In Monday’s post on the food of Persia as seen through the eyes of an English traveler, mention was made of the great love of the Lusitanians for sweetmeats. I was intrigued by this comment, as were several of you, my readers. The explanation is simple, as it turns out.
Lusitania was the name of a Roman province on the Iberian Peninsula. It included much of what is now southern Portugal and the adjacent part of Spain. The province was created and named by the Romans when they conquered the region in 237BCE.
I have, in the brief time I have given to it, been able to find out very little about the food of Lusitania at the time of the Roman occupation, although it seems certain that the staple food for both humans and stock animals was the acorn.
The Greek geographer and historian Strabo (c.64BCE – after 21CE) said of them:
“And the mountaineers, for two-thirds of the year, eat acorns, which they have first dried and crushed, and then ground up and made into a bread that may be stored away for a long time. They also drink beer; but they are scarce of wine, and what wine they have made they speedily drink up in merry feastings with their kinsfolk; and instead of olive-oil they use butter. Again, they dine sitting down, for they have stationary seats builded around the walls of the room, though they seat themselves forward according to age and rank. The dinner is passed round, and amid their cups they dance to flute and trumpet, dancing in chorus, but also leaping up and crouching low.”
The county of Portugal was created in the ninth century, but ‘Lusitania’ was still synonymous with the area in the seventeenth century – hence the reference which began this discussion. The Portuguese are well known for their love for sweetmeats – thanks to the period of time in which the Iberian Peninsula was part of the Arab empire.
“There is no nation in the world so fond of sweetmeats as the Portuguese. They always hand them about on their social visits” Letters from Malaba, Jacobus Canter Visscher (1862)
The following exerpts from another nineteenth century travelogue - Portugal illustrated: in a series of letters (1829), by William Morgan Kinsey:
… In accordance with an old rule of hospitality, still observed in some parts of the country, the Abbade placed his guests in arm-chairs at the upper end of the supper table, which was abundantly supplied with a great variety of dishes; and in addition to the substantial part of the meal, fruits and sweetmeats were served to us in profusion, and a biscuit called Inglezes, better even than the far-famed Leman ever compounded.
… There is a small convent at Belem, called "Bom Successo," inhabited by a few nuns, chiefly natives of Ireland, whose principal means of subsistence are derived from the sale of sweetmeats and ornamental baskets for flowers. Their little trade ought to be lucrative, for sweetmeats are in universal request throughout Portugal, and form the principal luxury of Portuguese tables. We have often seen capacious goblets of water, in the discrimination of whose qualities it is the talent of all classes to exhibit great acuteness, slowly imbibed, in order to increase and prolong the taste of the preserved fruits in the mouth. It is to this habit of eating sweetmeats, as provocatives to drink deep draughts of water, which blow the body out, that Costigan ascribes the little fat, pursy, misshapen persons of the nobility, who are usually seen incased within a monstrous circumference of a pale and unwholesome sort of churchyard fat.
… The tea-party at night, if the complimentary visits of persons unknown to each other are then paid, is a formal dull sort of assemble, which not even the large goblets of pure delicious water, handed round by the servants with sweetmeats and a variety of excellent cakes, is at all able to enliven. A formidable battery of observation is frequently established by the ladies apart, which temerity itself would scarcely venture to approach.
And from another nineteenth century travel book, we have a little more detail of Portuguese sweetmeats:
The forte of Portuguese cooks is their confectionery, to the immense quantities of which devoured by the upper classes half of their illnesses are owing. Preserves that would not disgrace a Parisian confectioner may often be procured in the poorest estalagems—of quince (marmalada), of peach (doce de pecego), of plum (doce de ameixa), of orange (doce de laranja), and of pumpkin (doce de abóbara).
A Handbook for Travellers in Portugal (1875) by J. Murray:-
I am always interested in English and American interpretations of ‘foreign’ dishes. Here are a couple:
Rub up four table-spoonfuls of ground rice, or semolina [sic], with three ounces of butter, and stir in it a pint of cream; stir it till it boils and is quite thick. Then stir in two whole eggs, and the yolks of three more, well beaten, with a quarter of a pound of loaf-sugar, a little salt and nutmeg. Butter a dish, and bake it an hour. When it is done, have ready another dish of the same size, or a very little deeper; on the bottom of this spread a layer of raspberry jam, then the pudding, and then a layer of apricot jam. This pudding is very delicate without the mixture of fruit, with wine or lemon sauce instead.
The Complete Cook (Philadelphia, 1846) by J.M.Sanderson
Cut slices from a fine high-colored pumpkin, and cut the slices into chips about the thickness of a dollar. The chips should be of an equal size, six inches in length, and an inch broad. Weigh them, and allow to each pound of pumpkin chips, a pound of loaf-sugar. Have ready a sufficient number of fine lemons, pare off the yellow rind, and lay it aside. Cut the lemons in half, and squeeze the juice into a bowl. Allow a gill of juice to each pound of pumpkin. Put the pumpkin into abroad pan laying the sugar among it. Pour the lemon-juice over it. Cover the pan, and let the pumpkin chips, sugar and lemon-juice, set all night. Early in the morning put the whole into a preserving pan, and boil all together (skimming it well) till the pumpkin becomes clear and crisp, but not till it breaks. It should have the appearance of lemon candy. You may if you choose, put some lemon-peel with it, cut in very small pieces. Half an hour's boiling (or a little more) is generally sufficient. When it is done, take out the pumpkin, spread it on a large dish, and strain the sirup through a bag. Put the pumpkin into your jars or glasses, pour the sirup over it, and tie it up with brandy paper. If properly done, this is a very fine sweetmeat. The taste of the pumpkin will be lost in that of the lemon and sugar, and the sirup is particularly pleasant. It is eaten without cream, like preserved ginger. It may be laid on puff-paste shells, after they are baked.
The Cook's Own Book, and Housekeeper's Register (Boston, 1840) Mrs. N.K.Lee