Food For Thought

Sensational Sweetmeats

Lizzie Gore-Grimes enjoys sampling the variety of sweet treats that this time of year is synonymous with the world over…

There may be wonderful roasts and succulent birds to savour, not to mention goose-fat crisped potatoes and warm, spiced wine, but for many people it’s the surfeit of sweetmeats that the festive season is really all about. There are few other times of year when you are positively obliged to indulge your sweet tooth at all times of day as sugary mince pies are served with every cup of tea and baskets of sweets are left out on shop counters.

Around the world, mid winter has always brought with it its own particular bounty of sugary delights. In France, it’s marron glacé time – this famed speciality of preserved chestnuts hails from the Ardeche region of France. The firm texture of the marron is made smooth and unctuous by the strong sugar syrup so that you can bite into them with ease. They are best enjoyed eaten slowly with a coffee or liqueur after the meal, so that the sugar dissipates and the subtle flavour of the chestnut is released.

In Portugal, their counterpart is the Ameixas d’Elvas – a sugar-coated, dried plum from the town of Elvas. These much-loved delicacies have their own DOP certificate, and must only be made with a particular variety of plum that is green-amber in colour, a little like a greengage. It is thought to be among the elite of all dessert plums. Harvested between June and August the plums are boiled gently, then cooked in sugar syrup and left out to dry in the sun. The resulting sweet is succulent, juicy and very sweet but harbours a residual plummy tang. They are wonderful served with a mature, crumbly cheese.

Further afield in Nepal, a favoured sweetner during the harsh winter months is titaura – made from the pulp of the Lapsi fruit. The Lapsi tree thrives in a cold climate and so winter is when it comes into its own. The pulp from the tree is extracted and then dried, seasoned with sugar, salt and spices and enjoyed the length and breadth of the country.

In India they also have their own variety of beloved bonbon – rasgulla. For centuries Indians have been boiling down milk (to keep it from souring) and along the way they invented their own distinctive range of sweets. A fresh, soft curd cheese known as chhenna, is used in the production of rasgulla, which is blended with semolina and then formed into soft, porous balls, before being boiled and soaked in sugar syrup infused with rose water. The balls are then dyed in various bright colours of red, green and yellow and the like. They are highly perishable and so are usually made fresh and enjoyed on the same day to make the most of their sweet, milky flavour.

And, of course, if rosewater is your thing then Turkish Delight must be your sweetmeat of choice. This air-light, sugar-dusted jelly was invented in Turkey, where it is known as ‘lokum’, in the 19th century. It is the infusion of rosewater in the jelly that gives this delectable dessert its heady fragrance and floral taste. The resulting treat has made a huge impression the world over, and indeed is much loved here in Ireland where Hadji Bey Turkish Delight has been produced in Cork since 1902. It all started when a young Armenian named Harutun Batmazian set up his stall at the Great Cork International Exhibition making Turkish Delight; it was such a huge hit and he went on to open his famous sweet shop on MacCurtain Street, called ‘Hadji Bey et Cie’. His beautifully crafted gift boxes would be ordered from far and wide and were considered one of the most sought after edible gifts. Sadly during the 1970s the business declined after the last family member retired. But it has been brought back to life in 2010 by LC Confectionery and looks and tastes every bit as enchanting as it always did. Just make sure your stocking is big enough to fit one of their beautiful gift boxes which includes rose, lemon and orange-scented dainties.