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