The Nougat: where and when
Cremona, 25th of October 1441: Bianca Maria Visconti married Francesco Sforza. The wedding, which allowed Sforza family to dominate the Duchy of Milan for over half a century, is strictly related to the birth of nougat. According to the legend nougat was made for the first time in occasion of the wedding feast and it had the shape of the Torrazzo, the bell tower of Cremona cathedral. It can be stated that “torrone”, the Italian word for nougat, etymologically derives from “Torrazzo”.
It is a fascinating story, even too good to be true. It seems to have been cited for the first time in a monograph published by the Chamber of Commerce of Cremona in 1914, as stated by Carla Bertinelli Spotti at page 22 of the serious and documented publication “Il Torrone di Cremona” (Cremonabooks, 2002). Anyway, the relationship between Cremona and nougat seems to be more ancient. Some letters in the archives of the city attest the presence of nougat in some apothecaries shops since the sixteenth century. And what about before that?
If we research further, we find that nougat is considered a traditional product also in other Italian regions. Benevento, the main town of the ancient Sannio region, claims to have been the first to invent it. According to another tradition, Latin authors Livy and Martial documented in their writings the existence of nougat in that area, under the name of “cupedia”. However it seems that the historian Livy and the epigrammatist Martial never mentioned this word. There is a similar Latin word, that is “cuppedia”, which was used by Cicero in Tuscolane, by Aulus Gellius in the sixth and in the seventh book of Attic Night and by Plautus in Stichus, and which can be translated as gluttony, the deadly sin, or as delicacy. In various Italian dialects there are similar words: “cupeta”, “copeta”, “copata” and “coppetta”, which identify specialties similar to nougat or croccante, a product made with almonds or hazelnuts kept together using caramelized sugar. In fact “cupeta” and “torrone” variants are traditional products not only in Lombardy and Sannio, but also in Valtellina, Piedmont, Veneto, Emilia Romagna, Tuscany, Marche, Lazio, Abruzzo, Molise, Calabria, Puglia, Sardinia and finally in Sicily, where “croccante” is called “cubbaita”.
The word “cubbaita” can help us understand in a more objective way this product. Nougat, defined as “roasted seeds (almonds, hazelnuts, pistachios, pine nuts) kept together by a sweet paste made with honey, egg white, sugar and in some cases flavours” is far from being just an Italian specialty. The Sicilian word seems to be derived from an Arabic word, thus suggesting a Middle Eastern origin. Anyway, “torrone” is well known also in France, where it is called “touron” or “nougat”, derived from Latin “nucatum”. In Provence, before the introduction of the cultivation of almonds in the seventeenth century, nougat was produced with nuts. In Spain it is called “turrón” and written documents report the presence of this product since the fifteenth century. The Spanish word is quite similar to the Italian “torrone” and its most reliable origin can be found in the Latin verb “torrere”, which means toast.
Finally, if we take into consideration the general concept of «seeds kept together by a sweet paste», we find out that nougat is in fact part of a wide range of products produced in many countries, from the Slavic countries to Middle East and India, and usually defined with the word “halva”. These genuine products can be considered to be the roots of our taste for sweets and they are probably the oldest sweets in the world.
Torrone can take any shape and it is therefore available in different formats. The original recipe is the one of crunchy nougat. Crunchy nougat can be eaten by biting into it, if you have strong teeth, or by breaking it into small pieces like candies, which is considered to be the ideal way to taste it. Anyway, since a lot of patience is needed to taste crunchy nougat in this right manner and modern culture is far away from this concept, pastry chefs with a natural instinct for marketing decided to invent soft nougat, a variant of the recipe with a higher water content. Almost all nougat formats are available in both variants: crunchy and soft.