Candy History: The Most Basic Premise

Let’s get right down to the true path of candy history, shall we? To do this, I’m going to put aside all debates about definitions, etymologies, and recipes, and point to things we can prove. If it’s sweet and portable, it gets a seat at the table, so to speak.

Page one, line one of the history of candy needs to look at fruit. Think of fruit from the perspective of someone who lived 12,000 years ago. Here you are, living a subsistence life. Food security is unheard of, and one is lucky if they can go a week without some bit of hunger. From a gatherers perspective, you know of fruit, but it is most definitely a seasonal thing. Even when you can pick some and bring some home, it goes bad rather quickly.

I’ve read from three different sources how fresh fruit was actually looked upon with suspicion from most folks in Medieval Europe. Given how quick it would spoil and the multitude of vermin it would attract, this makes some logical sense. I have no idea on how prevalent this suspicion of fresh fruit would have been at the dawn of the agrarian age, but communities would have looked fondly upon any fruit which could be altered enough to have a stable shelf life of longer than a week. In other words, they would have had to find ways to preserve the fruit.

Though they didn’t know this at the time, at least one of two things have to be accomplished to fruit in order to give it a longer shelf life:

1) Prevent the acceleration of bacteria growth.
2) Disallow access to the fruit by all fauna, parasitic life-forms such as insects, and fungi, that play a role in accelerating decomposition.

Let’s address item one first, as it was addressed first in the history of food, albeit accidentally. Placing fruit in the hot sun, or next to an open fire would have evaporated moisture from said fruit. Remove enough moisture, and it would have sufficiently prevented or delayed bacterial growth. So the first fruits to be domesticated would have been the fruits which allowed for relatively quick and easy dehydration.

In fact, history supports this. The first domesticated fruits were not oranges or bananas, but rather cherries (10,000 BC), apples (8,000 BC), and dates (6,000 BC), all of whom share the characteristic of being easily dried.

These fruits also had another benefit: They were easily transportable after dehydration. In fact, all fruit shares this characteristic, but the idea of transportability is a key function when it comes to trade. Trade plays a huge role, not only in the transfer of sweetened products from one region to the next, but also in the idea of sweetened products from one region to the next. We’ll see this play out time and time again when new candies and sweets are introduced.

So right now, from a history perspective, we’re hovering around 6,000 BC, and there are two things to note:
1) The ability to domesticate bees to the point where honey is a regular commodity is still about 500 years from happening.
2) Although sugar cane was discovered about this time, refined sugar was still about 5,000 years away.

Salt, however, was around, and the idea of leeching water from foodstuffs would have been known at this point. So it is within the realm of probability that some folks dried out fruits with salt. The trade off would be this: more precision in dehydration techniques, or more succinctly, less fluctuation in dehydration techniques. We still see this technique today in various Pacific and East Asian regions. Also, with salt, comes brine, so this needs to be considered as well.

(I was going to comment on taste of salted fruit, but I thought better of it. The reason is that the fruits of those eras would appear much different to us when compared with the fruits of todays. The various fruits would have been smaller, of various shapes, and likely more tart than sweet. The reason for this could and should take a post of their own.)

Dried fruit would at this point have been another commodity in the marketplace, and another ingredient for cooks. They could have (and were likely) mixed with other products of the time to create new and unique recipes, many of which are lost to us. I’ll cover this in the next post relating to candy history,.