 44, Poplar, Blackwall and Isle of Dogs. Ed. Hermione Hobhouse. London: London County Council, 1994. 655-685. British History Online. Web. 23 August 2020. http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vols43-4/pp655-685.
In 1976, Fowler was bought out by Manbré and Garton, another sugar refining business:
In 1976, [Manbré and Garton] took over Fowler Ltd, a small cane-sugar refinery on the banks of the River Lea in Blackwall, which produced a range of products including West Indies Treacle.”  O’Connell, Sanjida. Sugar: The Grass that Changed the World. London: Virgin Books Ltd. 2012. Ebook.
Manbré and Garton made their own treacle at their Hammersmith refinery, though it’s not clear if this included black treacle: “1970s: The [Manbré and Garton] sugar refinery was producing various grades of liquid and dry sugar for all uses in the food and drink industries, including sucrose, glucose, treacle and syrup.”  JTP Architects. Hammersmith Embankment. Accessed August 2020 at https://www.jtp.co.uk/cms/pdfs/Fulham_hammersmith_riverside_a1_cpw_complete_set_first_10_s.pdf
Later that same year, Manbré and Garton was taken over by Tate & Lyle. Ibid.
Literature & Lore
A treacle well was (and still is, in England) a well whose waters are considered to have healing properties. In “Alice ‘s Adventures in Wonderland”, Lewis Carroll refers to a treacle well, which is assumed to be that of St Margaret’s in Oxford because of the background events that led to the story:
“Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland arose from a story told to the Dean’s children, and begins with the poem ‘All in a golden afternoon ‘, describing Friday July 4th, 1862. Lewis Carroll had arranged a picnic with a friend , the Revd Robinson Duckworth, a Fellow of Trinity College, and the ‘Duck’ in the story…. Their passengers were the three daughters of the Dean of Christ Church…. The party were rowed from Folly Bridge to Godstow, where they disembarked for the picnic. They passed, on the South bank of the river, the site of the Holy Well in the churchyard of St Margaret’s, at Binsey. Possibly they landed and looked at the well, and [Carroll] explained why it was called a treacle well.” Hughes JT. St Margaret’s well at Binsey near Oxford
‘Once upon a time there were three little sisters’, the Dormouse began in a great hurry; ‘ and their names were Elsie, Lacie and Tillie; and they lived at the bottom of a well.
‘What did they live on?’ said Alice, who always took a great interest in questions of eating and drinking.
‘They lived on treacle’, said the Dormouse, after thinking a minute or two.
‘They couldn’t have done that, you know,’ Alice gently remarked; ‘they’d have been ill.’
‘So they were,’ said the Dormouse; ‘very ill.’
‘Why did they live at the bottom of a well?’
The Dormouse thought for a minute or two and said ‘It was a treacle well’.
‘There’s no such thing!’ Alice was beginning very angrily, but the Hatter and the March Hare went ‘Sh! Sh!’ and the Dormouse sulkily remarked, ‘If you can’t be civil, you’d better finish the story for yourself’.
— Alice ‘s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll
The old English word was “triacle”. Back when treacle still had its medicinal meaning, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote: “Christ, which that is to every harm triacle.”
“Galen, a Greek physician born c. AD 130 in Pergamon, Asia Minor, who studied at Alexandria and practised in Rome, wrote extensively on theriake. The Latin is theriaca. The Greek adjective theriake is derived from therion, ‘a wild or venomous animal’, and modified a noun to describe an antidote to the bite of a wild beast. … The Middle English was tryacle or triacle, from which arises treacle. That this word was in common use in the sixteenth century is evident from the ‘treacle’ bible, also called the ‘Bishops’ bible, an early translation of the Bible into English. 20 Jeremiah, chapter 8, verse 22 reads: “ls there not triacle at Gilead: Is there no Phuition there: why then is not the health of my people recovered?” Hughes JT. St Margaret’s well at Binsey near Oxford
The word “treacle” in English originally meant a medicinal compound.
At St. Margaret’s Church, in Binsey, near Oxford, there is a famous “treacle well”, whose water was thought to have healing properties, and thus it was known as a treacle well.
“Why a treacle well? This was a common name for a healing well, and local place names still describe treacle wells and treacle mines. The current use of the word treacle for the black product of sugar cane from the West Indies dates only from the 17th century. The earlier meaning of a therapeutic is much older. [See language notes.] Hughes JT. St Margaret’s well at Binsey near Oxford: the treacle well of Alice in Wonderland. Pharm Hist (Lond). 2004;34(4):54-58.
A medicinal treacle compound (“theriaca” in Latin) made in Venice was particularly sweet, and by means of this, the name slowly came to be transferred to the thick sugar syrup.
This medicinal treacle could be referred to by various qualifiers, which frequently indicated the origin of the preparation. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) says, “In the names of particular kinds, with various qualifications, indicating place of origin, etc.; as treacle of Andromachus = Venice treacle; treacle of Genoa, treacle of Flanders, London treacle, Roman treacle.”
The OED further comments on “London treacle”: London Treacle… This seems to have been designed as a Succedaneum [substitute] for the Mithridate, or Venice Treacle, and is that which the Country Apothecaries sell the Farriers under the general Name of Treacle, which many of the latter distinguish from the common Molossus-Treacle, by calling it, The Doctor’s, or the Apothecaries Treacle.”
You can see the evolution of the usage of the word treacle in newspapers of the early 1700s.
In 1721, a political writer referred to treacle as a cure:
“That the diseases and distempers in the body politick were grown to that height that for a cure, examples ought to be made, so that the causes and authors of the nation’s miseries might be as treacle to expel the poison of mischief out of others. Caledonian Mercury. Monday, 17 April 1721. Page 2.
By 1725, as seen in the History section above, treacle was being commonly used to refer to the sugar syrup. Perhaps this is the reason why, in 1728, a writer, writing about treacle the medicinal compound, made sure to distinguish it as Venice treacle:
“The day that the King went to the laboratory at Versailles, to see the drugs that were made use of in the composition of (Venice) treacle, M. Pier, his chief apothecary made this speech to him:
“Your Majesty now sees the dispensation of one of the most famous antidotes of antiquity, and a medicine which the great Roman emperors caused to be prepared in their presence. History reports, that the Emperor Servus had such an opinion of treacle that he would not trust any private man with the composition of it, but took care himself to collect the most precious drugs, which were the ingredients of that famous composition, so persuaded he was, that without such precaution this precious remedy would be inefficient, as happened indeed afterwards, by the avarice of knaves and quacks, who every day carry on a scandalous traffic with it, even in fairs and other publick places, which counterfeit treacle has nothing to recommend it but the name and colour of the true.” From the St James’s Evening Post, May 29. Paris, May 29. In: Newcastle Courant, Saturday, 1 June 1728. Page 1, col. 1.
A 1730 recipe for the cure of the bite of a mad dog called for six ounces of rue, four ounces of garlic, four ounces of Venice treacle, and four ounces of pewter or scraped tin. Ipswich Journal – Saturday 19 December 1730. Page 3, col. 2.
Throughout the 1700s, in English newspapers it appeared to be increasingly common that when the medicinal treacle was meant, it was referred to as “Venice treacle” (or one of the other qualifiers mentioned earlier), while when just “treacle” was said, the sugar syrup was meant.
Griffin, J P. “Venetian treacle and the foundation of medicines regulation.” British journal of clinical pharmacology vol. 58,3 (2004): 317-25. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2125.2004.02147.x
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||Liquid Sugars. Sugar Australia. Accessed August 2020 at https://www.sugaraustralia.com.au/sugar-australia/products/industrial-products/liquid-sugars/|
|2.||↑||Treacle recipes. BBC food. Accessed August 2020 at https://www.bbc.co.uk/food/black_treacle|
|3.||↑||Davidson, Alan. Treacle. The Penguin Companion to Food. London: The Penguin Group, 2002. Page 966.|
|4.||↑||Ibid., page 954.|
|5.||↑||Treacle recipes. BBC food. Accessed August 2020 at https://www.bbc.co.uk/food/black_treacle|
|6.||↑||Liquid Sugars. Sugar Australia. Accessed August 2020 at https://www.sugaraustralia.com.au/sugar-australia/products/industrial-products/liquid-sugars/|
|7.||↑||Davidson, Alan. Treacle.|
|8.||↑||Nigella’s sticky toffee pudding. Accessed August 2020 at https://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/sticky_toffee_pudding_05454|
|9.||↑||In bed with Jane. Blog entry, 13 January 2009. http://www.calamityshazaaminthekitchen.com/2009/01/in-bed-with-jane.html|
|10.||↑||Sugar Kitchen: Your complete usage guide for CSR Sugars and Syrups. Accessed August 2020 at https://csrsugarkitchen.com.au/content/uploads/CSR-SUGAR-KITCHEN-USAGE-GUIDE.pdf|
|11.||↑||Accessed August 2020 at https://www.lylesgoldensyrup.com/faqs|
|12.||↑||In bed with Jane.|
|13.||↑||Liquid Sugars. Sugar Australia. Op. Cit.|
|14.||↑||Caledonian Mercury. Thursday, 15 July 1725. Page 3, col. 1.|
|15.||↑||A letter to the editor, originally in the London Evening Post, reproduced in: Oxford Journal. Saturday, 25 June 1757. Page 1, col. 1|
|16.||↑||Leeds Intelligencer. Tuesday, 23 January 1770. Page 3, col. 3.|
|17.||↑||Hampshire Chronicle. Monday, 01 November 1784. Page 1, col. 3.|
|18.||↑||Sugar Refiners & Sugarbakers Database. Accessed August 2020 at http://www.mawer.clara.net/sugarff.html|
|19.||↑||”Leamouth Road and Orchard Place: Individual wharves and sites.” Survey of London: Volumes 43 and 44, Poplar, Blackwall and Isle of Dogs. Ed. Hermione Hobhouse. London: London County Council, 1994. 655-685. British History Online. Web. 23 August 2020. http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vols43-4/pp655-685.|
|20.||↑||O’Connell, Sanjida. Sugar: The Grass that Changed the World. London: Virgin Books Ltd. 2012. Ebook.|
|21.||↑||JTP Architects. Hammersmith Embankment. Accessed August 2020 at https://www.jtp.co.uk/cms/pdfs/Fulham_hammersmith_riverside_a1_cpw_complete_set_first_10_s.pdf|
|23.||↑||Hughes JT. St Margaret’s well at Binsey near Oxford|
|24.||↑||Hughes JT. St Margaret’s well at Binsey near Oxford|
|25.||↑||Hughes JT. St Margaret’s well at Binsey near Oxford: the treacle well of Alice in Wonderland. Pharm Hist (Lond). 2004;34(4):54-58.|
|26.||↑||Caledonian Mercury. Monday, 17 April 1721. Page 2.|
|27.||↑||From the St James’s Evening Post, May 29. Paris, May 29. In: Newcastle Courant, Saturday, 1 June 1728. Page 1, col. 1.|
|28.||↑||Ipswich Journal – Saturday 19 December 1730. Page 3, col. 2.|