Sherbet, Sorbet and Sorbetto

The cool and refreshing history of an age-old palate cleanser and dessert.

Come spring time, come the time for cool and refreshing sweets, in the Levant this namely means sherbet.

Sherbet, from the Arabic word sharab derived from the verb ‘to drink’, began its meaning as a drink made up of water sweetened with a sugar syrup, much like the syrup that is used to drench many of the Levant’s desserts since the days of way back when.

All things sweet begin with sugar yet, despite the fact that sugar had been produced in the Indian subcontinent since ancient times, it made its first appearance in the Middle East only after the fall of the Roman empire, perfectly coinciding with the rise of Arab Islam that would sweep central Asia, North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula, spreading the cultivation of sugarcane with it wherever it went.

Sherbet is first mentioned in Persian medical encyclopedias in the 11th & 12th centuries. As Persia was ruled for a time by a Turkish dynasty, they adopted the sweet drink and spread it throughout the middle east and the Indian subcontinent.

Much like almonds, rose water and candied fruit, sherbet too was imported to India from the Middle East during the Delhi Sultanate. Ibn Battuta, the Moroccan scholar and seasoned traveler, wrote of his trip to Delhi in the mid 13th century and mentions an event in which large basins were filled with a rosewater flavored sweetened drink known by the name of sherbet that was poured into gold, silver and glass cups and served before the meal.

By the time the Mughal empire rose to power, in the 16th century (and would go on to rule the Indian subcontinent for the next 300 hundred years), sherbet was often served chilled, entailing extensive effort into the procurement of ice and snow and transporting those all the way from the Himalayas, a distance of some 500 miles. It was during this time that the potential of potassium nitrate (aka saltpeter) to freeze water was discovered, transforming the wonderful world of frozen desserts forever.

During the Ottoman empire Istanbul was a bubbling hub of various food cultures and in the 17th century Topkapi palace housed several kitchens dedicated to confectionaries alone, the şerbet amongst them. It was a luxury treat served all throughout the dinner service, paving the way to the custom of serving sorbet as a palate-cleanser in between courses, a tradition practiced to this day.

Confectioners created essences from seasonal ingredients which were then diluted to make the sherbet, served at room temperature, chilled or frozen. However, before rose water and fruit flavors became the popular choice, violets, amber and musk were the most common Ottoman şherbet flavors.

In medieval times perfumes were considered to have medicinal properties important for health and hygiene and for that reason they were incorporated into foodstuff. The fact they were also rare and expensive added to their allure. Sherbets were often flavored with spices, flower petals, leaves, roots and grains such as tamarind, licorice, saffron, cloves, cardamom, honey, sage and ginger, all under the control of pharmacists and doctors. Similarly, to this day, Indian sherbets are flavored with highly aromatic spices like sandalwood, vetiver and kewra. With the changing times, so did the choice of flavors, and gradually the heavier scents were substituted with lighter aromas and flavors.

It should also be noted that as sherbet spread throughout the world it began to mean different things in different food cultures. Ottoman immigrants had arrived in Europe during the 17th century, bringing their beloved sherbet with them. It was during that same time the first Italian recipe for a frozen sorbetto appears. Under the Arab rule, the concept of mixing flavored syrups with snow was also introduced in Sicily, known on the island as granita: Snow from Mount Etna was mixed with lemon juice or the pressed juice of locally grown almonds, pistachios and other fruit grown on Sicily’s fertile soil.

During that same period, in France, the sorbet was still considered a sweet refreshing drink sold at limonadiers, lemonade stands that specialized in the production and sale of refreshing soft and alcoholic drinks. It would not be long before these same limonadiers would introduce their clientele to yet another Turkish specialty, the coffee, and gradually evolve into the first Parisian coffee houses.

Towards the end of the 18th century European scientists discovered that mixing bicarbonate of soda with tartaric acid and sugar created a pleasant fizz when added to water. They named this invention Sherbet, hoping to conjure the allure of the exotic Levantine dessert. The fizzy sweet powder is a popular candy in the UK to this day.

Call it a şerbet, a sherbet, a sorbet or a sorbetto; think of it as a fizzy powder, a refreshing drink or a frozen dessert, this Levantine sweet is the perfect springtime palate cleanser between the seasons, just as it was a millennium ago. Some things simply don’t need to change.

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