Friday, 28 December 2007

Little Known Facts: Wine Gums, Face Packs and Edam

Up until the middle of the last century wine producers used a mixture of beeswax and pectin to seal their bottles. The filled, corked bottles would be dipped, neck down, into a heated vat of the wax mixture. As a final stage an épéiste (literally, 'swordsman') would pare away any excess wax before the bottles were packed in straw-lined panniers for transport. At the end of the day the wine workers would sweep up these waxy, 'wine gum' parings and take them home as treats for their children.

Unconscious forerunners of the 'honey for health' movement, their wives soon discovered that the wax was restorative to the complexion, and took to kneading it into pancakes for application to the face. In an impoverished society in which nothing was wasted, the used face packs were often subsequently employed to wrap home-produced cheeses. This was found to prolong the life of the cheese, and was the origin of the wax coating on Edam and Gouda cheeses.

Unfortunately the beeswax/pectin formula was attractive to rodents and weevils, while the recycling of facepacks as cheese wrapping became implicated in the spread of scarlet fever. By 1850 the wine trade had switched to sealing-wax derived from gum arabic, whilst cheese producers favoured the more malleable paraffin wax, which had become abundant as a by-product of coal gas manufacture.

It was an enterprising Toulouse confectioner named Franck Litoshe who devised the first custom-made wine gums. Modelled on bottle-seals and flavoured with fortified wines, brandy and liqueurs, his sweets quickly became popular as a pacifier for teething babies. The green ones (Chartreuse) were considered to be particularly efficacious; three or four could knock an infant out for up to eight hours.

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