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Sugar-Plums and Comfits

An apprentice confectioner making nonpareils in a copper comfit pan over a barrel containg a chaffing dish of charcoal.

These tiny 'hundreds and thousands' were made by coating minute particles of orris root powder with layers of sugar syrup. Coatings were gradually built up by pouring a small quantity of hot syrup onto the seeds in the pan and allowing them to dry out between layers. This was a sticky and time-consuming job, as some comfits required up to thirty or forty layers of sugar, and had to be hardened in a stove between every eight coatings or so. Syrups were usually poured onto the comfits from a ladle, but a special funnel, known as a 'pearling funnel' or 'cot', with a spigot to control the flow, was also used.

Caraway seeds being coated with a thin layer of gum arabic in the balancing pan. This sealed in the oils and encouraged the sugar syrup to adhere more effectively.

From Tudor times onwards, the most popular comfits in England were those made with caraway seeds. These were consumed at the end of a meal with a glass of spiced wine as a carminitative medicine to prevent indigestion and flatulence.They were also used to adorn marchpanes, trifles, banebread and whigs. In contrast to the ragged long comfits, these were a type of 'smooth' comfit and were coated with a less dense syrup.

After being coated in the gum arabic solution, the carraway comfits are given their first few 'charges' of syrup.

As they dry in the warm pan, they are swirled around and rubbed through the hands in order to separate them. They turn grey at first, looking a little like rice grains, but gradually take on the syrup and become a dirty white. After ten coatings they are dried in a cool stove, which makes them a dazzling white. They are then given another ten coats and dried again. The procedure is repeated until the comfits reach the required size.

Coloured coatings were popular and were provided by staining the final layers of syrup with an edible pigment. Sanders, mulberry juice and cochineal were used for red, indigo stone for blue, the juice of spinach for green and saffron or gum gambodge for yellow. Early comfit­makers were unaware that gambodge is actually a toxic substance and acts as an emetic.

A confectioner making 'sugar plums' (sugared almonds) in a balancing pan. Since he is not using a pearling funnel, these are probably smooth.

What then were Sugar-plums?

Perhaps the most familiar kind of comfit to survive into modern times are sugared almonds, a type of sweet once commonly known in England as “sugar plums”. This archaic term was a generic name for any large comfit. In modern times, because the true meaning of sugar-plum has been forgotten, there has been a great deal of confusion about the true identity of this confection. It is erroneously assumed that sugar-plums were preserved plums rolled in sugar. An otherwise well-researched online essay by Sharon Cohen is completely based on this mistaken premise - Visions of Sugar Plums.

On a recently posted BBC website (December 2009), one of the costumed hosts of the popular Victorian Farm series makes the same error and demonstrates how to make a kind of crystalised plum in a video about sugar-plums. Although this is a very romantic idea, it is unfortunately based on the usual misunderstanding. Every Victorian child knew that "sugared plums" were not sugar-plums.

The earliest mention of "sugar-plum" seems to be in Thomas Decker's Lanthorne and Candlelight (London: 1608). There are numerous other references throughout the late seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries which clearly define sugar-plums as large comfits.Most seem to have been big caraway comfits, though according to Theodore Garrett in the Encyclopaedia of Practical Cookery (London: 1890s, VII, p. 536) small strips of cinnamon were made to start off French Sugar Plums. In his definition of sugar-plums, Garrett, the most authoritative cookery author, of the nineteenth century, tells us,

"These are described under CARAWAY COMFITS, a more elaborate variety of them being known as DRAGÉES OR FRENCH SUGAR PLUMS."

Candied and crystalised plums were made by confectioners, but in England they were never called sugar plums.

Aniseed balls, gobstoppers and “hundreds and thousands” are also forms of comfit which have an ancient ancestry. There were many other kinds. The seeds of coriander, anise, fennel and cardamom were all coated with sugar and eaten with relish. Long comfits, made from thin strips of cinnamon bark or citrus peel, were used to decorate tarts, marchpanes and slabs of quince marmalade. In the eighteenth century, “hundreds and thousands” were known as 'shot comfits', or by their French name nonpareils and were made by sugar-coating celery seeds, or minute particles of orris root. Even hollow sugar eggs were coated in the balancing pan to hide the seam created by the mould. According to the London confectioner Jarrin, these were filled with little gifts such as “nicknacks. little almanacks, smelling bottles with essences, and even things of value”.

A mouse among the ragged comfits or 'bandstrings'. A detail from a still-life painting by George Flegel (1566-1638). Comfits are seeds, nuts or particles of spice that are coated in sugar. They are one of the oldest forms of sugar confectionery and probably had their origin in the Middle East in the early medieval period. Developed by Arab apothecaries as medicines for indigestion, they were introduced into Europe by Genoese and Venetian sugar traders. Comfits coated with syrup boiled to a low density tended to be smooth, while those made with syrup of a thicker density had a rougher or more ragged appearance, like those which are interesting the mouse. Ragged comfits were particularly popular in the seventeenth century and are frequently illustrated in still-life paintings of this sort. One kind of ragged comfit, known as confetti di Pistoia, still survives in Italy.

The long comfits in the Flegel painting were known as 'crispe', 'ragged' or 'pearled' comfits and were made by coating thin strips of cinnamon with sugar syrup. They were very popular in the Renaissance and are sometimes depicted in paintings being used for decorating marchpanes, tarts and other foodstuffs. They were frequently strongly perfumed with musk and ambergris. They are still made in Genoa from strips of cinnamon. In early nineteenth century Britain, they were sometimes called 'bandstrings'. Confectioners such as J. Caird of Edinburgh tells us to soak the cinnamon in water to soften it before it is cut into very thin slivers and then coated in sugar in the comfit pan to make the bandstrings (J. Caird, The Complete Confectioner. Edinburgh: 1809).

Some embryonic ragged comfits with their first ten coatings of sugar. They will receive another twenty or more before they are ready, being dried in a stove or screen between each ten coats. The sugar syrup used to make these was usually boiled to the 'blow' (long thread), known to early confectioners as 'manus Christi' height. For smooth comfits, a less dense syrup boiled to the lisse 'smooth' degree was used..

The comfit maker's essential equipment. On the left is a three handled copper balancing pan and its chaffing dish. Top right is a 'pearling funnel' or 'cot' used for drizzling a steady stream of syrup onto the comfits and used particularly for making 'ragged' comfits. Below it are a number of the grading sieves used for separating out comfits of different sizes.

A comfit maker using a pearling funnel or 'cot' to allow a steady stream of dense syrup to fall from a height onto a batch of ragged comfits. The drips of syrup cool as they fall through the air and create the 'pearled' effect on the surface of the comfits. The cot is suspended on a rope that stretches across the workshop so it is not disturbed by the motion of the balancing pan.

A confectionery booth with a rich display of comfits, sweetmeats, biscuits and jumbals. Note the little boy with his conical bag of sugar plums. An etching by Christoph Weigel (1654-1725) From One Hundred Fools c.1700.

Sugar plums in a conical bag

In this late eighteenth century coloured etching of a confectioner's shop, the military officer on the left can clearly seen to be consuming sugar plums from a paper cone. They are large sweets of various colours. The sugar plum the soldier is popping into his mouth is oval in shape and is identical in shape and size to a modern sugared almond. When C. T. Onions composed the definition of sugar-plum for the OED some time after 1914, the original meaning of sugar-plum was still extant -

"Sugar-plum - A small round or oval sweetmeat, made of boiled sugar and variously flavoured and coloured; a comfit".


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