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Candyfloss;The detective story;Discovery series;Discover fairs

It seems that candyfloss has been sold at fairs in this country for about as long as anyone can remember. However, few people know of its origins or why it is so rarely sold anywhere but at fairgrounds.

The first appearance of what we would recognise as candyfloss is uncertain. Some historians believe that it was invented at the court of the French king Louis XIV, where it was made by spinning melted sugar around two wooden sticks. Others, though, think it hails from India, where it is sold in street bazaars. What is indisputable, though, is that candyfloss was first produced commercially on a large scale in the United States.

In 1903, William J Morrison and John C Wharton patented an "electric candy machine" and sold "Fairy Floss" (the name by which it is still known in Australia) at the St Louis World Fair. It was an instant success, netting the two huge profits.

Although far more efficient, the design of the machine remains fundamentally un-changed today (even if a top-of-the-range model can cost around pound;15,000). Sugar is cooked in a container, which is spun by an electric motor. The centrifugal force generated by the motor pushes the melted sugar through tiny openings in the container where it emerges as very fine threads. These become brittle and sticky when they meet the cooler air outside the drum, making candyfloss as we know it.

In 1907, a half-page advertisement appeared in The World's Fair, the British showmens' trade paper, for such a machine. Always on the lookout for new and exotic products (such as coconuts and bananas, both thought of as very special at the time), showmen immediately recognised the machine's potential. Before long, children around the country were happily getting stuck into candyfloss.

By the Second World War, candyfloss had become so popular that the government allowed showmen extra sugar rations with which to continue production. To deny people their favourite treat would harm morale, it was thought. Nor was this the only privilege granted showmen at the time: extra rations of diesel, coconuts, plus various types of food and goods came their way from a government keen to keep fairs open.

Many women found that the war had increased their taste for candyfloss, though not for obvious reasons. Dr Vanessa Toulmin, research director of the National Fairground Archive at Sheffield University Library, recalls being told by her mother that women often used uncoloured candyfloss as a substitute for hair lacquer, which at the time was almost impossible to find.

Why, though, can candyfloss only be bought at fairs, seaside resorts and similar outdoor venues? One obvious reason is the mess floss-covered kids might make. But while low production costs can mean big profits, the shelf life of the product is brief - two hours at the most before it collapses.

But there is one good way of converting the waste. Any hardened floss left after the fair has closed is prised out of the floss-making machine, added to water and vinegar in a saucepan, then boiled. Finally, apples on sticks are rolled into the liquid after it has thickened. Have a toffee apple.

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