Willy Wonka was British, you know. It makes sense: we Brits have a sweet tooth, but it's been refined over the years. Not for us the sugary punch in the mouth of a Three Musketeers. Oh no. British snacks of the sweet kind are much more sedate. We’re all about texture. If American candy and cookies are like a Corvette roaring down a freeway at 100 miles per hour, British sweets are like a wonderful and infinitely varied fleet of bicycles. It's a complicated and convoluted world, British candy and cookies, but let's approach it in the form of a good old-fashioned taste test so you know, when you next get the chance, which to covet. Here are six to consider.
Perhaps the king of British chocolate snacks. It’s two thin chocolate biscuits, sandwiched with chocolate cream, and coated in a thin (cheap tasting) chocolate cover. For years it’s been advertised with the slogan “p-p-pick up a Penguin”, and children have in droves. They’re also wooed by the perennial presence of a joke on the bar’s wrapper. They’re never good, and invariably involve penguins (the animals). Such as this doozy:
Why do penguins carry fish in their beaks?
Because they haven’t got any pockets. (I know! I know!)
Sometimes they’re not actually jokes, but trivia. But there’s an unwritten rule, passed down through generations: if you’re in the presence of others while eating your Penguin, you must offer up the feeder line for the joke, and see if anyone knows the punchline. It’s as British as the royal family, bad teeth and good comedy.
Taste factor: 6/10
THE BLUE RIBAND
Launched in 1937, the Blue Riband is a quintessentially British snack. It's almost like a souped-up KitKat. But instead of two dense wafers wrapped in chocolate, you have a single chunky, airy and ganache-filled finger coated in chocolate. It’s the bar you’ll be served when you visit your grandparents, presented neatly on a tea plate with a selection of other options.
Boasting just 99 calories per bar (“hey look! Chocolate can be sorta healthy!”), the Blue Riband is named after an unofficial prize given to the fastest cruise liner to cross the Atlantic. That’s meant to associate it with high-class luxury travel—the bar’s heyday was the 1950s—but like many products, the association is mostly aspirational. The Blue Riband is and always has been a bar enjoyed by those on a tight budget. Sadly, the British obsession with class means that the Nestle-produced bar has always been put down in comparison to its peers, but it’s delicious (if a little dry).
Taste factor: 8/10
For all that the Wagon Wheel is a British biscuit, it was originally invented in the 1940s to answer the mania then enveloping our country for all things American. It was a time where school kids played Cowboys and Indians on the playground, and western miniseries were broadcast over wireless radio every night.
When they first came out, Wagon Wheels were known for their heft. At 36g per biscuit, they were enormous at a time when wartime rationing was still looming large over UK households. They’ve shrunk a bit, and they're great in concept (like a chocolate-covered s'more, they couch marshmallow between two chocolate cookies), but they taste synthetic as hell. They’re a guilty pleasure for a day when you want to taste artificiality more than something that actually tastes good.
Taste factor: 3/10
TERRY'S CHOCOLATE ORANGE BAR
Simply one of the best candy bars available in the UK. It does pretty much what it says on the label. It’s delicious milk chocolate with a taste of orange that melts in your mouth and generally perks up your day. Chocolate and orange go together like coffee and cigarettes, or cookies and cream. They were born to be together, and most people who buy a Terry’s chocolate orange bar snarf it down within seconds. It’s that good.
Taste factor: 10/10
THE AINSLEY HARRIOTT CHOCOLATE HEAVEN BAR
Chef Ainsley Harriott is one of those uniquely British characters: In his 50s, campy, makes frequent reference to his friends Suzie Salt and Percy Pepper. You guys have Emeril and Guy Fieri: we have Ainsley, who you may know from his forays across the Atlantic. The guy’s so cool that he’s even referenced in an Obie Trice song (“I cook up the hot shit like Ainsley Harriott/That's why I'm so miraculous").
But despite being a national treasure, Ainsley’s career was on the wane after the cancellation of his TV show "Ready Steady Cook" in 2010. But never fear! Ainsley had a fallback. He had signed a deal with Rivington Foods Limited and released the Ainsley Harriott Chocolate Heaven Bar in the mid-2000s.
And let me tell you, this is no false advertising. Wafers generously filled with a hazelnutty ganache and covered in a super thick layer of luxury chocolate make this bar well worth its name. It may be a young pretender, but it’s getting close to holding the mantle of best chocolate bar in Britain.
Taste factor: 10/10
THE TUNNOCK'S CARAMEL WAFER
There’s not a lot that most British people will credit the Scots for, but Tunnock’s is one of them. This company has been rolling out biscuits and snacks since 1890, and they're gold-and-red-wrapped products (and there are plenty of them) are considered the Rolls Royce of snacking.
One of the best is the Caramel Wafer. More than 5 million wafers are made and sold every week by Tunnock’s, which shows just how popular they are. Imagine five layers of wafer, each brought together in harmony with a layer of caramel. Then encase the whole thing in chocolate made from sweet, sticky condensed milk. Now you’re realising why these things are so beloved. The bar has even had an appreciation society formed in its honour at St. Andrews University in Scotland.
Taste factor: 9/10
So if you are ever in England, or have British relatives with voluminous suitcases, or you happen to come across a great selection of import candy (such as can be found here), which of these should you stock up on? The one that you just have to try is the Tunnock’s Caramel Wafer, followed closely by the Terry's Chocolate Orange Bar. If you can get your hands on an Ainsley Harriott Chocolate Heaven Bar, then enjoy it for all you’re worth: those things are rare, even over here. And if you're looking for a conversational topic with a Brit visitor, talk of Penguins—and their terrible jokes—are a common bond, much like chatter about the weather, so you can’t go wrong there either.
Chris Stokel-Walker is a 23-year old freelance writer from the UK. Photo of Terry's Orange Chocolate Bar by Evan-Amos.