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The Garden Gate: Fruitcakes full of ancient exotic ingredients

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By Ellen Probert Williamson
November is a month of crisp days, golden sunshine, falling leaves, cider mills and looking forward to holiday excitements.

Part of that is the planning ahead of holiday foods. At this time of year, spices, candied fruit, flowers and herbs play a large part.

Take fruitcake, for instance. When you think of its ingredients and traditions, you find yourself suddenly viewing a whole world of exotic times and places.

Fruitcake originated in the early Middle Ages, a time when fruits and flowers were sun-dried and candied in a society that had never even imagined refrigerators and freezers. Many of these things were processed in stillrooms (or pantries) and kitchens, but the more exotic and expensive ingredients were imported.

Dates and figs were carried by caravan across the deserts and taken to Europe by sailing ships. Both were in high demand. The date palm was one of the most ancient symbolic forms of the Tree of Life in the near East. Among the Egyptians, it was symbolic of the Tree of the Year because it produced a new branch every month. It was the sacred emblem of Judea after the exodus from Egypt in 538 B.C. The Romans took the palm leaf as their emblem of triumph over Judea, and the Christians later adopted it as the symbol of the triumph of Christ.

In the time of the Catacombs, the palm became the emblem of martyrs. To this day in the Middle East, the date palm is a principal source of wealth.

Figs are native to Asia Minor and were the most widely revered trees of antiquity. The ancient Hebrews used the fig as the symbol of peace and abundance. The Moslems called the fig tree the Tree of Heaven. It was considered to have intelligence. In central Africa, many people believe that the spirits of their ancestors inhabit the fig trees. In China, the fig tree is associated with Buddha. Many medicinal uses for figs are listed in the Bible.

Hazelnuts figure in Greek mythology and are used today to represent communication and commerce. Ancient Romans used hazelnuts in marriage customs, and the hazelnut is the tree of wisdom in Celtic legend. It represents Thor, god of war and thunder, in Nordic legend, and it was much used in medieval times as a wand to be carried by heralds-at-arms to indicate knowledge and wisdom. Dowsing rods, or forked branches of hazel trees, are used to this day to locate water sources and minerals under the earth. Hazelnuts are still prized for their flavor and are often used in making fruitcakes.

Citron, the first citrus fruit grown in Europe, was introduced there by Alexander the Great in 300 B.C.

Modern methods of crystalizing or candying citron are essentially the same as those used in the Middle Ages. Citron is still an important fruitcake ingredient.

When explorers first began to venture beyond Europe during the Renaissance, the now-familiar pineapple was one of the “oddities” discovered in the New World. It quickly became popular, especially in the crystalized form. At that time, pineapples began to be exported from Africa, China, Java, Madagascar and the Philippines. They were not grown in Europe until the 17th century, when they became the symbol of hospitality and were so represented on signs and in decorative arts.

Spices, an important part of making fruitcake, have long had an exotic reputation. Ginger originated in Asia and by 300 B.C. was well established in China, Malaysia, Indonesia and India. Arab traders carried this spice westward, and it was well known by the Greeks and the Romans. It reached England before the time of William the Conqueror. At that time, the price of 1 pound of ginger was one sheep.

A merchant in Canton is credited with inventing the method of crystalizing ginger that is still used. Its oldest use was in medicine, and in some places in China ginger, cloves and nutmeg are still used in many reme-dies.

Cloves are the unopened buds of a tree grown only in the Mollucca Islands and in Zanzibar. Nutmeg is the fruit of the same tree, and allspice is made from the bark of that same tree, grown in the area known most appropriately as the Spice Islands.

Wines, rum and brandy are often used in flavoring fruitcakes. These, too, have their own very glamorous histories. It is no wonder that fruitcakes are served at holiday parties and that we connect the thought of them with festive occasions.

The process of drying grapes in the sun to make raisins goes back into prehistory. By the time mankind had learned to record his deeds, raisins were a part of his diet. Subjects of King David were said to have brought “asses laden with cheeses and raisins” to pay their taxes. By 400 B.C., Asia Minor had become the center for raisin productions. Raisins held a prominent place in the elaborate menus of Nero’s banquets.

Raisins are mentioned many times in the Bible. So are currants, which take their name from Corinth and are actually a variety of small grape.

Thinking about fruitcake’s diversified and romantic history through so many centuries makes us think that perhaps all the many modern jokes about fruitcakes aren’t really so funny and witty after all.

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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.