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

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

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

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

The first sugar batch

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

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

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

The first half coated in sugar

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

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

I guess it didn’t come out easily then

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

Day 6 – Go large then go home!

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

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

Can you see the sugar?

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

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

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

The clay lined mould

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

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

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

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

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

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

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