Sugary comfort: making medieval comfits

I must own that I have a sweet tooth. And were I back in the fourteenth century, a VIP guest at Richard II’s table, I would be munching on his comfits with unbecoming gusto.

Comfits are sugar-coated, or candied, seeds and spices. During King Richard’s time, they were often white but also coloured – red from saunders (a kind of sandalwood), for example.

They might be used as a flourishing decoration to an otherwise plain looking dish: blank maunger (a rice pudding with ground capons) comes to mind, its whiteness enhanced by jewels of red anise comfits. Or they would appear at the end of a meal on elegant spice plates, perhaps viewed as an aid to digestion.

In Forme of Cury, King Richard’s official cookery book, both red and white comfits of anise (aniseed) and red comfits of coriander are given as ingredients. The latter, rather oddly it has to be said, were served with what I can only describe as a watery broth with lasagne.

Losyns in fysch day

Take almaundes unblaunched & waische hem clene, drawe hem vp wiþ water; seeþ þe mylke & alye hit vp with losyns; cast þerto safroun, suger & salt & messe hit forth wiþ colyaundre in confyt rede & serue it forth.

Lasagne on a fish day

Take unblanched almonds and wash them clean [and grind them], blend them with water; simmer the [almond] milk and combine it with lasagne; add to this saffron, sugar and salt, and arrange it forth with red comfits of coriander seed, and serve it forth.

Forme of Cury, edited and translated by Christopher Monk © 2020

Now, this was a recipe for a fasting day (the meaning of ‘fish day’), but were it not for the pops of sugary coriander I can well imagine diners dying of saintly boredom consuming such a bland affair.

How were comfits made?

Forme of Cury offers no recipe for comfits, so to discover how medieval cooks went about producing these necessities of life, we turn to a roughly contemporary miscellany in which, among other culinary, medical and alchemical texts, can be found this gem:

In red ink so we don’t miss it: ‘To mak anneys in counfyte’. London, British Library, MS Harley 2378 (early 15th century), folio 155r, detail. © The British Library Board.

To make comfits of anise. Take 2 ounces of fair anise and put them in a pan and dry them on the fire, continuously stirring them with your hand, until they are dry. Then put them out of the pan into a vessel [cornes].

And take up your sugar in a ladle, the amount an ounce, and set it on the fire; and stir your sugar with a wooden spatula; and when it begins to boil take up a little of the sugar between your fingers and thumb, and when it begins any time to stream then it is cooked enough.

Then remove it from the fire and stir it a little with your spatula, and then put your anise into the pan with the sugar, and continuously stir inside the pan with your flat hand, slowly, continuously on the bottom, until they separate. But make sure you stir them, and briskly, when they stick together.

And then set the pan over the stove again, continuously stirring with your hand, and with the other hand continuously turn the pan in order to keep the heat even [literally, ‘for cause of more heat on the other side’] until they be hot and dry. But make sure that it does not stick on the bottom. And also, as you see that it is going again on the bottom, remove it from the stove and continuously stir with your hand; and put on the stove again until it be hot and dry.

And in this manner, you shall work it up until it [i.e. each anise seed] becomes as big as a pea, and the greater that it waxes [i.e. grows] the more sugar it takes.

And each time put in your pan a decoction [decoccioun]. And if you see that your anise wax rough and ragged, give your sugar a lower decoction, for the high decoction of the sugar makes it rough and ragged.

And if it be made of pot sugar, give them 4 decoctions more above, and at each a decoction of 2 ounces of sugar: and this is more or less, it is not exact.

And when it is worked up at the last stage, dry it over the fire, stirring continuously your hand, and when it is hot and dry remove it from the fire and stir it off the fire, slowly with your hand along the pan bottom until they are cold, for then they will not change their colour. And then put them in containers [coffins], for if you put them into containers whilst hot, they will change their colour.

And in this way shall you make carraway, coriander, fennel, and all manner of round confections, and ginger in comfit; but your ginger should be cut like a dice in small pieces, four-square; and give your ginger a little higher decoction than you give the other seeds.

Translation © Christopher Monk 2020. Translated from the edited text by Constance B. Hieatt and Sharon Butler, Curye on Inglysch (Early English Text Society, Oxford University Press, 1985), pp. 12-13.

The method is reasonably straightforward, though a few terms and phrases need explaining:

Decoction

Translating Middle English decoccioun, this refers to the sugar reduction, that is, the syrup that is formed by heating the sugar in the pan. A ‘lower’ decoction refers to a less dense syrup than the ‘higher’ decoction: the sugar is boiled for less time and is more pliable.

The method given implies that the desired effect was a smooth candy coating of the seeds, although, post-medieval, ragged comfits were evidently popular, as we can deduce from this seventeenth-century still life, by Georg Flegel, showing a mouse sniffing at some decidedly roughed-up sweeties.

An obliging mouse poses whilst sniffing a ragged comfit, 17th century. Still life by Georg Flegel (1566-1638), detail; full painting at the top of the post. Image Public domain.

It is also possible that the square ginger comfits mentioned at the end of the recipe were intended to be more ragged, since a higher decoction was recommended for those.

Take up a little of the sugar between your fingers and thumbs

Unless you wish to remove the epidermis from your digits, I strongly urge you not to duplicate this instruction literally, should you be attempting to make comfits yourself.

What is actually meant, I understand, is to take some of the boiling sugar syrup with your spatula (or a spoon) and drop it into a bowl of cold water to see how it behaves, and then subsequently use your fingers and thumb to ascertain how soft and pliable the sugar syrup is.

If you take a look at this video by the BBC (the BBC are always right on these serious culinary matters), you can see the three different stages of sugar syrup. The first stage, the ‘soft ball’ stage, seems to show the syrup streaming as it hits the cold water, and when handled is still very pliable.

This is what our medieval comfits cook was looking for, it would seem. As the layers were built up, presumably the sugar coating would harden, but not before a nice, smooth finish was obtained. Leave the syrup too long when boiling it, and pearly comfits would have been out of the question.

Having said this, the Elizabethan God of Candy, Sir Hugh Plat, in his chapter on ‘The arte of comfetmaking’, found in his irresistably titled work, Delightes for Ladies (first published in 1602 but inevitably with that title re-printed numerous times), informs us:

But for plaine comfits let your Sugar be of light decoction last, and of a higher decoction first, and not too hote.

Sir Hugh Plat, Delightes for Ladies (1602). Text reproduced from Oakden.

So, it would seem, Sir Hugh was aiming for an initial harder coating of his seeds than perhaps our medieval confectioner was, though he cautions us not to make the sugar too hot.

continuously stir inside the pan with your flat hand, slowly, continuously on the bottom, until they separate

This sounds a risky business. Instinctively, I would keep my hand as far away as possible from hot sugar syrup. That said, this does seem to be suggesting that the comfit creator was meant to rub the seeds with the palm of their hand in order to move them about the pan and coat them evenly in syrup.

That this is not completely insane, we may look again to Sir Hugh Plat. He tells us:

At the first coate put on but one halfe spoonfull with the ladle, and all to move the bason, move, stirre and rubbe the seeds with thy left hand a pretty while, for they will take sugar the better, & dry them well after every coate. Doe this at every coate, not only in moving the bason, but also with the stirring of the comfits with the left hand and drying the same.

Sir Hugh Plat, Delightes for Ladies (1602). Text reproduced from Oakden.

So Hugh seems quite explicitly to advocate the use of not just stirring, but rubbing the seeds with the left hand in order for them to take on the sugar syrup better. Perhaps the contact between palm and hot sugar was brief, a sort of medieval culinary analogue of walking with bare feet on coals. But, please, replicate this at you own peril. When I get around to making comfits, I will be using a flat wooden spatula!

pot sugar

This was basic sugar of the lowest quality, coming below ‘black’ sugar, actually brown; ‘Caffatin’, a refined white sugar; and, at the top of the sugar mountain, the most refined white sugar known as ‘blaunk’ (see C. M. Woolgar, The Culture of Food in England 1200-1500, Yale University Press, 2016, p. 96).

It seems that the cook had to make an adjustment if using this inferior sugar, but what exactly is meant by ‘give them 4 decoctions more above’ when using pot sugar is unclear. It may mean that 4 more coatings were added compared to when using decent sugar, ‘described above’ as it were. And since two ounces per decoction rather than the one were to be used, this seems to underscore the need for more sugar overall when using the cheap and nasty. I say, you get what you pay for, medieval comfit maker: just use the posh stuff!

‘and in þis maner schull ȝe make careawaey colyaundre fenell and all maner round confecciouns’ (‘and in this way shall you make carraway, coriander, fennel and all kinds of round confections’). London, British Library, MS Harley 2378 (early 15th century), folio 156r, detail. © The British Library Board.

I do hope you have enjoyed this little foray into the world of medieval, cavity-inducing delights. I would love to know if any of my readers have attempted making comfits. If so, do let us all know in the comments, or on my Facebook page. I promise to add these sweet treats to my culinary to-do list. And when (or if) I manage to perfect them, I may post a video of me eating them. All of them. By myself.

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Published by Christopher Monk

Dr Christopher Monk is creating Modern Medieval Cuisine

13 thoughts on “Sugary comfort: making medieval comfits

  1. I’ve made a number of pounds of comfits since 2004 and, after briefly stirring the seeds with a wooden spoon/spatula/scraper, have been able to stir them with my hand. The longer they are dried, the whiter they become, most having started out a little grey. Here’s an article that I wrote up: http://damealys.medievalcookery.com/Comfits.html . Yes, comfits are fiddly and time-consuming. One trick is to not add too much syrup each time. (A friend in the Hampton Court kitchens admitted he had little patience so he just sort of dumped spoonfuls of sugar one!) Ivan Day recommends a limit of 10-15 “charges” (layers) each day so it can take quite a while to build up the size. I’ve gone as high as 70 chargers for one batch of comfits. I have found that, for smooth comfits, the temperature of the syrup should be fairly low. (See article.) This can involve juggling the syrup on and off the fire. Also, a wok makes a nice pan for working the seeds. Just be sure not to have the wok touch the heat. I have an electric range so I use the metal ring that can be purchased with a wok just to lift the pan off the heat. Would be glad to chat with any who have questions.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. When we visited Hampton Court back in the winter, the only cook present was making comfits. He agreed that it took ages and thought it was probably the sort of job you did when the master of the house was away so you could spend all day on it. Wish there was a modern source which didn’t use the bright artificial looking colours that the Indian ones tend to be. I do not have the time to make my own, but they would be very useful for some of our demonstrations.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, comfits are one kind of treat that don’t have to be made all at one time. When you finish getting one set of 10-15 coats (“charges”), you can set them aside pretty much as long as you want before you go back to them. The only thing you would be “out” is the sugar syrup which can’t be saved from week to week. Some sources say to add the coloring agents to the last set of charges. Specific coloring agents for historic comfits include “brazel” for a reddish color, saffron for yellow, beet juice (beet leaves, not the red bulb) for green. Hampton Court has used parsley “water” for green. As you may have surmised, natural coloring agents would be more expensive and time-consuming for modern companies to use. I wonder if using modern cake decorating colors would work when added to the sugar syrup? One might be able to modify the depth of the color to approximate the medieval natural coloring agent.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. This seems an excellent idea to pause between coating sessions. I will try saffron as well as white ones. I have a fair amount of parsley in my garden so will try green ones too; parsley is certainly used as a food colourant in other Forme of Cury (14th-century) recipes. Thank you so much!

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