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?
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.
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)
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 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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!