Little Details (12/17/09)

Holiday flavors: Steeped in history

Dec. 17, 2009

By Katherine Bielawa Stamper

The gingerbread house perched on my kitchen table beckons with a gentle prod. Peppermint spirals, spice drops and red and green M&Ms are artfully arranged, cemented with royal icing. Colors tease and tantalize, but it’s the sweet fusion of ginger and nutmeg subsumed in a sea of molasses, eggs and flour that draw me in with their seductive scent. Oranges and cloves sit nearby, awaiting transformation into fragrant holiday pomanders.

Pan forte, a honeyed fruitcake, seasons in my cupboard. Slathered in confectionery sugar and tightly wrapped, it silently contemplates Christmas. This Italian delicacy hails from medieval Tuscany. Its name translates as “strong bread,” a reference to the mélange of spices yielding a distinctively sweet, peppery taste.

Archival records, dated Feb. 7, 1205, detail local citizens providing nuns at the monastery at Metecellesi panes pepatos et melatos (bread with pepper and honey) as payment for tax. It seems that, in Siena, pan forte was a valued currency.

My recipe for the Italian confection combines cinnamon, cloves, coriander, nutmeg, honey, sugar, candied fruits, walnuts, cocoa, a bashful sprinkling of flour and a bold dash of white pepper. A small sampling reveals complex flavors hinting at a deeper history.

Fruitcake remains a much-maligned stepchild in American Christmas cuisine. To be called a “fruitcake” is to be deemed a fool. Jokes abound about Aunt Bessie’s or Uncle Ernie’s fruitcake — suitable as a doorstop or, better yet, a weapon against intruders. Fruitcakes may be among the most re-gifted of gifts, due in part, to their unusually long shelf life.

I’ve tasted truly awful fruitcakes, lacking in spice and overwhelmed by sickly sweet sugar. My favorites are dense and aromatic, preferably steeped in one’s favorite elixir. This column represents my humble attempt to resuscitate, however briefly, the image of this holiday treat too often tainted by jokes and cheapened by discount store knock-offs.

Food historians maintain that fruitcake dates back to ancient Egypt. The dearly departed were dispatched to the afterlife with bread for the journey in the form of a cake containing dried fruits, nuts and spices. Fanciful ingredients signified wealth and keeping up appearances, even in death, seemed important to the Egyptians. Pannettone, Milan’s fruited and spiced cake, is thought to have originated during the Roman Empire.

Fruitcake received a particular boost in the Middle Ages. Pope Urban II launched the Crusades with his famous speech at Clermont, France in 1095, imploring good Christian soldiers to, “Enter upon the road to the Holy Sepulcher; wrest the land from a wicked race and subject it to yourselves.” Their mission: Recapture the Holy Land — Jerusalem in particular — from Muslim control.

Bolstered by the promise of eternal salvation, the Crusaders unleashed their tirade against perceived infidels. Lest we forget, Holy War — some call it Jihad — is not a modern convention. Two centuries and an estimated 1 million to 2 million casualties later, the Crusades ended, leaving smoldering embers of religious divisiveness which flare up to this day.

Crusaders — largely from France, Germany and Italy — in their rampage through Asia Minor and on to Jerusalem, encountered starkly unfamiliar cultures, traditions and foods. Pathways to war eventually became trade routes, transporting exotic flavors of cinnamon, saffron, ginger, cloves and citron to arouse Europeans’ comparatively bland palates.

Spice-infused cakes, studded with stained-glass-colored fruits, secured a strong foothold in the culinary traditions of medieval Europe. Lack of refrigeration prompted popularity among foods that kept well and even improved with time.

Siena embraced pan forte. Austrians and Germans baked gugelhupf, flavored with orange peel and almonds. Scandinavians created julekake, speckled with candied fruit and raisins. The Irish prepared barmbrack, with sultanas, currants and candied peel for the Feast of All Saints. Russians, Bulgarians, Serbians and Ukrainians greeted Easter with kulich, a yeasty, cylindrical bread featuring almonds, raisins and candied fruits. British plum pudding — a holiday staple steeped in brandy, bourbon or rum — was prepared months in advance to take full flavor advantage.

When Christmas arrives, I’ll unwrap my family’s pan forte, a sweet yet pungent reminder of the rich, evocative history nestled among its fruits, nuts and spices. — Whatever graces your holiday table, I invite you to taste, eat, savor and think about the bountiful stories behind the recipes. Season’s greetings.


Katherine Bielawa Stamper lives in Williston. Reader comments are welcome at or