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) ↩
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?
So I said we would try to incorporate the work on the buttered beere recipe into the Christmas work plan…for those that missed it, it’s this recipe for How to make buttered Beere from The Good Huswives Handmaid for cookerie in her Kitchin 1597…
Buttered Beere from The Good Huswives Handmaid for Cookerie in her Kitchin , 1597
…and as luck would have it, Marc H turned up for work with somewhat of a desire to give it a go, not only to see if the pewter would melt, but to see what it would taste like. We’ve tried this recipe out before at work, but that was over a decade ago and if memory serves, it was thrown together at the end of a day and there wasn’t much attention paid to trying to follow the recipe in any real way. Now this latter part might seem a little confusing given my comments on the knot garden post where I said that for the comfit making the recipe wasn’t followed explicitly, but merely used as a guide, well you’ll need to get used to that I’m afraid. It’s not just changing the rules as and when to suit, but is all about what is being looked at. In most cases, the recipes aren’t that important, they’re no more a record of what people cooked and ate in the past than my copy of More Rhodes Around Britain by Gary Rhodes is for Britain in the mid 1990’s. (Hey! Don’t judge me, it was a Christmas present from my mum…probably) They are though a record of what some people knew about in terms of ingredients and techniques, as well as foods that the intended audience didn’t know how to cook, as after all, that’s what we use written recipes for, we don’t use written recipes for things we can cook do we? There is a time though when investigating an actual recipe is what is being done and in that case, as with this recipe for buttered beere, following the text is important.
So first decision which beer to use? We only had two to choose from, a mild and an IPA so we opted for the mild to avoid the hoppy bitterness of the IPA, and only having one 500 ml bottle to play with made things a little easier as that’s pretty close to a pre-imperial pint measure, or close enough for us at least. With only one pint to play with, Marc was left with the sort of maths that boils his brains…scale the recipe down to a third of the measures and convert them to metric so that the ingredients could be measured with the scales we have!
So to one pint of beer, add one and two thirds of egg yolks…making sure to account for the variation in egg size that occurs with chicken improvement…then mix together well by passing the whole lot through a sieve several times to strain them together.
You’ll notice that he chose to use a fairly small, shallow pewter bowl for this recipe…well actually that’s a bit of a lie, I chose the bowl and told him to use it. Why a bowl and not any of the other vessels we have? Firstly, we have a fair number of these bowls and could, at a pinch, stand losing one if everything went wrong and the bowl melted. Secondly, all the other pewter vessels (which aren’t plates or bowls) we have access to have decorative foot rings to make them look attractive and help them stand up on the table. This would be a problem if subjecting them to heat from below as it’s the heat sink properties of the liquid that prevent the pewter from melting, just like if you try boiling water in a paper cup
with the pewter though, the foot ring wouldn’t be able to benefit from this heat sink effect and it will start to melt which can lead to holes forming in the vessel if the foot melts all the way up to the body of the vessel (types the voice of experience…though it was a long time ago, before we recorded that sort of cool thing happening). Ideally some sort of pan designed for the purpose would be chosen, but
that begs the question, did such a thing exist or, if this recipe was followed to the letter, would any pewter vessel that was to hand be used? Now we had planned to do some follow up work just boiling water in the pewter and seeing if the proximity to the heat would cause the bowl to melt before the water began to heat up and maybe look at testing a vessel with a foot, but unfortunately a pastry knot garden and a spit with 34Kg of meat on it rather got in the way…perhaps in the future. For the purposes of this recipe though, we presumed that applying the heat gradually
would be the best option, so a fairly high trivet was placed over a fairly low bronze chafing dish full of burning charcoal. This set up turned out to be very poor with the temperature increasing by only 0.8° in ten minutes, and with time being a factor, the trivet was swapped for a lower one. Although this improved things, with the temperature rising by nearly two degrees in the next ten minutes, the chafer then began to give us grief.
This bronze chafer is supposed to be a copy of the one found with the apothecaries equipment on board Henry VIII’s warship Mary Rose, and would correspond to a type ‘A’ in the descriptions given in Lewis, J. M. (1973) ‘Some types of metal chafing-dish’, The Antiquaries Journal, 53(01), pp. 59–70. doi: 10.1017/s0003581500021855. The problem with this reproduction is that it has never been finished properly and the air
holes in it are tapered in section rather than being parallel through the wall of the vessel and this restricts the airflow. It also requires regular tending and manipulation to ensure that the charcoal burns well and this was unfortunately just not possible with all of the questioning visitors that were in the kitchens that day. With all that in mind, Marc opted to swap the chafer out for one of the larger, tubular iron ones based on images found in Scappi’s Opera, and to revert to the original taller trivet. The increase in heat from this larger chafer saw the liquid rise in temperature by nearly 2.5° in five minutes and it was at this point that the spices and sugar were added.
Calculating how much of these ingredients was a bit of a headache. The recipe calls for half a pound of sugar, one pennyworth of nutmeg, one of cloves and half a pennyworth of ginger, all of these having been beaten.
Not having any tables of prices and costs to hand, Marc opted for using a pennyworth in weight or 1/240th of a pound as the measurement of the nutmeg and clove and half of that for the ginger. All of that calculated out as: 75 grams of sugar, 0.5 grams of nutmeg and clove and 0.25 grams of ginger (all rounded to work with the scales we had to work with). In the ten minutes it took to calculate those figures, the liquid had risen to 40.5° celsius and it was after adding them that Marc followed the instruction to “take another pewter pot and brewe them together”, which he did several times before returning it to the heat.
It then took another 50 minutes for the temperature of the spiced beer mix to reach 70°, with the underside of the bowl fluctuating in temperature from 109° to 133° and the charcoal, around 12 cm below, from 454° to 680° c with this latter temperature only being attained with some vigorous bellows action to increase the air flow to the recently topped up charcoal! As the end of the day was rapidly approaching it became very clear that the liquid wouldn’t reach boiling point before we had to finish up, so Marc chose to add the butter at this point, but how much is a “dish” of butter? The only reference we have found so far to the quantity a ‘dish’ may have been is in Zupko, R. E. E. (2001) A dictionary of weights and measures for the British Isles: The middle ages to the twentieth century. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society. on p110 where it says “the dish was also a wt of 24oz for butter (c1800) in Cheshire”…not a lot to go on, but better than a random guess based on the size of any dish we happened to have to hand. So 226 grams of butter was added to the mix, dissolving in less than a minute.
The final liquid, at just under 70° was “brewed” a final time before being poured into a drinking vessel for the acid taste testing.
As he’d made it, Marc was the gallant guinea pig first to try it, and on watching him take the first swallow his face painted quite a picture…
After a moment of silence accompanying the quizzical look, the verdict…”hmm, not bad!” Turns out he was right, not bad at all; very, very smooth and velvety with a sort of butterscotch taste that when you put your mind to it actually tasted of liquid hot cross buns. Very tasty in small quantities, very spiced but not too spicy, all in all highly recommended and well worth the effort, just a shame we couldn’t get it to the boil.
As it happened, Marc gave it another go on the last day with a pint of the IPA to see if the hoppy nature of that bitter would impact on the flavour…it didn’t! What did happen though was that Robin pinched the chafer when Marc wasn’t looking, removing the beer from the heat so he could cook his custard for the pastry knot garden. By the time he’d given the burner back to Marc to finish off the beer, the time was again against him and there was no chance of getting to the magical boiling point that time either…oh well, never mind.
So would the pot have melted? Very probably not, though clearly without actually trying this is only supposition; however with the melting point of the pewter around 100° higher than the maximum temperature that the underside of the pot ever attained, I would be very surprised to see the bowl melt before the liquid boiled. If we can, I’d like to try this again as I said earlier, just boiling water to test the principle, but whether that will happen in the near future I couldn’t say. I vaguely remember that I might have promised graphs with this post when I originally mentioned it on Twitter so I’ll stick one below that shows the temperatures of the liquid, underside of the bowl and the charcoal fire throughout the cooking; I’ll also stick another gallery up with all the images I took for this, poor though they may be. I’ll finish with a couple of caveats. I have not found out the composition of the alloy that the bowl is made from and in an ideal world I would be able to compare it to surviving sixteenth century pewter. To be honest I can’t see that comparison happening with what is for us, a fairly rough and ready ‘throw away’ little side project but if anyone fancies taking that on then just let me know. Clearly, the ingredients we used are modern and bear little resemblance to their historic counterparts but this is always going to be a problem with reconstructing recipes from history, you simply cannot get ingredients that are the same as they were in the past; in short, you can’t recreate the taste of the past, only our modern pastiche of it!
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 😉
I really should have learned after 24 years that there’s almost a snowball’s chance in hell of my camera taking useable images in the kitchens at Hampton Court over the Christmas event….just not enough light. Still, while I try to sort the wheat from the chaff in terms of acceptable images for you all to see and to illustrate a couple of posts I have planned, have a short update on the use of the multi armed spit, for as I hoped, we managed to get it into action on the last day of the recent Christmas cooking week.
In a slight change of plan from the previous outing…and because we had sufficient spare beef due to some logistical juggling…we were able to
load the arms up so that there was beef on the outer spits for this second go, rather than just in the centre bar as before.
When we originally talked through the plans for this event, I’d allocated the roasting to Ross to arrange and he’d expressed a desire to try larding some of the beef as he’d never tried that before. I’d ordered some belly pork for this purpose but we’d simply not got around to using any of it earlier in the
week because it had slipped all of our minds that this was what we had planned. It was only when we noticed the pork at the back of the fridge that we remembered it, so Ross decided that he might as well give it a go with this last opportunity of roasting until the February cooking weekend.
So, cutting the pork into strips and with the aid of a rudimentary larding needle, he set about passing it
through the beef as best he could. Once the beef was larded it was time to put it, and the 16 chickens we had this time, onto the spit, however unlike the first time during the week that we used the multi spit, this time it was heaving down with rain meaning that the spit would have to be prepared in the kitchen and not outside in the courtyard. Using the courtyard meant that we could use the modern plastic trestles that we usually use to hold the drip tray and spits when cleaning, to support the 30Kg multi armed spit whilst loading it with meat.
This was not an option and whilst we thought of ways to overcome the problem, Dave’s quick thinking came up with a solution as he dismantled one of the tables from another room to use the oak trestles for the job! Ross arranged the trestles where it would be most convenient to work and with the help of Tom to steady the metal work and Robert to hold extraneous spit bars out of the way, he set to the job of loading the meat onto the spit.
Whilst they finished the job of loading the meat onto the metalwork, I was busy doing some quick calculations and worked out that the whole affair,
both meat and metal now weighed in at around 64Kg (around 141 lb)! As before, this was placed in front of a rather sizeable fire built by Paul and Ian from the State Apartment Warding team, and once again the meat was roasted using an ever cooling fire as there simply was no easy way to stoke the fire with fuel once the spit was in place. This time, Ross was a little concerned that the chickens at either end of the spit weren’t cooking too well and left the whole lot in front of the fire for a little longer in order to ensure everything was cooked through. After two and a half hours, it was time to remove the meat and Ross essentially
copied what Robin had done before, removing joints with the aid of a bowl to catch them and then transferring each piece to a waiting tray…all the while assisted by Dave and his heroic pose and Tom holding the spit still.
Rumour had clearly gotten round amongst the staff on duty that day that we had planned to finish the week with a bang and a lot of meat on the spit as we had numerous colleagues appear towards the close of the day….on the “off-chance there might be some spare meat” they all said with a hopeful air 🙄 …still it was good that it all went to a good home. That which wasn’t removed by our friends and colleagues has gone into the freezer to be used in pies and stews at a later date, the only waste being what had fallen out of the meat into the drip tray.
I have to say that Sir Hugh Plat’s description….how to turn five spits at once with only one hand…is dead on the money. With the meat on the spit the balance of the whole apparatus was superb, making it childs play to turn the spit around. The only problem with it is the manhandling of the weight, especially when compared to a single spit bar; but I think that if one had to roast five spits worth of meat and you had the choice between five individual spits, possibly needing three people to turn them, versus one of these…I’d plump for one of these I think.