It started as an innocent question. How available gum tragacanth was to the average medieval cook? All the recipes call for it, but how easily could someone like Robert May, a cook, get his hands on this chemical. This would help answer what the difference in subtleties between a cook, a confectioner and choices of materials.
So I poked around a bit.
It appears the confectioners were generally the folks who had access to this chemical. And the confectioners were usually attached to apothecaries (who controlled the sugar and the chemicals). It was not uncommon for the sugar artist to be a sculptor or come from the local apothecary. For example, in 1574 a banquet was held to woo Henry III of France as he passed through Venice on the way to his coronation in France. The sculptures were based on designs by sculptor Jacopo Sansovino and executed by local apothecary Niccolo della Cavalliera. In late fifteenth century England, the official title of the King’s apothecary was “Serjeant Confectioner”.
Which of course lead to the all important question, why were sugar artist coming out of the apothecaries. A little digging later… and things make a lot more sense.
The key is the term, confectioner: a person who confects. Confect: to make up, compound, or prepare from ingredients or materials. Sugar was originally used in medicinal compounds. The age old adage of a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.
Robert de Montpellier, spicer-apothecary to Henry III, supplied powders for hypocras, electuaries, spices, medicines and confection to the court in the mid 1200s. In the 1300’s we get the disputes in Italy between the grocers and the apothecaries over who could confect medicine (and subsequently sweets as medicine and decorative food stuff). In 1432 Duke Albrech II decreed in Vienna ” merchants shall not bring any confections from Venice, neither shall they nor the shopkeepers sell them; but the apothecaries who reside here shall make such confections and trade in them.”
This is right around the time period where confection started taking the dual role of medicine and the emerging craft of sweet making. It is also when the guild status of apothecaries become solidified.
It is also right around the same time period where Europe begins to refine its own sugar. Italy was one of the first countries to refine white sugar for general consumption. Thus starting to break the Middle East’s hold on sugar importing. It is also one of the reasons Italy is where we find many of the first sugar paste recipes. The flow of recipes and raw material starts there and then migrates west.
So confectioner is not a new concept. The application of the art of confections simply, changed.