In Italy, from the hills of Piedmont to Cremona in Lombardy via Benevento to Calabria and Sicily, torrone, or nougat, is the sweet of the holidays. It conjures memories of carefree days, of playing in the open air, of village fetes, of chatter and banter.
As we shall see, its long history is lost in the dim and distant past. But let’s begin with first principles.
Recipe and production
The original ingredients were honey and dried fruit, to which first egg white, then sugar were added, followed by dried fruit, especially almonds and hazelnuts, though pistachios, peanuts, walnuts and pine kernels occasionally make a welcome appearance.
Depending on the area of production and the flair of the master confectioner, nougat may also be enriched with candied fruit or flowers, flavoured with cinnamon or vanilla or other aromas, wrapped in wafer or coated with sesame seeds or chocolate. It’s a sweet with one name and a thousand nuances.
First the honey is poured into copper pots, excellent for the propagation of heat, and warmed without coming to the boil. Then egg whites are whisked until stiff and folded into the honey. This basic mixture may be cooked in a bain-marie or directly over a flame for a time that may vary from two to 12 hours. Towards the end of the cooking process, caramelized sugar is added, followed by toasted dried fruit.
Following an almost alchemical ritual, master nougat stir the ingredients constantly while they cook, transforming them into veritable ‘white gold’.
Once cooked, the nougat is poured into special moulds, pressed to take shape and left to cool until lukewarm. It is then cut into bars or blocks.
The initial impact on the palate is dominated by the sweetness of the honey, which is gradually attenuated by the caramel and the toasted dried fruit. The aftertaste depends on what the confectioner adds during the cooking process: orange, say, or lavender or spices.
There are two types of nougat, hard – and crumbly – or soft. The difference depends on the cooking time and the quantities of ingredients used.
Craft-made nougat is the fruit of a meticulous selection of the ingredients, carried out by master nougat makers with great care and attention. They know that even the smallest details can make a difference.
Following philosophy of Carlo Petrini, the Italian gastronome who founded the Slow Food movement, they use ‘good, clean and fair’ ingredients (hence artisanal, fresh and seasonal, locally produced with sustainable techniques, and sold at prices affordable for consumers and profitable for producers), placing all the onus on quality.
- fresh eggs from free-range hens;
- high-quality honey from select apiaries. This is a natural product unaltered by industrial processes, so it may not always have the same flavour and texture. Sensorily speaking, this translates into high added value and endows the nougat with different and unique aromas every time;
- the finest dried fruit: hence hazelnuts such as the Tonda gentile variety of Piedmont and those of Irpinia and Giffoni in Campania, the almonds of Noto and Avola in Sicily (the former protected by a Slow Food through one of its so-called Presidium projects), of Toritto in Puglia (also a Slow Food Presidium) and Alicante in Spain; and, finally, Bronte green pistachios and Ispica sesame seeds (also Slow Food Sicilian Presidia).
The origins of nougat are surrounded by controversy, its genesis as uncertain as it is disputed.
Hypotheses abound. The most substantiated is that it originated in the Middle East. It is no coincidence that almonds, often used as an ingredient in nougat, originally came from Asia and were spread throughout the Mediterranean by Phoenician traders.
It was the Phoenicians who founded Carthage, where, according to Cato the Censor in his Liber de agricultura, they cooked a concoction of honey, flour, eggs and cream cheese, a possible precursor of nougat as we know it today.
The athletes of Ancient Greece used to eat nux gatum, a sweet made of walnuts and honey. Likewise, in his De Rerum Culinaria, Marcus Gavius Apicius mentions a sweet called nucatum, made of walnuts, honey and egg white. Hence the word ‘nougat’.
Marcus Terentius Varro and Livy, instead, speak in their works of cuppedo, a pick-me-up made with oil seeds, honey and egg white, a veritable energy supplement for the Roman legions. And it seems that the Samnites, an ancient Italian people, were also accustomed to eating something very similar, which they called cupedia.
It should come as no surprise, therefore, that in Benevento, in the part of Italy’s Campania region that corresponds to the ancient Samnium, the word cupeta is a synonym of torrone, nougat, whose vendors are known as cupetari.
Nougat round the world
Nougat is to be found in a variety of flavours at every latitude.
Take Asia, for example. In Iran they have Gaz of khunsar, ‘Persian nougat’, made of sugar, honeydew, egg white, rose water and pistachios or almonds, while in Iraq they eat Mann al sama, literally ‘manna from heaven’, made with sugar, corn syrup and starch, egg whites, water, cardamom and pistachio nuts. And as far away as China, street vendors sell a popular sweet made of honey and walnuts.
In Latin America nougat hits the heights in every sense. In the Andes, in fact, an artisanal version is made by mixing toasted amaranth seeds with honey and treacle or chocolate, while in Peru and Colombia they make it with macambo, a fruit of the cacao family, and chancaca, or panela, a solid treacle produced from cane sugar juice (both are Slow Food Presidia). Again in Peru, they produce a sort of nougat with toasted seeds of fruit of the metohuayo, or barinas nut, similar in flavour to the peanut and also promoted by a Slow Food Presidium.
The nougat tradition also thrives in North Africa, especially in Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, where artisans draw on their Carthaginian and Arab heritage to produce the sweet with outstanding local ingredients, almond and honey in particular. Typical is qabit, or qabut, a nougat made with honey and sesame seeds.
Nougat is produced mainly in Spain, Greece, France and Italy, though there is no shortage of excellent varieties in other countries too.
In the province of Alicante in Spain, they have been making nougat with honey, lightly toasted peeled almonds and egg white since about 1500, according to a very precise production protocol and under the watchful eye of the Consejo Regulador IGP Jijona y Turrón de Alicante.
The turrón valenciano of Jijona, also in the province of Alicante, is made with the same ingredients, though the almonds are finely ground in special mills and the resulting soft smooth mixture is cooked in special pans, known as boixets.
In France, the capital of nougat production is Montélimar, in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region. Here nougat de Montélimar, made with peeled almonds (28%-30%), pistachios (0%-2%), honey (minimum 25%), sugar, egg white and vanilla, has been made in characteristic cauldrons since around 1700, and the city’s proud nougatiers have now applied to obtain the PGI, protected geographical indication, for their product.
Not to be outdone, in Provence, in towns such as Sault en Provence and Allauch, they use Valensole almonds and lavender honey to make beautifully perfumed nougats. The traditional specialities are nougat blanc and nougat noir with almonds, but there are also unusual variations flavoured with lavender, basil, figs, and caramel and Norman salted butter.
In Greece the ancient nux gatum hasn’t been lost in the mists of time – on the contrary Amygdalota, for example, is a sweet made with sugar, egg white, almonds and flower water, reminiscent of the almond biscuits of Southern Italy. Pasteli, instead, is made by warming honey and adding fresh sesame to it. The mixture is poured into wood moulds, cooled and cut into lozenges before being soaked with wine, wrapped in lemon leaves and dusted with cumin powder. Mandolato, finally, is a nougat made with almonds that the Venetians introduced to Greece during their occupation of Zakynthos. Today it is sometimes flavoured with kumquat.
Here great master confectioners continue to produce nougats with hundreds of different flavours, cleverly combining centuries-old tradition with intelligent innovation. Let’s set out from the islands.
In Sicily, nougat is a veritable institutions. It is produced all over the island and many recipes show the influence of 250 years of Arab domination. In Caltanissetta, in fact, the Arab word qubaita is used for nougat and nougat vendors are known as cubaitari. In Trapani, the Statuto dei cubaitari, or Nougat Makers Statute, was drawn up in 1637 to regulate local nougat production.
Cubaita is one Sicilian word for nougat. Others are giuggiolena, derived from the Arab dgjundjulàn, sesame – with almonds, sesame is almost a constant ingredient in Sicilian recipes – and copata, which refers to large blocks of hazelnut nougat.
The green of the Bronte pistachios, the white of the Caltanissetta, Noto and Avola almonds, the yellow of the orange blossom honey, the orange of the zest, the ivory white of the pine kernels, the amber of Ipsica sesame and the brown of Modica chocolate – Sicilian nougat really is a feast of scent and colour.
Nougat seems to have been introduced to Sardinia by the Spanish and there’s an official document in the State Archive in Cagliari that records its commerce as early as 1614. Today the main centres of production of classic Sardinian crumbly nougat – made with egg white, almonds, hazelnuts and arbutus or chestnut honey – are Tonara, Aritzo and Desulo in the Barbagia district in the foothills of the Gennargentu massif.
Back on the mainland and travelling up the peninsula from south to north, the nougat of Bagnara, in the province of Reggio Calabria – made with citrus fruit, wild flower and sulla clover honey, sugar, toasted unpeeled almonds, cinnamon and powdered cloves – received PGI recognition in July 2014.
Two versions exist: Martiniana, coated with sugar chips, and torrefatto glassato, a nougatine hand-coated with bitter cacao. The first is crinkled in appearance and brown in colour, ‘like a monk’s habit’, the second is smooth and glossy, also brown in colour. A stringent production protocol provides for cooking the mixture over a high flame and cooling to a glass, precise dimensions for the finished product and specific packaging and labelling. The very high quality of the nougat of Bagnara has been renowned since the times of King Umberto I (1844-1900), who granted the town’s confectioners honour of using the Royal House of Savoy coat of arms on their labels.
Now one of the most lauded in Italy, the aforementioned nougat of Benevento, a cupeta hand-coated with bitter cacao or sugar chips, became popular in the 17th century, when it was made with either almonds or hazelnuts, was soft or friable or croccantino, brittle, or coated with plain chocolate, as it has been since the late 19th century in the village of San Marco dei Cavoti. Then there’s the so-called perfetto amore, perfect love, nougat coated with chocolate, lemon or coffee, and ingranito, with hundreds and thousands.
The nougat of Benevento, an enclave of the Papal States, was also loved by popes and kings. Indeed, in the 18th century it used to be sent to Rome to delight the palates of the popes. Just a century later, a special variation known as torrone del papa, the pope’s nougat, was made with liquid sugar, pine kernels and fruit in syrup.
Torrone di Benevento, on the other hand, owes its fame mainly to the sweet tooth of Ferdinand I of Bourbon, King of the Two Sicilies (1751-1825). It sent the Bourbons so into ecstasy that they made it their official Christmas sweet and, in the 19th century, spread it throughout their realm. Today torrone della regina, the queen’s nougat, inspired by the recipe beloved of King Ferdinand, is still to be found in Benevento. Another Benevento speciality is nougat made with sponge cake soaked in the local Strega liqueur and coated with chocolate.
The towns in the province of Benevento best known for their nougat production are the aforementioned San Marco dei Cavoti, Santa Croce del Sannio and Montefalcone di Val Fortore.
Also in Campania, in the province of Avellino, in small towns such as Grottaminarda and Dentecane, nicknamed the ‘Cremona of the South’, artisan nougat is made mainly with local Irpinian hazelnuts, while further south, in the province of Salerno, they use the prized Giffoni hazelnut.
Reigning supreme in the Lazio region is Ducato di Alvito nougatine from the small village of Alvito near Frosinone, which began life in the 18th century as an iced marzipan and has subsequently been enriched. The present-day recipe consists of almond paste filled with pine kernels and finely coated with plain chocolate.
Moving to the Abruzzo region, a soft hazelnut nougatine has been made in L’Aquila since the early 19th century, while in the province of Chieti, passionate local gastronomes have revived the cultivation of the Atessa royal fig (Slow Food Presidium) to replicate a traditional characteristic dried fig and walnut nougat. In Guardiagrele, finally, artisans have created torrone Aelion, the town’s ancient Roman name, a brittle nougat of almonds, sugar, candied orange, vanilla and cinnamon.
In the northern Italian region of Veneto, they prefer mandorlato, classic nougat with almonds. The busy trading activity of Venice, the Serene Republic, with the East and other cities in Italy led to imports of sugar, spices, almonds and walnuts, as well as cultural exchanges that facilitated nougat production.
Today the whole of the province of Venice and Cologna Veneta, an old Venetian possession in the province of Verona, are renowned for their mandorlato. True to tradition, Venetian master confectioners use egg whites, sugar, peeled almonds, powdered cinnamon and the rare Barena honey, produced with common sea lavender in the Venetian lagoon, which has an unusual salty aftertaste.
In Piedmont crumbly hazelnut nougat is produced mainly in the provinces of Asti and Cuneo. To make it, the principal ingredient, the toasted tonda e gentile hazelnut, grown in the Langa hills, is combined with acacia honey, egg white, sugar and vanilla. It is a nougat with a unique aroma, made possible by the creativity of Piedmontese nougat makers, turunè, capable of replacing almonds, previously imported at great cost from the South of Italy, with the native hazelnut.
The last stage on the journey is the most important of all. No enthusiast, in fact, should leave Italy without visiting its nougat capital, Cremona in the Lombardy region.
According to local tradition, nougat was born here on October 25 1441, when at the wedding banquet of Francesco Sforza and Bianca Maria Visconti a dessert was served that resembled Cremona’s bell tower, nicknamed Torrazzo, hence the name torrone.
Another theory, however, argues that the word derives from the Latin verb torrere, ‘to toast’ or ‘to brown’. It is, in fact, much more plausible that Cremonese nougat had remoter origins, that it derived from the Roman nucatum and was influenced by the Arab culture that had spread to the city though trading contacts.
It should not be forgotten that Cremona was an important river port, well connected with Venice, hence with the Middle East. Nor should we discount the hypothesis that nougat may have caught on in Cremona from 1220 to 1250 during the reign of Frederick II of Swabia, who made the city the capital of the North of Italy.
The Emperor was attracted by the Arab world and its food, and it is likely that this sweet of Middle Eastern origin was served at his table during his rule. The fact that Frederick II would celebrate his birthday on December 26 with nougat is a further explanation of its popularity in the Christmas period in particular.
In Cremona nougat is friable and made with almonds, honey, egg white and sugar, according to a production protocol established by the city council. Almonds, which constitute at least 50% of the mixture, were originally used whole but are now generally peeled and toasted. The mixture is cooked in a bain-marie and poured into moulds to produce blocks and bars, or hand-shaped into the form of cakes or, in honour of the Cremona-born luthier, Antonio Stradivari, of violins.
Nougat is wrapped in tradition, legend and curiosity.
- Did you know, for example, that the first producers of nougat were pharmacists and apothecaries, then bakers and, finally, master confectioners?
It is no coincidence that nougat was described in Arab medicine books as a cure-all. So if you have a bad cough, forget about syrups and take a bite of the sweet!
- Did you know that some confectioners decide when to make nougat on the basis of the phases of the moon?
The best time to cook the nougat mixture is days of crescent moon, when the egg whites are said to whisk better.
- Did you know that in Provence, on Christmas Eve, they eat a gros souper?
This is the name of a dinner which ends with mulled wine and a sequence of 13 desserts, including traditional nougat blanc and nougat noir, which are believed to bring good luck in the New Year.
- Who said that you only eat nougat at Christmas?
There are actually many opportunities to eat the sweet. In Piedmont they also eat it at Easter. Not to be blasphemous, but good artisanal nougat is capable of raising the dead!
In Campania they eat it on November 2, All Souls’ Day. On the night, when the dear departed traditionally visit their living relatives, it used to be the custom to leave tables laid for them.
Today the rich spread includes the soft torroncino dei morti, the nougatine of the dead, filled with hazelnuts and candied fruit. In Castellamare di Stabia, the custom is to offer this nougat as a gift to the woman you love, a gesture that, strange as it may seem, is actually a way of wishing her good health and happiness.
- When you buy nougat, do you ever stop to read the ingredients?
Genuine fine artisanal nougat contains neither food grade gelatine nor artificial thickeners in lieu of egg whites nor artificial flavouring.
Understanding what we eat is ethical as well as being gastronomic. The Austrian author Karl Kraus argued that authenticity exalts itself in inauthenticity. Outstanding artisan nougat is hard to find but its inimitable flavour is the result of the perfect processing of a few always and exclusively natural ingredients.
The great nougat masters
In Bra, in Piedmont, we have had the pleasure of watching master confectioner Domenico Asselle at work.
At the Gastronomic Society of the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Asselle showed us and the students how he makes his crumbly nougat with hazelnuts, recognised as el mejor del mundo by the professors of the Escola de Pastisseria Gremi in Barcelona.
To find out more about the recipe and the methods of master Domenico Asselle, click here:
Food has a different flavour when you know how it’s made.
Try tasting a piece of artisanal nougat, assimilating its flavour and aroma and letting it carry you away to the places it evokes.
With just one bite you’ll travel through the thousand-year story of the sweet and the experience of the master confectioner who made it. You’ll also be helping to keep alive an ancient skill that deserves to be handed down to future generations.
Look for and eat only genuine artisanal nougat and you won’t end up with a bitter taste in your mouth!