Early Forms

Appears in
Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets

By Darra Goldstein

Published 2015

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The term “dessert” comes from the French verb desservir, meaning “to clear the table.” It is mentioned as the penultimate course in two menus from the fourteenth-century Ménagier de Paris, in one case consisting of venison and frumenty (a sort of pudding), and in the other of a preserve (presumably made with honey), candied almonds, fritters, tarts, and dried fruit. The most common final course at elite medieval meals—referred to in France as issue—consisted of a sort of digestif of hippocras (spiced wine) and whole sweet spices, often candied. See comfit and hippocras. It was only in seventeenth-century France that the final course in a multicourse meal came reliably to be called “dessert.” But even then, it was not entirely devoted to sweet dishes any more than the preceding courses were consistently savory. In France, as in Italy and England, there were also meals made up almost entirely of sweets where the focus was on artistry mingled with ostentation, rather than on the food per se. In medieval and early renaissance England, a banquet of sweetmeats, sometimes termed simply “a banquet,” might take the form of an entire meal devoted to sweets. This repast was occasionally served after a meal, which itself consisted of both sweet and savory dishes. The sweet banquet was sometimes served at a separate table, in a separate room, in a garden setting, or even in a separate “banketting house,” where the tables would be set with displays well in advance. See banqueting houses.