Those who are fans of Harry Potter books may note J.K. Rowling’s mention of the sweet peppermint humbugs. These are not a magically invented sweet, and may reference Dumbledore’s love of “muggle” sweets that runs throughout the Harry Potter series. What’s interesting about the reference is Harry’s careful avoidance of the sweet, which may imply they were a magical take on a classic sweet, or just something to be avoided in general.
Peppermint humbugs are a simple treat, typically flavored with peppermint, and often featuring black and white stripes. They may come in different shapes and sizes. Some are round, relatively flat cylinders, and others are raised pillow shapes with pinched ends. As far back as the mid 19th century, they were known as humbugs, though the recipes have since changed. Some still describe them as chewy and sticky, but in the 1800s they truly were, and were often a combination of sugar, peppermint oil and different types of gum substances. Today they are considered more of a hard candy, excellent for sucking on instead of chewing up.
Perhaps Harry avoided the sweets at the table because they were involved in a terrible poisoning case in Britain that killed 20 people by accident in 1858. A man named William Hardaker was using a substance called daft to substitute for sugar in peppermint humbug sweets. Unfortunately, a tragic error at the pharmacy meant he accidentally purchased arsenic instead of daft. A full 200 people were poisoned by arsenic due to this mistake, and 10% of them died. Since this occurred in England, it is possible that children regard peppermint humbugs there with certain wariness, as many of the victims were children.
History aside, you can actually find a variety of humbugs on the market. They aren’t always flavored with peppermint, and some have red stripes rather than white ones. Anise seed is a typical alternate flavor, and peppermint humbugs can come in the shape of black balls rather than in pillow or cylinder shapes. You can also occasionally find strawberry humbugs, and at least in the UK you may be able to find dietetic sweets, which don’t contain sugar.
You’ll find a few recipes for peppermint humbugs online, but they’re not that much different from typical flat cylindrical peppermints you’d purchase in the US from companies like Brach’s®. Even the pillow shape bears some resemblance to certain forms of candy mostly available at Christmas in the US. The name’s origin in the UK is lost, and is not a reference to Scrooge’s use of the term humbug in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. However you may find peppermint humbugs in greater abundance around the winter holidays.