COMPOTE. The word "compote" comes from compositum, the past participle of the Latin verb componere used as a noun. The basic culinary meaning refers to any preparation assembled from a variety of ingredients, with the added inference that this was done in a predetermined or formulaic arrangement. The English word "composition" also derives from this same root, and in both terms the aspects of visual appearance and texture play a key role. Roman cooks seem to have recognized a compositum when they saw one, but so few culinary texts have survived from Roman times that we seem to have only one recipe from Apicius as a reference point: Rapae ut Diu Servuntur, or turnips preserved in honey and vinegar with or without myrtle berries, mustard seeds and salt (Lib. I, xxiv; Milham, 1969). Significantly, Apicius did not use the term compositum anywhere in his surviving text.
It is not until the Middle Ages that the term compositum appears with any regularity, and it is clear from the medieval texts themselves that several distinctly different preparations went by the name of compositum. One of the oldest references, from the 1300s, was called a confectio compositi (Moulon, 1971) and consisted of parsley and celery root, cabbage, vinegar, pork, and other ingredients. It was a layered dish evidently baked in a deep earthenware pot and the prototype of a common one-pot dish known throughout southwest Germany, Alsace, and Switzerland as Gumbis (or some variation of that spelling).
In his Theatrum Botanicum (Basel, 1696) Swiss physician Theodore Zwinger described a common Gumbis made from pared turnips laid down in tubs with layers of barberries and sloes, then covered with spring water and salt. This sweet-and-salty vegetable preserve was eaten as a dessert, while the liquid was used in home remedies. This is not a cooked dish, yet it does follow in the tradition of Apicius and thus must be a recipe of considerable age. It is echoed in an eighteenth-century American recipe for preserving stone fruit in honey and spring water.
Hans Wiswe (1970) published a number of medieval German recipes for compositum and noted that they fell into three groups: First, a type of preserve employing fruits or vegetables, or a mixture of both, together with honey. In Renaissance cookery this evolved into fruit stewed in honey or in a sugar syrup. Second, layered sauerkraut mixtures, such as the addition of root parsley (Hamburg parsley) and turnips or some other root vegetable, even, perhaps, horseradish. Third, food mixtures prepared in deep earthenware baking pans and arranged in layers, invariably with shredded cabbage, shredded turnips, sauerkraut, fruit, and quite often small pieces of meat. Thus a recipe made primarily with sliced apples becomes poma composta or Gumbis äpfel (apple Gumbis). The traditional Gumbistöpfel of Canton Aargau in Switzerland employs dried pears. Many of the recipes are highly regionalized and thus point to the great age of this concept.
Such medieval layered mixtures continued to be made in North America by German-speaking settlers from Switzerland, Alsace, and southwest Germany. These fruit-cabbage-and-meat mixtures are discussed by Weaver (1993), who pointed out that they represent a type of one-pot meal once common throughout the Pennsylvania Dutch settlement area. Published recipes have also emerged in a number of nineteenth century sources, such as George Girardey's Höchst nützliches Handbuch über Kochkunst (The Handbook of the Art of Cooking; Cincinnati, 1842). It is the sweet compositum, however, which has gained the most widespread acceptance in European cookery today. It is almost universally referred to by its French name: compote.
The sweet compositum is doubtless itself of great age and probably draws upon antecedents in the eastern Mediterranean. A preparation known as mahés (pronounced mah-CHESS) made in rural Cyprus points toward the antiquity of this concept. Grapes are partially dried in the sun, then packed tightly into a goumni (a type of small earthenware jar holding 5 to 6 liters), closed tightly, and allowed to ferment for two to three months. The result is a thick, syrupy, alcoholic delicacy which is eaten for dessert with a spoon. Slight fermentation appears to be one of the defining elements in this type of preparation and thus would explain why "compost," the old English term for it, eventually migrated in meaning to the more narrow sense of fermenting garden debris, as in the term "compost heap."
Hieatt and Butler (1985) published a reference to datys in compaste, mentioned on a medieval English menu, and suggested this might be preserved dates, describing it as something akin to chutney. It is difficult to know exactly what was meant, since there are a variety of ways the dates could have been preserved—even in simple syrup, but in all likelihood, the date mixture was probably more like mahés, since this was a common export item from the Latin kingdoms in the eastern Mediterranean. Whatever the case, two important points emerge: the use of the term "compote" in English and a direct association with something that is sweet and sticky.
A great deal has been written on the subject of the Arabic invention or perfection of this type of confectionery, especially where cane sugar was employed. Doubtless the technological trail can be traced to Persia or even India, where sugarcane was known and used for thousands of years. If there was a more westerly epicenter for sugar confectionery, then it was most certainly Syria, for the Syrians held a monopoly on sugar technology for a very long time during the Middle Ages. Even in the Latin kingdoms established in that region during the Crusades, Syrian Christians remained in charge of the sugar mills and confection shops. Let it be said, however, that before the arrival of sugar and its commercialization in the eastern Mediterranean, epsima (grape syrup), carob syrup, pomegranate syrup, date syrup, and, of course, honey played a significant role in the preparation of sweet fruit dishes. These preparations were primarily medical in nature but also pleasant-tasting.
The Move to the West
Wet, sticky fruits were exported to the West as luxury medicines, but as sugar became more available to Europeans, the art of making these medicines quickly spread as well, especially among druggists. These foods were often eaten at the end of the medieval meal to help rebalance the bodily humors, but in time became associated more and more with the banqueting course, as the dessert course was eventually called during the Renaissance. Cookbooks of that period generally lump the compotes together with cakes and other desserts, and that is where the preparation has remained on the menu down to the present day.
Culturally, fruits stewed in sugar play a far more significant role in the cuisine of Scandinavia, Russia, German-speaking Europe, and the Balkans than they do in modern American cookery. In those countries, the compote is a popular warm-weather food, almost a midsummer institution, whereas in the eastern Mediterranean, fruits prepared in sticky syrup are generally eaten as a delicacy served with very strong coffee.
Flandrin, Jean-Louis, and Massimo Montanari, eds., Food: A Culinary History from Antiquity to the Present. English edition by Albert Sonnenfeld. Translated by Clarissa Botsford. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.
Kellar, Jane Carpenter, et al., eds. On the Score of Hospitality: Selected Receipts of a Van Rensselaer Family, Albany, New York 1785–1835. Albany, N.Y.: Historic Cherry Hill, 1986.
Milham, Mary Ella, ed. Apicii Decem Libri qui Dicuntur De Re Coquinaria et Excerpta a Vinidario Conscripta. Leipzig, 1969.
Moulon, Marianne. "Deux traités inédits d'art culinaire médiéval," Bulletin philologique et historique (Paris, 1971), 369–435.
Weaver, William Woys. Pennsylvania Dutch Country Cooking. New York: Abbeville, 1993.
Wiswe, Hans. Kulturgeschichte der Kochkunst. Munich: H. Moos, 1970.
Zwinger, Theodore. Theatrum Botanicum. Basel, 1696.
William Woys Weaver
Gooseberry Compote with Red Currant Juice
This German recipe is structured in such a way that 1 pound of any tart fruit or berries may be substituted for the gooseberries.
Yield: Serves 4 persons
1 pound (500g) ripe gooseberries ½ cup (125ml) red currant juice 3 tablespoons (45g) sugar or to taste
Pick the gooseberries of their stems and tails. Put them into a sieve and blanch in boiling water for a few seconds. Then place them in a stewpan with the currant juice and sugar and cook gently until they are soft. Serve warm or cold with vanilla ice cream or with crème fraîche.
SOURCE: Adapted and translated from Hedwig Heyl, A B C der Küche (Berlin, 1938), p. 317.
com·pote / ˈkämˌpōt/ • n. 1. fruit preserved or cooked in syrup. ∎ a dish consisting of fruit salad or stewed fruit, often with syrup. 2. a bowl-shaped dessert dish with a stem.