A Brief History of Confit and Food Preservation in France
Une ingénuité confite de vieille fille. / The preserved naivité of a spinster.–Colette, La Naissance du Jour / Break of Day
I like my man to be a bit confit. Confit is my favorite French word. It can mean many things, but the meaning always implies intensity to the point of being almost sweet, and sometimes sickly sweet.
The word comes from the Latin, conficiere, meaning “to do” or “to make,” and is the root of other familiar words like confiture and confection,” says Kate McDonough. “It can equally describe flavoring and preserving foods in other substances, as fruit in sugar, olives in oil, pickles in vinegar, or capers in salt.”
In the food world, there are two main meanings, although the term basically means “preserved;” there are, of course, many ways of preserving food. The first refers to something candied or crystallized, such as the fruits confits so popular in France, especially at Christmas and during other holiday periods. The second refers to a savory food either cooked in its own juices or preserved.
The French confit we know best is canard confit, or duck confit, which is traditionally cooked in a copper pot over a fire for up to 24 hours so that its fat oozes out and envelops it. It is then stored in its own fat and conserved in a jar for up to a year.
Pickles and salted capers also count as confits. Another common one is tomates confites, or confit tomatoes, which are slow-cooked like duck in a low-temperature oven until they become almost sweet like candy. Intense, yes.
The commune of Apt in Provence is the fruits confits capital of France, but the method was first used in the Middle East, where candied roses and citrus fruit were served on all ceremonial tables. When the Arabs ruled southern Europe, they taught these methods of preservation to Europeans. The Romans also used a similar method using honey instead of sugar.
Like all confit processes, candying fruit is time-consuming, making it expensive. The fruit is brought to a boil and cooled in sugar syrup several times over a period of three months, the method varying according to the fruit, and is, therefore, a labor-intensive process.In Provence, candied fruit is part of the traditional
In Provence, candied fruit is part of the traditional thirteen desserts of Christmas. Marrons confits or candied chestnuts have become a luxury and are one of the most cherished gifts you can offer the French at Christmas.
The second type of confit is savory, and includes duck confit, or pickled vegetables, such as cornichons. Traditionally, these were kept in earthenware jars and the liquid fat, vinegar or oil covered the ingredient entirely, thus preserving it. In Gascony, the heart of confit country, they even preserve garlic, simmering it slowly in duck fat. “Sun-dried” tomatoes are also confites. They are sun-dried or oven-dried (see above) then dipped in boiling vinegar and preserved in olive oil.
Preservation in vinegar is an ancient method and certainly not specific to France. The Indians and Mesopotamians were using it at least 4,500 years ago, and Cleopatra thought pickles enhanced her beauty. Both Roman soldiers and Napoleon’s troops took pickles in their food rations, and cornichons in glass jars were marketed as early as the 1820s in France.
Good King Henri hailed from Gascony, and when he was king of France, he suffered from homesickness for duck confit, a dish they didn’t make in Paris. To ease his suffering, he ordered whole barrels of it to be sent from home.
There is much discussion in France about whether salade confite is good or not. I like mine like that, when the salad from last night’s dinner has macerated in the oil and vinegar, wilting it and giving it an intense flavor.
All these methods of preservation reduce the water content of the food being preserved, thus giving it a more intense, almost sweet, flavor. Don’t give me candied fruit for Valentine’s. I don’t like my man to be sugary sweet either, but I never tire of the douce intensity of savory confit duck and tomatoes.
And if you want to utter some billet doux in my ears, feel free to tell me that I’m confite de dévotion, or “highly devoted,” but please don’t say I’m un peu confite, or sickly sweet, or have a mine confite, meaning an affected manner lacking in all spontaneity.