These comfits are produced only in the old Peligno town of Sulmona, in the Province of L’Aquila. The typical comfit is composed of a nucleus, “the core”, which is a whole, shelled and peeled almond, coated by layers of sugar built up by a series of dippings.
The core may also use other ingredients (hazelnut, cinnamon, chocolate, candied peel, pistachio, dried fruit), covered by layers of sugar and/or chocolate.
The comfits are different shapes and sizes, depending on what is used for the core, just as the coating may be smooth or rough. The almonds are carefully selected, peeled to remove any residue of seed integument, then checked for humidity, which is removed if need be by drying in special rooms and/or cabinet driers.
The almonds are then coated in liquid or powder gum Arabic, using preferably copper or steel pans, followed by another coating, this time of powdered rice starch, again preferably in copper or steel pans. Now the sugaring can
take place, coating the product with layers of sugar in pans that have been properly heated, proceeding to alternating phases of wetting and drying, in order to achieve the required thickness. The dippings are a syrup comprising extra fine sugar and water, boiled to various thicknesses.
The comfits must be dried on wooden frames, supported by suitable absorbent materials. Finally the comfits are packed and stored in cool, dry premises. The long tradition of producing comfits in Sulmona is rooted in history and has been well-documented over the centuries. A first collection of reliable sources is the volume Le relazioni commerciali di Sulmona con altre città d’Italia durante il secolo XIV (Simeone Edizioni, L’Aquila 1902), by Sulmona historian Giovanni Pansa (1865-1929), who confirmed that in several fourteenth-century parchments, found in Sulmona’s SS. Annunziata archives, there are descriptions of inlaid boxes and caskets for storing “enamelled sweets”.
In the following century historical information became increasingly extensive and precise. There is no doubt that the Church Cadastre of the sixteenth century, archived in Sulmona city hall, refers explicitly to the price of comfits as being “three carline a pound” at the time.
By the seventeenth century the comfit industry in Sulmona must have acquired such fame, due to the quality of the product, that the Milanese and Venetian merchants resident in Sulmona were expressly forbidden to produce comfits locally and export them, as local artisan producers were to be safeguarded.
There are numerous 1500s and 1600s documents that include thanks sent to Sulmona Diocesan Chapter by various authorities of the time, including princes and bishops, for the comfits received from the Chapter (G. Pans ,ibidem). So comfits were definitely seen as a luxury, prime product.
From the 1750s, production of comfits increased considerably thanks to the greater availability of sugar extracted from beet. Various documents describe the increase.
In his 1853 Sulmona monograph, Panfilo Serafini wrote: “We have 12 factories that employ about 40 comfit-makers and produce about 1,000 pounds of various types of comfits each day: cinnamon, pistachio, cocoa, chocolate,
citron, lemon, orange, almond, strawberry, mint, hazelnuts, aniseed […] in general Sulmona’s comfits are said to be the best in the Kingdom; I know not if they are now producing comfits in the north of Italy that can be compared with ours.”
In the 1800s, English writer Edward Lear wrote in his Illustrated excursions in Italy (1846) that comfits were Sulmona’s greatest wealth and that there were 12 great factories for making these sugared delights, which were popular they were sold all over Italy.
In 1888, in his Le antiche industrie della provincia di Aquila, T. Bonanni wrote that “comfit factories supply different types, of excellent quality, to meet the continuous demand coming from the neighbouring provinces, Naples and Rome and from other Italian towns. In Naples there are public outlets of comfits from Sulmona. It is a great industry for the city”. It was estimated that about 300kg of comfits a day were being made at that time.
immagine: Ra Boe / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)