Sunday, November 4, 2012

A Spoonful of Sugar

When you inspected your child's bag of Halloween sweets, did you find any comfits? Marzipan? Torrone? What about a pennet or some candied lemon rind?

Such were the treats your child might have received on All Soul's Day in Renaissance times.

During the sixteenth century, the sugar industry boomed.  Portuguese and Spanish entrepreneurs planted cane fields and built state-of-the-art refineries in the Caribbean and South America. Sugar flooded onto the European market at a stable price. Though still a luxury item, sugar's ready availability allowed creative cooks to develop it into new and novel treats. Some of the more common ones were:

  • comfits: seeds, spices and nuts coated in sugar. Best-selling varieties included combinations of aniseed, coriander, cinnamon, pine-nuts, pistachios, and hazelnuts. Comfits were manufactured by placing the nuts and spices in a pan and repeatedly coating them with sugar syrup. Each layer had to dry before the next layer was applied; sometimes the comfits were hardened in a stove between coatings.
  • marzipan (or marchpane): a malleable candy dough made from almond paste, confectioner's sugar and rosewater. Marzipan could be sculpted, painted, and trimmed with gold leaf. Nuns often created and sold marzipan fruits and vegetables to support their convents. As a teen, Leonardo da Vinci sculpted figures from marzipan and presented them to the Prince of Milan, whose guests gobbled them up with little appreciation for their artistry. Da Vinci also made marzipan models of cities and military fortifications for Lorenzo de Medici.
  • torrone: a nougat candy made from egg white, honey, sugar and nuts. Layered torrone, challenging and time-consuming to create, became a delicacy of Italian courts.
  • pennets: twisted sticks of pulled sugar mixed with starch and sweet almond oil.
  • candied fruit peel: the chopped rind of citrus fruit preserved in sugar.

In accord with classical teaching, Renaissance healers considered sugar to have medicinal value--it tempered the powerful and often harmful strength of spices and brought them into fuller humoral balance within the body. Most medicines contained sugar, and, being a medicine itself, sugar was sold in various forms and grades at apothecary shops. Apothecaries sold sweet treats as well as plain sugar. Specific treats were prescribed for various ailments: patients with sore throats could suck on chips of damascene sugar, while those with upset stomachs might find relief by eating pennets. To regain their strength after childbirth, women benefited immensely from a healthy intake of marzipan and comfits.

Too bad the reputation of sugar has plummeted in eyes of today's medical community. Imagine feeding your child--or yourself--candy bars and gummy bears without a twinge of guilt!

Now go sneak that Hershey's Kiss from your child's goodie bag. I promise I won't tell!


Encyclopedia of Kitchen History by Mary Snodgrass (Routledge 2004)
Making and Marketing Medicine in Renaissance Florence by James               Shaw and Evelyn S. Welch (Rodopi 2011)
Sweets: A History of Candy by Tim Richardson (Bloomsbury 2002)


Read other posts on the topic of "Candy" by members of my writing group:  Marci Jefferson and Susan Spann.


Marci said...

Julianne, I love this fantastic research!! Can you imagine? EATING a Da Vinci sculpture!! I had no idea!! Thank you for sharing your vast knowledge!!

Julianne Douglas said...

Marci, the Da Vinci anecdote was new to me, too! Mary Snodgrass included it in her Kitchen History book. Leonardo recounted it in his Notes on Cuisine, written in 1470 when he was only 18! What couldn't that man do?!

Susan Spann said...

What a fantastic post!! I love comfits - there's a local candy store that makes both comfits and torrone at this time of year, and I never understood why! Now I do. Awesome! I might just have to make a trip over there this honor of the historical significance of course!

Julianne Douglas said...

Oooh, find out what's in the comfits!