Where does panforte come from?

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.

10 thoughts on “Where does panforte come from?”

  1. Very interesting, because when I looked at the recipe the first thing it made me think of was Turkish delight.

  2. If you suggest an Arab connection (and I agree), I propose a closer Sicilian one, since Sicily is the centerpoint for Arab flavors in Italy. But a quick review of discussions of the pastries of Sicily, which are famous, includes nothing like panforte, and the connection with Siena is so longstanding that I’d like to postulate that it was rich Sienese traders who bought the precious sugar, nuts, and fruits from Arab sources in the Middle East or even North Africa, or from Sicilian producers. I have no evidence for this — yet. I’m still poking around to see what Arab sweets are similar to panforte.

        1. My guess is that it’s one part import duties, one part expensive ingredients and three parts mystique! Try it you’ll love it. An Italian colleague of Mrs. Pastry pronounced this the best panforte he’d ever eaten. And this is fellow is very hard to please.

          – Joe

  3. Sugar as we know it is a “modern” invention. Prior to the creation of sugar, people used Honey (Asia, Africa). One thing I do know about Middle ages cookery is, they would use most things that grew in their area and use as much of a fruit/plant/vegetable they could make digestible. Even if it meant sweetening or heavily spicing the food to make it palatable.
    There had been and still was a great trade going on that someone of wealth would have access to purchasing speciality items. Many of these countries had citrus (that may well have been imported on the the “silk road” the Demands of the Roman Empire increasing the trade of Citrus fruits) Therefore Citrus was around to be had in wealthier households in the middle ages, many growing their own by this time.

    Hence recipes that had the rinds chopped and “poached in honey” to sweeten them, to make more of the fruit usable. So it is conceivable that “candied” Citrus rind was an ingredient in a nobleman’s Christmas cake in Italy during the middle ages. They used Honey quite a bit prior to the middle ages and during them…(bee keeping & mead)…in with savoury or sweet applications.
    To be honest the simmering in honey, of a bitter rind from Citrus, strikes me as a typical Medieval cookery technique to find a use for the seemingly unusable….though as you suggest it could have been a technique that come from else where and was consequently employed by the Medieval chefs.
    Do we have evidence of the middle Eastern peoples sweetening the rinds of Citrus in Honey? It seems to me they used dried fruits and put honey into their foods… but I don’t know where the practice of preserving and sweetening citrus rinds comes from, that is the key!

    The recipe is rather simple really, Dried fruits and nuts, and binding agents such as Honey and a bit of flour/grain/pulp. Yes, the recipe may have evolved a little over time, though it’s also possible that it could be fairly true to it’s roots. Egyptians used honey, dried fruits and nuts & made course flours in their time… many theories are possible.

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