The Sugar Queen – Part 3 – Boiled Sugar…Finally!

So just the last two days of the Christmas event to cover and we’re done and dusted…is it just me or does Christmas seem a really, really long time ago? Where have those two weeks gone?

Anyway…day 5 dawned and there was no getting away from it for Adrian and Jorge…they would have to make a start on the boiled sugar working.
As a measure of caution, they decided to only cast one half of the figure, they weren’t sure if the sugar would come loose from the plaster when it had cooled and didn’t want to go the whole hog and create a huge sugar and plaster lump that they couldn’t pull apart. Both of them eschewed the instructions in the Platt recipe for casting sugar items to soak the mould in water before use as they reasoned there was still plenty of moisture in the plaster that hadn’t completely dried still…I very much suspect this was the root cause of what was to come, though as always hindsight is 20:20.

First job…boil some sugar into a syrup and then keep going until it is at the hard crack stage or thereabouts

The first sugar batch

It’s a lousy picture, but it really does do this attempt justice. As I have said several times before, the Tudor Kitchens at Hampton Court Palace in the winter are most definitely NOT the place to attempt sugar work, hell, even in the summer they’re less than ideal. As the sugar began to melt and the liquid bubbled…in the blink of an eye the whole lot crystallised and turned into a dry lump of junk, fit for nothing. The problem was the cold and damp…after a nice dry week, albeit a cold one, the weather had changed and warmed up enough for all the frost to turn to water and the fog of the day before had been washed away by a light but constant drizzle.
My suggestion for the second batch…pre-warm the skillet before putting the sugar and splash of water in; which they duly did and it seemed to do the trick, allowing the sugar to melt and start cooking away.

Pretty soon the whole mixture was boiling away nicely and after a few drop tests into some cold water both Adrian and Jorge decided to go for an initial casting

With Adrian taking the mould in hand, Jorge poured in the boiling sugar and with a combination of tilting and pouring the whole of the half of the mould was coated.

The first half coated in sugar

Showing admirable restraint, both Adrian and Jorge then left it alone for a few minutes rather than try to pull it out straight away and gave it a chance to harden off…in truth they were deep in conversation with the fascinated visitors to the Kitchen, explaining what it was they were doing and why, and fortunately not blaming me for the insanity of it all.
A few minutes passed and it was time to try to remove the sugar…

…it was however, stuck fast. Perhaps they hadn’t left it long enough? Perhaps some time would cause it to harden more…or soften in the damp atmosphere…or…???
It was at this point I left the sugar casting to catch up on some paperwork and knock out a tweet or two in the relative calm of the office. It was by now late in the day and I got into the ‘zone’ with some writing and lost track of the time. When I emerged from the office the Palace was closed and the Kitchen empty…I strode into the break room and scanned round looking for some semblance of a cast sugar figure, but saw nothing. Adrian looked at me with a look that spoke volumes and I walked into the break kitchen to put the kettle on. As I walked to the sink to fill the kettle I was greeted by this sight…

I guess it didn’t come out easily then

…the plaster mould soaking in the sink to try to dissolve the last of the boiled sugar! Neither time nor damp atmosphere had helped remove the bonded sugar and the only recourse had been to soak the whole thing in water to try to dissolve the bond between the two materials…or at least soften the sugar enough to finally pull it clear of the plaster. So much for tea…it was time for a beer and some thinking!

Day 6 – Go large then go home!

Day 5 had been New Years Eve, Adrian had a life and thus more interesting places to be…dancing the night away near Heathrow airport; a third of the team had gone home and the rest of us sat in front of one of the worst DVD’s I can recall ever watching, all of which meant there was little discussion about how to crack the casting problem that evening. Day six dawned and the new year brought new ideas to Adrian and he thought he’d cracked how to solve the sugar bonding to the plaster problem. unfortunately this idea meant completely abandoning the whole of the casting process as described and “solving” the problem by means of redesigning the whole process and mould material…in short, cast into a clay lined mould. As innovative as that might have been, and more of which shortly, solving the problem by throwing the whole thing away and inventing a new method wasn’t a solution. The end result, the cast figure, wasn’t as important as trying the process the correct way and then, not ignoring the parts that ‘don’t work’ or make no sense, but investigating the whole and complete process…just because we can’t make it work doesn’t mean the recipe/description is wrong after all, just that we are.
I will confess that at this point I lost a lot of interest in the sugarwork. Both Jorge and Adrian, though appreciating the idea that following the recipe as it was written was a good thing had gone off on one and were trying to come up with solutions to the problem rather than simply following the words…I went and concentrated on the roasting and the multi spit and got lost in the fire for a while

I returned from my funk just in time to see Jorge put the skillet down having just poured their final attempt using the plaster mould, though this time they had lightly greased the mould with oil before pouring.

Can you see the sugar?

A short wait for it to set and it was time for the moment of truth…

Heroic failure! A little longer and who knows what might have come out. Adrian was being a lot more positive than Jorge and his optimism was rewarded a short wait later as the remnants of what had solidified popped out of the mould with a deft pull

Wile the plaster attempt had been cooling they tried the clay lined version using the second mould

The clay lined mould

This was worse and they got no results from their ‘solution’…history was partially vindicated  😎

So was that it? No, not a chance. While all of the casting shenanigans had been going on, Elly and Tom had persevered with the press moulded sugar figure and worked on a base for her based on the Ditchley portrait of Elizabeth that had kick started the whole affair.

And with that, the sugar queen was complete…or as complete as she was going to get. A little bit of a brush and tidy up, a few more photos for the record and then this ephemeral object was gone, her job done.

Was it a successful project?…Yes, most definitely, thousands of people coming through the Kitchen saw the work progress over the course of the week and tens of thousands watched the trials and tribulations online via Twitter.
Could it have been improved?…Of course! I’m sure that both Adrian and Jorge and all the rest of the team that put something towards the sugar figures had the skill and abilities to not need to have been as cautious as they were when it came to the casting. I think that if they’d gone for the casting first, following the recipe, rather than staying safe and going for the press moulded figure then there may well have been a complete cast figure by the end of the week…though what was I saying earlier about hindsight?? The flip side to that would have been no press moulded figure for people to see early on through the week and it could all have kept failing as the final casting attempts did and we could have ended up with nothing at all to physically show after six days apart from two plaster moulds. Those are the choices that were made though and we ended up with a fantastic end product.

As always, I doff my cap to my more dexterous colleagues, as I said in a previous post, I just come up with the ideas, they’re the ones who actually make it all a physical reality for you all to see. Also we must not forget all those in the team who were working on other things over the week like the roasting, marchpane and comfit making…all of which I’ve ignored here, but are so important in order to bring the Kitchens to life and make everyone’s visit extra special.

A usual…comments gratefully received. There’ll be another short break before the next post on boiling in pewter vessels, and a new gallery of all the images from the event as I have a conference paper to write and present within the next week along with a mountain of paperwork and meetings, but keep an eye out on Twitter and here for the next blog update.

The Sugar Queen – part 2 – ̶C̶a̶s̶t̶i̶n̶g̶ ̶T̶h̶e̶ ̶S̶u̶g̶a̶r̶ – Errmm…Nope!

So, last time I went through the first couple of days of the Christmas event and detailed how the plaster of Paris mould was made ready for casting the sugar figure. The next stage of the plan was to follow the instructions in the Platt recipe for casting in plaster moulds and soak the mould in water; whilst this was happening there would be a little experimentation with boiling sugar and then about three-quarters of the way through day three the mould would be dried, put together, filled with boiling sugar and an attempt made at casting the first figure. Meanwhile, another part of the team would make a second mould from the wooden former in case things went awry with the casting in the first and it became unusable or broken in some way….well they were what I thought the plans were at least.
One of my major failings is that because I live with the planning for so much longer than the rest of the team I can never remember if I’ve passed on all the details to them, or if I just think I have! Posting a blog post with all the details in is one thing, but did I actually remember to tell all of the team these details? Either way, the result was the same and over the course of day 2 and through the evening it became clear that Adrian and Jorge had decided to forge another path. Yes a second mould would be made but there would be no casting with boiled sugar…worries and doubts had set in and they felt much more confident in trying to get a full, press moulded figure out made from sugar paste and then work up to the cast boiled sugar…so much for go large or go home!

The first thing they decided to do was make a second plaster mould, but this time they would use one half of the first mould to cast against rather than the clay. This meant the wooden figure was placed back into one half of the mould and then the whole exposed surface, wood and plaster, was then coated liberally with the tallow & oil mixture.

This was then coated in plaster exactly as before and when set, the original half was removed and the mould finished exactly as with the original…though in this case it contained a few more air bubbles than the first attempt and these needed to be filled with some putty consistency plaster after the fact

While Elly and Jorge were working on this, Adrian was working on some test pressings before steeling himself for a full on queen.

The sugar paste used was a rough and ready variation of the recipe from Ruscelli’s “The secrets of the reverend Maister Alexis of Piemont 1

all the ingredients were there, just not necessarily in the same order or quantities. Once made, and as Adrian started to fill the front half of the mould, it became clear that it would take an awful lot more paste to fill the entire mould…good job this was just a test. He decided to push the boat out…and push his luck, by trying for a complete front of the figure, and to make it a bit more flash, he used some of the marchpane that Zak had been making with various visitors, to give some colour and pizzaz to the face and hands. These parts of the mould were filled and then the rest had the standard sugar paste pressed into it at around 10-30 mm thick depending on both a) what was needed and b) what past was left, having started at the head and worked down. The results were pretty damn impressive, if a little flimsy…and this at least would give people the idea of what was being attempted.

With some more marchpane and sugar paste, Adrian finished off the day seeing how much material he was going to require to press out an entire figure

Once the mould was separated, the results were encouraging…even if it wasn’t the boiled sugar I had hoped for.

The test torso…not bad at all

…and so finished day 3.

Day 4

In an ideal world, day 4 would have seen the press moulding done and finished with nice and early and thence they would have moved on to the real deal, the boiled sugar. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be so, only this time it was most definitely my fault! A previously booked and unchangeable appointment meant I would be away from the Kitchen for the bulk of the day, the instructions I left…under no circumstances do anything interesting or adventurous as there wouldn’t be anyone there to record it! I HAD to leave by 12.00 and absolutely no later in order to make the appointment, so anything interesting had to be done PDQ at the start of the day…Adrian did not disappoint!
First mission…paste…lots of sugar paste

After a change of hat and Adrian starts churning out sugar paste

Once the paste was made, it was simply a case of packing it into the plaster mould

and then closing the two halves together…with some vigour

From this point on things got a bit…well, physical, with an awful lot of grunting and groaning from Adrian as he tried to force more paste into the mould so that all the detail was filled and there was sufficient wall thickness for the whole to not sag and droop when it was finished.

Rolling out paste for a base

It turned out that without a solid base though there was little chance of the figure standing upright upon removal from the mould, so Adrian made a base out of a hastily made batch of paste and used this to seal the bottom of the skirts, the void now being packed full of flour to hold her steady when she was complete.

All it took then was a little bit of fiddling and the first half of the mould popped off a treat. This meant Adrian could do a quick tidy up around the join while the figure was still supported by the back half of the mould as he wanted to avoid excessive amounts of handling until the paste had hardened a little

The torso came loose from both halves of the mould at first, which caused me a little concern that the back of the figure may have been incomplete or broken…something I need not have worried about

Then with the deft hand of a master…as well as a little shaking, cajoling and a healthy dose of luck, out popped the Sugar Queen!

I think the voice of the child watching from Adrian’s elbow said it all…”Oh my God! Wow!”

Free at last!

By now it was 12.30…and I was VERY late!
As I sprinted out of the Kitchen my parting words were once again…”Don’t do anything interesting!” and with that I was away for the afternoon. So what did I find on my return? Turns out they’d been quite busy…

A pair of press moulded sugar queens in sugar paste and marchpane

Marchpane and sugar paste figure

…and that’s how day 4 finished.

Had they chosen to, the surface of the figures could have been smoothed out quite a bit before the paste set and that would have removed all of the cracks and imperfections, but to be honest, I don’t think anyone cared. They’d managed to get two fairly impressively large figures made and run through the process in front of a couple of thousand visitors plus several thousand more online…they deserved a beer…or two!

Next post…the last two days of the event and finally some boiled sugar casting!

As always, comments gratefully received, and once again, some of the images will expand to a larger size if you click on them, so give that a go if you want to see some more detail.

  1. Girolamo Ruscelli, The secrets of the reverend Maister Alexis of Piemont : containing excellent remedies against diverse diseases, wounds, and other accidents, with the maner to make distillations, parfumes, confitures, dying, colours, fusions, and meltings …, trans. by William Ward (London: Thomas Wright, 1595) (p. 61).

Plainly Plaster

If you’re interested in some more historic details regarding plaster of Paris, albeit a little later in history than the Tudors, then you should take a look at this blog post on plaster of Paris which is part of the ever excellent Recipes Project. 

Enjoy that and I’ll furnish you with the next part of our confectionery capers early next week.

The Sugar Queen – Mould Making

So the equipment is cleaned and put away, the team returned to their homes and the dust has settled on another Christmas of cookery at Hampton Court Palace…but what did we achieve?

Two posts ago, <HERE> , I detailed the plans for the work over the week and gave a little insight into the methods that would be applied to making a cast sugar figure in front of our visitors. Those who follow on Twitter will already have seen most of the results but, free of the 140 character limit of tweeting, I can flesh all that out for you here and lay bare the highs and lows for those who eschew Twitter.

So the plan was a simple one, we would make a wooden former, we’d make a mould from that former, we’d cast a positive in sugar from that mould, and Robert is your mother’s brother…we’d bask in adulation and glory! As always through this, when I say ‘we’ I mean ‘the team’ and then, mostly not me…I come up with the stupid plans and can manage the donkey work when called upon, the skilled work needed for this insane idea was all due to the rest of my extremely handy and talented colleagues.

The wooden former from the front
The wooden former from the side

Contrary to his Davros related text message, Adrian turned up with a cracking wooden model to be used as a former for creating the mould with. Apparently she’s a little lopsided, but only Adrian noticed that…it irks him because he made it and it wasn’t “as good as it should be” but I’m damned if anyone else noticed…even when he pointed it out to us.
The plan of action was : Day 1, coat the wooden former in wax to seal it and then get this ready for casting. Day 2, construct the casting box, line with wax/oiled paper and begin the casting process with plaster of Paris. Taking the resultant mould and leaving it somewhere nice and warm to dry overnight (shouldn’t be a problem, everyone at HCP seems to like having their office at volcano like temperatures 😉 ). Day 3, investigate boiling sugar and spend the day making sugar paste 1 as practice for … Day 4, cast the first attempt in boiled sugar; trying as many times as possible through the day…continue this for the rest of the week. Simultaneously,  from Day 3 on, make a second mould with which to make press moulded sugar paste figures with and to use as a backup when we inevitably took things too far with the first mould and ended up with an irreparable kit of parts.

Day 1

Day 1 started with a bit of a shock…ice and frost! We were expecting things to be less than conducive to confectionery work in the Great Kitchen, after all there’s a reason that the original confectionery area was above the pastry department…it’s large ovens meaning that the rooms above would remain warm and dry, unlike our Kitchen which is cold and damp, I suppose at least now it was just cold and much less damp than usual.
First task, seal the wooden former, so Jorge fired up the portable stove while Adrian got some beeswax from the store cupboard and threw it into a skillet to melt.

Once the charcoal was up to temperature, the wax filled skillet was placed on top and left until the wax had all melted. At this point, Adrian ladled it over the former until it was mostly covered and he then began the rather laborious task of smoothing the lumpy wax out so that the wood was evenly covered and sealed for plaster casting.

Clearly it would have been so much simpler to just have a deeper pot and more wax allowing the former to be dipped into this to coat it in one go, but unfortunately we a) didn’t have enough wax to do this, b) didn’t have a suitable pot that both wax and former would adequately fit into and, most importantly c) We aren’t allowed to do that sort of thing…and a damn good job too! Our key Principle at Historic Royal Palaces is Guardianship…

“We exist for tomorrow, not just for yesterday. Our job is to give these palaces a future as valuable as their past. We know how precious they and their contents are, and we aim to conserve them to the standard they deserve: the best.”

We are extremely lucky in being able to cook, experiment and experience life within the Kitchen at Hampton Court as close as it is possible to  in the ways these things were done in the past, there are limitations though and these are there to ensure that the building is still there for future generations to come…and not coated in beeswax by a bunch of cretins playing with a mad idea!…but I digress (as usual).

Day 2

By the morning of day 2, Adrian and Jorge had completely rethought how they wanted to make the plaster mould. Rather than make a mould box and create a large two piece mould that was essentially a cube in shape with the hollow of the figure in the middle, they wanted to use thicker plaster to cast a more organic mould off of the wooden figure and without using a casting box. Admittedly this would save a lot of time that would have been spent making the box and would end up using much less plaster…a win all round. All that would be needed would be to divide the wooden former into two halves with some clay, create a fence of clay around the bottom of the figure

and then slap on some thick plaster. Once side one was dry, the clay could be removed and a second coating of plaster on the un-moulded side applied to create a complete two-part mould.

Of course, things aren’t ever going to be that simple, and wax or not, the former still needed a coating of a mould release/grease to ensure that it slipped from the plaster when it had set. This was made of a mixture of tallow and oil, heated together over the charcoal and then liberally applied to the former and clay surfaces that would be coated in the plaster. Once this had been applied and all was cleared and ready to go, Adrian and Jorge mixed the plaster up to a consistency of raw meringue and began to liberally apply it to create the first half of the mould.

The first half of the mould made

The plaster didn’t take too long to harden to a degree that meant Adrian wasn’t forced to hold it in his hands all afternoon and they were left with half a mould curing in the Kitchen. Once this was set sufficiently the clay could be peeled off and the plaster tidied up a little where it had formed areas that would allow the back half of the mould to lock to the front with no chance of separation.

Once this process was complete a clay fence could be added to the base of the rear of the former, and another liberal coating of the grease mixture applied all round before coating with more plaster.

Once the final coat of plaster had been applied, and as you can see from the videos, the consistency was fairly varied meaning that there was quite a difference in the amount of water in the batches and thus quite a difference in drying time, the whole affair was left to cure for a while until it was solid enough to move on.

The completed mould curing

Once a suitable length of time had elapsed…calculated in tea breaks and trips to warm up in the break room; it’s not often you can be thankful for an exothermic reaction like plaster curing to keep you warm in a cold kitchen 2 …it was time to take the leap and crack the mould open!
First step was to trim the edges with a knife to make sure all of the splashes and any plaster overlap that still remained between the two halves was finally removed.

Then with a little bit of coaxing, the rear portion of the mould popped off…

The rear half of the mould

Then with a little more wiggling and jiggling…and a few muttered words

The former was free and we had two halves of a mould ready to go!

The front half of the plaster mould

All that was left was to do a quick test press with some sugar paste to check that the figure would be visible

then it was off to a warm, dry place overnight to dry  and fully cure.

Whilst typing this it has become very clear that there is no chance of me being able to write a single post that covers the whole of the week’s confectionery capers…not if I want you to not die of boredom whilst reading it at least. So consider this the first post, with more to come when I’ve typed it all up and had a little family time to myself; I’ll also add a gallery of all the images that I took over the week, but again, that’ll have to wait a few days. For now it’s worth noting that some of the images in the post will expand to larger size if you click on them…might make some of the detail a little clearer for you.

As always, comments gratefully received…positive, negative, ambivalent…and keep an eye out for the next part some time early next week.

  1. Girolamo Ruscelli, The secrets of the reverend Maister Alexis of Piemont : containing excellent remedies against diverse diseases, wounds, and other accidents, with the maner to make distillations, parfumes, confitures, dying, colours, fusions, and meltings …, trans. by William Ward (London: Thomas Wright, 1595) (p. 61).
  2. Yes, I am well aware of the dangers and damage that the heat from curing plaster can cause. A full risk assessment was carried out and the plaster work was carried out as safely as is possible to do so. No hands or other appendages were kept in wet plaster as it cured, only the outside of the mould was held and then only for very short lengths of time

A Quick Christmas Update – good news for Dr Who fans

Just to let you know that some degree of concern has been assuaged today as I’ve heard from Adrian that the wooden former he was supposed to be making does indeed exist….hooray!

Unfortunately the wording of his text message read thus:

She’s looking more like ‘Davros’

So goodbye sugar Elizabeth…
…and hello sugar Davros?

Don’t be surprised to find that we may gravitate towards making the potentially more lucrative sugar Davros figures rather than the sugar woman…I’ll just have to square things with the boss and we’ll be good to go! ;o)

Christmas Confectionery

So with Christmas 2016 fast approaching I guess I should get my finger out and tell you what the plans are for the cookery at Hampton Court this year.

As with last year the overall theme of the event, both upstairs in the “nice” bits of the Palace as well  as down in the Kitchens, will be the reign of Elizabeth I, but what exactly will we be cooking in the Kitchen I hear you cry?
Over the last few years of special events at Christmas and Easter I seem to have painted us into a corner of having a “thing” that will be made over the span of the event so that visitors can see the progress over the course of the week and this year is expected to be no exception. The “thing” has always been chosen so that multiple period techniques can be showcased or attempted (depending on your point of view), that it can be made in multiple discrete steps, that it’s fairly visual and would make good images for social media, is interesting and above all has a “I didn’t know they did that” component to it…all of which, as might be obvious, makes working out what the “thing” is going to be, really, really difficult. In the past we’ve made cokentryce, a sugar and a pastry knot garden and a pastry castle but none of those plans had come easily to the table…relying more on me being struck with divine intervention to come up with the ideas than any great level of thought and planning and I suppose the same is true of the “thing” for this Christmas cookery.

model castle made to represent the marchpane given to EiR in 1561-2

It was while mulling through ideas with Barry in mid September that we were struck by descriptions of the New Years gifts 1 given to Elizabeth by various people, which included marchpanes “made like a tower, with men and sundry artillery in it”, which those of you who have visited Hampton Court prior to 2006 may remember seeing reproduced in the original kitchen display. It wasn’t so much the tower and artillery but rather the men that we were taken with [no sniggering at the back!] and we thought that this could be the start of what the “thing” might be forming for us. Subtelties made in the form of people are also mentioned in Cavendish’s Life of Cardinal Wolsey 2  and so this seemed like an idea that could have potential…making a subteltie in the shape of a person, but of whom, made from what and how?

Queen Elizabeth I (‘The Ditchley portrait’) by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, circa 1592. (C) National Portrait Gallery, London

Well the “of whom?” was easy…let’s make a subteltie of Elizabeth I…or at least, a female figure in Elizabethan dress that will be based on the shape of the Queen in the Ditchley Portrait as that’s an instantly recognisable representation of an Elizabethan woman…and has some significance for the “upstairs” portion of the Christmas event at Hampton Court this year; the “from what and how?”, that’s less easy.

We could make it from marchpane, at its simplest this is a paste made from pounded raw almonds and sugar, but that’s not particularly exciting or interesting to watch or make…and I know that if I was to have proposed that as a plan the rest of the team would lynch me for making them grind who knows how many kilograms of raw almonds for days on end; it would also take most of the week to produce the basic ingredients during which time there would be very little for visitors to see, so marchpane is out. We could go with wax and make a pretty large-scale figure that way, but we’ve done wax before back in 2006 and 2008 and although unlike the marchpane there would be progress to see through the course of the week, it would only generate “but what about the cooking?” comments; so that too was a non starter.

With pastry covered last Easter with the chastelete and simple sugar work last Christmas with the knot garden the only course of action is to go out on a limb and go with sugar casting…the most difficult method of modelling at the best of times, let alone in a cold, damp Tudor kitchen! Apart from small sugar roses about 7cm in diameter, the largest item we ever had any success with was when Jorge seemed to lose the plot and attempted to start a new cult of Aten worship with a big sugar disc made in the Kitchens back in 2007!

Jorge tries to kickstart Aten worship in the 21st century!

Simply put, there’s too much moisture in the building for success with casting sugar, it melts when cast or sets too quickly, or crystallises in the pan as it’s boiling all of which means that we tend to avoid it like the plague as it’s just doomed to failure from the outset…but these tiny details haven’t stopped me from forging ahead with this as the plan for the “thing” over the Christmas cookery…a cast sugar model of an Elizabethan woman, notionally Elizabeth I, standing around 23 cm tall and about 15 cm wide…by the end of the event the team are going to hate me!

But how are we going to make it?

In theory, that’s quite simple…make a mould, boil some sugar, pour the boiling sugar into the mould, wait a short while, pour out the excess and wait…when cold, open the mould and Bob’s your uncle, a sugar Elizabeth…easy!
Well clearly, nothing in life is ever that simple…what mould, made of what, made how, boil sugar how??? I mean, surely there must be some clues that we can follow…and rather handily there are. Casting objects from sugar has a conveniently long history with  recipes covering the technique book ending the sixteenth century.

‘To mak ymages i[n] suger’ snippet
Harley M.S. 2378 f161v
(C) The British Library

Harley M.S. 2378 contains a recipe “to mak ymages in suger” on f161v (if you prefer an easier to read version you can find it transcribed in “Curye on Inglysh” published by the Early English Text Society 3 )

‘To mold of a lemmon, orenge, peare, Nut &tc. and after to cast it hollowe within, of sugar.’
Sir Hugh Platt. Delightes for Ladies,1608

whilst Sir Hugh Platt’s Delightes for Ladies 4 contains several useful sets of instructions for casting sugar as well as details of moulds made from both carved wood and “burnt Alabaster”…or plaster; a mould of which the Museum of London has in its collection. This mould dates from the late medieval or early post medieval period and is one half of a mould that is presumed to have been for making confectionery models of St Catherine. So we have an example to go by, though I suspect ours will be a lot cruder….and bigger.

Half of a presumed pair of moulds for making confectionery models of St Catherine.
(C) Museum of London

So, using a combination of the techniques in these recipes along with the instructions by Cennini in his Il Libro dell’Arte 5 on how to make moulds for casting people and objects, we’re going to have a stab at it.
This means that we’ll be taking a wooden former in the rough shape of the figure we want to cast that, fingers crossed, Adrian has already made for us, and coating that in wax in order to be able to add some fine detail and seal the wood that it’s made from to stop the plaster from sticking to it. Next, a casting box needs to be made out of thin wooden planks and a bed of plaster poured into it to support the former…which we will need to cover in a mould release lubricant that we will have to make out of tallow and oil. Next the plaster will be poured to half cover the former and left to set…once set, this plaster will be coated in the mould release and the casing box topped up with plaster to cover the former. Fingers crossed this should mean that once set we will be able to pull the mould apart and be left with a negative space in the two halves of plaster into which boiled sugar can be poured; which once cooled will result in a sugar queen…sounds easy doesn’t it, what could possibly go wrong?!

I’m pretty sure I’ve covered all the bases in terms of ordering the equipment needed, from plaster to wooden planks, tallow to barrier cream

but there’s bound to be something I’ve forgotten, or presumed we have in store somewhere but am actually woefully mistaken as to its existence…watch this space for details of whatever that turns out to be.

On top of all of this there’ll be comfit making on most days and roasting each day, with beef on the spit every day and chickens being cooked on the multi armed spit on alternate days…as always, if you’re visiting the Hampton Court over the Christmas event and wander into the Kitchens then feel free to try your hand as a turn broach and experience life at the blunt end of Henry VIII’s House of Provisions, or see if there are any other tasks that we need a hand with…there’s always some stirring, grinding or rolling that’ll need doing and a Kitchen Team member who is all too happy to let someone else try their hand at it if it means they get a crafty five minute break from the work.

All of this sugar work and mould making will be done in phases over the course of the week after Christmas, starting 27th December and finishing 1st January, though there is roasting and all of the courtly capers upstairs in the State rooms from 21st December to the 23rd inclusive as well as the post-Christmas week. Fingers crossed we’ll have some results to show, though in truth if we only get a mould made I’ll be extremely happy. As with previous events like this I will be recording and photographing for later blog posts and will keep things up to date via Twitter (@Tudorcook)…both successes and failures.

  1. John Nichols, The Progress and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth, 3 vols (London: John Nichols & Son, 1823), I (pp. xxxvi–xxxvii).
  2. George Cavendish, The Life of Cardinal Wolsey, 2nd edn (London: Harding and Lepard, 1827) (pp. 197–198).
  3. Constance Hieatt and Sharon Butler, Curye on Inglysch (Oxford University Press, 1985)(p. 153).
  4. Sir Hugh Platt, Delightes for Ladies, to adorn their Persons, Tables, Closets and distillatories London: 1608.
  5. Cennino Cennini, The Book of theArt of Cennino Cennini, a Contemporary Practical Treatise on Quattrocento Painting, trans. by Christiana Herringham, 2nd edn (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1922).

Log Slog!

When I last looked at the subject of firewood I said that one of the next things to do was look at the fireplaces around the Palace and see how big they were….well I had some time this past week to do that as well as some other log related work.

First on the agenda was simulated logs! I wanted some life sized stand ins for no.1 size talshides (based on the details in the Arnolds Chronicle descriptions, so 4ft long and 20 inches in circumference).  Why simulated logs rather than just getting some real logs you may ask…and you wouldn’t be alone in asking. Well there are a number of reasons why…ease of availability, weight, cost and not running the risk of introducing pests such as woodworm or other insect life into the Palace; but I must say that the weight was the principle reason. The simulated logs are intended to enable discussions regarding the size and transportation of the logs within the building, not their weight, and having lightweight simulations will allow children to safely handle them, something that would be much less the case if they were actual four foot long billets of timber!
So how did I make them? Simple…we had a very large roll of large cell bubble packing material (Fun* fact…BubbleWrap, as we ALL call this

2" parcel tape
2″ parcel tape
Large cell bubble packing
Large cell bubble packing

stuff is actually a trademarked brand…and most of the wrap we all use isn’t actually BubbleWrap at all, it’s another plastic cell wrapping material that isn’t allowed to be called BubbleWrap…yet we still do!     *not really fun, but hey, I used to work for a packging company, got to use that experience now and again 😉  ) and a roll of 2″ brown parcel tape.  Roll the wrap into a cylinder that was 20 inches in circumference, then cut to 4 foot long and wrap with tape…lots of tape, the result…

Two no.1 talshide simulators
Two no.1 talshide simulators

Eventually I think I’d like to make a few more so that there are enough to

For some contextual scale, the no.1 talshides against an "average" Barry.
For some contextual scale, the no.1 talshides against an “average” Barry.

allow the laying of a “fire” so that people can get a better idea of the size it seems likely that the fires would have been, but for now two will suffice. I’m not sure what it is, but when you talk to people about talshides being four foot long, they nod sagely with that look of acknowledgement that says “I hear what you’re saying but that size really doesn’t mean much to me in this abstract form”…hand them a four foot roll and say, that’s how big we’re talking about and things take on quite a dramatic change and the response changes to “wow! That big?!?”; so for now, they’re proving very useful.

Mock logs aside, I’ve spent a fair time looking through the architectural plans and the brick typology of the building to pinpoint any and all of the surviving Tudor fireplaces dotted around the Palace (not including the roasting fireplaces in the Kitchen). Currently I’ve looked at  all (I think) of those in areas that are easily accessible which leaves around 6 or 7 to find in various offices and stores at some time in the future. I’m interested to see if they would have been able to accommodate a standard length talshide (4 foot) or not…if so, then the firewood listed under Bouche of Court in the ordinances could have been standard, assize sized logs.

Bouche for Officers of the household, again with firewood included although in smaller quantities
Bouche for Officers of the household, again with firewood included although in smaller quantities
Bouche of Court for a Duke or Duchess, including talshides of firewood
Bouche of Court for a Duke or Duchess, including talshides of firewood

If not, then like the Northumberland household account I mentioned in the previous post on the subject, firewood of a differing size would have been required.

Fireplace Location Date Width (in inches)
Gt Kitchen office 1514-29 60
Buttery/AV room 1529-47 51
Pages Chamber 1529-47 60
Wolsey Closet 1514-29 54
Baroque Story display off clock court 1514-29 59
Young Henry exhibition (Wolsey rooms)1 1514-29 84
ditto 2 1514-29 71
ditto 3 1514-29 60
ditto 4 1514-29 60
Base Court school lunch room no.1 1529-47 60
Kitchen Shop (Wine Cellar) 1514-29 60

So it looks like 60 inches, or very close to it, is the commonest size for the domestic fireplaces used to heat rooms within the Palace (and over half of the ones I’ve yet to see in the flesh are around that size too according to the architectural plans), meaning they could all utilise an assize length talshide with inches (or feet in some cases) to spare…the first image of the fireplace within the Kitchen Office includes one of the aforementioned talshide simulators (and before you ask, no I did not carry them through the Palace to test fit them in all the fireplaces, I used a tape measure) to give you an idea of the scale and to show how easily they would fit.

Did they use the standard assize length for firewood is the next question to try to find an answer for. Why might they not use the standard assize length talshides? Well it’s possible that the 3 foot talshides the Northumberland Household used were related to the available timber, that dividing the trees into 3 foot not 4 foot lengths was more efficient for the trees at hand and the same might have been true for the Court. Likewise it could be a cost related reason, that shorter lengths cost less because they could get more from any given tree, or it could be a rudimentary anti-theft mechanism; with pilfered logs being unable to be sold on the open market as they would clearly be too short to be legal under the general assize and would stand out like the proverbial sore thumb. For now all I can say is that the officers of the Woodland were expected to see “the full measures of Coales and the Assize of Wood”

woodyard addendawhether or not that was the national assize or a specific Court one will have to form the next steps in this investigation.

 

Take And Make a Foyle Of Gode Past – Constructing A Chastelete

I left the last post HERE having explained what we were going to do with the chastelete recipe and why, so now it’s time to answer the bigger question…how did it turn out?
Those that follow on Twitter will already have seen some of this, but as much as I love Twitter for showing what we’re doing in the Kitchen, 140 characters is nowhere near enough to fully explain something like making a chastelete…how else will I get to ramble incoherently whilst showing you pictures of slabs of pastry?!?

So as you know, we were mashing together the recipe for chastelete from The Forme of Cury along with the designs for the Henrician Device Forts to produce a large pie, shaped like a castle.

I’d tasked Robin with the main responsibility for the pie because quite simply, he’s by far the best in the team  at making pastry; Marc H, Zak, Adrian, Dave, Ross and any others needed would assist with making paste in bulk, fillings, colourings etc while the rest of the team worked on other recipes and roasting. Robin had a plan…it was set in his mind…there would be no deviating from it, and in retrospect, although the rest of us thought he was mad and he should have changed his plans halfway through day 1…he was right to stick to his guns, this wouldn’t have been half of what it was if we’d got him to change the one driving obsession he had…thin walls.

First try

So first task on day one was pastry, and lots of it. We’d already discussed how big the whole thing should be…as big as would fit in the oven, so at most 10 inches high and 14 inches wide…length in proportion but at maximum 2 feet, give or take.

The very, very rough planning of dimensions for the chastelete.
The very, very rough planning of dimensions for the chastelete.

We settled on a central tower around nine inches in diameter and ten inches high, with four ancillary turrets around three inches in diameter and six inches high which would give a final product that would just fit on the tray we have to use because of being limited to using a modern oven for baking in.
Robin’s initial plan was to use a very stiff salt dough for the case so work was set to in order to produce what was hoped would be enough…as many volunteers and assistants from the visitors being sought to help out with the task and give them a taste of the work needed to make a decorative subteltie such as this.

About mid way through the day, there was sufficient paste to drive out a base sheet and place it onto the tray, which had first been filled with flour to even out the dents in the base. next task was to work on the first cylinder that would form the central tower. This did not go to plan!

Even though the paste was as stiff as Robin could make it, it was simply not strong enough to be self supporting when formed into a cylinder.

Mostly, this was down to the wall thickness that Robin wanted…it was never going to work with this pastry. The rest of us were all thinking…thicker…make it thicker, but Robin had other ideas…hot water crust…shame we hadn’t planned for that. Time to delve through the freezer and see how much lard we had in stock.
A swift hour of boiling fat & water and some hard kneading later there was enough paste to try another experimental cylinder, but not wanting to give up on the original plan just yet, two cylinders were formed around jars, one of hot water paste, the other salt dough and these were held in place with collars of paper then left to dry.

After a night in the warm embrace of the airing cupboard both tests were ‘leather dry’ and the jar formers were carefully removed. The salt dough was just not up to the task (as you can see from above after it had dried for a few hours more) but the hot water crust was good enough to show that this was the path to tread…and production began at full scale.

Crenellation Construction

The bulk of the construction of the basic pieces happened while I was busy elsewhere, so there aren’t any images to show unfortunately, not that they’d be that exciting. The paste was mixed and rolled into sheets around 5mm thick then cut to size forming rectangles that could be rolled around suitable formers. Before rolling the crenellations were cut long the top edge, then the paste was rolled up around a ceramic jar. The first experiments had shown that left as it was, the jar would stick fast to the pastry, so a layer of paper was added first then once the overlap had been sealed by damping the paste and squeezing tightly together, the whole cylinder was held together with a paper collar to keep it from sagging until it had firmed up slightly.
After an hour or so, the paste was freed from the paper and ceramic scaffolding and another was made; when all four were complete they went into the airing cupboard for the night. Meanwhile, the task of creating the central turret was causing some concern, simply because we didn’t have a ceramic jar or bowl that wasn’t wildly tapering…really not what was needed for a nice castle wall.

Fortunately thinking outside of the proverbial box meant Robin seized on the idea of using the newly delivered bucket of antibacterial wipes that we have for cleaning our office, store and break areas…it was the perfect size, but wasn’t able to be used in front of our visitors…no problem, everything would be prepared then the final forming would be done when the Palace closed and Robert would be you Aunt’s husband! (yes, I know I’ve just said that we didn’t do this in public so our visitors wouldn’t see the plastic tub, but I’m now showing you, so surely what’s the difference…context my friends, context. I can explain the why’s and wherefores to all of you here, this wouldn’t be possible if it was done ‘live’ in the Kitchens and people may never understand why we had to use a plastic bucket and an airing cupboard!)

Building and Blind Baking

So day 3 dawned and a day behind the planned schedule, construction of the actual castle could begin…if the pieces could be moved from their drying boards!
First task was to make another base plate and put this onto the newly re-floured metal baking tray. After that, the delicate task of moving the dry, but still very fragile, turrets into place. To do this Robin would utilise two of the knives in the set round his waist to carry the paste shells from board to base.

Once in place, adding the outer turrets could begin. These were first trimmed to remove a section of wall so that they would fit better to the main turret, then as before, carried on the blade of a knife from board to base to be placed carefully in position.

Once there, the previously made cut was re-trimmed to match the angle of the main wall it would bond to, and the two surfaces were held in place with beaten egg. This was repeated three more times until the basic shell was completed and ready to be blind baked.

Ready to go to the oven
Ready to go to the oven

As I’ve mentioned before, we are limited to having to use a modern gas oven for our baking, so it was off up to the Buttery kitchen (used by caterers when there are events held in the Great Hall) for an hour of standing looking at a stainless steel oven door.
First job was to re-seal all of the joints with beaten egg again before popping the whole thing into the oven on almost its lowest setting. We had originally planned to use dry peas to fill the castle to assist with the blind baking, but an error with our shopping meant that we didn’t have enough so Robin opted for his tried and tested blind baking method…regular checking and manipulating the paste if/as it deforms with the heat.

As you can see in the image above, the paste begins to dry from the top meaning the whole thing is liable to sag and sink as the base is the last part to firm up…a product of the modern oven not being hot enough at the bottom. This lead to Robin having to fiddle and manipulate the shape quite a bit….just after he said the doomed words “I think I feel confident enough to be able to just leave it now” as it happens.

Battling Battlements!

Meanwhile, down in the kitchen, Adrian and Dave were having ideas. I’d already asked Adrian to make some little pastry cannons to decorate the finished article with and this seems to have sparked a ‘we could do it differently’ attitude with him and Dave, so when Robin and I returned from the blind baking, sat on the table was chastelete mk2!

IMG_20160327_150937

Adrian was going for a slightly different design, 5 lobes not 4, and working with thicker paste. As far as I can tell it took 3 hours for them to get to the stage where it was sat blind baking in the oven…as opposed to 3 days!

All of this left the last day to fill and finish the original chastelete; Adrian and Dave only wanted to get this far as they knew that the ingredients for filling were limited…though Dave has taken it home to try and finish it there, should he be successful I’ll let you know, but be aware he was muttering about model people, sieges, undermining and gunpowder…so who knows what will happen with that!?!
Again, other tasks got in the way of me photographing the making of the fillings, but I can say that the end products were a marchpane mix coloured green with parsley juice, a custard coloured red(ish) with cochineal…it was supposed to be saunders but it got misplaced and the cochineal doesn’t play well with the heat of the custard…a fruit mix of apples, pears and some dry fruits, cooked together and left brown, and a white almond cream. All of this would be in the turrets round the outside, whereas the centre would hold a large, minced pork mix, spiced and flavoured with ginger, mace and a selection of other spices picked by visitors and Zak.

After filling, the final pie was slung in the oven to bake…resulting in this masterpiece!

The finished chastelete in all its glory
The finished chastelete in all its glory

Was it worth all the work? Damn straight it was…likewise with all the grief over the thin walls, as Robin said to me, what’s the point of doing it if it’s easy?

A man who's as pleased as pie!
A man who’s as pleased as pie!

Clearly, I’ve mentioned Robin a lot through this, because he was the one who fashioned the beast out of flour, fat and water…but it was very much a whole team effort and they should all be rightly proud of this result.

Proof of the Pudding

All this effort, four days of graft for what? A damn tasty pie…about ten minutes after the final photograph was taken and the chastelete removed to our office, this was the result:

10 minutes after the pie was taken into the office....carnage!
10 minutes after the pie was taken into the office….carnage!

I’ve put all of the images I took into a separate gallery HERE so you can see as much as I recorded. Some of the images above will open larger if you click on them so give that a try.
As always, comments, questions etc all welcome.

Castle Capers With Chasteletes

Rather than opt for an Easter egg-stravaganza, for the last of the cooking weekends for a while (see HERE for more on this), we decided to go big or go home and work on a pie inspired by the recipe for Chastelete taken from the Forme of Cury from around 1390…but brought up to date…well, the sixteenth century at least…and made in the shape of one of Henry VIII’s coastal Device Forts. Choosing the Device Forts as a basis for the design also allows us to link to Tudors on Tour at Camp Bestival where one of the thematic strands we’ll be talking about will be the forts at Sandsfoot and Portland…but which would we choose as the model for our chastelete?

First, let’s have a quick look at the recipe itself, which although we wouldn’t be following it word for word, would be the base for our work…though please note I am and will be using the ‘royal we’ here, as it’s actually Robin, Adrian, Zak and the rest of the team who’ll be doing the actual making part, I’m just the ideas man here 😉

Clearly it’s talking about a pastry pie shaped like a castle made of five cylindrical elements, the central one larger than the outer four…so taking that layout and comparing to the Device Forts, it was a simple decision to take our inspiration from either Camber, Walmer or Sandown (Kent)…we opted for Camber.

camber castle

As I said earlier, it was to be a case of go big, or go home…no half measures, make it as big as would be possible, spend the whole bank holiday weekend making it and damn the consequences….which was easy for me to say, not so easy for Robin to swallow though; but as I said to him, what’s the point of having someone that’s a demon with the pie cases if we can’t show him off?

Well apparently flattery will get you everywhere and after making a few measurements and a couple of rough sketches he went off to put his thinking cap on and work out how he wanted to approach the build. Again, we’d follow the recipe as far as the fillings were concerned…pork pie centre with almond cream, custard, minced fruit and fritter filling turrets, but for the actual paste components, other than the fact that they would be cylindrical and there’d be five of them, the rest was up to Robin.
What he decided was to work to the limitations presented as far as our ability to bake the final pie. We only have a modern gas powered catering sized oven to bake in, so that would determine the maximum height; and the tray/sheet that would fit within that oven would determine the arrangement of the outer turrets and the maximum length and width that the pie could be. Everything after that would be experimenting with different pastes to see which type would allow him to get the size required along with his personal desire for it to be as thin as possible.

So that was the planning/thinking….how did it work in practice?

 

 

Log Jam!

One of the questions we get asked a lot is “so what wood are you burning?” and the usual answer is something on the lines of “tree wood!” Yes it sound facetious, but it’s often the most accurate answer as the timber that we burn in the kitchens today is a hotch potch mix of whatever is in stock with our supplier at the time. We’ve had all sorts over the years from oak, beech and ash all the way to yew, some stunning box that was appropriated from the flames to make knife handles and a bowling ball…yes it was that thick!…and some eucalyptus that refused to be chopped into smaller pieces and simply wouldn’t burn it was that green…we were convinced that it you could have wrung it like a sponge it would have dripped everywhere. But the one thing almost all of it has in common is that it comes in short lengths, a bit like you see for sale all over the place for people with a fashionable log burner to buy, but perhaps a little chunkier.

So we know what we burn, but how much do we burn is a little more interesting. Until we embarked on five months of daily roasting last year, the State Apartment Warders that set and tend the fire each day would use up around 4m3 of wood each week; the fire is after all burning every day, whether we’re using it to roast or not. With the daily roasting that increased slightly to 6m3 a week, so over the five months around 130m3 of timber was burned…give or take! Now that might sound like a lot, especially as we were only cooking one 6Kg joint of beef a day, but can we put that in any form of context and compare it to how much wood was used by the Tudors? Possibly…with a LOT of caveats and approximation.

British Library Add. M.S. 24098 f18v, The Golf Hours
British Library Add. M.S. 24098 f18v, The Golf Hours

So first off, what does 130m3 of wood look like? Well according to thetree Forestry Commission timber calculator, if you can imagine a tree 2ft in diameter that’s 50ft tall….and then imagine 25 more of them…that’s what it looks like (though presumably that’s the main trunk only and not the smaller branches). Now how does that compare to the amounts that the Tudor court burned?

First stop

First stop has to be the Eltham Ordinances of which the version published in A collection of ordinances and regulations for the government of the royal household, made in divers reigns : from King Edward III to King William and Queen Mary, also receipts in ancient cookery, by the Society of Antiquaries in 1790 is most convenient to work with (even though it is prone to errors and is a mash-up of numerous sources). The ordinances defined the operating procedures for the court and give us many clues as to the operation of the household departments; though remember, the instructions given were for the court wherever it was located and not just at Hampton Court. We must not let the fact that Hampton Court survives for us to work in, cloud and confuse the textual information that we have simply because the building as we see it doesn’t always fit with the Ordinances as written. Unfortunately, the evidence that the Eltham Ordinances present us is vague to say the least! Apart from the Bouche of Court references which includes among the daily ration of bread, beer/wine and lighting, the allowance of fuel various court members were to receive as part of their membership at Court, the only useful references which may also include the fuel burned within the kitchen departments are found within the estimation of the expenses of the various departments within the household over and above those costs listed within the diets. These include the costs for Wood for Furnage of Bread and the costs for the Woodyard at £40 and £440 over and above the cost for Bouche of Court. I’ll ignore the bakery fuel for the moment as that’s clearly just for baking bread and not related to the other fires within the court, and instead concentrate on the woodyard expenses.

woodyard

The question is, how much firewood would £440 get you and for that we need to look elsewhere to find useable figures. So far I have only come across 4 sets of figures where a specific quantity of wood for a specific cost is given, it’s much more common to find expenses simply for “firewood” with no quantity; and of these 4 figures, one is slightly anomalous as the cost per unit works out to be nearly 10 times greater than the other examples…I’ve still got more work to do to see if there’s a reason for that so for now am happier to stick with the lower cost per unit rather than include this much higher figure….I did say it was going to get sketchy  😎

So what are those figures? For the meeting at Guisnes wood was purchased at a cost of  178l. 9s. 5¾d for 691,400 tallwood and billet. In the same accounts, the Bishop of Durham paid 6l. 8s. 4d for 27,000 billets and finally  17s. 8d was paid for 2,500 billets for wheel wrights to make tug-pins from in 1515, a figure which usefully points out to us that these talwood and billets may not have just been for fuel. If we take these costs and divide them by the amount of wood then a figure of 0.06d per unit is arrived at meaning that the £440 spent by the woodyard would have been able to buy around 1,760,000 talshide and billet for use by the court!

But what were talshides and billets?

The sale of fuel wood was controlled by the Assize of Fuel which set the size that certain types of fuel was to be sold at. An assize set in the 34th year of Henry VIII’s reign, and according to the details in the Edward VI assize was the same as issued under Edward IV, is known to have existed but it seems that no copy survives for us to study today. The next version that does exist was set under Edward VI and then reinforced and clarified by Elizabeth. There is also a surviving Assize for the City of London which can be found in The Customs of London, otherwis known as Arnold’s Chronicle which presumably dates from the end of the fifteenth century given that the chronicle was originally published in 1503.

Pierpoint Morgan Library, Morgan ms M 157 f 3r, http://ica.themorgan.org/manuscript/page/2/77035
Pierpoint Morgan Library, Morgan ms M 157 f 3r, http://ica.themorgan.org/manuscript/page/2/77035

All of these versions of  the assize  define the size in both length and circumference that certain units of timber should be sold at; these units are talshides, defined from a no.1 to no.5, and billets, which come in three differing sizes. The assize also covers faggots but these were probably only used within the bakehouse at Hampton Court and thus form part of a completely different subject to the one at hand! The 7 Edw.VI cVII assize defines the five sizes of Talshides as follows:

Talshide no.

Circumference at middle in inches

1

16

2

23

3

28

4

33

5

38

All are four foot long, not including the carf (cut) at the end of the log, and should be of the statute diameter within a foot of the middle of the log. The assize of 43 Eliz. cXIV added half and quarter cut versions for the talshides, but in a move to protect consumers stated that should a log fall between two sizes it should be considered to be the smaller of the two so that the customer effectively got the difference in size free.

Talshide no.

Circumference at middle in inches – full

Circumference at middle in inches – half

Circumference at middle in inches – quarter

1

16

19

18.5

2

23

27

26

3

28

33

32

4

33

39

38

5

38

44

43

Compare these to the figures found in Arnold’s Chronicle here:

Talshide no.

Circumference at middle

1

20

2

26

3

32

4

38

5

44

and we can see that there was a marked reduction in the size of talshides destined for sale. According to the opening statement of the Edward VI assize, this was due to a scarcity of firewood through the previous sixty years and the “Greatness” of the previous assizes…a “Greatness” of approximate 1/3 of a cubit foot (0.009m3) difference between the previous version and the Edward VI assize (presuming the assize detailed in Arnold’s Chronicle is the same as set under Edward IV); which if one considers the 1,760,000 talshides previously mentioned, would equate to 15,840m3. So the Edward VI assize would have intended quite a saving in fuel use, over 3100 of those trees I mentioned earlier in this example, though to what extent changing the unit of fuel would have impacted actual fuel use is another matter.

After talshides, billets were categorized as either single, billets called cast or billets called two cast. All were three foot four inches in length, but unlike the talshide, the carf (cut) was to be included in the length…no free fuel here, unlike the talshides. The Edward VI sizes are given as:

Billet name

Circumference in inches

Single

7.5

Cast

10

Two cast

14

whereas the Elizabethan ones, which were again separated into full round, half round and quarter round, were :

Billet name

Full round in inches

Half round in inches

Quarter Round in inches

Single

7.5

Na

Na

Cast

11

13

12

Two Cast

16

19

18.5

though single billets were only sold as fully round. The Arnold’s Chronicle figures are..complicated and are something I currently am not quite sure about. Billets are specified as :

The Customs of London, Otherwise Called Arnold’s Chronicle. London: Printed for F. C. and J. Rivington [etc.], 1811. p98
The Customs of London, Otherwise Called Arnold’s Chronicle. London: Printed for F. C. and J. Rivington [etc.], 1811. p98
and I am yet to get my head around how large “of resonable proporcio[n] and gretnes after the nombre of shyde that it be tolde fore” actually was.

Now I can only suggest that you get a tape measure out to get a sense of how large some of those logs were…until I did that they were just numbers on the page and you get a better understanding when you see what they actually looked like. To help with that, I did a quick recce through the woodpile in the Kitchens at work to see how close some of the logs we have waiting to be burnt actually are to the assize sizes. None come close to the length required, with the biggest ones we have coming in at around the 2ft 6 inch mark, but I was surprised at how many were pretty close to assize in circumference. To put that measurement in context I took some photos of three logs I pulled out at random that matched the circumferences from each of the different assizes above….I’ve used the internationally recognised standard measurement unit of the post-it note (not having a football field, London taxi or Olympic swimming pool to hand!) to give the scale as the ruler I had wasn’t particularly clear in the images. FYI the post-it note is 76mm x 76mm. (click on the images to enlarge them)

Once you start to be able to picture these sizes of timber, all of the surviving mediaeval images of firewood start to make sense…regular sizes, cut to regular lengths, and even if the images aren’t English and aren’t showing firewood of English assize dimensions, this uniformity of fuel makes perfect sense. In an age where timber forms a key part of so many facets of life, proper preparation, even in the growing, makes perfect sense. Why cut and split large trees down to size when you can just harvest them when they’re at the correct size? Yes we see images of wood being split down, but it’s not large trunk logs as we’d expect to be the case today, it’s much thinner, assize sized ones.

Wood cutter from Das Hausbuch der Mendelschen Zwölfbrüderstiftung in Nürnberg Amb. 317.2 ° Folio 26 recto (Mendel I)
Wood cutter from Das Hausbuch der Mendelschen Zwölfbrüderstiftung in Nürnberg Amb. 317.2 ° Folio 26 recto (Mendel I)
detail from The Hague, KB, 133 D 11 fol 3r
detail from The Hague, KB, 133 D 11 fol 3r

 

 

 

 

 

Now all this information regarding assize sized timber is all well and good, but it is also entirely possible that the talsides used within Henry VIII’s court were of a completely different size and specification set just for the Court, as was the case for the Household of the Duke of Northumberland :

Specifications for shide sizes from The regulations and establishment of the household of Henry Algernon Percy, the fifth Earl of Northumberland, at his castles of Wresill and Lekinfield in Yorkshire, begun anno domini M.D.XII
Specifications for shide sizes from The regulations and establishment of the household of Henry Algernon Percy, the fifth Earl of Northumberland, at his castles of Wresill and Lekinfield in Yorkshire, begun anno domini M.D.XII

Here, shides are specified as being split down to three foot in length by a span (around 8-9 inches) thick, which would correspond to a statute #2 or #3 talshide. But what is important is to understand that the fuel used by the court was of regular, standardised dimensions and not the random assortment of timenr we have to burn today.

Next steps

So where next? Well one task is to look at all the surviving sixteenth century fireplaces in Hampton Court and see if they’re big enough for a 4ft

Will assize length logs fit widthways within the fireplaces at Hampton Court? Fireplace model (c) Cealpup on Sketchup Make 2016
Will assize length logs fit widthways within the fireplaces at Hampton Court?
Fireplace model (c) Cealpup on Sketchup Make 2016

long log to fit into…so far, the first two I’ve looked at are certainly wide enough for a 4ft talshide to be burned lengthwise across the fireplace without needing to be cut into shorter lengths; only time and further measuring will tell with the rest. As for the kitchen fireplaces, well they’re easily large enough for statute talshides to be placed in a multitude of orientations so we aim to look at different arrangements of setting the fire through the year to see if we can learn anything from practical experimentation…though obviously the first requirements for this will be to talk to our firewood supplier to see if it’s possible to get wood supplied to statute sizes at all, and if not then we’ll have to progress purely on paper.

Header image: The Pierpoint Morgan Library, MS M.452 fol. 3r, http://ica.themorgan.org/manuscript/page/3/76930