Friday, February 5, 2016

The Sweet Life, Part 1

One of the most respected professions in the eighteenth century was that of confectioner.  Their skill set elevated them above a mere cook or baker and if very successful in their craft, they could receive high financial rewards and a social standing denied to other food professionals.  Most confectioners were employed by the aristocracy or the royal families.  Others ran their own businesses in cities and large towns.  They sold luxury table furnishings and a variety of sweetmeats and treats.  There were also books being published to inform housekeepers and hostesses about the genteel craft of confections.  One of the earliest cookbooks published outside London was a small work on confectionery in 1737.  The art of confectionery has been socially acceptable to high-ranking ladies since the Tudor period when the knowledge of setting a banquet was a necessary skill.  The expensive nature of the ingredients meant servants were often not trusted to use the materials and the confectionery work became the responsibility of the lady of the house making it a genteel and refined activity. 

                The basic materials of early confectionery were expensive exotic materials from the Mediterranean or the Middle East: sugar, citrus fruits, almonds, rosewater and later chocolate from the New World.  At first many sweats would be imported before Europeans learned the techniques of making them.  Sugar was the most important ingredient.  Sugar cane is indigenous to Southeast Asia.  Romans knew of it from their trade with Arabia and India but its use had been confined to medicine therefore Romans used honey as a sweetener in their kitchens.  In India and Southeast Asia sugar cane was chewed to extract the sweet juice.  The development of boiling the juice to make sugar crystals was done in India and then the technique moved west to Mesopotamia.  The Persians and Arabs used sukkar for treating colds and bronchial disorders.  During the medieval period Venetian and Genoese traders controlled the trade of Arabic products until the Portuguese broke this monopoly and started cultivating sugar cane in the Azores and later Brazil.  Centuries of experimentation and a clearer understanding of this plant transformed it from medicine and sweetener to preservative then artistic medium. 1 

                Europeans were importing sugar from the Arabs as early as the 12th century but this was a very expensive food stuff like many spices coming from southeast Asia.  Plantations were being built on Islands in the Mediterrean including Cyprus but the demand was low and production small because of the labor intensive work.  Slaves from the Black Sea area and some from Africa were brought to do the work of harvesting and boiling.  The Portuguese brought sugar cane plants first to the Canary Islands in the Atlantic and then by the 15th century explorers like Columbus brought sugar cane to the New World and plantations grew throughout the Caribbean and South American colonies using African slave labor to make sugar cheaper for trade.2 

                The apothecary had the most important role in the early history of sugar in Europe.  For northern Europeans remedies for rheums and fevers from the middle east were enthusiastically adopted.  Twisted sticks of pulled sugar called al panad in Arabic were sold as cough sweets and then other drops made from ground pinenuts, almonds, cinnamon, cloves, ginger and liquorice were still being prescribed in 17th century England “for such as those who have Coughs, Ulcers and Consumptions of the Lungs.”3    Lozenges and medicinal syrups were a mixture of such things as rosewater, gold leaf and sugar.  Quiddany of green walnuts and quince marmalade could be prescribed for vomiting, weakness of the stomach, inflammation of the mouth and throat.  Recipes for these home remedies would be found in the same manuscripts as the preparations of preserves and confectionery.  It was the alleged digestive and warming properties of sugar that gave it an important part in the medieval void or ending of a state meal.  The king or lord “closed” his overfull stomach by eating comfits (sugar coated spices and seeds) and drinking a sweet spiced wine called hypocras. The range of sweetmeats consumed at this “aftercourse” grew dramatically turning into an elaborate sweet banquet in later centuries.  The sweet banquet grew into a delight for the eye and palette with lavis and dramatic displays of sweetmeats and sugarwork but the medicinal purpose of soothing the stomach after a heavy meal still remained.  These marmalades and spice mixtures were the equivalent to our indigestion tablets.  Caraway and aniseed comfits were two of the most popular comfits along with slivers of cinnamon sticks and ginger. 
            Of course it was also understood that the excessive consumption of sugar was a health risk but the thought that sweetmeats possessed beneficial medicinal properties probably helped.  Thomas Tyron in the 17th century stated “great quantities of the Confectioners Hodge-Podge, and the Cakes, the Buns, the ginger-bread &c.  All which do wonderfully fur and abstruct the passages”. 4  Comfits at first referred to all kinds of sweetmeats made from fruits, roots, or flowers preserved with sugar but by the 16th century they were specifically a seed, nut or small piece of spice enclosed in a round or ovoid mass of sugar.  The production of these comfits for the “void” was the core skill of early confectioners who were also called comfitmakers.  One of the earliest detailed accounts of comfit making was in Sir Hugh Platt”s “Delights for Ladies” in 1600.  He describes the equipment needed along with “the arte of comfetmaking, teaching how to cover all kinds of seeds, fruits or spices with sugar”.  In 1820 illustrations of the equipment used by the confectioner matched the 1600 description, the apparatus did not change until the 19th century when it became mechanized.  The items to be coated would be put in a balancing pan and coated with layers of a gun Arabic solution to seal in natural oils and help the sugar adhere.  A copper beading funnel, with a screw thread spigot, regulated the flow of syrup.  As the items dried they would be put over a gentle heat provided by a chaffing dish and rubbed between hands to separate them.  When completely dry a ladle would pour a thin syrup into the pan to “pearl” the items.  Sieves of different grades made from perforated leather were used to sort the finished comfits into sizes.  If they were to be colored this would be added to the syrup in the last few coats.  Up to twenty coats of sugar could be layered on items depending on what type of comfit is being made.  Muskadines, or breath fresheners, were made by scenting sugar paste with musk, rosewater and orris powder and then were cut into diamond shapes.  By the 19th century other flavors like coffee, chocolate, bergamot and vanilla were used for these smooth lozenges.  Almond comfits were also flavored with floral essences like rose and orangeflower, jasmine and bergamot.  The density and temperature of syrup used by the comfitmaker was critical and a whole range of sugar boils was developed by the medieval Arabs then the Renaissance Italians but finally published by the French, hence the French names, including Le petit lisse, all the way to Le caramel, 14 different boiling points of sugar.5 

To be continued…

1              Day, Ivan.  “The Art of Confectionery”.   
3              Salmon, William New London Dispensatory London 1692 p. 636
4              Tryon, Thomas The Good Housewife made a Doctor London 1692 p.155
5              Day, Ivan. “The Art of Confectionery”.

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