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Take a Comfit

May 07, 1997|CHARLES PERRY

Candy, little bits of paper and goose meat in fat. The link is obvious, of course.

In Latin, among the many meanings of the word confectus were "put together; prepared" and "chopped up." It might have been from either sense that, by the 6th century, a confectuarius was a maker of cured pork products. In French, "confit" came to mean any kind of preserved food, such as olives in brine or meat hermetically sealed in fat (such as the goose confit used in southwestern French dishes such as cassoulet.)

But in the Middle Ages, a confit, or (to give the English form of the word) comfit, could also be a medicine compounded of several ingredients. Because apothecaries knew people would swallow even quite vile-tasting medicines if they were sweetened, sugar tended to be involved.

Eventually "comfit" came to mean anything edible--fruit, nut or whatever--that had been sugar-coated. In their final English incarnation, comfits were candy-coated coriander, anise or caraway seeds, often brightly colored ("like tiddlywinks," as the English cookery writer Elizabeth David recalled them), which were given to children as a treat or sprinkled on desserts such as trifle.

"Confetto" was the name for this sort of comfit in Italy, where people would throw it at weddings like rice. This was messy and expensive, so eventually a paper imitation confetto was invented, and that's where the word "confetti" comes from.

We rarely hear about comfits these days, but they are still with us under their other name, "confections": candies and pastries, always put together with sugar, sometimes even dusted with confectioners' sugar.

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