Typically when an American thinks of nougat, if they think about it at all, it’s thought of as the soft filling of the 3 Musketeers or Milky Way. This is a tad unfortunate, as well as close to being an improper definition of the word. It is unfortunate, because, as far as candy is concerned, nougat has likely been around for at least two millennia, while chocolate candy bars have only been here for about one hundred and sixty years. It is almost an improper definition, as nougat is really a recipe of simplicity, consisting of nothing more than egg whites, sugar or honey, and nuts. Fortunately for candy companies, there are multiple variations of nougat out there, so one could say that a nougat could contain malted barley, wheat flour, and soy protein as well. So they do.
Additionally, nougat goes by many names, including torrone in Italy, turron in Spain, and Gaz in Iran and other areas of South Asia.
What makes nougat so interesting to me is the fact that no one can seem to settle upon its history. While many historians feel that nougat comes from ancient Rome where a sweet made from honey, almonds, and eggs was made and used for celebrations, others feel that it is a more recent confection. Alas, confectioners are rarely food historians, and many regions feel the need to lay claim to the treat themselves. For example, it is said that the first known documented mention in Italy of torrone was in the year 1441 in Cremona, where at the wedding of Francesco Sforza to Maria Bianca Visconti, a new sweet was created in the couple’s honor.
It’s an interesting story, made more intriguing by the fact that it’s completely false. It’s not only false, but it’s easily disproved by a quick look at the cookbooks made prior to the fifteenth century. Within the Kitāb al-Ţabīkh, a tenth century Arabic cookbook, one can easily find several recipes for types of nougat, including one which bears a remarkable resemblance to the basic torrone recipe.
While I appreciate the fact that chocolate = nougat = something delicious, it needs to be pointed out that nougat by itself can be a delightful treat, and many convey deep complexities that are lost when chocolate becomes the primary ingredients. Those nougats that are made with roasted nuts, and especially those that are sweetened by different sorts of honey particularly stand out. Those infused with rose water or lavender also make wonderful candies.
If it sounds as if I hold a soft spot for nougat, well, guilty as charged. As we slowly migrate into the era of artisanal confections, nougat is one of two treats I wish we Americans would learn to appreciate (marzipan being the other). The nougats found in the middle of the various Mars product lines are okay, but nougats are so much more interesting than that. It doesn’t deserve to play second fiddle to chocolate, and it should be taken just as seriously.