The Lion, the Witch & the Turkish Delight
It was invented 300 years ago to soothe a sultan's troubled harem. Today, sales are soaring. The reason? Its key role in the forthcoming film of the CS Lewis novel
By Jonathan Brown
Published in Independent : 05 December 2005
Abdul Hamid might not have been much of a military leader - his reluctant forays into battle with the Russians nearly cost the Ottomans their empire. But he did know a thing or two about women. If legend is to be believed, the 27th sultan's understanding of the needs of his closest female companions left the world an all-together more congenial legacy than his bellicose relatives; one that has seen his fame live way beyond imperial decline.
Faced with the sticky problem of how to keep happy the four wives and hundreds of mistresses maintained behind the elegant façade of the Topkapi Palace, Hamid hit on a sweet solution.
The Sultan summoned to his court the greatest confectioners in the empire and ordered them to find a dessert that would quell the rumblings of discontent within his harem. And so, it is claimed, the sweet we know today as Turkish delight was born.
Three centuries later, the confection that solved Abdul Hamid's domestic troubles, continues to tantalise the popular taste buds. Moreover, the starring role it plays in what promises to be the box office movie smash hit this Christmas has seen its popularity once again soar.
According to Britain's supermarkets, the appearance of Turkish delight in part one of Disney's adaptation of CS Lewis's The Chronicle's of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe has seen Fry's 21st century version of the historic sweet disappear like magic from the shelves.
Tesco has reported a 200 per cent increase in sales while Sainsbury's is also experiencing the "Narnia-effect".
In the film, Tilda Swinton, who plays the dreadlocked, albino Snow Queen, turns war-time evacuee Edmund Pevensie against his siblings and the honest folk of Narnia through the simple inducement of a plentiful supply of the sticky stuff.
CS Lewis observes in the novel that Edmund "thought only of trying to shovel down as much Turkish delight as he could, and the more he ate, the more he wanted."
Moving from fantasy back to legend, Ali Muhiddin Hadji Bekir, the confectioner who hit on the formula that got the women off Abdul Hamid's back, would no doubt have been delighted.
His recipe, barely related to Fry's chocolate smeared, chemical-pink confection of today, lives on. Hadji Bekir's genius it is said, was to produce a soft and chewy candy - in welcome contrast to the tooth-cracking hard offerings of the day. The confectioner is said to have perfected his creation by combining ingredients at his disposal at his home in the Anatolian mountain town of Kastamonu. These were water, sugar, cornflour, lemon cream of tartar and rosewater.
Hadji Bekir's recipe was simple. He heated the water, lemon and sugar, which he then added to a second pan containing flour, water and the tartar. Simmered for an hour, he sprinkled on the rosewater before allowing his mixture to cool. Dusted with powdered sugar and chopped into bite size chunks, the alchemy was complete. Of course - the legend continues - Hadji Bekir didn't call his creation Turkish delight - that came centuries later, the result of a piece of rather ingenious Victorian marketing.
Locally, this speciality became known as Rahat lokhoum - a corruption of the Arabic rahat ul hulkum, which translates as "soothing to the throat". In English the word was simplified to "lokum".
It became a daily staple at the sumptuous feasts held at the Ottoman court and Hadji Bekir's fortunes rose dramatically as a consequence.
He was granted the title of chief confectioner to the palace and established a small shop at Bahcekapi in 1777. It thrived under the management of his sons, being handed down generation to generation, and the family still maintains a small shop in Istanbul, close to the Yeni Cami (New Mosque). It remains a popular stop on gastronomic tours of the Turkish capital.
The recipe spread through the Near and Middle East, what is modern day Greece and the Balkans. In Constantinople, fashionable ladies swapped offerings of it in lace handkerchiefs. It became love tokens between courting couples and the accompaniment of choice to a cup of strong Turkish coffee.
But Tim Richardson, author of Sweets: A History of Candy, is sceptical about the veracity of the legend. His love affair with confection was prompted in part by his grandfather's frequent missions to the Middle East as a buyer of Turkish delight (it was a passion not extinguished by his dentist father.) Mr Richardson believes that Hadji Bekir's story lives on, fuelled partly because of its romantic appeal and partly due to the commercial interests that continue to promote it.
"I'm sure it is a much older sweet. There is evidence of gummy, syrupy sweets dating back to the 9th century," he says. The Persians developed a sweet, the "no rooz", meaning new year. It, too, was made from sugar and starch, and cut into chunks. It was displayed on necklaces and eaten during special celebrations. The recipe is repeated on manuscripts pre-dating Hadji Bekir by half-a-millennia.
The Turks' claim to have invented lokum is even less readily accepted by their neighbours, especially the Greeks. Cypriot grocers in London will sell it only as Greek delight. It is a similar story for other sweets of the region. The invention of baklava, a layered filo pastry confection stuffed with nuts or other flavourings, is contested between Greeks, Armenians and Turks. Halva, which began life in India, was adjusted to local tastes as it journeyed west towards Europe. Exactly who makes the original and the best version is a hotly contested matter to this day.
What is known is that sugar played a central part in the Arabic pharmacy - it is a legacy that lingers in European civilisation to this day. Lozenges are derived from the Arabic word for a diamond-shaped fondant, lollipops and chocolate are sold side-by-side in modern day chemists. The appropriate treatment for a sore throat is, of course, a cough sweet.
But society's relationship with sugar and spice and all things nice has become increasingly complex over the years. The powerful effect it exerts on the human psyche, particularly that of children, was not lost on CS Lewis and has been revisited throughout modern literature. "To adults, sweets are a symbol of a lost innocence," says Tim Richardson. "Lewis substitutes them for the apple in the Adam and Eve story when the Snow Queen uses Turkish delight to tempt Edmund. The innocence of childhood is being damaged here."
Other authors have employed similar devices. From the Brothers Grimm and their gingerbread houses, to Roald Dahl in Willy Wonka and Ian Fleming's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in which the scary child-catcher uses sweets to ensnare unsuspecting minors. "They are children's weak spot. Much is still made of child molesters using sweets to tempt their prey," says Mr Richardson.
While modern-day adults and doctors might demonise sweets, children, he says, continue to love them. "They are an incredibly emotional thing for them. They are one of the few things you can buy on your own as a child and consume. They are the way we learn about money, sharing and unfortunately stealing. How many people can hand on heart say they have never stolen a sweet? Children lust after them."
While much recent debate has centred on the Narnia film's treatment of the deeply devout CS Lewis's Christian allegory for evangelical US cinema audiences, Mr Richardson believes there may be another hidden meaning behind the use of Turkish delight to trap Edmund. "It is just possible that Lewis looked on the sweet as something not very Christian. Did he choose it to represent something that harks back to the Crusades?"
The collision of cultures has proved an important marketing device for Fry's which first launched its Turkish bar in 1914 - nearly half a century after its chocolate cream. Under the slogan "full of Eastern Promise", Cadbury's describes the bar as a "mystical, exotic treat that lets you escape from the everyday". The company has deliberately exploited the sex appeal of the Orient - from the windswept desert tent to the galloping Arab stallion, in order to appeal to both men and women consumers. Such allure was even felt by that least sexual of writers Charles Dickens who used the sweet to introduce an air of saucy exoticism into The Mystery of Edwin Drood. In it, Rosa Bud performs an erotic glove striptease as she eats Turkish delight - then known simply as "lumps of delight" - coquettishly licking away the white powder from her outstretched finger.
Turkish delight first arrived in Europe half a century before Dickens was writing Edwin Drood - not in the travelling trunk of the intrepid explorer Sir Richard Burton as the modern British legend would have it - but in the sample case of an unknown commercial traveller. It became Napoleon's favourite sweet and was much admired by Sir Winston Churchill. Pablo Picasso used it as an aide to his concentration. Thanks to Disney, the Western love affair with the East's favourite sweet looks as promising as ever.