“Birignoccoluti”, (ragged shaped) in Pistoia dialect, otherwise known as comfits, are famous in this region. The white sweets come in many sizes – 5g, 10g, 20g, even enormous 100g and 150g specimens – and their round, irregular, lumpy shape is unique. This shape dates back to the origin of the comfit, when the first ragged comfits were brought to Italy from the East by Venetian merchants between 1100 and 1200. In the Byzantine Empire, nobles often threw them down from balconies onto their celebrating subjects on feast days. The ragged shape – still characteristic of Pistoia comfits today – made them fall much more slowly. The first record of comfits in Pistoia dates back to the Middle Ages, when aniseed sweets – as they were known – were given out in the Opera di San Jacopo during a feast for religious and civil authorities on 25 July 1372, during the celebrations for the town’s patron saint. Specially produced for the powerful Opera di San Jacopo, these sweets were said to have digestive properties and help to protect against the plague.
The original recipe for Pistoia comfits called for water, honey and an aniseed seed; it was only later that almonds, candied fruit or chocolate were used. Their unusual shape is due to the method of production, which has remained unchanged since the mid-fourteenth century when, with the establishment of the first sugar refineries, sugar began to be used instead of honey. The comfits are made in rotating copper cauldrons, known as “bassine”, where the centres are first covered by a light coating of icing sugar, then sugar disolved in water is poured slowly through a funnel, first in a stream and then in drops. It takes a least ten hours to produce Pistoia comfits in this way. It is an artisan method and is lengthy and expensive when compared to other, more common bean-shaped comfits, which can be cranked out by modern machines at a rate of hundreds every few minutes. The high costs involved, coupled with a general change in customs, led to a decline in Pistoia comfit production. Whereas until the fifties wedding guests would buy kilos and kilos of comfits to throw outside the church and along the streets as the wedding convoy passed, from the sixties onwards little wedding keep-sakes – which contain few comfits – became more popular. Today in Pistoia comfits are only produced by two artisan laboratories, where this niche production is experiencing steady growth. Presented in little bags to give as gifts or in more elegant packaging, Pistoia comfits are a true delicacy which can be adapted for all occasions.
Traditional aniseed comfits help digestion when taken at the end of a meal. In the historic laboratory-shop “Bruno Corsini”, in operation on the Piazza San Francesco since 1918, as shown by the beautiful old photos from the family’s archives, you can buy original aniseed comfits as well as other variations. Giorgia Corsini, the great-grandson of founder Umberto explained that “we have recently begun to produce a new medicinal line based on ancient recipes, using fennel, cumin or coriander for the centre”.
Pistoia comfits are also produced by “Confetteria Pistoiese”, a younger laboratory but with the same artisan history, which, in recent years, has opted to display a range of sweets from around the area alongside the traditional comfits.
Bruno Corsini Piazza San Francesco 42, Pistoia Website: www.brunocorsini.com
Confetteria Pistoiese Via Macallè 77/79, Pistoia Website: www.confetteriapistoiese.com
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