Blog 11 May 19 2015 A King’s Confectioner in the Orient

Posted in on 20 May, 2015 in News

A King’s Confectioner in the Orient

Confectionery and the Etiquette of Hospitality in 19th Century Constantinople

Turkish delight and drink

Turkish delight and drink

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.

King Otto I of Greece

King Otto I of Greece

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.

Semolina and Almond Halwa

Semolina and Almond Halwa

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.

Pistachio Baklava Rolls

Pistachio Baklava Rolls


Orange roll spoon-sweets

Orange roll spoon-sweets

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.

Red-coloured Rose and Almond Turkish Delight

Red-coloured Rose and Almond Turkish Delight

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.

Pistachio and Pomegranite Turkish Delight

Pistachio and Pomegranate Turkish Delight

Incense Burner on Mat

Incense Burner

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”.



Almond Syrup and Mint Oxymel Syrup

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

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  1. An interview with Kathryn Gauci, author of 'The Embroiderer' - Katerina's Kouzina - […] even sensual etiquette of the Turkish elite of Constantinople. Also when it comes to food. On your blog you write…