Winner of the James Beard/ KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year 2000 and Winner of the Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food 2000.
May 31, 2023
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Mangia Bene

    In the sixteenth century, sugar was considered a spice and its use was sometimes excessive in the pursuit of the good life among the rich. Naples consumed the unbelievable quantity of 1,500 tons of sugar every year. It’s no surprise that syrups, preserves, and altre cose di zucaro (other kinds of sugary things) were major exports from Naples. The poor rarely had access to these riches.

    In medieval Italy, sugar was used as we use salt. For example, a typical stuffing centuries ago for Italian-style ravioli consisted of chopped pork, eggs, cheese, and parsley, which was cooked and then served with fried bacon and sprinkled with sugar at the moment of serving. Another sweet dish was a pâté of tench (a freshwater fish) and eel mixed with dates, raisins, pine nuts, and spices. Sugar is still found vestigially in Italian ravioli to this day, such as in the following recipe from the Abruzzi.

    Valencia was another prodigious consumer of sugar. Foreign companies played a large role in the Spanish sugar industry of the fifteenth century, especially the Genoese, but also southern Germans and Swiss. Between 1420 and 1430 the Swiss company Diesbach-Watt of Bern Saint Gall and the Grand Company of Ravensburg established factories near Valencia. It was at the beginning of the fifteenth century that sugar began to replace honey in the making of sweets and pastries. Cookbooks of the time, such as the Catalan Libre de sent soví, were explicit in their directions to use molt sucre blanch (lots of sugar). For the wedding of Princess Anna, daughter of the king of Valencia, to the Count of Medinaceli at Saragossa, the pharmacist Johan Gilabert was employed to exercise his knowledge of confectionary, often the job of medieval pharmacy. He used nine hundred pounds of comfit and confitures to make the confections. The masterpiece of his efforts were 50 marzipan cakes (marçapans or massepains), a legacy of the Arabs. Even kings concerned themselves with sugar as we know from King Philip III (1578-1621), the bigoted Spanish king responsible for the final explusion of the Moriscos in 1609, thought that the Viceroy of Valencia should distribute more sweets and turrón (similar to an almond nougat) among the poor of the city to celebrate Christmas.

    Perhaps the most voracious medieval consumers of sugar were the Arabs, who had many sugar factories throughout the Middle East and Sicily. One can see in Arabic chronicles of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the enormous quantities of sugar stored and consumed at the great banquets. In Cairo, the Ayyubid sultan Malik al-‘Adil II gave a great banquet in 1239 in honor of his brother, who had been captured and imprisoned by his enemies. He offered his guests sugar loaves weighing in all about 1,215 tons. There are many stories of even more copious amounts being eaten. To this day Arab sweets are the sweetest of any Mediterranean cuisine. The Turks liked their sugar, too. The traveler Busbecq tells us in the mid-sixteenth century, that the Janissaries, the élite corps of the Ottoman sultans who were recruited from Christian slaves, were better fed than the general population and loved to eat a kind of pudding made from wine and eggs mixed with plenty of sugar and spice.