Sweet treat

fudge2Debbie O’Brien has given me a bar of smooth vanilla fudge and by the time I’m home 20 minutes later I’ve somehow eaten it all. I’m driving in a warm glow, almost like it’s hypnotised me. I don’t even feel guilty.

Later, I offer a slice of another bar, gingerbread flavour, to a friend, and she eats the lot (yes, you Sharon), and we discuss how much you’d normally pay for something that’s taken this long to make by hand.

Fudge is popular. If you want to stand out amid the numerous fudge-based stalls on Newcastle Quayside on a Sunday or at the region’s many and various farmer’s markets, you have to be good, and you have to offer good value. Debbie sells hers at just £2.50 a bar, each a piece of unadulterated double cream, milk, butter and sugar, no preservatives, nothing tinned, and each the fruit of a hellishly long process.

She’s now into her fourth year of production and during busy periods can easily spend 6am-11pm stirring, cutting, decorating and wrapping about 100 bars a day.

Her pan is the size you’d use for the family potatoes – it’s not exactly cooking on an industrial scale. Wouldn’t it save time to try a bigger one?

fudge3“I did try with a large pan, and I tried stirring two pans at the same time but it was quite hard to manage,” says Debbie. “Hot fudge can give you a nasty burn, as I know to my cost. But it’s also quality control. The bigger pan somehow doesn’t produce the same perfect consistency.”

It may not, but this is a long, lonely process, as she acknowledges. “Each batch is slowly brought to the boil and then hand stirred for up to an hour. It’s just me and Radio 4 or Facebook for company,” she says.

The next step is to cool the fudge a little, then beat it for up to 20 minutes with an electric whisk. Then Debbie adds flavourings.

There’s vanilla, gingerbread, salted caramel, which is very popular at the moment, sloe gin, creme egg, peanut butter, raspberry and white chocolate, prosecco with edible gold leaf, strawberry shortcake, and more.

“I’m always trying to come up with new recipes, many seasonal, as it’s such a competitive market and I’ll have between 12 and 18 on the go at any time. It’s a bit of trial and error. When it goes wrong I could cry after all the work that’s gone into it.”

Each tray is left to set for anything up to three days in the warmer months. Each tray makes 16 bars, and Debbie also makes up bags of smaller bites and drinking fudge ‘stir-ins’ designed to be plopped into a cup of hot milk. Everything is hand decorated with little gingerbread men, Easter eggs, raspberries etc, then turned so the underneath dries out properly. Finally, it’s wrapped and tagged.

fudge4Then she puts her feet up. No she doesn’t. “Weekends I’m always out and about at markets, and there are loads of food festivals coming up. They’ve now become my social life. They’re always a lot of fun and friendly and I absolutely love them. Winter’s obviously very cold – I come home and can’t move until I have a hot bath, but of course it’s the best time of year for fudge. I once did a summer fair in Allendale and it was so hot I had to pack everything up on ice. All I had on display was one bar of each flavour. It looked ludicrous. But it’s a nice life. And I’m getting a lot of very loyal customers.”

Currently, Debbie is renting a flat in North Shields and this is where it all goes on. Her upstairs kitchen window looks onto brick walls, a far cry from the views over hills and fields she had from the isolated cottage she lived in near Otterburn, Northumberland, until she moved closer to her grown-up children.

The burly Landrover Defender parked outside shows where her heart really is. “I will go back to Northumberland sooner or later,” she says. “This is temporary.”

Debbie has done all sorts in her life. She ran the Which-Craft hippy / gifts shop in Monkseaton for years, then sold old fashioned sweets from a travelling stall made of French apple crates, which took two hours to erect. “It looked fabulous but it just wasn’t practical. So I looked for something else and fudge came along. Now I’m obsessed.”
Available at farmers markets regionwide and at shops including Corbridge Larder and Belsay Village shop.

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