Thursday, February 9, 2012

A Thousand Years of Sugar Sculpture

One question that food historians just can’t resolve is just how much Arabic influence there is on medieval European food.  Some have argued that medieval cuisine is little better than a distant echo of the glories of Baghdad and Cordova while others insist that the smattering of Middle-Eastern recipes in European cookbooks represents nothing more a few exotic dishes added to an otherwise indigenous repertoire.  The more I read about Arabic cooking in 10th and 11th centuries, the more I am inclined to go with the first view.  Of course Arabic cooking itself didn’t appear out of a vacuum.  You could probably argue that it was a synthesis of Persian and Byzantine styles with a dash of Indian, Turkic and Bedouin influence.

I thought a lot about this when I was doing research for may last book, Sweet Invention:  A History of Dessert, since it was unquestionably the Arabs who introduced sugar cultivation to the Europeans.  Along the way, they gave us such things as custard, cannoli and marzipan (and possibly puff pastry and sponge cake).  What I didn’t think they gave us was sugar sculpture, which became all the rage in the Renaissance, a fad that continued well into 18th century not only in Christendom but the Ottoman Empire too.  I didn’t even believe it when I read about it in Sidney Mintz’s brilliant Sweetness and Power, figuring his information was second hand.  Who ever heard of Islamic sculpture?  Well a lot I knew.
Photo:  Metropolitan Museum of Art, Sculpture: Ivan Day

Admittedly, the evidence for medieval Arab sugar sculpture is pretty skimpy.  The cookbooks don’t give any instructions for making the kind of sugar paste necessary to make it but there is one source that is pretty explicit, mainly ir-i Khusraw, a Persian visitor to Fatimid Egypt. "The last day of Ramadan 440 (1049),” he writes, “they said that fifty thousands maunds [about 150,000 pounds] of sugar were appropriated for this day for the sultan's feast.  For decoration on the banquet table I saw a confection like an orange tree, every branch and leaf of which had been executed in sugar, and thousand of images and statuettes in sugar..." Now let’s say his numbers were a little off, even so there must have still been many, many sugar sculptures.  I asked Ellen Kenney, a professor of Islamic art at Cairo’s American University whether this seemed plausible and she wasn’t fazed. She writes, “Nāir-i Khusraw is a reliable narrator… and statuary in the medieval Islamic context is not unheard of by any means. Especially in palaces, figural sculpture is known from descriptions and archaeological contexts, fashioned from more durable materials than sugar. For example, the Fatimid palace in Cairo reportedly contained sculptures of gold (I think portraits of the royal family) and I believe examples of figural statues in stucco were excavated at a Ghaznavid palace in modern Afghanistan.”  She points to an (admittedly Persian) sculpture in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum.  The Met website offers a brief outline of the Fatimid art (including figurative sculpture) that confirms Professor Kenney’s point.

Not that any of this proves a direct connection between renaissance Italian sugar sculpture (or spongade as it was known in Venice) and the medieval Arab variety but it does seem implausible that the Italians, who depended on the Arab world for all their early sugar imports, wouldn’t have picked up the idea of making sculpture out of the sweet stuff along the way.  The additive typically added to the sugar to make it hold together was tragacanth gum and guess where that comes from?  Yup, the Middle East.

Again, there is no way to make a connection but one of the best known reports of sugar sculpture in the Ottoman Empire comes from the seventeenth- century Turkish travel writer Evliyâ Çelebi who describes a sweet makers’ parade that concluded with the sugar artists of Galata, who sold fruit preserves and candied fruit that, which, for the procession, they mounted and carried on cypresses and fruit trees made entirely of sugar.  I had assumed that these confectioners were of Western European origin since the Galata neighborhood tended to be populated by Venetians and other Italians.  But who is to say that the tradition hadn’t been kept up in the Middle East?  ir-i Khusraw’description of a sugar tree is awfully suggestive of an Egyptian connection.  I haven’t come across any mentions of sugar trees in the Italian context.  It is, of course perfectly possible that the tradition developed in one place (Egypt?) was refined in another (Venice?) and adapted in yet a third (Istanbul?).  Suffice it to say that this sort of inquiry tends to bring up more questions than it answers.

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