TORRONE: THE ORIGINS AND HISTORY OF THE OLDEST CHRISTMAS SWEET
The torrone (Italian nougat) is the oldest Christmas dessert, and its history has its roots in the Arab and medieval tradition of Europe
Egg white, honey, sugar, almonds (or even walnuts, peanuts, and hazelnuts). Two layers of wafer to cover all.
Titus Livy, Martial, Francesco Sforza and his sweet spouse Bianca Maria Visconti. Saint Sylvester, Messisbugo, Abdul Mutarrif and, unmissable, Apicius.
Cremona as Santa Croce del Sannio, the French, the Spaniards, the Arabs, the Chinese, San Marco dei Cavoti, the Sannio and Benevento.
The cupedia, the cubbaita, and the giuggiulena. Torrere, the Turun (it is not the dialect of Northern Italy: it is Arabic).
Ingredients as historical figures and places just like names. The history of nougat (the word, as we know it, appears for the first time in the 16th century in Cristoforo di Messisbugo’s work) is the most complex and the most interesting of all Italian Christmas sweets. If the Lombard roots of panettone are indisputable as well as those of Verona pandoro, the nougat has obscure origins. In the Italy of bell towers, each area has the authorship of a confectionery tradition that is merely a common historical and cultural heritage.
It is not easy to put an order in the history of nougat. The formula and recipe for this Christmas cake are varied. White or chocolate, soft or hard, nougat has mainly 4 common denominators: sugar, honey, almonds, and egg white. We will start from these, even temporally, to trace the story of a delicacy that has crossed the millennia to reach our tables on December 25 every year.
Apicius and the Roman dessert
Apicius, the gourmand so unpopular to Emperor Hadrian, talks about it in the ‘De re coquinaria,’ while Titus Livy writes about it like Martial. The great Latin poet localizes what the ancient nougat in the Sannio area was, still very famous for the production of cupedia. Here, for the Romans, that sweet made with honey, almonds and egg white was a delicacy, a ‘cupedia’ precisely: even today, in the area of Benevento, sellers of nougat are called cupetari. The current Italian term, torrone, derives instead from the Latin word torrere, meaning to toast, an operation that was and is done with almonds.
It is good to remember, however, that many Roman sweets were made with honey (the major sweetener of the time) and with dried fruit. An example is the ancestor of the frustingo (Italian dessert typical of Center Italy), while from the way Apicio describes it, the ancient cupedia is more like the current croccante (almond brittle) than the nougat, despite the presence of white egg.
There are also those who, through the Latin ‘torrere’, have also traced back to the Chinese origins of the dessert. In fact, almonds have come to Europe from China. The link between nougat and China, however, seems particularly weak or, in any case, very distant over time.
Arabic or Spanish origins
The great tradition of Benevento also passes through villages such as Santa Croce del Sannio, Montefalcone di Val Fortore and San Marco dei Cavoti (each of these towns produces a type of nougat: white and soft, white and crumbly, white but covered in chocolate). In fact, the whole Sannio area was part of the Bourbon domain, and this area served both the Neapolitan royals and the Pope, for whom in the seventeenth century a special nougat began to be produced. This strong link between southern Italy and cupedia/cupeta/torrone dates back to the Arab or Spanish domain. Whether it has arrived with the Spanish or not, in fact, a fact would be sure: if the nougat has Iberian origins, it is certain that it was brought in Spain by the Arabs. According to this theory, they spread the info that the nougat was healthy and stimulating food. In fact, the confirmation is found in the treaty of 1000 AD. ‘De medicinis et cibis semplicibus.’ In it, the Abdul Mutarrif, a doctor from Cordoba, speaks of the “Turun” as a mixture of honey, almonds, sugar and various spices. Plus: in all the countries once dominated by the Arabs there is a version of the nougat. In Africa, one made with small black dates, added to very dark honey is consumed. In Sicily, the nougat is called, in the west, cubbaita and in the east giuggiulena. Two names for a single sweet that for the Arabs indicated a preparation made with honey and sesame.
Was the nougat born in France?
The other version on the birth of nougat is the one that traces its origins back to France, in 1260. The place? Tours, where the name comes from. The paternity seems to be Carlo D’Angiò’s cook, who brought it with him to Italy in 1265. First called to the South by Pope Urban IV and then by Clement IV, the Count of Valois had to conquer the Kingdom of Sicily at the time in the hands of Manfredi, the natural son of Emperor Frederick II and guardian of the legitimate heir Corradino. In Benevento (does it ring a bell?) Carlo D’Angiò defeated Manfredi and conquered the kingdom to the French. That sort of almond brittle from beyond the Alps with almonds and honey immediately became very popular in Southern Italy and reached Rome in the 18th century, when Pierfrancesco Orsini from the Apulia region, a great nougat enthusiast, became Pope Benedict XIII.
The nougat at home: the Cremona origins
Cremona is, notoriously and up to the media image, the home of nougat. The date of birth coincides with that of the marriage between Francesco Sforza and Bianca Maria Visconti: October 25, 1441. On that occasion, a dessert very similar to the Arab nougat was served (more like today’s almond brittle) and to it was added the egg white. The name was given in honor of the Torrazzo of Cremona, the city’s historic bell tower 112.12 meters high. The first certain news on Cremona nougat, however, dates back to 1543, when the municipality bought a stack to donate to the Milanesi. The dessert began to be really famous in the nineteenth century when the Fieschi and Sperlari families started their artisanal production.
Why is nougat eaten at Christmas?
The Spanish newspaper El Pais responded (as mentioned above, Spain and above all the Valencia area are important producers of nougat). The sale at Christmas seems to be due to the cultivation of almonds, which are harvested at the end of the summer. Besides, the peasants were also confectioners during the winter, when there was less work in the fields. To date, 60% of nougat sales are made at Christmas time.
In Italy, however, some southern traditions provide for the consumption of nougat at other times of the year. The copeta in Campania is also offered during the festivities of the dead, as legend says that on 1 November the dead return home to their relatives, who “welcome” them with nougat. In Sicily, in Troina in the province of Enna, the nougat is eaten even in June, on the occasion of the Kubbaita, a festival in honor of St. Sylvester in which the expulsion of the Saracens by the Normans is recalled.
In conclusion, where does the nougat come from?
Looking for well-defined nougat paternity is useless. The links are there if you want to see them, with very different periods and very different progenitors. The term cupedia, for example, can make us think of the Romans and Benevento. Yet, for this historical-investigative work, it is necessary to rely on the documentation, which in this case is the treaty of Abdul Mutarrif translated by Gherardo da Cremona (1114-1187). The description and the name of the Turun that appear in the text leave no doubt. The nougat, as we know it, has Arabic origins and then spread first to the south and then to the rest of the peninsula. To the south, of course. And in Cremona. In fact, the link between the nougat and the Lombard city is immediately noticeable. Can it be a coincidence that the translator of the Arabic medical text was really from Cremona? It is probable, therefore, that in the following centuries the version encouraged the production of dessert in the city at least as much as the city trade did, facilitated by the then navigability of the Po’ river.
Ultimately, as for panettone and pandoro, the simplicity of nougat is an indication of ancient roots. And it has roots firmly bound to the history of the whole of Europe.
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