What ho, yon fruitcake.

More than a few food scribes will tell you that fruitcakes date to the Greeks and Romans (doesn’t everything in a newspaper food column?). But that’s only true if what you mean by a fruitcake is a cake with fruit in it. It’s sort of like trying to put a fixed date on, oh, let’s say pizza. If, for you, pizza is any kind of round flat bread with savory somethings on top, you can probably date it back to when bread was invented, around 10,000 BC. If, for you, pizza is a thing that has cheese on it, then to the Etruscans or the Greeks. If pizza is only pizza if the cheese is buffalo milk mozzarella, then the date moves up to eleventh century AD. Tomatoes? Then the Age of Exploration, and so on. Fruitcake is like that. Even though the Greeks and Romans technically combined fruit and cake (really bread) well before the Year 1, it took until the High Middle Ages for the fruitcakes we moderns know to appear on the scene.

For that was the time (around 1200 or so) that dried fruits first made their way to Europe from the Middle East via Italian traders. These intrepid folks (hailing from city-states like Venice, Florence and Genoa) made a fortune trading goods with the Islamic Caliphate while the rest of Europe was busy trading flaming spears. Then, Muslims ruled over pretty much everything from the Middle East over to India, down around to North Africa, and up into modern day Spain. The Byzantines (Greek-speaking Christians whose empire then covered portions of modern-day Yugoslavia, Albania, Greece and Turkey) were all that stood between the gigantic and immensely strong Muslim world and weak little underpopulated Europe. Interesting times for Christendom indeed.

But I digress. One thing that was true about the Arab world of the day was that its residents were much further advanced in nearly all the sciences — including the food sciences and agriculture — than their European counterparts. They ate well and traded widely, which made them the go-to guys for commodities like sugar and spices from cloves to nutmeg to ginger to cinnamon, all of which came overland to the Islamic world from Asia. All became highly prized (not to mention very expensive) foodstuffs among Europeans, who as I mentioned tended to use them liberally in celebration foods like fruitcake. Today a Christmas fruitcake wouldn’t be a Christmas fruitcake, no matter what its stripe, if it didn’t have at least a little cinnamon or ginger in it. Which I suppose makes Christmas fruitcakes at least a little bit Islamic, even though our distant ancestors would scarcely have wanted to admit it.

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