Siena, Tuscany, one of Italy’s most beautiful Medieval cities, is considered the home of panforte. Apparently there are Sienese documents dating to the year 1205 that mention it. Evidently panforte was recognized as a form of currency in the city then, and was offered by the citizenry to a local monastery and nunnery as a sort of tax payment. A city that uses candy as money would be a dream come true for my daughters. Remind me to weave this place into their bedtime story tonight.
But one document does not a place of origin make. So at the risk of committing a blasphemy, I’d like to propose a little thought experiment. Imagine it’s the High Middle Ages and you’re living in northern Italy. Your name is Leofrick the Spotty and you work as a kitchen laborer on the estate of the local lord. Word has arrived by courier that your master will be returning from a crusade to Jerusalem this week, and your first thought is: let’s bake a cake for the fellow to eat, assuming some mace-weilding Seljuk didn’t knock all his teeth out at the Battle of Antioch the previous spring.
So you set about to assemble the ingredients. Fine wheat flour, you’ve got a little of that hanging around in the pantry. If you run out you can always make up the difference with semolina. You’ll leaven your dough with yeast. But what to put in to make it special? You’ve got some almonds, those are easy enough to get. Maybe add a little honey…hm…what else? Butter? Well, alright, though the master usually doesn’t like peasant food. Then maybe a few dried figs or dates. Spices? There’s a little pepper left over from Christmas, maybe some cinnamon. You mix the whole thing up, let it rise, bake it up and presto: fruitcake.
Not a bad thing at all, but it’s certainly not candy, which is what panforte really is. It sports more than a few ingredients that would have been extremely hard to come by in Medieval Tuscany even in the best of times: crystalline sugar, candied citrus peels, spices of all sorts. Oh sure, with enough money and effort somebody could have put something like panforte together in Italy at the time. But regularly enough and in enough quantity to make it a local specialty? Call me skeptical.
However I can think of another group of people that was awash in sugar, honey, candied fruits, nuts and spices in those days: the Arabs. They were the true candy makers of the age. Which is why I have a hunch that the Middle East is really where the thing we know as “panforte” originally came from.