Did You Have Nougat for Christmas? Secrets of An Old-fashioned Sweet

English: Montelimar's Nougat. Photograph taken...
Montelimar's claim to fame: Nougat. But was it really born there? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Did you have nougat for Christmas? If you have, you've renewed with an old tradition that is widespread in Europe. You've treated yourself to a moment of joy in a world that, as the year 2012 comes to an end,  is increasingly sorrowful, with reports of people in Mali getting their hands cut off for alleged thieving or stoned to death for adultery, a young woman in Delhi dying after having been raped on a public bus and horrendously massacred with a metal rod, of Afghan policemen killed in their sleep by their turncoat colleagues who then run to the Talibans for safety...

Which is why I wanted to tell you about something pleasant that helps to reconcile oneself with human nature, a simple, magical sweet made from honey, roasted nuts and whipped egg white. Called nougat in most northern European countries, Russia included, it goes by many more names in Southern Europe: turròn in Spain, turrò in Catalan and torrone in Italy, all three terms referring to the toasting of the nuts it contains. In Sicily, the best variety is called cubbaita  from the Latin cupedia. In Malta, it's qubbadj (close to the Sicilian term), in Greece, it's mandolato (a reference to almonds). And it even exists outside of Europe:  called Gaz in Persia, it's been produced for centuries in Esfahan and Boldaji located in the central plateau of Iran. But it's also been made in Iraq where it's known under another name: Mann al-Sama. However Gaz is different in one fundamental way: it uses the sap from a local plant, a species of Tamarix that is not found in European nougat.

Benevento: Teatro Romano
Benevento: Teatro Romano (Photo credit: rossamente)
There is little doubt that nougat as we know it was born somewhere in the South of Europe and everyone tried to lay claim to it. Chances are however that  it originated in Roman times, a sweet the Latins called cupedia, a term meaning delicacies or fondness for delicacies - the perfect way to call a sweet!

For centuries, it was made  across the Italian peninsula, from Sicily to Benevento to Lombardy. The nougat destined to become the most popular variety in modern times first appeared in  Cremona in the early 15th century: this is the one you've probably had, it is white, a concoction of honey and beaten egg whites. Brown nougat appeared later and is called mandorlato in Italy and nougatine in France. The difference? It doesn't contain egg whites. After those two come all the other varieties: with chocolate, hazelnut, candied fruit - whatever. No doubt, all very good but further and further away from traditional nougat. In Australia and the US, nougat can even become an ingredient in other types of candies.

The French, not unsurprisingly, claim that nougat originated in the ancient Provence city of Montélimar that predates Roman times, and that this is the real "capital of nougat". It certainly was a big production center starting in the 18th century but nowadays Montélimar, a pretty sleepy town off the Rhone river, finds itself by-passed by a new highway (the A 7 Autoroute). Tourists no longer come as they used to and many nougat factories have closed down...

View Rhone river near Montelimar, France
View Rhone river near Montelimar, Franchttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nougate (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Still, what Montélimar did  manage to achieve is pass on the term "nougat" to the rest of Europe: the word comes from old Occitan pan nogat (in Latin: nux gatum) which means nut bread.

But the habit to eat it for Christmas, was that also a French tradition? The French love to make you believe that anything that has to do with food comes from them. But in this case, it's highly unlikely. The link between a sweet originally made in Italy and the Christian festive occasion seems to have a completely different origin: the Bourbon Kings of Naples and Two-Sicilies were the ones to promote nougat. It seems there were several centers of excellence in Benevento (a region under the King's purview) for example Santa Croce del Sannio and Montefalcone di Val Fortore. The "cupeta beneventana" (again that reference to Latin cupedia!) was so famous that it was sent to Rome and given to prelates as a special holiday present, earning the name "torrone del Papa"  (the Pope's nougat). Soon enough - by the 1800s - the habit of eating nougat at Christmas spread across Europe.

Which kind of nougat do you like best? It comes in all sorts: soft and gooey, hard and crunchy, with different kinds of nuts, all white or covered with chocolate...Our modern food industry in the US and UK has taken the nougat recipe to another level, adding sucrose and corn syrup to it and throwing it into all sorts of sweets and candies, creating with marketing inventiveness new candy bars, from Mars to Milky Way and many more.

Nougat is versatile, is everywhere and makes you happy... one reason why I picked it as a pen name. There's another, more personal reason too but I won't bother you with it for now (If you're curious, you  can find it here, in the first post I wrote to introduce this blog, back in 2009...)

Have a fruitful, nougat-full, prosperous 2013!

Nougat sold in Perth, Australia.
Nougat sold in Perth, Australia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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