First, an important distinction – While mankind has only domesticated bees for about 7,000 years now, we’ve been eating honey for much, much longer. So it isn’t as if honey just “poppped” onto the agricultural scene. For all intents and purposes, it was always part of our diet…if we could get our hands on it. So honey has been around for quite some time; domesticated bees less so (relatively speaking of course). Eva Crane, in her book A Book of Honey, hypothesizes that “It is likely that honey was one of the first things people talked about soon after they could express their thoughts in words.” Her evidence for this is that the words for “honey” are remarkably similar throughout the many different languages of the ancient eras, indicating that honey was known by name at a very early stage in the development of human language.
So, what were the uses of honey, and more specifically, how do they relate to candy?
A phrase your likely to hear a lot of for the first part of candy history, the answer is “well, we don’t know for sure.” Commodities were often lauded and literally praised. But products made from those commodities were less documented. Here’s what we know: Honey was used as a sweetener, an ingredient in cooking, a base for alcoholic drinks, medical treatments, and cosmetics. Due to its prevalence in all things, it achieved a special status that resulted in it being deemed as “holy” and thus used in many religious services and rituals – from celebrating everything from births to deaths and everything in between. Obviously different religions had different takes on the sweetener, but no where in human history is there a culture that thinks “Honey?? Pffft. No thank you. It’s the tool of the devil!”
The medical applications for honey is notable, as it helps establish the tie between sweeteners and medicine, a marriage that still exists even to this day. Ancient Egypt went hard core on honey, especially in regards to medicine, as it has been mentioned as an ingredient in over 500 different remedies of the 900 known. Throughout history it’s been used in everything from ointments, to an addition to whiskey in order to treat a cold.
So what about candy? Well, it would have depended upon what ingredients were available to any given person. I have yet to find any documentation stating if the product were rare or ubiquitous. Let’s presume the latter, merely because of how important it was in religions (the thinking here is that if it was a luxury, it would have been rare, and thus not important enough for the various religions to make note of it.)
I put forth as evidence the Greek confection known as pasteli. Note the picture below (which I ganked from Market Manila):
It is the very basic of confections, sesame seeds and honey, boiled together. Sesame seeds have been gathered as far back as 4000 BC, and it is not outside the realm of possibility that someone who had access to honey, an excess amount of edible seeds (sesame or otherwise), and an adequate amount of heating, could have figured out this concoction.
The unknown question is – when? That we do not know. Herodotus mentioned it in his writings, so we know it was around during his time (484 BC – 425 BC), but it was likely around a long time before that.
By no means was this the only sort of confection out there. As I will show in upcoming posts, there were many confections made of honey, some of which are still recognizable today, with variations ending up in several popular modern day candy bars. But more on that later.
Note: It’s important to remember that these confections were looked upon, not necessarily as a treat, or rather, not as an “empty-calorie” treat that we hold candy to today. “Eating as entertainment rather than sustenance” and “empty-calories” are relatively new ideas, with the later being a concept introduced only in the past two centuries. I’ll expand on those later, but it’s an important concept to understand when looking at foods in the past.