A COVID Crisis Update

Many of you will have seen the public statement from Historic Royal Palaces that was made on Monday (14/9/20) in regards the consultancy on proposed redundancies.

You sent kind words and wished myself and the Kitchen Team well so it was only fair to let you all know the following.

Teams across the organisation have begun to be shown the proposed new structures and the job losses and changes that will possibly form part of them. We are lucky, and have been told that the Historic Kitchens Team, and with it the cookery and kitchen interpretation we provide, are not currently roles determined to be ‘at risk’ of redundancy.

While this is clearly good news for those of us within the Kitchen Team, this is not a time for celebration. Our survival will be cold comfort to all those friends and colleagues who find themselves still ‘at risk’ of redundancy and my thoughts are with them and the situation that they are in.

Spit Spot – MOL 84.314/10

In 2016 I visited the Museum of London to take a look at their iron roasting spit, item no. 84.314/10. Unfortunately there’s not a lot of detail listed for the item, and before I visited there was even less…one of the quid pro quo’s for having the item taken off display (it normally lives on public display in the medieval gallery ) was to provide detailed measurements to add to the catalogue description and I thought some of you might be interested in them.

Although it’s catalogued as late 15th/early 16th century in date, if my memory of the conversation is correct, it was a river find from the Thames so is speculatively dated and more likely to come from the latter end of that range, if not the early seventeenth century.

MOL item no. 84.314/10 spit dimensions
MOL item no. 84.314/10

The spit is made from flat iron bar which has been forged to a point at one end and shaped into a crank handle at the other, leaving the working blade section in the middle.

the handle
the business end!

The crank consists of a slightly barrel shaped axle, a vertical rectangular section and a cylindrical handle.

the crank handle
the axle

The 75mm long axle has been created where the bar has been forged down from rectangular bar to a roughly round section 12mm diameter at the junction with the main spit blade, 14mm diameter at the mid point and 10mm diameter at the junction with the vertical bar.

transition from blade to axle and handle

The vertical section of handle has been left rectangular, though slightly narrower than the main blade of the spit, and is approximately 18mm x 8mm x 70mm. This flat bar has been bent at right angles to the axle but shows signs of a fracture at the radius of the bend as if the bar was bent past 90 degrees whilst hot but straightened up when the metal was too cool to work efficiently

the axle showing the thickness of blade, axle and handle crank

The last 90mm-110mm of the handle end of the bar has been forged down to a cylindrical shape approximately 15mm in diameter and then bent at right angles to the flat bar to create the hand grip.

the handle…much smaller than anyone ever expects or recreates (us included!)

The point end has been shaped in a similar fashion to the handle, with the bar being forged to a conical shape, 12mm in diameter at the junction with the main blade and approximately 7mm in diameter at the point. The last 15mm of the point have been left faceted rather than fully round.

the tip

The blade of the spit tapers in width and thickness along its length changing from 24mm x 8mm at the crank end to 16mm x 7mm at the point. This taper, though slight, has been seen in later period spits and from a practical standpoint assists with removing roasted joints of meat from the spit at the end of cooking.
The item as a whole is in very good condition with only minimal nicks and damage.

The blade length of 950mm (around 3ft 1″) tallies quite nicely with the size of a statute billet (as I discussed back here ), especially as the 3ft 4″ length of each billet would include the carf or cut point meaning that most of the usable wood would be much shorter than the statute length…hopefully this appalling sketch will clarify that somewhat (though i really do doubt it!)

a statute billet was 3ft 4″ including the cut meaning that the usable wood was much less than that length

The gallery below includes all the halfway usable images that I took…typically the one thing I completely forgot to take was my camera so I had to rely on my mobile phone to do the job.
Finally a huge thank you to Hazel Forsyth at the Museum of London for arranging to have the spit taken off display for me to view.


Watch the Birdie!

Let me take you back to the heady days of summer, 2005. It was a different time, when self isolation was something that Howard Hughes was famous for, Don’t Stand So Close To Me was a Police song rather than a maxim for everyday life, Base Court at Hampton Court Palace was covered in grass, and Robert from the team had an idea for a photographic history event…yes it’s not just cookery for the Kitchen Team. As I’ve said several times before, cookery happens to be a great lens to look at history through, but sometimes it’s not just about the metaphoric lens that’s used.
Now right off the bat I’d better get the caveats in quick…2005 is a LONG time ago, mistakes in my recollection are highly likely. I’m no expert, that’s Roberts thing, unfortunately the current Covid-19 lockdown sees him stranded without access to a computer so I can’t ask him to fill in the details or gaps… I’ll aim to get an updated version from him as soon as is feasible, finally, this will very much be image heavy, detail light!

In actuality I suppose I should start back in 2001 when we visited the ALFHAM annual conference that was held that year at Colonial Williamsburg. As part of a jam packed time in the US we managed to fit in a day trip to Gettysburg to look around the town as it was only a few miles from where we were staying, and there was something, or someone there that Robert wanted to try to see. ..Rob Gibson.

Gibson ran a photography business that used the wet plate collodion process, the same process used during the US civil war, and was (as I recall) unique at the time we visited him, with every other photography business in town producing mock sepia prints for tourists and re-enactors. Rob produced the real deal and was absolutely the nicest chap in the world. With a kindred spirit in Robert, he spent ages explaining his process and showing us results, advising on best practice and even letting Robert have a go with his studio. By now Robert was already formulating plans to suggest a live photography event at some time in the future, and all the chatting with Rob Gibson merely cemented this thought in his head. There might be some drawbacks for us though, following the process authentically required the use of both high concentration alcohol as a solvent, and potassium cyanide as a fixer! Rob kindly explained which side of the state line you needed to be on to buy the 95% by volume grain alcohol that he used in the process, and we absolutely did not head straight to a liquor store to buy any, nor did we experiment with using it in cocktails…but that was unlikely to help us back home. The cyanide was a bigger problem.

After our US jaunt, Robert continued to work on his plans for an event and decided straight away to work in calotype rather than the wet plate that Gibson used. This was an earlier type of process introduced in 1841 by William Henry Fox Talbot and much more suitable for use in close proximity to visitors.

Vintage large format camera with modern focus plate

As well as the process to use, Robert needed to add more cameras and lenses to his personal collection, make a load more focusing plates and negative carriers for the backs of the cameras, a portable darkroom so that he could process in-situ, tripods, darkroom equipment and work on practising producing the negatives and taking prints from them; all of which took time. Fast forward to summer 2005 when the event was ready to go and for a couple of weeks, each day (light permitting) Robert, ably assisted by Marc, Robin and Barry, would take photographs all around Hampton Court.

Portable darkroom for processing in-situ.

He would photograph the architecture, trying to replicate the earliest images taken of the Palace in 1845, he would take pictures of his assistants and he would photograph visitors to enable them to fully understand the whole process and the history and science behind it.

Marc explaining the photographic process
Processed negative of a family of visitors

By working in a darkroom in-situ he could process the images “in front” of visitors and even though he would not have time to make prints until much later in the project, the use of digital cameras would allow the negatives to be inverted for visitors to see the final results before they went home. This working in-situ is the principal reason for the brush marks and streaking on the images. Robert never did find a satisfactory brush or sponge for applying the chemical solution to the paper to make the film. He tried a raft of different methods but couldn’t find anything that would allow even application of the solution while working in darkness. I suspect that this is the main thing he’d want to correct if we could run this event again.

That being said, the results were fantastic! Processed outdoors, feet away from the camera and done so that visitors could watch and experience the process rather than to produce perfect pictures. Move the slider left and right to see the negative and positive versions.

NB all positive images used here are digital inversions of the scanned negatives, not scans of the prints. No post production other than inverting and reducing in size has been done

Fortunately for most of the time the weather was fantastic…brilliant sunshine and clear blue skies, which made for ideal photography weather, mostly because it really shortened the exposure times into the sub one minute bracket.

Robert preparing to photograph a family group. Image courtesy M. Hawtree
The subjects eye view. Image courtesy M. Hawtree

Some days though, were not so great, but somehow Robert managed to work wonders with ridiculously long exposure times, often measured in minutes, to get some great shots

Visitors chatted for ages about the science and history of photography as well as waiting patiently while the “film” was exposed and a photograph was taken.

Base Court
Looking at the image on the focus screen
Marc talks details to a visitor
Robin helps him take a picture of the picture

As well as visitors and the buildings, Robert tried his hand at a still life

Setting up a still life composition with some handy fruit. Image courtesy M. Hawtree
Setting up a still life composition with some handy fruit. Image courtesy M. Hawtree

and when visitors weren’t forthcoming, there were always willing subjects waiting to have their portraits taken…any excuse to sit down for a few minutes!

Marc posing for his portrait
The processed negative, hot off the press

That last one is one of my favourites as it really illustrates that the camera does lie! As you can see from this image of Robin, he’s not that swarthy in complexion and his waistcoat is actually made up of dark colours, not the light ones that the positive image above might imply

Robin and Robert

It’s all to do with the wavelengths of light that the calotype is sensitive to, picking up a little more UV (I believe) than modern films and digital cameras…hence the darker face on both Robin and Marc who had been working outdoors quite a bit…hard to tell with Barry as he was channelling a more “Victorian side show wolf man” vibe for that week, and Robert was pasty faced from being in a darkroom for weeks!
The other “lie” is the lack of people in many of the images of the Palace, though this is one that most people are familiar with…though it was nice to be able to show it “live” so to speak

The lengthy exposure time means that only Barry, who was stood still, shows up in the image; the rest of the visitors who are walking through the courtyard can only just be seen as a light blur (this is easier to see on the right and left of the positive image)

Long exposure times measured with a pocket watch rather than a stopwatch

It wasn’t just the main Base Court that they worked in, Robert took the camera and darkroom all over the place, from out in the East Front Gardens

Fountain Court

Clock Court

As well as looking out onto the Privy Garden from the upper floor of the south side of the Palace

This was a really successful event, that really showed that it’s not just through cookery that people can learn about history at Hampton Court Palace. Watching the actual process of tasks being performed, in this case real photographs being created, and being able to engage in the practical process really adds to the visit, it gives the opportunity to forge lasting memories and to learn new things about something that you thought was quite a simple topic.

Visitors waiting to look through the camera back. Notice the clockwork birdie on top of the foreground camera!
Taking a bigger image needs a bigger “film”
Robin and Marc explain printing a positive from a negative
Making a print by exposing the sensitised print paper to light through the negative
Up on the roof. Robert acquiesced to requests for a portrait from the builders…where they were working! Image courtesy M. Hawtree

I’m certainly keen on trying to repeat this again at sometime in the future (if we ever get out of the current COVID-19 lockdown), and will be sure to record it in more detail if we do.

Below is a gallery of all of the negatives (and their digital positives) that are worth seeing, click on the thumbnails to see the larger images. You’ll note that I didn’t get too creative with image titles, but that should allow you to easily match negative to positive.Enjoy!

A selection of these images was published in Alternative Photography: Art and Artists, Edition I


Plough your own Furlough!

I had big plans a few weeks ago when home working was mandated as the way to cope with this current covid-19 situation…there’s lots of things I’ve never got round to writing about, so I could occupy my time writing a more regular series of blog posts while there was no kitchen to fret about or cookery to plan.

But, and there’s always a but, that was before the great furloughing of ’20! As I write this, around 75% of my friends and colleagues (including myself and all of the Kitchen Team) are on furlough or in the process of being placed on furlough. This is taking some getting used to…not working on plans for the year isn’t easy, and with no fixed end date it’s very much a state of limbo that I find myself in.
With Easter upon us, this would ordinarily be one of the most busy and fraught times of the year. We’ve just gone through the process of “closing” one financial year and would be beginning a new one, setting up budgets, allocating spending plans and such like. The Easter cookery would be mid-way through, with the holiday weekend soon to be in full swing and with it the the thousands of visitors that would usually bring. There’d be planning for the upcoming bank holiday weekend’s in May to get finalised, shopping to order, roster planning to tweak and details for the summer of daily cookery to get on top of…but now…nothing. Life is strangely silent. With no rhythm and routine to fall back on, the days all blur into one, and I’m finding getting started on something meaningful is proving tricky; whether that be blog posts or thoughts and musings about how live interpretation will look in the future, where social distancing is the new norm and how my team will cope with that.

Then of course there’s the worry…who’d have thought that a global pandemic would be cause for anxiety attacks and moments gripped by sheer terror!?! It comes in waves, sometimes small, sometimes cripplingly large, always connected with the thoughts of losing loved ones to something that you have no control over. I know I’m not alone in having these thoughts, I know I’m not alone in experiencing these for the first time; it’s rational to be scared at times under the current circumstances. These are scary times and being pre-occupied with the pandemic and trying to live a life through it is fine.
It’s one thing to realise that you’re living through history (Arab Spring anyone?!), but that’s usually history at a distance; history that comes with the comforting thought that it’s not on your own doorstep and that you are merely an observer, watching it unfold on a phone, TV or laptop screen. Covid-19 is history that’s hammering at the front door, everyone’s front door and I’d much rather have a thicker door if you please! I’m not afraid to say that with its arrival I’ve been found wanting at times, genuinely terrified as to what it would bring if it found a way inside but unable to distract myself with thoughts of other, less unpleasant things…oh how I long for the demands of constructing the staffing rota, or updating my cost plan spreadsheet…and THAT’S saying something!!

So that’s why posts haven’t been as forthcoming as I’d have liked…like many, I’ve had bigger things on my mind! Not that I need to justify my silence…hell, there have been much longer gaps that this in my posting, but consider this post a clearing of my mind…I needed to write it to throw the rubbish and clutter out of my head if you like, so in that regard it’s not that much different from the usual ramblings here.

The end of this week has seen me start to work through much of this, coming to terms with not being in control, switching off from the news more, searching for distractions (as long as it’s not DIY). I have plans for some posts for you and just need to get my proverbial finger out and write them. Can’t say when they’ll appear or what they’ll be about, just watch this space to find out.

For now though, and apropos the title of this post, I’ll leave you with some old photos of some of Adrian’s handiwork….a couple of miniature ploughs that he made for school sessions he runs on the history of agriculture. He used to cart full sized ploughs around to schools and harness up children to pull them, but carrying tiny versions is so much easier apparently!!

Tiny plough no.1
Tiny plough no.2

Obviously the Ikea sofa doesn’t do them the full furrow justice…but what are you gonna do eh!?

Stay safe, stay sane, stay 2m away from me!!


Up on the roof

Back in October 2016 I caught a lucky break…a rooftop tour on a beautifully sunny day. It’s not cookery related (vaguely kitchen related stuff after the pictures), but we could all do with a lift and some images of a better time…click the images for larger versions.

If you feel the need for Kitchen related stuff…the roof on the right is the Great Kitchen

Looking west, along the Tudor north side of the Palace
the same view as above but zoomed out
The photos above were taken from here. Image clipped from and (C) Google Maps

When you stand there and look at this view it really gives a sense of scale to the Palace as the front seems so far away from you (this is taken from the eastern end of the Great Hall)…it looks like its own Tudor townscape, so different from the feeling you get when you’re walking around at ground level.

Looking at the Kitchen roof on the right (with the zig zag pattern in the tiles), you can see the 3 sets of chimney stacks that sit on top of the 3 fireplaces on the north side of the Kitchen.

north side chimney stacks correspond to….
1…the fireplace in the Baden-Powell space in the Kitchen
2…the fireplace modified in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with coal range and oven
3…fireplace altered probably in the late seventeenth century to convert to a charcoal range

Well it looks like I’ve meandered back inside from the roof…might as well finish off with some shots of the Great Kitchen roof from underneath then!

ooh! That’s a bad quality photo

One of the things we always encourage people to do when they come into the Kitchen is to look up…I mean it’s magnificent and they miss it. Ok, so it’s not quite the Great Hall or Chapel roof, but it’s not far off it in my opinion. Kids always say it looks like thousands of books on library shelves…just before they comment on all the spider webs they can see.

Seeing it from the ground is one thing, but you get a whole new appreciation for it from close up…the opportunity for which came during the last refresh of the Kitchen interpretation in early 2018

Up in the rafters
Don’t look down!

Of course, all those rafters and beams don’t look particularly Tudor because they aren’t, the original Tudor roof was supported on the corbels that stick out from the walls all down the length of the building.

This corbel used to hold up the roof

you can still see two parts of the original roof structure if you look up…well, one part of Wolsey’s original kitchen at the east end of the building, and one part of Henry’s extension at the western end.

right next to the wall…the curved beams…Henry VIII’s Kitchen roof
and this is part of Wolsey’s roof structure

So that’s the ever so exciting roof dealt with, not sure where I’ll go with the next post…I’ll see how the mood takes me, I’m making this up as I go after all.


A Collection of Christmas Cokentryce!

I wrote this back in 2015. Originally I’d tweeted throughout the Christmas cookery week with updates of the work being done, then after the dust had settled from the event itself, I used the now-defunct Storify service to tie all the tweets together and flesh out the background and information that 140 characters wasn’t nearly enough space for.
With Storify set to be binned I managed to save the whole thing by exporting to a PDF and there this has languished for a few years…now re-purposed for you lucky people to enjoy.
As it was originally a Twitter story, I’ve done my best to reconstruct it as per the original, dated pop culture references and all…

From December 27th 2014 to 1st Jan 2015 the kitchens at Hampton Court Palace were once again brought to life with Tudor cookery. Over the 6 days we made three cokentryce, this is what happened and why.

So what’s a cokentryce, and why make 3?

There are a number of surviving medieval recipes for making a cokentryce such as this one from Harleian MS 279:

Harleian MS.279 .xxviij. Cokyntryce. – Take a Capon, & skald hym, & draw hem clene, & smyte hem a-to in the waste ouerthwart; take a Pigge, & skald hym, & draw hym in the same maner, & smyte hem also in the waste; take a nedyl & a threde, & sewe the fore partye of the Capoun to the After parti of the Pigge; & the fore partye of the Pigge, to the hynder party of the Capoun, & than stuffe hem as thou stuffyst a Pigge; putte hem on a spete, and Roste hym: & whan he is y-now, dore hem with yolkys of Eyroun, & pouder Gyngere & Safroun, thenne wyth the Ius of Percely with-owte; & than serue it forth for a ryal mete

[Take a capon and scald him [in boiling water] and cut him in half at the waist. Take a pig and scald him and gut him as the capon was, and cut him in half at the waist too. Take a needle and thread and sew the front of the capon and the rear of the pig together and the front of the pig and the rear of the capon together then stuff them both as you would stuff a pig. Now put them onto a spit and roast them until it is nearly cooked then coat with a mix of egg yolks, ginger and saffron followed by parsley juice then serve it for a royal meat]

“Clearly that’s a goose and not a capon…can’t you guys even follow a simple recipe?”

“at least you got the pig right…but hang on! I can’t see a boiling pot and they don’t loook pre-boiled and to cap it all, that’s a medieval recipe and this is supposed to be a Tudor kitchen so what the hell is going on here??”

The recipe for cockentryce is an excellent example to use to explain what our job in the kitchens at Hampton Court actually involves.

We’re employed to look at the kitchens of Henry VIII and to put them into context, both of the building and also in history. That means looking at ingredients, recipes, equipment, people, and documents….pretty much everything that might impact on our understanding of those rooms. We’re interested in process much more than taste or end result. It’s simply not possible to produce something that we can say tastes like it did in the past, we can though say that this is how it was made, and these are the techniques used and this is how it could have been done in this space. We are at times though limited by ingredients and equipment and the requirements for cockentryce are a good example of this. To fully understand we need to look at the rational behind the recipe and look at what it is calling for you to make. Although ostensibly telling you to “just” cut the two animals in half and sew the opposing front and back halves together that is missing the subtext which is the creation of, in the case of the recipe, two new animals. If you just cut ‘n shut the two halves together you end up with what Heston Blumenthal created for his Feasts programme…something that needs somewhat of an extensive tummy tuck to get rid of all the excess bunching at the join as clearly the two vastly differently sized animals are never going to marry together neatly

Heston’s cokentryce

Heston’s version may be following the recipe, but it’s missing the spirit that I belive was intended. When you see fantastic creatures in medieval manuscripts, such as this image from the Luttrell Psalter, they look fantastic but they also look feasible with all the parts joining together in an animalistic way. Many of the illustrations are not simply fantasies constructed by the illustrator but were images of what were believed to be real animals that existed somewhere in the world, they may not have been roaming around Europe but roam they most certainly did to the medieval mind; this is what the recipe for cokentryce is trying to create…an actual animal, not simply 2 halves sewn together for comedy effect. It is supposed to be as real and believable to the medieval diners as the dinosaurs in Walking with Dinosaurs are to modern TV viewers; we know they aren’t real but we expect them to look realistic and I belive the same held true for the cokentryce recipe.

Add. M.S. 42130 f182r

so it isn’t just a case of cut and sew if you want to make a “realistic” looking animal, the old adage of measure twice and cut once is true when making a cokentryce and it really helps if the ingredients are of a similar girth, something which causes slight confusion when ordering from the butcher as meat tends to be sold by weight not waist size!

It is also this need to create a new animal that means making 2 as stated in the recipe isn’t particularly simple.

To make a good looking end result the two halves need to be cut and joined so they look good and hold together so Adrian and Marc united them with a scarf joint favouring the front of the goose and rear of the pig in the cutting. This method allows the animals to be cut in such a way as to leave more skin than rib and flesh to give more area for sewing. This meant that out of each pair of animals only one new one could be created as the opposing halves were not suitable for joining and were used for spare parts on the main beast. I suspect that with more practice they would be able to end up with 2 new animals from each pair; practice as they say, makes perfect.

“Yes…but why the goose when the recipe calls for a capon?”

Capons are castrated roosters; the castration is done in one of two ways, either chemically or physically. Chemical castration of fowl has been illegal in the EU since the 1990’s…residual chemicals in the end product do the same to male consumers as they did the bird, and physical castration is illegal within the UK on animal welfare grounds, though it isn’t illegal to import true capons from areas of the EU where physical castration is still legal. This tends to mean that most birds labelled as “capons” in the UK are simply fat chickens, and they haven’t grown in quite the same way, aren’t quite the same shape, have too much breast and not enough leg and aren’t in great supply. Put simply, the goose is a substitute that we feel is acceptable given the restrictions on obtaining true capons and they have a similar measurement to the sucking pigs that we chose to use.

“ok, so you went with a goose that’s fine…but this is a medieval recipe and you’re in a Tudor kitchen….”

Well, leaving aside the argument that the first half of the sixteenth century is still medieval, as I said before, it’s almost the perfect recipe to showcase what we do in the kitchens at Hampton Court Palace…research, reconstruction, investigation, interpretation, experimentation and history all seen through the lens of food. We have no evidence to say that Henry VIII ever saw this recipe presentented before him, but likewise we can’t say it wasn’t. Just because the source material here is from the previous century it doesn’t mean it was only made in that century; cokentryce can be found in fourteenth century recipe collections and there’s plenty of evidence to show that recipes from earlier centuries were included in recipe collections in the sixteenth century and after all, the cokentryce according to Harleian MS 279 is a “ryal mete”. so what better place to make one than in a royal kitchen?

“and the boiling….or lack of it?”

quite simply we don’t have pots big enough to fit a goose or pig into! I also suspect that the scalding process referred to in the recipe is the scalding done as part of the slaughter process to make it easier to pluck or dehair the carcasses rather than an extra one done as part of the cooking process. Having tried scalding chickens before placing them onto a spit for roasting, their skin shrinks quite extensively which whilst making them look more rounded and smoother and neater to the modern eye, also has the effect of increasing any cuts or splits in the skin which, combined with the shrunken skin would make sewing the halves together that much more tricky than it already is. Oh, and before you ask about the stuffing, the flavour wasn’t important to us, the process was so we used bread as a stuffing. This had the advantage of being quick to insert, held the body out to a suitable dimension and held the animal reasonably firmly on the spit, which is the principle role the stuffing plays, but without the time consuming process or cost of mincing pork to use as a stuffing.

Sewing the halves together isn’t a quick job; the grease and fat in both animals starts to melt and makes everything extremely slippery.

and when it’s sewn together you need to think about how the beast will be posed, so in this case a stiff wire was inserted through the mouth and down the neck to provide an armature to allow the head and neck to be positioned well.

once on the spit, pins, wire and thread were used to position the legs and wings with the aim of cooking it in pretty much the final position it was wanted to be in as once cooked it would not be possible to move any of the limbs without breaking them off.

again, during the coating process we deviated somewhat from the recipe as previous experience has shown that using a green batter is more successful than simply coating with the parsley juice.

So the end of day 2 and the 1st of the 3 planned beasts was complete. It was good….but not good enough for Adrian and Marc, they wanted more, bigger and better and along with Jorge, set to discussing what improvements the mk2 variant would have.

Jorge wanted to apply more colour and use different colouring techniques with the next version whilst Adrian and Marc wanted more legs and a better, more natural overall look to the 2nd….and a tail, a much better tail than the one provide by the pig.

“our butcher has just delivered the meat for the last cokentryce that’ll be started tomorrow. He left with the look of ‘what the hell have you done with my beautiful meat??’ on his face”

here you can see the tail that Marc made from the back skin of the goose,stitched into shape and cut so that as it cooked and shrank it would hopefully form a serpent/dragon like appendage.

Adrian was keen to try and add scales to the pig skin and used Jorge’s spare pen knife, which was the finest and sharpest blade to hand, to cut scales into the skin. His thinking was that as the pig skin cooked and formed crackling, the scales would be revealed like the score lines in a traditional roast pork joint and that these would then show up through the thinner batter that was to be applied at the last stage of cooking….it didn’t work.

So 2 down…1 to go, and as with the previous ones, the guys wanted bigger and better. They wanted to take what they had learned from the previous 2 (which were the first ones they’d ever attempted) and improve on that for the last. Chances are this would be the last cokentryce that they would get to made for a while so they wanted to go out in style.

Linen rag paper coloured with the Brazil wood solution for the membrane with goose quills for the structure

unfortunately by the time it was all finished it was gone half past three and what little light there had been in the kitchens had gone. This meant that the flimsy cameras I had were simply not up to the task of taking pictures of the finished beast in all its glory. Suffice to say it had a golden bill and toes along with silver and gold tips to the dorsal spines that, much to Adrians shock had stayed in during the cooking process; a miracle considering they were just spare rib bones poked through the skin and into pieces of bread stitched into position beneath.

The paper wings were ok, but it would have been much better had they been real feather wings…something for the future perhaps?

You’ll notice that I’ve got all the way to here and not actually mentioned what it or they tasted like; possibly one of the more popular questions we were asked over the week. Well it is what it is, the front tastes of goose and the back pork, because that’s what they are and I suppose we should take it as a compliment at having produced a sufficiently convincing series of animals that people would ask what it tastes like.

It’s also worth noting the reaction that our visitors had to the whole thing, which was very positive. Young and old seemed to be genuinely fascinated and even those who expressed a negative opinion for whatever reason, were still interested enough to ask questions and discuss the process and history of the dish. We all spoke to hundreds of people for great lengths of time and all in all had a great, if extremely tiring 6 days making these three animals. It was a genuine team effort and one I am very proud to have been a part of.

…and so with all the visitors having left, the washing up done and the tables and equipment returned to the store room, all that was left was to sweep the floor and think about what we might like to do for future events.

We’re not in Kansas anymore!

Well! Global pandemic, who’d have put money on that a few short months ago?!

With all future work cancelled/put on indefinite hold/pushed to who knows when, there won’t be anything new to update you on from the Kitchens at Hampton Court or Kew palaces for a fair while. Fortunately there’s an awful lot in the past that I never got round to writing up because
a) I’m pretty lazy when it comes to writing
b) Time marched on and the next project needed all of the concentration
c) I tweeted it…that was good enough at the time

So, in order to keep me sane, I suppose I should use this time we all have to write some of it all up for you. So, expect to see sketchy photos taken with poor quality camera phones (God that HTC One M7 “purple” camera issue was a nightmare!) that I’ve dragged up from the depth of my hard drives, all married to half remembered information about what was done and when…all heading your way some time soon(ish)

Knot Shots! Part Deux

In our last exciting instalment of all things knot garden, we left the team with Robin working on the base/tank for his sugar version of the Diana fountain design from the garden of Nonsuch Palace. This would form the centre of the knot garden that was being worked on and he wanted it to look pretty special. As such, he planned to include water and swimming fish in the final design…yes, I thought he was mad!

Tiny test fish

Just to show us that he meant business, Robin whipped up a tiny test fish in short order….though luck wasn’t on his side and the fish was filleted by an overexcited young helper…back to the drawing board then!

Meanwhile, on the other side of the table… Jeremiah was making a new plinth for an obelisk, egged on it seems by Robert. Most of the obelisks all looked the same, as they should, being cast from the same moulds

Obelisk and plinth moulds, image courtesy Ian Franklin

but this one was different…though vaguely familiar

The odd plinth/base pieces…they do look familiar though

Jeremiah and Robert said I was imagining things….nothing to see…move along…and besides, none of the visitors had said anything so clearly there was nothing odd going on…I wasn’t convinced!

By now, work was really cracking on and everyone had really got into their stride. Marchpane hedging was springing up left, right and centre and sugar architectural pieces were filling the work table, as well as every spare surface in the team break room and preparation kitchen. Adrian was working on combining a load of these into a classical temple…lots of columns and some domes that explained why he’d been looking for small bowls all morning the previous day.

Taking a base of wood and sugar, a stoneware drinking jug, the sugar columns, the dome, a bowl of thin sugar paste to use as glue, and not quite enough fingers and hands…he was off. The columns were glued to the base with the jug in the middle to act as a support. While the “glue” was still flexible, small wedges of sugar were inserted to spread the columns apart so they were wide enough to hold the domed roof.

Building the temple

Clearly the dome couldn’t go on now, it wouldn’t fit with the jug there, so I left him to it went to make a coffee!
Now for clarity I should point out that my office (the whole of the Daily Programmes team office really, it just makes me feel better calling it my office 🤣) isn’t where the Kitchens Team are based. When I’m in the office I’m away from the Kitchen and divorced from the work that they’re doing in there. The kitchen for the office is upstairs, and while I was finishing making my coffee I could hear the door downstairs open. It was half term, most people were busy elsewhere and I knew the only other person in that day was definitely downstairs when I came up to boil the kettle…it could *only* be one of the Kitchen Team…would it be good news, or bad?

I came down the stairs, cup in hand, and entered the office to find Marc waiting…”QUICK, bring your camera,…you’ll want to see this” he said and then shot off towards the historic Kitchen. Still none the wiser as to good or bad, I put the coffee down and followed him back to the Kitchen to find

The rustic arbor

What had been a mould and a few test pieces the day before had turned from that, via some deft colouring to a self supporting feature.

The painted arbour pieces awaiting construction

but hang on a minute…what’s that in the background?? JEREMIAH!!


I suppose that’s the trouble when you employ fans and give them creative free reign! On the up side, nobody said anything, so we might just have gotten away with it. As well as the arbour, sat on the side was the temple…the finished temple, roof and all columns fixed in place and pretty solidly dry!

The classical temple

I have absolutely no idea how it all happened in such a short space of time? Perhaps they’d managed something with the TARDIS??
Returning to my now tepid coffee, I left them to finish the rest of the day off making more of all of it, nothing specific, just lots of parts being made and by the close of the day on Friday there were two quadrants virtually finished, or at least it was obvious what they would look like when finished, and a pile of pieces ready for the final push over the weekend.

Saturday was, for me, quite relaxing. Not at work, doing the usual weekend sort of things like shopping and visiting family, but in the back of my mind was the nagging thought that I really should go in on Sunday to see how they ended up and take images of the final result. I also couldn’t help but wonder how the fountain was getting on, as Robin had become a touch obsessed with it by the end of the week.

He had a kit of pieces on the Friday afternoon and mocked up some of it so I could see what he was planning

Some of the fountain parts mocked together

He was still talking about fish and water, but I wasn’t convinced it would come to much as I thought he’d run out of time…I was wrong, oh so wrong, and late on Saturday afternoon a message popped into my inbox containing a picture

The fountain with gold fish and ‘water’. Image courtesy Robin Mitchener

Well that sealed it for me, I had to go in on Sunday to see what else had materialised over the Saturday…I would not be dissapointed.

When I walked into the Kitchen on the final Sunday,I found a slightly saddened Robin…the moisture in the room had ruined the ‘water’ in the fountain and it now looked more like a fountain of chicken soup than water…there’ll be a reason the original confectionery was in the rooms above the pastry department and their ovens, where it would be nice and warm and dry

The cloudy fountain water

What had been hedges laid onto paper to create the quadrants, now had the paper covered with sheets of marchpane that Jeremiah was decorating and painting with a woad coloured syrup to resemble pantiles

Jeremiah painting the pantiles

Where the plan had been to create decorative poles from pulled sugar for the garden, time had gotten the better of them and paper straws had to make do. The intention had been to use the recipe from Harley MS 2378 for Penydes contained in f157v and 158r

This recipe is essentially for making pulled sugar rods that you cut up with shears into the desired lengths. The intention had been to create coloured rods and thus use almost every technique available to Tudor confectioners to make the knot garden. Alas, it was not to be and we’ll have to add that to the next project.

Time ticked on through Sunday and gravel paths started to cover joints between quadrants. A third quadrant had materialise since Friday and was now having the finishing flourishes added to it

The third quadrant

The fourth quadrant was always planned to be unfinished in order to show the working and what was underneath. There had been hopes that visitors could have driven the design of this 4th space to really make this a truly collaborative project, but I think the team were so wrapped up in the rest of the work that this laudable plan fell by the wayside. As with the pulled sugar, next time perhaps!?

Then suddenly it was 3.30. I had told the team that they had to finish by now so that they and the visitors could see the final object in isolation. They cleared away all the work tools and ingredients and cleaned the table around the garden. The last touches were added and stray comfit gravel raked into neat paths…voila! The finished knot garden.

Board game or knot garden?
The completed garden
From another side

The finished garden was all that was planned for and more. 3 completed quadrants and a forth showing the process. Statues, obelisks, temple and fountain…there was even a viewing stump complete with spiral pathway!

Mermaid statue and Obelisk…as well as ‘marble’ bench for relaxing upon!
The view from the top
Any resemblance to a spare sugar loaf with added decoration is entirely coincidental! Image courtesy Ian Franklin
The bonus TARDIS. Image courtesy Ian Franklin

I’ll even cut them some slack for the TARDIS as it looked pretty damn good with its woad blue colouring!

They did a fantastic job. They worked like troopers to get this completed from drawing to finished garden in 9 days and it looked like a single finished product, not a collection of separate items posed next to each other. It met the brief and was suitably sized for the room and visually impressive. It showcased the various skills available, not only to Tudor confectioners and cooks, but of the team themselves and they should all be justifiably proud of what they achieved.
I doff my cap to them all, Marc, Robert, Robin, Jeremiah, Zak, Adrian, David and Barry.

So what happened to it afterwards I hear you ask. As much as this might have been amusing…

Jeremiah Smash!

it wasn’t destroyed in some Godzilla re-enactment; it was however not long for this world. About 4 minutes after I took my last photograph it was gone; dismantled, stored and reclaimed. The architectural pieces are now in store in case they are useful in the future, the gravel and ‘flowers’ were bagged up along with the spare comfits and await a use in the next project. The paper plats have been stored with the rest of the project paperwork and plans while the rest was eaten, taken or binned depending on how many little hands had been all over it.
Why didn’t we keep it all as it was? Several reasons really. First, we just don’t have the space to store it. Second, the longer it’s stored the more ‘tired’ it starts to look unless it’s carefully wrapped or covered. Third, in the main subtelties like this weren’t designed to last; they were designed to be created, admired and consumed. Finally, and most importantly, if we don’t get rid of the things we make, we’re less inclined to have the incentive to progress and improve…we’d find excuses to do new and completely different things because we’d have “done” sugar subtelties. By destroying what’s been made, we never have the actual object to rest our laurels on.

So that’s the sugar knot garden done and dusted. Hopefully that’s given some idea of the work that went into it (despite all the bits I’m bound to have forgotten thanks to taking a fortnight to finish writing this up!)

I can’t say what the next post will be about or when it’ll be…what can I say, just look at the post history and see my laziness writ large. 2020 promises to be a roller-coaster ride of a year…the anniversary of the Field of the Cloth of Gold complete with family festival (9 days of jousts, plays, games, crafts and cookery in the gardens at Hampton Court) and stunning exhibition on the history of that momentous occasion full of fantastic objects connected with Henry VIII and Francis I’s meeting in 1520. There’s Tudor cookery through the year at Hampton Court (check website for details as they say) or if the Georgians are more your thing, then we’ve got your back at Kew Palace Kitchens too….all of which, or none of it, is ripe for blog posting!


Food Fakery!

A quick diversion away from the sugar knot garden excitement to throw some fakery into the mix…fake food to be precise. Why? Why not? Also I was looking back through photographs and had forgotten all about some of this, so why not take the opportunity to remind myself while telling all of you?!

But why would we need to talk about fake food when we’ve a team dedicated to experimenting with and creating accurate (or as accurate as we think it’s possible to get) replicas of historic recipes. We’ve got a couple of historic kitchens to play in, and a shed load of tools and equipment, all available to make real food, so why think fake?

shelves of equipment
Some of the historic cookery equipment in store

Well there are quite a lot of times when real food isn’t suitable for a project…we use “fake” meat and pies within the Kitchens at Hampton Court to give visitors a sense of some of the food preparation tasks that would have taken part there. Using replica foods means we’re not having to continuously remake thousands of pies and pieces of cooked meat all through the year, it also means we don’t have to fret about the health and hygiene issues…leaving large joints of raw meat hanging around unattended isn’t exactly going to win us any friends in the local environmental health department and the less said about the smell of rotten meat the better (NO, you can’t and NO ‘they’ didn’t disguise that with spices, people in the past ate meat before it went off, and threw it away when it did go bad…but that’s a subject for another time I think). So obviously, “fake” or replica meat is clearly the way to go sometimes, and it’s something we first did back in 2006 when we introduced spits full of raw, and plates of cooked meat into the Kitchen display.

Spits full of fibreglass beef from 2006

Here we commissioned a company that specialises in replica foods to make us a load of meat; we provided pieces of raw and cooked meat and they made fibreglass replicas of the raw and PVC versions of the cooked. They’re pretty good, and many are still in use in the Kitchens today as they still look like the real thing.

The thing with food is, that there’s lots of other places that could benefit from using it as an interpretive device…that is after all one of the main reasons that we cook in the Kitchens at Hampton Court, it’s not from an interest in food, rather that it’s a great subject to use as a lens through which you can view all sorts of other topics, have a look at some of my papers that touch on this subject if you’re interested in why we do what we do!
With that in mind, think about all of the rooms that are NOT kitchens that Historic Royal Palaces look after, but that due to their sensitive conservation needs, aren’t suitable to have real food in them at all (or at least unattended). How much might they benefit from using food interpretively…dining rooms with tables laid and sideboards full, larders full of produce, and Great Halls ready for feasting…then fake or replica food suddenly becomes something that could be really useful. The problem is, a lot of what’s available isn’t very good, or what we’re after is so specialised and specific that we have to commission it from scratch, which leads to very long discussions with modellers and a lot of R&D to try to get what we’re after all of which is very costly in both money but more importantly time…wouldn’t it be easier to make it ourselves?

Obviously in a lot of cases, no, it wouldn’t. We aren’t set up for it and don’t have all of the skills for working with the various materials that are involved….fibreglass for example is something that should be worked on with extreme caution and the correct protective equipment. However, there are some cases when doing it ourselves is absolutely ideal, and more so if we continue the experimental approach that’s taken with the real food. Rather than trying to replicate the final product, which could really just be carved out of a solid block and painted to look realistic, why not find ways of replicating the actual component ingredients and simply follow the recipe?? That way, as well as ending up with a finished item, we might also learn something about the recipe itself along the way, as well as saving some time in not having to try to explain to a model maker what a recipe that they might not even understand, should actually look like.


The first chance to try this out was a couple of years ago for Christmas at Kensington Palace. We wanted to display a selection of Victorian period Christmas dishes, but they would need to sit out on the conservation sensitive visitor route for the whole of December. Some things were easy to do…plastic mince pies were available to buy “off the shelf” and looked pretty realistic, others proved less simple. For some reason that I can’t recall, I insisted on having a boars head as part of the display, as nothing says ‘historic Christmas’ like a boars head…but not a meat one, Charles Elmé Francatelli’s mock boars head made from cake and ice cream; the recipe for which is in his book The Royal English and Foreign Confectionery Book. (London: 1862)

Francatelli’s Boars Head

Click on the recipe to enlarge and read!

Obviously Ivan Day has been here before but I wasn’t that interested in how he did it, it was all about following the recipe…but without using food! Could I replicate the finished dish by using simulated ingredients and following the recipe, rather than just trying to make a model of the final thing?
Fire retardant high density foam was to become the sponge cake, with caulking sealant coloured with acrylic paints substituting for ice cream and icing as appropriate. Over a number of days, the recipe was followed, with foam blocks being glued together as the cake would be if you didn’t have a boar head mould hanging around. These were then carved with a large ham knife for added irony, into the rough shape of a boars head which was then coated with “chocolate” icing once the ears had been added…though throughout this part I couldn’t help but think it looked more Muppet Pigs in Space Captain Link Hogthrob and less wild boar!

The VERY rough Link Hogthrob boars head shape

The back of the head was then cut out and filled with two separate layers of “ice cream”, teeth, tusks and eyes added and the whole thing touched up for colour…it really looked too milk chocolate rather than the plain I was after.

Meanwhile, a “cake” of foam was iced pink and glued to a ceramic dish to hold the base in place. When the head was dry, it was both glued to the cake base and skewered on, to hold it steady…these were the worst bits as I ran out of time and had to fashion hastelet skewers from brass rod and Fimo modelling clay in short order to meet the deadline…eventually I’ll replace them with something nicer (yes I know, the chances of that ever actually happening are remote at best, but I can dream!) Decorative croutons were made to resemble those shown in the Francatelli lithograph, and the whole thing was boxed and shipped off to Kensington for public derision.

the fake mock boars head
Two colours of “ice cream” as a filling

This sense of making fake food from the ingredients up was one that also found its way to the fake meat for the Kitchen re-display in 2017/18. The original fibreglass and PVC models looked really great, but as they were originally made to be viewed from a distance, didn’t stand up to scrutiny when touched. In short, the realism vanished as soon as the joints of meat were touched, and we wanted to push that perception of realism so it lasted just a few seconds longer…could we make visitors unsure about whether they were looking at and touching models or the real thing?

Careful discussion with the same company that made the original meats lead to models made of a selection of materials, all designed to replicate the feel of raw and cooked meat…made up of differing densities of foams and rubbers to simulate the different muscle structures in the meat.

2018 faked “raw” meat on a spit
2018 fake “cooked” meat in front of fibreglass meat from 2006

How good did they look and feel? Good enough for a visitor to pick one up on the opening day of the new interpretation and take a massive bite out of a “cooked” piece…oops!
The sad thing was, they were too good…people just had to touch them to see if they were real or not, and that touching extended to pulling , hitting and tearing, so we had to take them off display and go back to the drawing board. Interestingly there must have been something subconsciously telling people it wasn’t real as I find it hard to believe that people would pull and tear at raw meat if it was on display for fear of getting it on their hands (though obvious caveat…people are weird 😎)

Unfortunately, the new “rubber” meat had spoiled me and I got a bee in my bonnet about replacing it, but how? At the moment I’m experimenting with making a solid silicone version…yes it’s not going to be as realistic, but possibly that’s a good thing; at least it’ll withstand biting! So far all I’ve made is a small test piece which now serves as a paperweight on my desk, but the process is relatively simple and produces a product that looks just like the real thing…or will do once coloured.
First, make a mould of the meat. For this test, I used casting alginate to take an impression of a small piece of beef…as always, I took lousy images as a record of the work

Alginate mould of a piece of beef

The mould was opened by enlarging the hole at the top where I’d not covered the beef fully, and the meat removed. A two part platinum cure silicone was then mixed together and poured into the mould cavity…no colour, just the pink that it came as, it was only a test after all.

Yes, it was full of air bubbles (really need a vacuum de-gasser) but as a test it was ok. Yes, it feels like silicone rubber to me, but crucially it doesn’t feel like fibreglass or PVC so it may well work at pushing that sense of uncertainty a little further than it currently stands….even if in the end it turns out that I make a huge beef joint shaped bouncy ball! Consider this all a work in progress, and expect more news some time in the future.

Lapping it up

Another dish that has been completed, was made for Kensington Palace’s Christmas 2019, where a display needed to show the gifts that the young Queen Victoria left for her dog, Dash for Christmas 1833…a rubber ball, some gingerbread and a bowl of bread and milk. The ball and gingerbread weren’t an issue…a little paint to modify a stock fake “loaf” created the gingerbread and an online purchase sorted the ball…the bread and milk were a little more challenging.
Continuing the thinking process as above, I wanted to simulate the ingredients separately and make the dish, not just think about the final appearance, so tried a couple of different methods using different materials. The first used a two part rubber which is used to simulate water, or any other liquid when it’s coloured.

Fake bread and milk version 1 with rubber milk

A bowl was obtained and a base layer of high density foam stuck into the bottom just so I wasn’t having to use too much of the rubber milk. PVC bread slices brought off the shelf from a replica supplier were then glued to that foam and the “milk” was poured over the lot and left to set. As it’s a rubber designed to simulate liquid, it remains a little translucent at the margins which really adds to the sense of it being a liquid. It looks really realistic in the flesh, but the rubber isn’t particularly strong and after I’d made it I realised that visitors would be able to touch it if they wanted…the meat experience mentioned above meant I needed to try a different method that would be a little hardier and so a second version was made, this time using a 2 part hard plastic resin. Again the bowl (a new one) and PVC bread were prepared and the two part plastic mixed. When mixed, the liquid is clear and only turns white on curing…it really is quite magical watching it go from see through to opaque in around 10 minutes.

Fake bread and milk version 2 with hard plastic “milk”

This one was much better, rock solid, yet once again made by combining separate simulated ingredients together. Compared to the first version, the milk is a little too white in some lights, but it serves its purpose well and you don’t tend to notice the brilliant whiteness…except in the image above! Making this used up most of the amount of chemicals that I’d purchased for the job, but did leave a small amount unused; I had no real use for them, there wasn’t enough for another bowl and they wouldn’t last in their containers as they’d been exposed to the air and would degrade over time…so mixing the last couple of slugs together with a good shake, the resultant liquid was poured into a container, set with a straw and left to harden. One of the good things about this plastic is its viscosity once mixed, it’s actually quite fluid and that helps any air bubbles that have been created by the mixing process to rise out through the mix to the top without needing a vacuum chamber…keep in mind this is a plastic designed to be cast in moulds, so in most use cases it’s actually the bottom (that would be in contact with the mould) that people want to have no bubbles in…having them rise to the top means they don’t mess up the final cast item. In this case, bubbles floating to the top was something I was counting on as it meant that I could create a plastic cup of frothy milk

Got milk?!

so far, it’s fooled most people who have seen it.

Now this is all rather fun, and it means I get to do some interesting (to me) diversions now and then, but is there any real use for all of this? Well I say yes, there is. As I said at the beginning, we already use fake food for displays where we can’t use the real thing, so having more options opens up the possibilities of how we can interpret spaces. If we can try and make these things in-house where possible, we can see if we can apply the real cookery skills and knowledge that the team has to making more realistic looking fake food, we might even learn something in the process and there’s nothing worse than seeing crap fake food ruin perfectly good interpretation all for the want of 10 minutes work and a smidge of effort

next post…back to the knot garden!


The [Knot] Garden of Earthly Delights!

So, we’re a couple of days past the end of the February half term holiday that contained the Elizabethan confectionery cookery at Hampton Court Palace….how did things go? As with previous posts, this is picture heavy, text light…and likely to end up being split into a couple of posts just to keep you coming back for more and because there’s a lot to cram in from 9 days of work!

A garden in the Gardeners Labyrinth

Many of you will have seen the updates on Twitter over the week, so you’ll already know that the results look awesome…the guys really knocked this project out of the park.

I think it would be fair to say that the plans for this week haven’t had an easy life. I wrote a brief for the team at the end of last year listing what I wanted them to end up with…a sugar knot garden…as well as giving some specifications about what I didn’t want included or worked on (should be visually impressive and proportionate to the room it would be displayed in, but shouldn’t be “to scale”, should demonstrate correct period techniques and help visitors understand the use of sugar subtelties in the late sixteenth century as well as giving them some information about Tudor garden design and banqueting… but I left all of the detailed planning as to how this would be realised up to them. They had all of the Christmas cookery week to discuss ideas amongst themselves and to decide what they would be doing, how they’d do it, and more importantly, when it would get done. This was as much about the team learning to plan things that I would have done for them in the past as it was about working out how to make a sugar garden!

Their response to the brief was a good one, they gave some great examples of the sort of stuff they wanted to make, they said roughly how they’d make that sort of thing and when it might get made through the course of the 9 days, they even thought about who would be needed to bring which skills to each task…what they didn’t say was exactly what it would look like! So this past week has been as much of a journey of discovery for me as it has been for you on Twitter.

When I left you last, the team had made a start on the first quadrant of their plan, and the sketches and draft plats that they had created gave me some idea of what I should expect to materialise through the course of the next 7 days. They moved fast and converted almonds and sugar to marchpane paste for the hedges in swift order, all of which were textured to look like real hedges using Adrian’s nifty broken stick technique I showed in the last post. These hedges were then laid over the drawings on the plats they’d made out of replica medieval paper and hey presto…knot gardens!

the labyrinth quadrant…or Millennium Falcon?
the first quadrant, part coloured by mid afternoon on day 3

With all the hedging being made, it was easy to forget that there were all of the rest of the garden parts to manufacture as well, from architectural details like a fountain or decorative obelisks to gravel paths and flowerbeds. The gravel and flowers would be made from sugar comfits, what today we’d call hundreds and thousands, and these would be needed in bulk . Comfits are made by coating seeds with a thin layer of sugar syrup, then drying it out until it’s hard and then repeating that process a number of times depending on how big you want the final product…this can be anything from a few dozen times for hundreds & thousands, to a few hundred times for gobstoppers! Ivan Day has already described the process in great detail which means that I, a very lazy man, do not have to. Making comfits is something that the team have been slogging away at each cookery weekend through January and early February to ensure a stockpile of sufficient size for this garden project…if only they had the modern mechanised process of making them with what look like large heated copper cement mixers to rotate the seeds and syrup automatically.

Making comfits using the balancing pan over a portable charcoal stove
Making comfits using the balancing pan over a portable charcoal stove
Once they're nearly big enough, coloured syrup is used for the last few coats to build up the final appearance
Once they’re nearly big enough, coloured syrup is used for the last few coats to build up the final appearance
Saffron for yellow and cochineal for red are some of the colouring’s used for the comfits and sugar work, along with parsley for green and woad for blue

Probably the best historic description that’s easily accessible for comfit making is contained in Delights for Ladies… by Sir Hugh Plat it’s chock full of detail and echoes descriptions and mentions that are found in earlier texts and recipes.

Diana Fountain from Nonsuch Palace

For the architectural features like the pillars, columns and fountains, I’d specified to use sugar plate made from fine ground sugar and gum tragacanth. This was to be moulded with wooden or plaster moulds, not free modelled…which they’d have much preferred (I know, I’m a total git!). This meant that they would need to plan what they wanted to make, then make moulds of those items and only then, could they begin to manufacture the pieces for the garden…easy right?!

Again, they grasped the task with both hands and really went for it. While some of the ideas for moulds were complete from the get go…an architectural obelisk, and a plinth/base for it for example…many were planned with no particular end function in mind, such as decorative strips that would eventually find a use as applied decoration on the fountain base, or to form the steps of the classical temple.

Obelisk and plinth mould carved by Robert
Mould for a decorative strip, image courtesy Ian Franklin

With these moulds made before the start of the week, work could begin at any time, but the need for a number of other moulds only became apparent mid-way through the week, once the team started to work out what was and wasn’t likely to be achievable, or just went and had some mad ideas. These included the mould for the rustic arbour pieces as well as the columns for the temple. As we’ll see later, the arbour pieces were designed to interlock, providing support for the completed piece as well as looking like tree limbs and leaves.

wooden mould
Mould to make “rustic arbour” pieces, carved mid-way through the project

Along with the carved wooden moulds, I had challenged them to make and use plaster of Paris moulds as they had done when they made the sugar queen in 2016/17, though on a considerably smaller scale this time!
Robin decided that he’d use this technique to make the figure that would top the fountain he wanted to make…this would be based on the Diana fountain image a few pics up from here. His plan was to sculpt a wax master of the figure, make a two part mould from this and then use that mould to either cast boiled sugar figures (really adventurous), or press sugar paste into it to make them that way. As is more and more the way of late, because of other responsibilities, I was out of the room when he started the process of making the mould and only caught it as he poured the second batch of plaster to make the top half.

making a plaster mould
Making a two part plaster mould…pouring the second half of the mould.

Having made a bed of plaster within clay retaining walls, the small wax figure was laid into the plaster and locating marks were sculpted into it just before it fully set. Then an hour or so later, the second half of the mould was poured in and the whole left to set…which is about when Robin realised that he’d got so carried away with wanting to get the mould made, that he’d not actually added any barrier or release agent to either the wax figure, or the first half of the mould. Had he just encased his delicately carved wax model inside a block of solid plaster??

No…he was a VERY lucky chap, and at the end of the day when the plaster was fully set and dry, some gentle prising with a stout blade…and a few choice words uttered…popped the two halves of the mould apart. Admittedly it did decapitate the figure, but as the mould was good, with no air bubbles or voids, that mishap could be overlooked. The two halves were popped into the airing cupboard to dry overnight, and the next day Robin used it to create tiny “marble” statues around 5cm tall, each one made slightly different by adding more sugar that was free modelled to make draping cloth or clothing pieces.

sugar statue
Marble stat…sorry, I meant Sugar statue

These were all well and good, but his plan was for a figure topped fountain, complete with water…and fish…because why not?! Obviously it wouldn’t be real water, boiled sugar would substitute for that as it should set hard but stay transparent enough to see the tiny sugar fish that would be “swimming” in it, but it did mean that the main tank had to be “water” tight.
The image of the Diana fountain was fairly easy to follow, especially as in July 2019, Robin had made a series of moulds that made up an octagonal box and he hoped he could re-purpose these to make the main base/tank of the fountain; it’s actually why a fountain was suggested by the team as they though it would be fairly easy to make and that time could then be spent on other details within the garden….that didn’t really work out that way though.

sugar models
Sugar “trinket box” and covered cup

It turned out that the box mould was a little smaller than the fountain needed to be, so Robin proceeded to create a kit of parts of flat panels cut from a sheet of sugar paste. When these were dry, they were “glued” together with a thinned down sugar paste and the joints covered in thin strips of paste for rigidity and decoration, as well as helping to seal the tank to keep the “water” in.

Robin making the fountain base/tank

as an aside here before the details of the rest of the fountain, it’s probably worth pointing out the bone tools Robin is using…which he had to make for the job…a nice and useful piece of recycling kitchen waste…and by custom making, it ensured he gets the exact tools he needs, not some that are only “close enough” for the job.

A selection of bone modelling tools

I’m going to leave it here for now and give myself a couple of days to write the next post and you time to digest this…it’ll also allow me time to fit in the day job and prepare a report on the past week, carry on planning the next major cookery run at Easter, and sort out end of year reviews for the team…fun or what?!?
By the way, there’s cookery in the Kitchens at Hampton Court each weekend through until the end of March, so plenty of opportunity for you to visit and see some of this sort of thing in the flesh…who knows, you might even fancy lending a hand! Details of cookery events at Historic Royal Palaces sites can be found by visiting the website and searching for “what’s on” at Hampton Court or Kew Palaces (if the eighteenth century is more your thing)