Comfits Part 1: History and background

“Comfort in comfits!” by piX1966, used under a Creative Commons License Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

It’s been a while since I’ve been able to post (for a variety of reasons – largely work related), but I’ve been thinking about doing a post on comfits for a while, and I have a little bit of time free so I thought I’d get on with it.

I actually tried making comfits when I made the custards, but it was an utter disaster – more on that when I post the results of my second attempt at making them.

I found this page with some interesting information about comfit making and some lovely pictures. I just love that one with the mouse, although that might have something to do with my enduring affection for rodents in general (I have two pet rats).

A comfit is essentially a sugar coated spice, seed or other small morsel. We still have them today, in fact licorice comfits are one of my favourite sweets. References to comfits in 16th and 17th century drama and poetry seem to be quite frequent. They are sometimes mentioned in diet books and regimens as a way of consuming certain herbs and spices – Thomas Cogan, for example, in The Haven of Health (1584) suggests taking coriander comfits after meals to help those “much troubled by rhumes” – rhume seems to be essentially a runny nose.

Comfits were associated quite strongly with banqueting. I have mentioned banquets before, but I don’t think I’ve gone into much detail. It’s worth pointing out that in the medieval and early modern periods, banquet didn’t quite mean what it means today. We think of a banquet as a being a large feast, but in the past the banquet did not generally refer to  an entire meal (though it was sometimes used in that sense), but more often to a course served at the end of a meal, after the dessert. It was also sometimes known as a voydee. Comfits, marchpane, candied fruit and other sweetmeats generally made up the banquet course.

References in early modern literature, drama in particular, are quite frequent. A particularly interesting example, I think, is a poem by Nicholas Breton called “An odde kynde of wooing, with a banquet of comfettes” which comes at the end of his 1577 poetry collection The works of a young wyt. The poem is described in an introduction as such:

A gentleman being of late at an odde banquet, where were diuers women of diuers disposition, and being serued in at the table diuers comfits of sundry sorts, being come home from the supper to his owne lodging, sitting alone in his chamber, hee compared the women with the comfites, in verse as followeth

And that’s basically the gist – the man has a selection of comfits at a banquet, he dances with some ladies, then he goes home, eats the comfits, and thinks about the women. “Long comfites” remind him of a fair, tall and gallant dame, but “in the comfit was a bitter pill, so in the dame might be some bitter will”. Now, this “pill” is not a pill as in a tablet, but it’s an “Orenge pill”, as in peel. Next up, the man eats round coriander seeds which he declares wholesome, and which bring to his mind “a round, plumpe wench”. Ginger is the next kind of comfit, “whose tast did set my mouth all in a heate”, which reminds him of a tall woman “Whose lookes, mought set his mouth and hart on flame”. The man moves onto biscuits next, which make him think about “a prety wenche”. Then he hears someone shouting “fire”, so he runs off to help, and when he gets back someone has eaten up all his comfits. And that’s where it ends. Very curious indeed! I think the link between women and food might warrant some more investigation at some point.

Here’s a lovely passage from Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage (1594) referencing comfits:

Such bow, such quiuer, and such golden shafts,
Will Dido giue to sweete Ascanius:
For Didos sake I take thee in my armes,
And sticke these spangled feathers in thy hat,
Eate Comfites in mine armes, and I will sing.

The lines are spoken by Venus, who is trying to tempt Dido’s son Ascanius away so her own son Cupid can temporarily take his place. She also offers him “Sugar-almonds” and sweet conserves. It’s interesting to see just how far back the familiar trope of children having a taste for sweets and sugary things goes.

Comfit-makers are often mentioned in plays too, it seems to have been a well known profession. A character in Nicholas Breton’s (him again!) play An olde mans lesson, and a young mans loue (1605), during a little speech on the virtues of feasting, mentions how feasts provide work for “the Vintner, the Grocer. the Comfit-maker, the Cooke, the Brewer and the Butcher”. Even their wives make their way into drama – Hotspur in Henry IV part 1 berates his wife for swearing too meakly “like a comfit-makers wife”.

Finally, I just could not resist this lovely bit of word play from Thomas Heywood’s The Fair Maid of the West (1631):

I will make bold to march in towards your banquet, and there comfit my selfe, and cast all carawayes downe my throat, the best way I have to conserve my selfe in health

Thanks for reading, good to be back after a little break. The recipe will be along in the next few days.

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