In the course of trying to figure out the history of candy in the Western world, there are three threads that need to be followed:
Most of the candy we know and recognize today can be traced back to one of these three subjects.
However, if you look back further on each of these threads, each of them have on thing in common which is difficult to ignore – the influence of Muslim expansionism into Europe. Or, more specifically, the role of the Abbasid Caliphate into Southern Europe.
This parallels findings into whiskey history as well, where Muslim technologies can be directly traced to the creation of the “modern” still. If one were to dig further, and admittedly, not very hard, one could find the influence of the Muslim world on a fair amount of foodstuffs that were popular circa 750 AD until about the fifteenth century or so.
Certainly they directly influenced food culture, especially in what is now Italy and Spain (for a good read on this, I recommend John Dickie’s Delizia: The Epic History of Italian Food, which covers this a bit). Indirectly, they influenced far more in Europe, specifically in regard to the spice trade. As wealth and stability regained footing during the Medieval era (after cratering during what we entitle the Dark Age), the wealthy (read – royalty) were able to indulge in in-depth trading once again. This meant spices, which included, at the time, sugar. If you look at a fair amount of recipes found in England during the thirteenth through fifteenth century, it’s not difficult to imagine the food found there having some relations to food dishes we find in Northern Africa today. Almond milk, cinnamon, cloves, raisins, and sugar, all found their way into main courses. For a good example, note this recipe for Grete Pyes from 15th century England.
If I have a point to my meandering here it’s this – It’s certainly notable to talk about the role the Italian states played in European cuisine*, but it’s equally important to note that role that the Muslim world played. Any examination of many of the foods we take for granted today can be traced to Muslim expansionism into Southern Europe.
* Note – For those of you unfamiliar with food history, Catherine De Medici of Florence is often credited in bringing the traditions of “Italian” cuisine to France during the 16th century, which eventually evolved into the French food traditions we know and love today. This is an oversimplified take to be sure, but it does have some basis in fact.