Not only did a great many people regularly brush their teeth during the years of the Regency, they were also concerned about bad breath when socializing with others. For that reason, many people carried small sweets about with them. In Shakespeare’s day they were called "kissing comfits," but by the time of the Regency they were referred to simply as comfits.
What exactly were these Regency breath-mints? Of what were they made, how were they made, and how were they carried?
The word "comfit" is actually an English corruption of the French word "confit." The Latin source of the French word was "confectus," meaning to prepare or make ready. It is also the source of our English word "confection." In French, "confire" was the verb, which meant to pickle or preserve. And sugar was one of the earliest and most effective preservatives. Comfits were most often seeds, nuts or berries preserved in sugar syrup.
The seeds most often used for comfit centers were coriander seeds, aniseeds, cardamon seeds, caraway seeds, and celery seeds. In addition, the kernels of either cherries or apricots were sometimes used. The most popular nuts included almonds, filberts and pistachios. Fruits which are used for comfit cores are usually dried and cut into very small pieces. The most popular fruits were cherries, blueberries, barberries, raspberries, lemons, and oranges. Spices might also form comfit cores, commonly cinnamon, cloves, peppermint and ginger. Roots were also used to make comfit centers. Angelica was an aromatic root with a fragrant aroma believed to protect against poison and illness. Angelica was dried in the same way as fruit to be made into a comfit center. Certain irises were grown for their fragrant roots, believed to have medicinal properties. These roots were dried and ground into "orris root powder." This powder was combined with gum arabic and sugar to make a very firm paste. This paste was formed into small balls which became the core of the comfits. Both peppermint and ginger comfit centers were made in this way as well.
Before comfit-making could begin, the cores had to be properly prepared. Seeds and nuts had to be cleaned and their skins removed. Large nuts must be broken into small pieces. Cinnamon and cloves had to be cleaned and reduced to small bits as were dried fruits. All of these comfit cores had to be very dry. To accomplish this, they might be placed in an oven with a very low temperature for several hours. The paste cores would usually be left to dry at room temperature for several days before they could be used.
Special equipment was needed in the making of comfits. A large, domed-bottom copper pan similar to a deep wok was required. This pan must have a bail handle and at least one handle attached to one side, though some comfit-pans had two such fixed handles. The bail handle would be attached to a hook which would in turn attach the comfit-pan to a chain or set of chains which would be suspended from a ceiling beam. The comfit-pan would be suspended from this beam over a large metal-lined tub which would have a small charcoal fire inside. It was very important that comfits not become too hot during the sugaring process or they would scorch, so they were not typically made over an open-hearth fire.
Once the comfit-pan and its heat source were in place, the comfit cores for the particular flavor to be made would be put into the pan. Usually they were sprinkled with some powdered gum arabic and then stirred in the pan to become completely coated and warm. Some recipes recommend stirring with the hand for best coverage. While this was in progress, in a pan over the fire or on the stove, a sugar and water mixture would be boiled to a syrup which made a fine thread when it was poured out of a spoon or ladle. Once the sugar syrup was at the fine thread stage, a ladle-full or two would be added to the comfit cores. The fixed handle on the comfit-pan would be grasped to briskly toss the cores, rather like a theatrical chef might do while preparing stir-fry. This would give them a thin, even coat of the sugar syrup. The cores would be allowed to dry, and then another coating of sugar syrup would be ladled into the comfit-pan. The cores would again be swiftly tossed to coat them. This would be done three or four more times, then the comfits would be dusted with a thin layer of starch and spread to dry in a low-temperature oven.
The next day, these same cores would go through this process four or five more times, be dusted again with starch and again spread to dry in a low-temperature oven. This whole procedure would be repeated each day for two or three more days, before the comfits would be close to complete. By this time each comfit would be about the size of a green pea. On the last day, they would not be dusted with starch, but would receive a final coating of sugar syrup, which might be clear or colored. The comfit would be once more spread to dry in a low-temperature oven for a final drying of several hours.
Comfits might be white, if they were layered with only clear sugar syrup and the multiple starch coatings. But if color was wanted, the final coating of sugar syrup was tinted using the "food coloring" available during the Regency. Red or pink was made with cochineal, yellow was made with saffron, blue was made with indigo and green was made with spinach juice. The amount of coloring used would determine the depth of color of the comfits. Most were typically tinted in pastel colors.
As you might imagine, the making of comfits was an extremely labor intensive process and had to be done in fairly large batches. During the decade of the Regency, they might still be made in the home, most commonly by the kitchen staff of larger households. However, by this time, comfits were also mass-produced and were generally available in many flavors and colors at the local apothecary for reasonable prices. Curiously, though comfits were mostly sugar, they were not usually sold by confectioners. The reason is that they were sold as medicinal preparations, to sweeten the breath or settle the stomach.
Comfits appear to have been sold most often in twists of paper. Such packaging would not do for carrying them about on a daily basis. Small decorative boxes were made for the purpose, called, naturally enough, comfit boxes. They would easily fit in a waistcoat pocket or could slipped into a reticule. These boxes could be simple papier mache or carved wooden boxes. But they might also be of gold or silver, sometimes even embellished with precious stones or gems. In fact, it is very difficult to tell the difference between comfit boxes and snuff boxes, both of which were very popular at this time and shared many decorative features. As a fashion statement, a lady or gentleman would be very particular about the design and embellishment of their comfit box for it would tell others much about their taste and status. And the comfits it contained would ensure these fashionable people also had fresh sweet breath. And who is to say, that even if these small confections were no longer called "kissing comfits," as they had been in Shakespeare’s day, that they might have been used for just that purpose during the Regency.