The Unknown Lineage of the French Burnt Peanut

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It’s rare when a food item has no history on the web.    It seems there’s always someone who wants to take credit for invention.   But, when I recently found no history associated with an old time candy – the French Burnt Peanut or the FBP, I was, of course intrigued.

I encountered the French Burnt Peanut when learning about an old time market called Peluso’s on Monmouth Street in Newport.  They have a candy corner that seasonally carries old time handmade candies, one of which is the FBP.   The Peluso name might be familiar – they’re all over Newport – they descend from an Italian immigrant family from Naples – Giovanni and Antoinette Peluso – who had 19 children!     They’ve been in Newport politics since the sordid gambling days.

The FBP is the rustic Granddad of another beloved old candy, the Boston Baked Bean.   Both are red, candy coated Spanish Peanuts.   The difference is that the FBP has spikes and a rustic coating, while the BBB has a smooth shiny outer coating.  Boston Baked beans are ‘cold panned’, a process that goes back to France in the 1700s, invented for another ancestor of both the FBP and the BBB, the candy coated Jordan Almond.     Ferrara Candies in Chicago introduced the Boston Baked Bean candy in 1924 when electric panning equipment became available in the American Candy Industry, and is the last producer around.    They got their start in 1906 making ‘confetti’ or Jordan Almonds for the Italian immigrant community, who used them for gifts at wedding receptions.    The burnt sugar flavor of the FBP is made up for by introduction of molasses and potentially smoke flavoring in the cold panning process of the BBB, which can’t use the caramelized or burnt sugar of the FBP.   So, like the other mass produced products of the early 20th century, all authenticity was taken out of the FBP for the BBB, if you follow, even though they’re still delicious.

So there were tons of unanswered questions hanging out there on the Internet – what is the origin of the FBP?  No one seemed to know any origins.

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I turned to my bible of the candy industry – the extensive 1918 candy catalogue of our own Mullane’s Candy Company.    John Mullane was trained by a Hugonaut French confectioner near Montreal after the Civil War, so I thought there might be some clues to the origin of the FBP.   The candy catalogue  shows their massive line of candies, in color, with descriptions and history and was so well done it was reviewed in the National Confectioner’s Journal at the time.     And sure enough there was a section on candy coated almonds and a mention of their Burnt Almond – “one of the oldest confections” – flavored with burnt sugar and Mexican vanilla.     There was a Cinnamon burnt almond as well.

The BA’s – both cinnamon and vanilla – don’t have a French ancestry, like the Jordan Almond, or , assumedly, the FBP.    They have a German one.   The are called Gebrante Mandeln in Germany, and have been a staple at the Christmas markets there and in Switzerland and Austria for centuries.   You can see and smell their wonderful aroma as they’re panned at local Oktoberfests this month.

In the confectionery world, it was the almond that was first candy coated and used in other mostly French confections.   It was used in pralines, French nougat and nut brittles.  The French were more known for their confections, while the Germans were more known for their pastry.

So, it was America’s confectionery industry that brought the peanut into the mix.    Before WWI, our national obsession with peanut clusters (like Goo Goo and its copycats) and then after WWII with the candy bar – Snickers, Payday, etc. solidified the Spanish peanut as our confectionery nut of choice.     There was a brief period from the 1910s to the 1920s where the hazelnut (then called the Filbert) was paired with butterscotch in candy clusters like the short-lived Sheik candy made by Allen-Qualley Company of Minnesota.   But then the hazelnut became expensive and the Europeans took it over for their chocolate hazelnut spreads like Nutella and Americans latched onto the peanut.

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The Spanish peanut has made up about 20% of American peanut production for the last 100 years and is primarily used in candy.   The Runner makes up the other roughly 80% and is used in peanut butter production.   The Virginia nut is used for salted and snack nuts, and the long shells we see at baseball stadiums, and make up a small amount of the total peanut production.

It seems like the FBP might have descended through the Burnt Cinnamon Almond, because of its rustic reddish coating, but it’s hard to pinpoint.

So, while the origin of the French Burnt Peanut is spotty – it may have been an American adaptation of the German burnt almonds, named French for a more upscale branding – it’s descendants continue to dominate the candy and snack markets.     It indeed spawned our beloved candy coated M & M, and all of the other panned coated nut candies.   Recently, there’s a Mexican savory snack product called Cacahuate Japones -or Japanese peanuts – hitting the Cincinnati gas station market.   They have a crunchy, spicy wheat flour coating around a Spanish peanut that’s deep fried and I’ve become a huge fan.   They’re certainly a  fusion grandchild of the FBP.

But we may never know what confectioner invented the FBP.

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