Kim Knight visits the creators of a colourful childhood treat and asks whether fairy bread can survive a sugar-free future.

The factory air tastes sweet. Bright, white, saccharine. Clap your hands and make a wish. We are behind the scenes of a fairy story.

In industrial Avondale, your shoes must have closed toes. At morning tea, the milk is regular and the pies are mince. Workers make rubber car mats and hot-water cylinders and shelving units for speciality shops.

Avondale is the centre of the universe we take for granted. Obviously, if New Zealand were going to have a fairy bread factory, this is where you would find it.

Advertisement

Wait.

New Zealand has a fairy bread factory?

Technically, Carroll Industries makes toppings and inclusions. Chocolate sprinkles, hokey pokey kibbles, sanding sugars and - for the purposes of this story - hundreds and thousands. Confectioners call these tiny multicoloured balls "nonpareils", which is French for "not the same". But anyone with a childhood knows them for what they are: The exact opposite of carrot sticks.

Modern kids eat plant-based sausage rolls and sugar-free tomato sauce. Their birthday cakes are sans gluten, their yoghurt comes from coconuts, not cows. Fairy bread is an anomaly. A bready, buttery, sugary survivor from the time when phones were still attached to the wall.

Does fairy bread have a future?

Earlier this month, a bunch of kids on a school holiday programme trekked through the New Zealand Herald's Auckland newsroom. I cut the crusts off a loaf of cheap white bread and spread it with yellow butter, soft from the microwave. I pressed those slices into a plate of tiny rainbow spheres and cut the bread into triangles. Those kids ate that fairy bread with a fervour chia seed bliss balls will never inspire.

Where do hundreds and thousands even come from?

"I think machines make them," said one child. "I don't think people work to make it."

Advertisement

Actually: "They make the machines and then the machines make the sprinkles."

A small girl standing to my left was quiet for a bit. "Maybe," she said, "Elves make them."

"Yeah," said the first child. "I think they're too busy making the toys for Santa."

The small girl rolled her eyes. "I mean, like, FOOD elves."

Well, duh.

Nobody knows exactly when the country's only hundreds and thousands manufacturer opened, but way back when (or, at least in 1977, when it was registered with the Companies Office) it was called Vanson Industries.

Keith Chapman bought the business from its Dutch owners, named it Carroll Industries for his middle name and ran it for more than a decade from the early 1980s. Canvas tracked him down to a deckchair in Brisbane.

The factory was in Henderson when Chapman owned it. He remembers clocking off at the end of each day, sticky with sugar.

"You go home like a big lollipop."

Where do hundreds and thousands come from?

"It's a tricky little bloody thing to make, actually."

Chapman sold up when he turned 50. He and Diane jumped on their yacht and never came back to Auckland.

"I'm one of the lucky ones," says the now 69-year-old. "Get out and do it, don't talk about it! Get off your butt and do it."

Seven colours are churned together for a standard fairy bread blend. Photo / Greg Bowker
Seven colours are churned together for a standard fairy bread blend. Photo / Greg Bowker

New Zealanders have been sprinkling hundreds and thousands for more than a century. A National Library Paperspast search turns up an 1897 Evening Standard "hints to housewives" column that calls for the confectionery to be sprinkled over a dessert of stewed rhubarb, cold custard and whipped cream. In 1910, readers of the Alexandra Herald were encouraged to decorate their sponge and jam trifles with "those tiny coloured sweets".

The Evening Star reports on the 1933 arrival of the naval ship H.M.S. Dunedin and an onboard party for more than 1000 children dressed as "Red Indians, cowboys, firemen, 'handsome' women, jockeys, skaters and such like". There was a skittle alley, a 300ft wire rope ride and "the children, in relays of 500, were treated to delightful tea of buns, cakes, bread sprinkled with nonpareils and chocolate shot, and tea".

Historians accept the first use of the term "fairy bread" in the context of a hundreds and thousands-laden party treat for children was in the Hobart Mercury in 1929. Before that, in Australia and New Zealand, fairy bread was a kind of thin, crisp toast. One newspaper article promotes it as a weight-loss aid: "No rolls, only fairy bread; no potatoes, sugar or butter should be included."

The sweet version, it's speculated, is named for an 1885 Robert Louis Stevenson poem: "Come up here, O dusty feet! Here is fairy bread to eat . . . "

In Australia, November 24 is National Fairy Bread day. Qantas once added fairy bread kangaroos to a pop-up buffet at Sydney airport. Fairy bread "explainers" proliferate online as the rest of the world tries to comprehend the rainbow-coloured wonder of an Antipodean childhood. "Hundreds and thousands of what?" asked one gastronome when presented with the recipe.

Back in the Herald's Auckland newsroom, I asked our panel of junior experts why they liked fairy bread.

"Because it's amazing."

Also: "Everyone likes white bread. And it's just white bread with sprinkles."

Stuart Walker, director of Carroll Industries, New Zealand's only hundreds and thousands manufacturer. Photo / Greg Bowker
Stuart Walker, director of Carroll Industries, New Zealand's only hundreds and thousands manufacturer. Photo / Greg Bowker

Stuart Walker is a former managing director of the Hansells Food Group. During its 12-month set-up phase, he was acting chief executive of The FoodBowl - a facility where companies can create commercial runs of new food products for market-testing, without the need to invest in major manufacturing plant.

Walker entered Carroll Industries as a consultant. The factory had changed hands at least twice since Chapman's days.

"How did that old shaving commercial go? I liked the company so much, I bought the business. And that was eight and a half years ago."

He signs his emails "aka Mr Sprinkles". When I phone to ask if we can video inside the factory, he says, "I suppose you'll want to see the room where we keep the Oompa Loompas?"

Auckland's answer to Willy Wonka greets us outside a nondescript grey building down a long right-of-way flanked by Norfolk pines. In the March storms, a branch fell and smashed through the factory roof like a lance. The night shift heard the bang. Another few metres and it could have been the most catastrophically New Zealand headline in the history of headlines.

Today, the safety briefing is routine. Hairnets, white lab coats and those ubiquitous closed-toe shoes. Walker shows us the machine that, every month, grinds up to 20 tonnes of Chelsea sugar to a fine powder.

"Sugar is the main ingredient for us. Probably 75 per cent of our raw material is sugar and, while we don't grow sugar in New Zealand, we get all ours from a New Zealand company. At least the refining margin - which is around $300-$350 a tonne - is going back into the local economy and creating jobs for New Zealanders."

He takes us past the ribbon blender where maize starch and maltodextrins are added.

"Then we take it over in tubs, to start the manufacturing process."

Walker pushes through a curtain of wide, flappy, plastic strips. Once upon a time, there was a factory that made hundreds and thousands.

Machines churn hundreds and thousands at Carroll Industries. Photo / Greg Bowker
Machines churn hundreds and thousands at Carroll Industries. Photo / Greg Bowker

There is no smell - hundreds and thousands are not cooked, so the sugar is never caramelised - but when you open your mouth, the sweet dust settles on your taste buds. The ceilings are high and there is a lot of natural light. You're in one of those movies where heaven is depicted as a monochromatic waiting room. The workers wear white, the machinery is white, the walls are white.

The air is very, very dry.

"We have a saying in our business - dryness is our best friend. If you can keep moisture at bay, you won't have a problem with mould. Moulds will be present, but they won't grow without moisture."

Walker is not exactly shouting, but it's noisy in here. Two rows of machines that look like a cross between concrete mixers and vintage bonnet hair dryers emit a constant, dull roar. Technically, these machines are called "pans". They churn, round and round and round. Workers add a little water and, as the sugar particles spin, they bind and grow.

"It's like a snowball," explains Walker. "They get bigger and bigger, then we take out the size we want."

Some quick and curious facts about hundreds and thousands: The optimal size is 1.5mm - any bigger and they're too crunchy. A regular blend contains seven colours (including white). All nonpareils start out white. It takes about 20 minutes of churning to colour one batch, another 10-12 hours to dry them out properly. Every batch goes through a sieve and a metal detector. The factory has adapted technology from milk powder plants; it commissioned women prisoners in Christchurch to sew 1200 pristine white tray cloths. The biggest industry trend?

"Natural colourings," confirms Walker.

Pinks from beetroot, blues from gardenia flowers and spirulina, orange from paprika, yellow from turmeric and carbon black from burned vegetables. "Know your E numbers," says the notice on the smoko wall.

"All the new business we're doing is by default natural colours, but really hardcore cake decorators, they just want the brightness," Walker says.

So there's another list of colours: tartrazine yellow, carmoisine red, ponceau 4R red, brilliant blue.

Back in our newsroom, I'd asked the kids what their favourite colour was and every second child said blue. I also asked them if different colours had different flavours. No, they confirmed. They all tasted like sugar.

Walker doesn't know why New Zealanders and Australians called nonpareils "hundreds and thousands".

"You look at them and you say, 'Well, there must be hundreds and thousands in there.'"

In Europe, he says, you might hear them referred to as "dragees". In the United States, especially in Philadelphia and Boston, the longer, extruded sprinkles are called "jimmies".

I ask a worker called Joe about the appeal of being a confectionery technician. He's lanky and heavily tattooed.

"I'm quite a fit person, and it's quite a physical job - I don't really have to go to the gym."

He gets to listen to music while he works and he loves colour. At the end of the day, he says, his already inked arms are overlaid with reds and blues - and "I love that". The inevitable Ooompa Loompa jokes? "Oh, you should be here when we're doing orange!"

October is actually peak orange. Halloween colours will be in hot demand this month. At Christmas, the factory does a lot of red and green. Sometimes, rugby clubs will request bespoke batches in team colours and Walker makes a point of supplying political parties equally. They have big commercial clients - he can't name them all, but he's quite proud of the product they made for a limited edition Whittaker's chocolate bar.

Why do hundreds and thousands appeal?

"I think it's just the colour and the variation. Anybody in the cake decorating world is selling colour and light."

Carroll Industries is the only factory of its kind in New Zealand. The market, he says, is just too small for anyone who might want to start from scratch today.

"You'd need a couple of million dollars, by the time you got the equipment, the know-how . . . the barriers to entry for a new player are sufficiently high that it would be unlikely somebody would come in and do that."

But the future of fairy bread is, he hopes, "good".

That sugar has to be looked at in context: "Only about 2 or 3 per cent of what you're eating is actually the hundreds and thousands that go on top."

In the factory, we watch Joe adding red colouring to a pan of white balls. It swirls like raspberry ripple icecream, but the best is yet to come. Further along the factory floor, seven separate buckets of colour are tipped into a single mixer.

"This where it gets quite pretty," says Walker.

The balls spin and slide like unicorns and rainbows and - well - fairies.