Monday, January 02, 2006

A sweet start to the New Year

Today, January 2nd …

Today is the eighth day of Christmas, and two right royal Frenchmen were given a great treat on this day in 1701. The Dukes of Burgundy and Berry, grandsons of Louis XIV were passing through the city of Montelimar in Provence, and were presented with one quintal of white nougat – the town’s specialty - by the mayor. Like so many other units of measurement, a quintal has varied over time and place, but in 1701 used to be about 48.95 kilos, so it is to be hoped that the royal grandsons didn’t eat it all at once.

Montelimar is “the nougat capital of the world”, but it was not invented there. The ancients all had sweetmeats based on honey, but it was the Arabs (who gave us the word “candy”, from their qandi) who were true confectionary artists. A thirteenth century manuscript in Istanbul – the only surviving medieval Arabic cookbook – contains a number of recipes for sweetmeats, and many of these are based on honey and nuts, and sound just like nougat (or halva). The Arabs took their nut trees and their recipes to Spain, and from there they spread to the rest of Europe, with the almond trees finding that they liked the area around Montelimar.

By amazing co-incidence, today is also the feast day of St Macarius, who was a merchant of candy and pastries before he became a hermit, so is the patron saint of pastrycooks and confectioners. Sweetmeats can be “wet” (fruit in syrup) or “dry” like nougat and “sugarplums” (candied fruit), but the latter are tricky for the faint-hearted and candy-thermometerless, so I give you this recipe for a sugared fruit, which would make a fine dessert, and is from a little cookbook from 1718 by Mary Eales, “Confectioner to her late Majesty, Queen Anne”, who must have been very busy as her boss was variously called “The Gouty Queen of the Gourmands”, “Brandy Nan” (because she liked a drop), and “the fat old bitch”.

To sugar all Sorts of small FRUIT.
Beat the White of an Egg, and dip the Fruit in it; let it lye on a Cloth that it may not wet; then take fine sifted Sugar, and rowl the Fruit in it ‘till ‘tis quite cover’d with Sugar; lay it on a Sieve in a Stove, or before a Fire, to dry it well; it will keep well a Week.

Tomorrow: Food in the city.

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