Blog 11 May 19 2015 A King’s Confectioner in the Orient
A King’s Confectioner in the Orient
Confectionery and the Etiquette of Hospitality in 19th Century Constantinople
There are numerous references to food in The Embroiderer and whether it is partaking in afternoon tea with friends or a celebratory dinner, food provides us with a window through which we understand other cultures. As part of my research, I stumbled across a remarkable book written in 1837 by Friedrich Unger, chief confectioner to King Otto I of Greece and using culinary terminology, devoured it with delight.
Conditorei des Orients, as the book was called, first came to the notice of culinary researchers at the Symposium of Turkish Cuisine held in Konya in 1982. Here was a tantalizing account of the little known 19th century Turkish confectionery. Throughout the world confectionery changed enormously in the 20th century and Turkey was no exception. Many of the techniques, terminology and ingredients are often unfamiliar to the modern cook.
Friedrich Unger, as he describes himself on the book’s title page, was the Hofconditor (or court confectioner) to His Majesty the King of Greece. Otto I, the first King of Greece, was a young Bavarian prince of eighteen when he was appointed by the European powers at The London Conference in 1832, three years after Greece gained independence from the Ottoman Empire. King Otto was the son of King Ludwig I of Bavaria, a philhellene who was passionate about classical civilizations. His greatest desire was to transform his capital, Munich, into a new Athens and he spent huge sums purchasing plundered antiquities acquired by Napoleon’s armies and in financing excavations in Italy and Greece in the hope of acquiring more antiquities. Encouraged by his father, King Otto appeared to embrace his new Greek identity yet his court was overwhelmingly German. The importation of so many German officials and workmen led to wide unrest and he was eventually deposed in 1862.
Friedrich Unger, one of King Otto’s imports, was delighted to have the opportunity to enrich his knowledge of eastern confectionery and his book was the result of five years of research. He wrote it in Athens in 1837 and it was printed the following year while he was still employed as the royal confectioner. According to his introductory remarks, his earlier investigations in Greece disappointed him and he considered a visit to Constantinople would satisfy his hunger. In the summer of 1835, pleading ill health, he set sail for Smyrna on the English schooner the Elizabeth and then to Constantinople via Manisa, Akhisar and Bursa. In Constantinople, he studied the various branches of confectionery and visited the Topkapi Palace known then as the eski Serai, or old Palace as the Sultan was now in residence at a new palace on the shores of the Bosphorus. Unger lamented the fact that “neither money nor good words were enough to secure him admittance to the kitchens in the new Palace” as the Palace guarded its cuisine with the utmost secrecy, especially confectionery. They were not the only ones. Most confectioners did likewise. Employers at Haci Bekir, Turkey’s most famous confectioner today and in the 19th century, either answered questions evasively or not at all.
Unger proved to be an astute observer and his book gives a total of 97 recipes – 34 fruit preserves, 29 sherbets, 11 helvas, 2 toffee-like sweets with sesame and chickpeas, 4 Turkish delights, 8 miscellaneous candies and 9 sweet pastries plus 9 non confectionery items and 42 mentions of alternative flavourings for certain types of confectionery. The amount of detail he gives varies and one suspects that he also deliberately kept back some information for his own use. Some of the sweets he describes have disappeared completely whilst others have changed. Ingredients such as musk and ambergris, and even opium, would no longer appeal to modern tastes even if they could be obtained and certain flowers such as violets are difficult to gather in sufficient quantities to make confectionery. Unger also writes a whole chapter on the guild of confectioners of Constantinople and it’s subsections; the sorbet makers; the rosewater makers; the wafer bakers; the jelly makers who prepare warm jellies of almonds etc; the guladsch makers who produce a cake which originates in Persia; the sellers of hot sherbets who carry spiced and heated sherbets around for selling; the saleb sellers, the sugar bakers of the palace whose appearance alone sets them apart from all the rest as they wear white felt bonnets in the shape of sugar-loafs on their head, and a myriad of others too numerous to mention here.
Other chapters deal with the Turkish confectioner’s shops themselves “With folded legs and in sober silence the delicacy-artist sits among his sweet treasures, his attention turned to his workers, who with diligent industry are either making scherbet in large tinned pans in front of the shop on the street or are inside preparing the materials for various other wares. Everything is conducted with reasonable cleanliness here, and at least the eyes of the customer are not offended by a view of dirty, clouded glasses, unclean hands and clothes, and fly traces, as so often is the case in the Greek confectioner’s shop” At other times, he gives equally vivid descriptions of street sellers and their “loud but unintelligible cries”. There is a whole section is devoted to the famous spoon-sweets served to all guests in the home and which there are made from everything from sour cherries and quinces to small aubergines, often with the addition of delicate rose, lemon, orange or jasmine flowers along with pine nuts.
Of all Turkish confectionery it seems that three things in particular pleased foreigners.
1. Rahatol-chulkum – literally “ease the throat” – and “which melts away in the mouth and leaves a fragrant flavour behind”. Known to us as Turkish delight, the Turkish version is far removed from the chocolate-covered travesty many English people later came to know.
2. Lohuk şerbet – which was embraced by European confectioners as fondant in the 19th century and claiming to be French.
3. Peynir şekeri – pulled sugar similar to Edinburgh Rock and which doubled up as both confectionery and medicine.
Friedrich Unger also indulges the reader with observations on the etiquette of hospitality. In elegant Turkish society, entertaining was a serious matter and the rituals associated with it were adhered to with the utmost precision. Presenting guests with delicate spoon-sweets, sherbets and sweetmeats served in goblets of cut-crystal accompanied with exquisitely embroidered napkins whilst being perfumed at the same time, was the greatest compliment Turks could pay a guest of distinction. Pastilles the size of buttons and stamped in the shape of a flower, crescent or star were placed onto a lighted piece of charcoal and passed – in the case of a man – under his beard and then placed on the floor next to where the guest sat. Ingredients ranged from aloe, musk, and ambergris to crushed precious gems, pearls, coral, burnt ivory, burnt silk and sandalwood with a sprinkling of herbs and seeds.
The practice of perfuming the house and guest appears to have been widely practiced throughout the Middle East, Asia and parts of North Africa. I experienced something similar whilst visiting friends in Khartoum, Sudan. A mixture of various seeds were purchased from the market and burnt in a small charcoal burner. A tray of tulip-shaped glasses and a metal teapot was brought into the room and the lady of the house proceeded to perfume each glass before pouring the tea. The result was most attractive. I was also told that the day before a woman was due to be married, it was the custom for her to sit on a chair placed over a pit containing smoking sandalwood and cover herself completely with a sheet for several hours until her skin is completely impregnated with the perfume – something I still consider intoxicating and highly sensual. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, wife of the British ambassador, was perfumed with incense after dinner when visiting the wife of the Grand Vezir, Halil Paşa in April 1717. “…. the treat concluded with coffee and perfumes which is a high mark of respect; two slaves kneeling censed my hair, clothes and handkerchief. After this she commanded her slaves to play and dance which they did with their guitars in their hands”.
Recipe for Violet Syrup: Sherbet made of violets was the favourite drink of Sultan Mehmet IV (1648-1687). “Place 100 dirhams of violet petals in a bowl and pour 300 dirhams of boiling water over. Cover and leave for twelve to fifteen hours and then strain through muslin. Put a kiyye of broken loaf sugar into a pan and add the violet juice. As soon as bubbling at the edges indicates that the preserve is about to boil, remove from the heat. When nearly cold, strain through muslin and pour into bottles for using as required. If allowed to boil, the fragrance will be lost so be careful”.
1 Dirham = 3.2017g, 0.11oz 1 Kiyye = 1.282g, 44.8oz
A King’s Confectioner in the Orient by Friedrich Unger is edited by Priscilla Mary Isin and is available from www.cornucopia.net
Buy The Embroiderer by Kathryn Gauci
The Embroiderer is a beautifully written novel spanning the 19th and 20th centuries, set against the backdrop of the Greek War of Independence. It was published on 5th November 2014 and is available to buy in paperback and as an ebook.
You can order from all good bookshops and online retailers.
Purchase directly from the publisher here: www.silverwoodbooks.co.uk
The Embroiderer can also now be purchased from the Cornucopia web site.
Cornucopia: Turkey for Connoisseurs. www.cornucopia.net
Cornucopia is the award-winning magazine for connoisseurs of Turkey.