‘More than 5,000,000 of these biscuits made and sold every week’. So it says on the wrapper of a Tunnock’s Caramel Wafer which is made in the Tunnock’s factory in Uddingston, a small town seven miles from Glasgow in Scotland. Five million bars is an impressive number of bars. If this is made up the number of the biscuits made in a week and the number sold in a week, it’s a bit like double counting.
Tunnock’s, registered name Thomas Tunnock Limited, has two main lines, the Caramel Wafer and the Tunnock’s Tea Cake, both sold in milk or dark chocolate. A Tunnock’s Caramel Wafer is a bar of five layers of wafer, interspersed with four layers of caramel, and coated in chocolate, made from cocoa and milk solids. The milk chocolate wafers are wrapped in red and gold foil paper, the dark chocolate variety in blue and gold.
A Tunnock’s Tea Cake bears no relation to a teacake, which is a sweet roll with dried fruit added to the mix, which is usually served toasted and buttered. It consists of a small round shortbread biscuit covered with a dome of Italian meringue, a whipped egg white concoction similar to marshmallow, which is encased in a thin layer of milk or dark chocolate. The milk chocolate teacakes are wrapped in red and silver foil paper, the dark chocolate teacakes in blue and gold. Three million Tunnock’s Tea Cakes are sold and made every week.
Both the wrappers of the tea cakes and the wafers are ‘dead-wrapped’, that is without glue, so the wrappers come off quickly. There are two other Tunnock products, the Snowball, soft marshmallow with a chocolate flavoured coating, and the Caramel Log, a wafer and caramel biscuit, again with a chocolate flavoured coating, both sprinkled with roasted coconut.
The company was formed as Tunnock’s in 1890 by Thomas Tunnock, who was born in 1865, when he purchased a baker’s shop for £80 in Lorne Place in Uddingston. The two core products were introduced in the 1950s to replace cake which used sugar and fat that was still rationed after the Second World War, and which had a short-shelf life. The company is said to be the 20th oldest family firm in Scotland still in operation. It employs 520 staff and is headed by the grandson of Thomas, Boyd Tunnock CBE. The company has resisted pressure to make own brand biscuits for supermarkets. The face of the Tunnock’s Boy appears on much of the packaging of Tunnock’s products. You can read more about Tunnock’s and the factory in Uddingston here.
In Scotland, Tunnock’s Tea Cakes have an iconic status, possibly evoking memories of childhood or symbolising ‘home’ for Scots around the world: the company exports to 30 countries, the biggest being Saudi Arabia. Factory tours are so popular that the there is a two-year-long waiting list. It is said that the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service gives Tunnock’s Tea Cakes to blood donors after giving blood. Dundee University has a Tunnock’s Tea Cake Appreciation Society and St Andrews University in Fife has a Tunnock’s Caramel Wafer Appreciation Society.
Other products or brands have followers and fan clubs, one of the more well-known is the spotters club of Eddie Stobart trucks which has over 25,000 members. There is a fan club for the chocolate spread Nutella, and for the canned meat Spam. There is even a fan club for the penetrating oil WD40. Whether or not this is a case of a company seizing an opportunity, or an otherwise ordinary even dull product catching the public eye, I don’t know, but Tunnocks is in a different class. You can’t feel fondness for a truck surely.
Ted Hughes, Poet Laureate 1984-98, seems to have had a soft spot for Tunnock’s Caramel Wafers. He wrote three ditties on the back of wafer wrappers and donated them to the St Andrews’ appreciation society. One of them is now in the hands of the Scottish Poetry Society.
To have swallowed a Crocodile
Would make anybody smile
But to swallow a Caramel Wafer
Tunnock’s Tea Cakes may have iconic status, but to me Tunnocks still sounds mildly humorous, a bit like tussocks, or the Trossachs, a range of hills north of Glasgow. It’s a catchy name, and it’s a big name. The Tour of Mull, an annual car rally held on the Isle of Mull, off the west coast of Scotland, has been sponsored by Tunnock’s since 2005. Promotional items such as teacake and wafer wrapper tea towels, aprons, cushions, tote bags, umbrellas and mugs, and even a Tunnocks truck and a van, are produced by a Glasgow-based firm, Orb. In 2013, Tunnock’s agreed that the supermarket giant, Tesco, could sell its promotional items.
I can recall in the 1950s when my family were staying at a guest house whilst on holiday in Cliftonville near Margate in Kent, daringly going into the kitchen at tea-time and asking for a second marshmallow teacake. I was fascinated by the catering size square tin that held 48 teacakes. They were wrapped in red and silver foil so I assume that they were Tunnock’s. Once eaten, I would conscientiously smooth out the foil wrapper into a square, and then fold it up.
It’s not just Tunnock’s Tea Cakes and Caramel Wafers that are famous. In 2014 Snowballs were in the headlines when Tunnocks, and nearby competitor, Lees of Scotland, both makers of snowballs, each received a windfall VAT refund. They appealed against a ruling by HM Revenue and Customs that snowballs were confectionery, which is subject to VAT, arguing that they were cake, which is not. According to a BBC report, which you can read in full here, the judges were presented with a plate of Jaffa Cakes, Bakewell tarts, tea cakes, Lees Snowballs, Waitrose meringues and mini jam snow cakes during the hearing. ‘We tasted all of them, in moderation, either at the hearing or thereafter’ said Judge Anne Scott. ‘A Snowball looks like a cake. It is not out of place on a plate full of cakes. A Snowball has the mouth feel of a cake’ she added. The tribunal ruled in favour of Thomas Tunnock and Lees of Scotland that snowballs were cakes.
Retired RAF squadron leader Tony Cunnane told in 2013 of how in the 1960s Tunnock’s Tea Cakes became a favourite snack of the crews at RAF Gaydon in Warwickshire, who flew V-bombers, Britain’s nuclear deterrent. As well as being a welcome snack on long flights, crews noticed that the mallow in the teacakes would swell with increasing air pressure above 15,000 feet, and the chocolate would crack. This discovery kept different crews fascinated for weeks. However the days of the teacake as a snack ended after several unwrapped teacakes exploded on the instrument panel.