Nonpareils, plus book recommendation

Bodil Gram listedwj at
Sat Mar 31 15:42:47 EST 2001

Jennifer wrote:
>But wasn't the idea "These sweets are unrivalled and uniquely delicious"?

Ahem, sorry to keep the food frenzy going (but isn't it wonderful that the
list is up and running again after such a long, dry patch?!!).

I think the food discussion does indeed serve a valuable purpose for those
of us who do not speak English as our first language. It used to drive me
crazy to read about American pretzels. When you begin to look for it in US
books, you will notice how often objects and even people get twisted into
pretzel-shape, or at least threatened with it.

After years of intense thinking, I arrived at the theory that a pretzel
must be something like the small cakes we call "klejner" here in Denmark: a
flat strip of dough the length of my hand by the with of two fingers, with
a hole off centre through which you pull one end (my hand is of course
dainty and lady-like, so don't imagine a huge shape). The result looks like
a strip with a big knot on it. This item is boiled in the greasiest fat you
can think of until it is fairly dark brown - and it tastes like sweetened
babypowder with grease.  :-P

The theory needed confirmation, however, since I kept running into weirdly
un-cakey references, so I asked a long-time penpal of my family to send us
some pretzels from her hometown in Colorado. As soon as we open the parcel,
we giggled with surprise: pretzels are not "klejner", they are "kringler",
but to us anything with kringle-shape is either one of several kinds of
sweet baked stuff or small chocolates, not a salted thing, although old
books do mention "salt-kringler" in the 19th century.

Terms for food, items of clothing, fittings, tools, plants, local species
of animals or birds and all the other little phenomena of every-day life
are what you never learn in another language unless you live in the country
where it is spoken. Even the British and the American list members, who
presumably speak almost the same language, can spend hours discovering the
meaning of those annoying little words in each other's vocabulary. The
Australians know a lot about the British, obviously, but does it work the
other way?

Anyway, back to sweets. I have here before me a small treasure of a book:
Laura Mason's "Sugarplums and Sherbet - The Prehistory of Sweets" from
1998.  Mason is British and she does not show much consideration towards
all us non-Brits. However, if you can live with an enigmatic but deeply
absorbing book, you will still enjoy it very much as a foreigner and learn
tons of information about your local sweets as well.

Unlike Gili (was it last summer?), I did not need to ask the British
members of the list about the sherbet lemons in Harry Potter #1, Laura
Mason solved that problem for me with a whole chapter devoted to the very
prolific descendants from an old Middle Eastern variety of softdrink called
"sharbat" in Arabic. Sharbat was sweetened and spiced rose water or fruit
juice. The sugar and spices were often kept in dry, pressed "cakes", ready
to use when you dissolved it into water.

This dry version is the greatgrandparent of what the British usually mean
when they say sherbet, i.e. fizzy powder which used to be dissolved and
consumed as a carbonated softdrink - but which children soon learned to
like in dry form because of the prickly effect when the carbondioxide is
released in the saliva. Dumbledore's sherbet lemons are, in Mason's words:
"bright yellow, hardboiled sweets with sherbet in the middle". Fancy that:
although they are not enormously popular, we even have them in Denmark and
call them "citronbolsjer" or similar names. You can sometimes buy them at
Copenhagen's Central Station.

We also have the word "sherbet", but we pronounce it as much like the
French as our tounges can make it and use the word like the French to
designate ice made from fruit juice. The inhabitants of the Middle East
loved to put bits of ice in their sherbet drink if they could afford it, so
the French got to know it in its luxury version and put further emphasis on
the coldness, while the British fell in love with the dry ingredients for
the un-iced version.

As for nonpareils, Mason consistently treats the name as a non-English
word, writing it in italics and giving the French credit for having
invented them and given them this French name ("unequalled"). Whatever you
may now think of as nonpareils, they began life as a very tiny variety of
something once called "comfits" in England. These days most of us know
comfits as dragee: hard layers of sugar formed around a core of almond,
nut, aniseed or something like that. Comfits are built up layer by layer in
a gently heated, moving pan. Nonpareils are colourful, tiny comfits with a
single grain of sugar for core.

Here in Denmark we mainly eat nonpareils sprinkled on drops of chocolate
while the chocolate is soft, and I presume the same goes for most of you
native English speakers?  At least that is my current theory, based on the
fact that the word popped up in a discussion of chocolate on the DWJ list.
You see my point: we foreigners constantly have to guess when we are around
you Anglophones.

Laura Mason has written a wonderful book. I learned things about medieval
cuisine, sugar types and boiling methods beyond my wildest imaginations,
but if you are not familiar with British sweets, you will have to think a
lot and hopefully find a similar local item that explains a throwaway
comparison to modern British sweets. We Danes share a lot with the British
in terms of sweets culture, but I still cursed the publisher for permitting
so few drawings of modern sweets and no COLOUR PICTURES AT ALL:   >:-(

Did I mention that Mason ends each chapter with recipes for recreating
ancient British sweets. To me some of the ingredients are confusingly
British (the old foreigner's problem again), and if the American members
are allergic to Metric measurements, they had better be warned that the
rest of us Europeans have finally succeeded in bullying the British into
changing to Metrics. Yeah!

Friendly greetings,

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