Some of you might remember that for the 2014 Christmas cookery event at Hampton Court we made some cokentryces over the course of the week. For those that missed it, have a look here to see them in all their glory, and to see why and how we did what we did. Well in the lead up to the 2015 event, pretty much the only instruction I was given was to organise something “just like that, but Elizabethan”…so not a whole lot to go on really. Whatever it was to be, it needed to be sufficiently large scale to occupy a large percentage of the team that would be working on any given day as well as being interesting and visual for visitors. It was a given that we would have roasting at the center of the work being done, and a couple of other tasks were chosen because of the available team members, but what was to be the cokentryce of 2015??
Well, after a lot of thought and discussion which discounted the suggestion of a series of Christmas boars heads kindly suggested by Marc H, the notion of a sugar subteltie was settled on…but what form would it take?
We’d already made some pretty impressive and interesting stuff including sugar versions of Hampton Court Palace and the Embarkation from Dover painting in the Royal Collection (and clearly when I say ‘we’, I actually mean Adrian, David, Lawrence and Alex, with minimal input from the rest of us) and I was well aware that these large scale sugar builds were responsible for a LOT of arguments and animosity amongst the team; so what would I get them to make that wouldn’t cause ructions and fitted the criteria for the event? The answer, a sugar knot garden in the Elizabethan style; fairly large scale but, and this was the most important part, modular in make up so that it didn’t matter if the whole thing wasn’t completed as it would show the construction process…the making was to be more important than the finished item.
Initial planning work took place early in December with what could be described as a rough and ready round table session in which photos of knot gardens, paintings, documents and scribbles were thrown about until a plan began to coalesce
Central to all of this was the book The Gardeners Labyrinth by Thomas Hill, 1577 which details plans and methods for laying out a gentleman’s garden in the latter half of the sixteenth century and includes images of suggested knot designs for planting. I’d allocated the task of planning and executing the garden to Jorge and Adrian, and with Adrian not available for the initial meetings, the bulk of the work fell to Jorge to arrange, which he did with gusto!
The suggested knot designs that caught Jorge’s eye the most were the ones found on pages 81 and 84 (below) and he quickly settled on the left most pair from page 84 (beolw right) as being the most suitable to use.
The plan was to transfer the patterns onto a sheet of paper and then to build the garden in sugar plate and comfits directly on top of this. The design was to be repetetive on the paper so that each knot could show progress towards a finished one, but that the whole could easily be imagined as a complete design in progress…if that makes sense; so of the four knots on the page, one would be complete and the other three would be in various states of competion showing the trail of work…or that was the plan at least!
We knew that the design would need an amount of comfits to fill all of the spaces and represent the plants and paths between the knotwork hedges, and that these would need to be in a selection of colours. There would also be a need for sugar plate to be made to construct the ‘hedges’ from and that would clearly need to be green in colour,but how that colour would be applied was still a discussion point when we arrived to set up the kitchens on Boxing Day 2015.
This is not the knot garden I was thinking of!
Leaving the guys to sort out the jobs that needed doing and who was going to do them resulted in Robin starting the comfit making off with Zak observing and helping (as much as Robin would let him) and Adrian and Jorge getting a start on making some sugar plate and some green colouring for it. For those of you that don’t know what comfits are, they’re seeds or particulates covered in multiple layers of sugar syrup, each layer being dried off before the next is applied. If you think of ‘hundred’s and thousands’ for decorating cakes or gobstoppers then you’re on the right lines…the inestimable Ivan Day has a page that describes their manufacture and it’s a good place to start if you’re interested. For a closer period description, you’d need to look out for Delights for Ladies by Sir Hugh Plat from the turn of the seventeenth century, and whilst not readily available online, transcriptions of the pertinent section are a Google search away! (other search engines are available as they say).
Now I know that if I don’t cover it, I’ll get questions on it, so I’ll just point out that when making the comfits, as with pretty much everything that we do in the kitchens, the guys used the Plat instructions as a guide, rather than a hard and fast series of rules to follow. All measurements and quantities for the syrups they used were done by eye and not to specific measures as that’s how a cook works. If the syrup was too thin and not building up quickly enough then it was thickened with more sugar or by re-boiling, if too thick then water was applied to thin the solution out. The same held true with the colours; all were made up by eye in batches considered large enough to get the current task finished…something I suspect was a major factor in the change of tack that occurred with the hedge making as we’ll see in a moment or two!
Robin set up the balancing pan and frame for the comfits over on the charcoal stove as that enabled the chafer for the heat source to sit within the stove opening itself at exactly the right height to provide a gentle and controllable heat. Over a drink (or possibly two) on Boxing Day we chatted about what actual comfits were going to be made, and Robin had become slightly obsessed with comfiting grains of paradise so that’s what he started with. A largish spoonful of seeds went into the pan to warm through while a gum arabic solution was made for the first couple of coats and when these were dry, the sugar syrup coating could begin.
After ten or so coats, this batch was taken out of the pan and put into a paper packet then left in the airing cupboard in our office to thoroughly dry as it was the warmest place to hand. I think the second batch he started were fennel seeds, or possibly caraway…to be honest, I wasn’t paying that much attention I’m afraid, but whatever they were, it gave Zak a chance to get his hands into the pan and have a go.
While Robin and Zak were getting stuck in to the comfits, Adrian and Jorge were making very rapid progress with the sugar garden design itself. Jorge had extracted some green colour from a bunch of parsley by pounding it in a large mortar and washing the resultant paste with a little water, this was then strained through a cloth to remove the solid matter and the green liquid used along with some egg white and rose water to make sugar plate, roughly following the instructions in The Second Part of the Good Huswifes Jewell by Thomas Dawson.
Adrian then took this paste and fashioned the first ‘hedges’ on top of the paper plan and all looked remarkably impressive. Over the next couple of days, both comfits and hedging progressed apace. When Robin had a day off, Jorge and Zak could take the reigns of the comfit production and try making some cinnamon ragged comfits.
Their first attempts, whilst being pretty good and very tasty, were fairly tiny in actual size. A second go with slightly larger strips of bark proved to be less succesful but I think that’s more likely due to this being their second ever attempt at comfit making than anything else. Over the rest of the week, all three of them worked on comfits, adding coloured coatings to various batches leading to some quite impressive results.
While progress on the comfits was good, that of the sugar hedging was not quite as expected. Initial progress had been swift, and as far as I was concerned, looked pretty damn good, however Jorge and Adrian clearly didn’t see it that way as they decided to explore a different method of making the sugar green…painting it with the parsley colour. I believe the main reason was to try to make a more ‘realistic’ looking hedge rather than the solid green plasticine looking
product that using the colour within the paste gave them. It also helped with speed too as the sugar plate wasn’t reliant on the green colour being ready at the same time, it could be applied any time after the sugar was shaped; and this was convenient as they’d found that drying the liquid before the fire slightly to drive off some of the water but not alter the colour with the excessive heat of boiling, helped to produce a darker green.At the same time as making the knots, there were also small
medallion roundels being made as these allowed visitors to try their hand at the sugar work, and also some barley twist poles that might end up with King’s beasts atop them as can be seen in the Chapel Court garden at Hampton Court and in the background of the painting of the Family of Henry VIII in the Royal Collection. Then some time around mid-week things took a turn, I don’t know why as I was busy doing other work behind the scenes and by the time I noticed what was happening it was already done…not that I would have changed things, just asked why they did what they did so I could tell you. So what did they do? Well all along the plan was to use pastry jam tarts to add to the garden design in some way, but now
Adrian and Robin were working on an entire jam tart knot design…I thought to add to the two already done, but apparently not. Now there was to be the painted sugar knot and the pastry one, displayed not on or part of the original paper plan but separately on pewter plates; not that it mattered as the overall idea was for people to see the production and get a sense of the work that making a subteltie involved…but it is a shame it didn’t come to pass as originally planned.
Baking the cases was always going to be slightly tricky. We only have a modern gas oven to use rather than a period wood fired one, so blind baking is always a bit of a fiddle as it’s very difficult simulating working in the mouth of the oven. The best Robin has managed in the past is to fire
the oven up to full power then when the past goes inside, sit by the oven and check through the door every 30 seconds or so and if he notices the cases deforming, to open the door and man handle the paste back into shape. This works fine with a single tart case, but wasn’t going to be easy or efficient with the number that Adrian had made for the knot design. The solution, a simple and obvious one, but one that’s not occurred to any of us before as we’ve never had low enough cases for it to work, or enough peas…dried split peas covering the whole thing. Once
the whole lot had been baked for a few minutes, the peas could be dispensed with, the cases filled with differing coloured jams and the walls decorated with the green colouring before the whole lot was put back in the oven to finish cooking. I had thought that this was where they were going to leave things, but I should know by now not to underestimate Adrian and Robin and their desire
for ‘perfection’ and so the last day of the cookery saw a fairly mad dash to add a border of custard tarts to the knot design which unfortunately had a distinct impact on another recipe that was being worked on, but I’ll write about when I’ve done with this topic. For now, it’s safe to say that Adrian pulled out all the
stops to make and bake the tart cases while Robin made the custard to fill them.
So at close of play on the eighth day what did we have?
We had an amount of comfits of all flavours and colours…the grains of paradise were simply spectacular, innocuous at first and then BLAM, a whole mouth and throat full of spice and flavour, highly recommended if you’re having a go at comfiting. We also had two subtelties to display, one sugar knot design infilled with comfits:
and a pastry, jam and custard one:
So that was the knot garden subteltie from Christmas 2015. I’ve added all of the pictures that cover the subject to a gallery that you will see a link for in the sidebar (when I add that part…those of you working faster than I can add features!) Most are sub-par due to lack of light and duff camera on my part, but they should give you the idea of the way things progressed.
Coming next….cooking in pewter and buttered beer….just give me a while to type it 😉