Waaaaay back in the mists of time (2016) I set the Historic Kitchen Team the task of trying to make large figurines from cast boiled sugar; you can read about it <HERE>. Try as they might, there was little success…but we did end up with a very nice mould that’s been sat in storage ever since crying out to be used. Well this October, for the school half term holiday, the opportunity presented itself to push the team one more time to try to produce a cast sugar figure…and this is the short update about what happened, though as there’s a picture of a dirty great sugar figurine at the top of the page, I’m pretty certain it’s not going to be a great shock to you when you get to the bottom of the page.
But was that something they actually did in the past I hear you ask….well, as I detail in the post from 2016 (don’t worry, you don’t have to scroll back too far through the blog to find it, I’m lazy and haven’t written a great deal since then) there are plenty of recipes that run through the process, so it seems likely.
There’s also descriptions of subtelties in the form of people being presented to the table, such as the description of vaulting and leaping figures served by Cardinal Wolsey to French guests in Cavendish’s “Life of Cardinal Wolsey” 1 as well as suitable Elizabethan period references…all very handy as Hampton Court is showcasing all things Elizabeth this autumn (2019), to coincide with the temporary exhibition of the Lost Dress, the former Bacton Altar cloth, thought to be made from one of Elizabeth’s dresses.
So, fast forward to the present day and the nine day half term event, during which I charged the team with the task of repeating much of what they’d done in 2016, but with the added demand of having to produce cast models.
The first test of the week looked promising, and half a queen was produced in short order…though not by pouring boiling sugar into the mould, but rather by creating a sheet of sugar then slumping it into place to create the form.
The resultant half a queen needed a stick to support it…which very swiftly begat the concept of a “lickable, ‘lizabethan lolly”!
This test piece was left overnight when it was thought it might firm up as it dried out a little more in the airing cupboard…
but that was not to be, and by the morning,the once 3D form of the front of a queen was now an accurate sugar model of a Dr Who character from the Troughton or Pertwee eras.
Quite a lot of the rest of the week was spent with the team fixated on improving the results of the slumping method and with creating a crystal clear sugar that would set hard despite the awful weather we had over the week and the rain soaked and sopping wet atmosphere in the Kitchens…
it’s no great surprise to find out that confectionery kitchens are nice and warm and dry, and Henry VIII’s were no exception.
Situated at the end of Fish Court in the midst of the Kitchen complex, upstairs above the pastry house where it could be kept warm and dry by the heat from the ovens and the working rooms below. Here in 1539, Bonaventure Carter, James Fulgam, George Herd and John Bartlett would have worked to produce sweet delicacies for King Henry VIII and the upper echelons of his Court…but I digress…back to the Elizabethan stuff!
The obsession with the slumping wasn’t what had been asked for and isn’t how the recipes describes figures being made, so that had to stop and work needed to concentrate on working out how to work with boiled sugar in quantities that could fill the mould, or at least fill it to coat a layer sufficient to hold the shape of the Queen figure and most crucially, survive removing from the mould (the principal problem back in 2016). By now, Friday was upon us and there’d been no great signs of progress. Several changes of staffing had occurred and work on comfits was proving to be popular because it was nowhere near as complicated as the casting work was turning out to be. 5.45pm on Friday rolled round and I left for a weekend of shopping and the normal “adult” things that have to be done on days away from work, only to be greeted at four o’clock on Saturday afternoon on Twitter by the image of a ‘perfectly’ cast sugar figure posted by Jeremiah from the team…they’d actually done it, pulling it out the proverbial bag at the 11th hour. Like buses, it wasn’t long before Robin (it was Robin and Jeremiah who were working on the figures over the weekend) sent me a photo of a second figurine…
This one was much less caramelised than the first one as you can see from the handy mobile phone torch being shone through it from behind.
Unfortunately, these two were the only two sugar queens they made, but its not about quantity, its about the ability to make them, and to repeat making them which is the whole point of the recipes…to be able to make as many as you need, repeatedly. On returning to work after the weekend, I was able to check the team camera to see if they’d managed to record any of the manufacturing process…which luckily for all of us, they had (click on the images to see larger versions).
So, is that it you ask? Pretty much. As is was all rather 11th hour, there was no real time to experiment with the decoration as it’s described in the recipes and colouring the finished article. Likewise, time didn’t allow for working on a less clear version of the sugar to see if not caring about clarity would make a difference. The recipes never mention the end result being clear, especially as they go on to describe how to colour and paint them with coloured sugar. The notion of ‘clear’ is a modern one in my opinion, and not likely to be something they were either worried about or possibly had worked out how to achieve as it took a LOT of work and patience to keep the boiling sugar from crystallising on the stove or as it cooled and started absorbing moisture…still, lots of things to look at next time I pick this as a topic to work with. =o)
George Cavendish, The Life of Cardinal Wolsey, 2nd edn (London: Harding and Lepard, 1827) (pp. 197–198) ↩
When Henry VIII and Francis I met for the treaty negotiations now known as the meeting at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520, little did they realise than almost 500 years later, someone would have the reasonably insane idea of recreating part of that meeting in three dimensions out of sugar. Well of course they wouldn’t realise that, it would be stupid to think so, and even more stupid to consider making a sugar version as an idea; which possibly tells you more about me than anything else, as it was the first idea that sprang to my mind when my colleague Suzanne asked for ideas to link the family “make and do” activity planned for this summer with the work that the Historic Kitchens Team would be doing in the Kitchens at Hampton Court Palace.
Her intention was to have something that any visitors to the Palace could participate in, that built in scale over the course of the event, was a genuine community effort but also allowed people to try real historic techniques and methods out…the only problem was that she didn’t have any idea what it could be as she didn’t want to suggest anything that the Kitchens Team wouldn’t be happy with…what did I think it could be?
Now, those of you that have followed the exploits in the Kitchens over the last quarter of a century (dear God has it really been that long!?!) might recall that the team have been responsible for a lot of sugar models in the past…I touched on some of them when we were talking about the making of the sugar knot garden a couple of years ago (HERE). You also might know that I’ve never been a great fan of this work, not because I don’t appreciate the immense skill that my friends and colleagues have in order to turn powdered sugar into stunning models, but rather that it is work that was never done in the room we have to work in and so by making confectionery models and such like we run the risk of giving a false impression of how the spaces were used in the past. That being said, sugar work can be ideal as a public interactive activity because if using the later sixteenth century recipes for sugar plate, as for example was published in the Second Book of the Good Huswifes Jewell by Thomas Dawson in 1597, then you’re essentially working with edible modelling clay…ideal for kids of all ages to play around with.
So setting aside my reservations, I suggested sugar work to Suzanne and we were then merely faced with working out what this would be used to make.
In fact it didn’t take long, she mentioned that we could use the Field of the Cloth of Gold painting (held by the Royal Collection and displayed at Hampton Court Palace in the Young Henry exhibition) as a subject and I did the rest. As there would be a finite number of days that the build would take place over, we really needed a subject that couldn’t be finished…nothing worse than saying you’ll be building XXX over a month only to be so busy with helpers that you finish on day 2! That meant that the obvious candidate, the main temporary Palace in the foreground was out, yes we could have added lots of decoration, but how interesting is it to ask people to make a tiny brick or tile? Much better to be able to make lots of something, where numbers weren’t important…and what are there lots of in the image and what were there lots of at the actual meeting?? People and tents. All that was needed was a bit more focus and we’d have an idea to work from.
If you look in the top middle of the painting, you’ll see a large golden tent…no, not the fancy double ended one, just above that, the round one with the two kings in front of it all surrounded by a circle of tents in the Tudor colours of green and white. That was what we’d make, and if we had too much help then more tents or more figures could be made to bulk it all out. On the days that the guys in the Kitchens were making the “real” thing, people could also work in one of our other Palace rooms and help make more of the image in paper and card, that way everyone had the chance to try historic and modern methods of model making all to create a giant 3D version of as much of the painting as we could get done.
So with the flimsiest of ideas to work from, I dropped the news on the team that starting in just over a week, they’d have two and a half weeks to make as much of the image as they could, and that on 6 of those days they’d have as much help as they could coerce visitors into giving them…you can imagine how popular I was that day! They might have been fuming, but I was pretty confident in their skills and abilities and was sure that by the due date (21 August) there’d be something pretty spectacular to see. I walked back to my office to leave them to cogitate and come up with a plan and within a very short time, Adrian and Robin came up with a blinder.
Construct a large sugar central tent, possibly on top of a paste board framework to support it, and gild that. Make a Henry VIII and Francis I out of a combination of sugar plate and marchpane (almond and sugar paste) and paint them with natural food colours. Make a mould to construct sugar figures and press them out to make an army and the crowning glory of an idea, break the green and white striped tents down into individual stripes, make the white from sugar plate and the green from coloured or painted marchpane then when each “stripe” was sat next to the others you would build up a tent; all you needed was a “straight” piece and a wedge piece to make the curved tents (a bit like an [insert name brand here] chocolate orange)
All they would need to do would be to have people churn out stripes and wedges like there was no tomorrow along with a few dozen soldiers, while the team concentrated on the marchpane monarchs and the massive gold tent…easy! Well I say easy, because for me it has been…pop in to the Kitchen once in a while to see how things are progressing, take a few pictures in anticipation of this blog post, order sugar and almonds…a lot of sugar and almonds…then at the last minute, buy a load of gold leaf and go on leave for a few days leaving the guys to it for the final big push to the finish. For them, it’s not been as easy, but it’s been a genuine revelation in some respects.
Firstly there’s Jeremiah…who knew the hidden talents the man had?! We got our first inkling when he wanted to try his hand at sugarwork in the first planning week, so “had a go” at making a sugar playing card:
the man’s a demon with a brush…turns out he’s none too shabby when it comes to freehand modelling too as his marchpane Henry and Francis heads showed:
Robin once again demonstrated that for a man with what he describes as “builders hands”, the detail and finesse with which he can make things is astounding, from the bone modelling tools that the whole team used, to an alabaster mould for making tiny sugar figures
He also proved more than capable when it came to modelling marchpane
too…something that for years he’d never tried to do…perhaps we should have pushed him earlier?!
These are just some of the stand out examples in a sea of skills that have genuinely shone over the last few weeks of work.
Zak working wonders with kids and families alike, convincing them that making loads of identical tent pieces was something they should aspire to, and without that coercion and cooperation, there really would be so much less for you to see here. He was also responsible for finishing off the sugar part of the golden tent and helped add the gold leaf with Dave…when Dave wasn’t busy gilding children’s fingernails or noses to order!? [note to self…discuss profligate use of gold leaf with Dave 😎 ]
and all ably assisted by Robert and Liam who when not explaining what the others were doing, were providing the other daily cookery for visitors or helping them turn out tent sections, soldiers and a host of other sugary delights.
So, enough smoke blowing, how did they actually go about making the model I hear you cry?
Well the segmented green and white tents were ‘easy’, just pressed out in the moulds that Adrian and David whittled out of wood from the firewood pile in the Kitchen. Sugar plate was made following the Dawson recipe you can look at above (as with all the images, clicking on them should expand them to full size…or at least a larger size more conducive to viewing), and this was used like edible play dough. the marchpane was made by grinding almonds in a mortar and pestle…very ‘hands on’ for visitors…with a little rose-water and then powdered sugar was added and the whole pounded into a paste. You can see from the two images of the heads above that Jerry was a little less fussed about how fine his marchpane was ground compared to Robin, but either way the result is the same, a pliable almond modelling paste that can be coloured with natural colouring just like the sugar can.
Colours were made up from parsley juice for the green, cochineal for the reds (ideally we’d use kermes for this, but time and tide meant that the more readily available cochineal would have to suffice), woad powder for blue, oak gall ink for blacks and saffron for yellows. These were applied with brushes made from assorted hairs, furs and feathers, bound together to make tips and held onto wooden hafts with goose quills.
The main golden tent was always intended to be made of sugar, but this was highly unlikely to be strong enough to be self supporting, so Adrian got the first few groups of visitors helping with the project to make some paste board with him. This was easily made from our archival paper glued together with a flour, water and alum glue then pressed until dried and hard. This was then cut to shape and stuck together to form a board base upon which to place the sugar.
Initially Adrian had made moulds that included integral decoration so that a raised foliate design would be cast into the tent walls, but it turned out that the carving wasn’t quite deep enough to consistently guarantee that a panel would turn out with decoration on it…it was a fine line between not quite deep enough and too deep to easily come off the mould, so erring on the side of caution was probably the best thing he could have done.
Once turned out and set aside to dry, the panels were placed onto the pasteboard former and then a thin ‘mortar’ of liquid sugar plate was used to bond the panels together…and to the board it appears as Zak was quite generous with how much he used! When this was all complete and dried, the whole tent was painted with a saffron based paint, principally to act as a base to put the gold onto, but also as a fail safe in case I forgot to order the gold leaf (oh ye of little faith!!). Apparently the guys had planned for the painting to take at least a day, if not longer so that plenty of visitors could get a chance to help. Turns out that on that day all our visitors were budding painters as they covered the whole thing in a couple of hours or so…perhaps finer brushes to slow them down next time?
I think it was around the start of the painting phase that Jerry noticed that the tent in the original painting had a figure as a finial, so he knocked one up out of marchpane, but all I can see when I look at it is the
old magic robot game from the 1970’s….I still keep expecting it to spin round and point at things 😀
The final things to make were the wrestling monarchs which Adrian had intended to be made from sugar and marchpane and probably would have been about the same size as an Action Man figure, but Jerry ended up taking the reigns and they turned out a little more in scale with the tent…and waltzing we think rather than wrestling.
Meanwhile, Dave started to gild the tent and when he wasn’t doing it Zak took over; together they plastered about 6 books of leaf onto the tent (about 150 leaves of gold)…less what Dave put on children or blew into the air to show how light gold can be when it’s very, very thin.
Finally all that was left to do was put all the pieces together to form the diorama…
So that’s that then. One roller coaster ride of a month, tens of kilos of sugar and almonds, innumerable bunches of parsley, 6 books of gold, the blood, sweat and tears of all the team, the help of hundreds of visitors all to make something that was designed to be ephemeral…displayed for a short time to show the skills of all concerned, then broken up and eaten….I think it was worth it.
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
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.
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…
…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.
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
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.
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.
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.
…and so finished day 3.
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
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.
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
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!”
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…
…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.
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). ↩
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.
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 paste1 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 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).
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 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.
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…
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!
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.
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). ↩
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 ↩
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.
It was while mulling through ideas with Barry in mid September that we were struck by descriptions of the New Years gifts1 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?
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!
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.
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 )
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.
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.
John Nichols, The Progress and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth, 3 vols (London: John Nichols & Son, 1823), I (pp. xxxvi–xxxvii). ↩
George Cavendish, The Life of Cardinal Wolsey, 2nd edn (London: Harding and Lepard, 1827) (pp. 197–198). ↩
Constance Hieatt and Sharon Butler, Curye on Inglysch (Oxford University Press, 1985)(p. 153). ↩
Sir Hugh Platt, Delightes for Ladies, to adorn their Persons, Tables, Closets and distillatories London: 1608. ↩
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). ↩
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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?
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:
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.
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.
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?
Twenty five years is a long old time to be doing something, even when you love it as much as we all do working in the kitchens at Hampton Court Palace.
Since we started cooking in the Tudor kitchens way back at the start of the 1990’s, an awful lot has changed. Staff have come and gone, and indeed gone on to greater things like an MBE (we’d like to think because of what was learned with us), and we’ve dallied with all sorts of periods of historical interpretation from mediaeval and Tudor, through Stuarts and Georgians, right up to the 1940’s and beyond. Through all that time, the one constant has been the use of surviving recipes to drive what we have done.
Recipes have been the foundation of the interpretation work, driving the search for equipment, ingredients and techniques…but the problem is there’s absolutely no evidence for the sort of things we’ve been doing ever taking place in the space that we have to work within and no evidence that any of the surviving recipes we have to work from were ever cooked at Hampton Court!
Last year we took some small steps to help address this by instigating the Daily Roasting within the Kitchens as part of the 500th anniversary celebrations for Hampton Court Palace. The main rooms we have to work in were designed for roasting meat in, that’s what the six large fireplaces around the walls were for, so having roasting on display for our visitors to see and interact with, truly was history where it happened, one of the core principles for interpretation within Historic Royal Palaces. This period of 151 consecutive days of roasting was an immense success…in short, everyone loved it from staff to visitors; it ticked so many boxes that define what a successful interpretation project is that we’d be stupid to leave it as a one-off thing.
With this in mind we’re bringing it back for the upcoming 2016 but with one subtle tweak!
From March 25th through to October 21st we will be presenting Encounters in the Tudor Kitchens where the Tudor kitchens of Henry VIII at Hampton Court Palace will be brought to life with the sights, sounds and smells of daily roasting. The Historic Kitchens Team and the State Apartment Warders within the kitchens, will be working together to give our visitors a sense of the function and history of the surviving roasting kitchen by demonstrating history where it happened and roasting a knuckle of beef each day.
During this time we’ll be lighting the Great Fire a little later than usual to give visitors the chance to see all the steps that go into the process of roasting meat before an open fire, we’ll then spend the rest of the day roasting beef and talking about all things associated with the gargantuan task of catering for Henry VIII’s Court. As well as roasting beef, we’ll be using the opportunity that over 200 consecutive days of cooking will give us to collect data on the temperature of the fire, the meat as it cooks, and the metal spit; as well as looking at speeds and direction of rotation to see how much of an impact, if any, this may have on roasting. Add to that some possible investigation of the temperatures within the chimney and we have a busy time ahead of us trying to add to our knowledge of this fundamental process within the food production areas of Henry VIII’s Palace.
All of this does come at a small price though. In order to expand the daily offer through into October and to spread the work through the whole Historic Kitchens Team, rather than a small subset, we will not be holding our regular monthly cooking weekends this year, with that work being subsumed by the daily Kitchen Encounters. We will though be bulking out the work on a couple of selected weekends, to support the Summer Palace event in mid July and the August Bank Holiday event at the end of that month. On these weekends we’ll branch out to cover more tasks than just the roasting and actually be able to treat these special events as just that, special and not part of the regular monthly programme, and the same holds true for the Christmas cookery as part of the Tudor Revelries between Christmas and New Year.
I’d like to reassure our regular visitors that this isn’t the end of the cookery as you know it, nor is it simply change for the sake of change; this is a decision that we thought long and hard over and a conclusion that was reached with the aim of providing the best experience for visitors that we can produce. Our aim is to knuckle down and really focus our work on one single theme rather than spread our effort thin on looking at everything at once. From here we’ll have created a solid foundation from which to expand back out from…if we know how meat was roasted we can then move on to look in detail at how it was served, or perhaps how it may have been baked and these thoughts and questions will then give us a new focus to work upon, eventually bringing us back to where we were but much better than before and better than we could have been if we hadn’t taken this opportunity for change
So that’s that then! Please feel free to comment and let me know what you think…love the idea? Loathe it? Can’t wait to experience it? Let me know either way, feedback is always appreciated.
Some of you might remember that for the 2014 Christmas cookery event at Hampton Court we made some cokentryces over the course of the week. For those that missed it, have a look here to see them in all their glory, and to see why and how we did what we did. Well in the lead up to the 2015 event, pretty much the only instruction I was given was to organise something “just like that, but Elizabethan”…so not a whole lot to go on really. Whatever it was to be, it needed to be sufficiently large scale to occupy a large percentage of the team that would be working on any given day as well as being interesting and visual for visitors. It was a given that we would have roasting at the center of the work being done, and a couple of other tasks were chosen because of the available team members, but what was to be the cokentryce of 2015??
Well, after a lot of thought and discussion which discounted the suggestion of a series of Christmas boars heads kindly suggested by Marc H, the notion of a sugar subteltie was settled on…but what form would it take?
We’d already made some pretty impressive and interesting stuff including sugar versions of Hampton Court Palace and the Embarkation from Dover painting in the Royal Collection (and clearly when I say ‘we’, I actually mean Adrian, David, Lawrence and Alex, with minimal input from the rest of us) and I was well aware that these large scale sugar builds were responsible for a LOT of arguments and animosity amongst the team; so what would I get them to make that wouldn’t cause ructions and fitted the criteria for the event? The answer, a sugar knot garden in the Elizabethan style; fairly large scale but, and this was the most important part, modular in make up so that it didn’t matter if the whole thing wasn’t completed as it would show the construction process…the making was to be more important than the finished item.
Initial planning work took place early in December with what could be described as a rough and ready round table session in which photos of knot gardens, paintings, documents and scribbles were thrown about until a plan began to coalesce
Central to all of this was the book The Gardeners Labyrinth by Thomas Hill, 1577 which details plans and methods for laying out a gentleman’s garden in the latter half of the sixteenth century and includes images of suggested knot designs for planting. I’d allocated the task of planning and executing the garden to Jorge and Adrian, and with Adrian not available for the initial meetings, the bulk of the work fell to Jorge to arrange, which he did with gusto!
The suggested knot designs that caught Jorge’s eye the most were the ones found on pages 81 and 84 (below) and he quickly settled on the left most pair from page 84 (beolw right) as being the most suitable to use.
The plan was to transfer the patterns onto a sheet of paper and then to build the garden in sugar plate and comfits directly on top of this. The design was to be repetetive on the paper so that each knot could show progress towards a finished one, but that the whole could easily be imagined as a complete design in progress…if that makes sense; so of the four knots on the page, one would be complete and the other three would be in various states of competion showing the trail of work…or that was the plan at least!
We knew that the design would need an amount of comfits to fill all of the spaces and represent the plants and paths between the knotwork hedges, and that these would need to be in a selection of colours. There would also be a need for sugar plate to be made to construct the ‘hedges’ from and that would clearly need to be green in colour,but how that colour would be applied was still a discussion point when we arrived to set up the kitchens on Boxing Day 2015.
This is not the knot garden I was thinking of!
Leaving the guys to sort out the jobs that needed doing and who was going to do them resulted in Robin starting the comfit making off with Zak observing and helping (as much as Robin would let him) and Adrian and Jorge getting a start on making some sugar plate and some green colouring for it. For those of you that don’t know what comfits are, they’re seeds or particulates covered in multiple layers of sugar syrup, each layer being dried off before the next is applied. If you think of ‘hundred’s and thousands’ for decorating cakes or gobstoppers then you’re on the right lines…the inestimable Ivan Day has a page that describes their manufacture and it’s a good place to start if you’re interested. For a closer period description, you’d need to look out for Delights for Ladies by Sir Hugh Plat from the turn of the seventeenth century, and whilst not readily available online, transcriptions of the pertinent section are a Google search away! (other search engines are available as they say).
Now I know that if I don’t cover it, I’ll get questions on it, so I’ll just point out that when making the comfits, as with pretty much everything that we do in the kitchens, the guys used the Plat instructions as a guide, rather than a hard and fast series of rules to follow. All measurements and quantities for the syrups they used were done by eye and not to specific measures as that’s how a cook works. If the syrup was too thin and not building up quickly enough then it was thickened with more sugar or by re-boiling, if too thick then water was applied to thin the solution out. The same held true with the colours; all were made up by eye in batches considered large enough to get the current task finished…something I suspect was a major factor in the change of tack that occurred with the hedge making as we’ll see in a moment or two!
Robin set up the balancing pan and frame for the comfits over on the charcoal stove as that enabled the chafer for the heat source to sit within the stove opening itself at exactly the right height to provide a gentle and controllable heat. Over a drink (or possibly two) on Boxing Day we chatted about what actual comfits were going to be made, and Robin had become slightly obsessed with comfiting grains of paradise so that’s what he started with. A largish spoonful of seeds went into the pan to warm through while a gum arabic solution was made for the first couple of coats and when these were dry, the sugar syrup coating could begin.
After ten or so coats, this batch was taken out of the pan and put into a paper packet then left in the airing cupboard in our office to thoroughly dry as it was the warmest place to hand. I think the second batch he started were fennel seeds, or possibly caraway…to be honest, I wasn’t paying that much attention I’m afraid, but whatever they were, it gave Zak a chance to get his hands into the pan and have a go.
While Robin and Zak were getting stuck in to the comfits, Adrian and Jorge were making very rapid progress with the sugar garden design itself. Jorge had extracted some green colour from a bunch of parsley by pounding it in a large mortar and washing the resultant paste with a little water, this was then strained through a cloth to remove the solid matter and the green liquid used along with some egg white and rose water to make sugar plate, roughly following the instructions in The Second Part of the Good Huswifes Jewell by Thomas Dawson.
Adrian then took this paste and fashioned the first ‘hedges’ on top of the paper plan and all looked remarkably impressive. Over the next couple of days, both comfits and hedging progressed apace. When Robin had a day off, Jorge and Zak could take the reigns of the comfit production and try making some cinnamon ragged comfits.
Their first attempts, whilst being pretty good and very tasty, were fairly tiny in actual size. A second go with slightly larger strips of bark proved to be less succesful but I think that’s more likely due to this being their second ever attempt at comfit making than anything else. Over the rest of the week, all three of them worked on comfits, adding coloured coatings to various batches leading to some quite impressive results.
While progress on the comfits was good, that of the sugar hedging was not quite as expected. Initial progress had been swift, and as far as I was concerned, looked pretty damn good, however Jorge and Adrian clearly didn’t see it that way as they decided to explore a different method of making the sugar green…painting it with the parsley colour. I believe the main reason was to try to make a more ‘realistic’ looking hedge rather than the solid green plasticine looking
product that using the colour within the paste gave them. It also helped with speed too as the sugar plate wasn’t reliant on the green colour being ready at the same time, it could be applied any time after the sugar was shaped; and this was convenient as they’d found that drying the liquid before the fire slightly to drive off some of the water but not alter the colour with the excessive heat of boiling, helped to produce a darker green.At the same time as making the knots, there were also small
medallion roundels being made as these allowed visitors to try their hand at the sugar work, and also some barley twist poles that might end up with King’s beasts atop them as can be seen in the Chapel Court garden at Hampton Court and in the background of the painting of the Family of Henry VIII in the Royal Collection. Then some time around mid-week things took a turn, I don’t know why as I was busy doing other work behind the scenes and by the time I noticed what was happening it was already done…not that I would have changed things, just asked why they did what they did so I could tell you. So what did they do? Well all along the plan was to use pastry jam tarts to add to the garden design in some way, but now
Adrian and Robin were working on an entire jam tart knot design…I thought to add to the two already done, but apparently not. Now there was to be the painted sugar knot and the pastry one, displayed not on or part of the original paper plan but separately on pewter plates; not that it mattered as the overall idea was for people to see the production and get a sense of the work that making a subteltie involved…but it is a shame it didn’t come to pass as originally planned.
Baking the cases was always going to be slightly tricky. We only have a modern gas oven to use rather than a period wood fired one, so blind baking is always a bit of a fiddle as it’s very difficult simulating working in the mouth of the oven. The best Robin has managed in the past is to fire
the oven up to full power then when the past goes inside, sit by the oven and check through the door every 30 seconds or so and if he notices the cases deforming, to open the door and man handle the paste back into shape. This works fine with a single tart case, but wasn’t going to be easy or efficient with the number that Adrian had made for the knot design. The solution, a simple and obvious one, but one that’s not occurred to any of us before as we’ve never had low enough cases for it to work, or enough peas…dried split peas covering the whole thing. Once
the whole lot had been baked for a few minutes, the peas could be dispensed with, the cases filled with differing coloured jams and the walls decorated with the green colouring before the whole lot was put back in the oven to finish cooking. I had thought that this was where they were going to leave things, but I should know by now not to underestimate Adrian and Robin and their desire
for ‘perfection’ and so the last day of the cookery saw a fairly mad dash to add a border of custard tarts to the knot design which unfortunately had a distinct impact on another recipe that was being worked on, but I’ll write about when I’ve done with this topic. For now, it’s safe to say that Adrian pulled out all the
stops to make and bake the tart cases while Robin made the custard to fill them.
So at close of play on the eighth day what did we have?
We had an amount of comfits of all flavours and colours…the grains of paradise were simply spectacular, innocuous at first and then BLAM, a whole mouth and throat full of spice and flavour, highly recommended if you’re having a go at comfiting. We also had two subtelties to display, one sugar knot design infilled with comfits:
and a pastry, jam and custard one:
So that was the knot garden subteltie from Christmas 2015. I’ve added all of the pictures that cover the subject to a gallery that you will see a link for in the sidebar (when I add that part…those of you working faster than I can add features!) Most are sub-par due to lack of light and duff camera on my part, but they should give you the idea of the way things progressed.
Coming next….cooking in pewter and buttered beer….just give me a while to type it 😉