Waaaaay back in 2015, the Kitchens at Hampton Court Palace saw the Kitchen Team try to make a sugar knot garden that may or may not have gone according to plan…well, ok, it didn’t, we ended up with some very impressive jam tarts but not the sugar and almond garden that was planned. So with the February half term school holiday 2020 upon us, and the last of 6 months of Elizabethan interpretation drawing to an end, I thought it was high time that redemption was sought and I tasked the team with planning and preparing to make a sugar knot garden once again.
Clearly sugar models of gardens are a popular subject; the inestimable Ivan Day has recently created one for the outstanding Feast & Fast exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge
(if you’re reading this before April 26 2020 and have the chance to go and see it…GO, you won’t be disappointed). Ivan chose to model a sugar version of the banqueting house from Melford Hall as his centre piece, with the knot garden itself a much more two dimensional affair (you can just about make it out in the image above, there’s a golden tree/bush in the middle of part of it), surrounded by a multitude of other sugar delights and beautiful serving dishes. For our version, the intention was always to repeat the plan from 2015…go large, go 3-D, concentrate on the hedges and paths and add period architectural details such as obelisks and posts as would have been found in a late Tudor period garden at a high status property, while using techniques found in confectionery and cookery texts of the time. Inspiration was to be drawn from surviving and replanted gardens at stately properties across the UK as well as details from lost gardens such as those at Hampton Court itself, along with the garden at Nonsuch Palace, many details of which survive…
This was to be an interactive affair, with as many things as possible for visitors to help with or shape with their thoughts and opinions, but most of all it should be fun and interesting…So with that in mind, the plan that the team came up with was this:
Rough sketch design for the HCP sugar knot garden 2020
Each quadrant of the design would be based on suggested garden designs contained within the 1577 Gardeners Labyrinth and would look something like one of these sketches
The design would possibly repeat…or maybe stay the same in 3 of the 4 quadrants, with the design of the 4th one being created by visitors over the course of the 9 days of cookery. The designs would, as with 2015, be sketched onto replica medieval paper using oak gall ink and quill, and would form guides upon which almond marchpane, and sugar paste “hedges” would be created. The gravel in between the knots would be made of sugar comfits and the pillars, posts and perhaps a banquet house, would be made of various forms of sugar…either pulled or moulded into shape, all coloured with period food colourants.
That was the plan…how’d that work out??
As I write this, it’s day two of the 9 day event and so far, so good! Everyone is on the same page and progress is coming along at a pace…in fact, much quicker than I’d expected to be honest. Jeremiah has been transferring the original sketches onto paper that can be used out in the kitchen (rather sneakily working in the warm of the office next to a radiator while Storm Dennis ravages the UK)
When he’s not been doing that, he’s been blanching almonds like a man possessed as they’re going to need an awful lot of them to make all the marchpane that they’ll need.
Robert has been busy testing out the moulds that he’s created for some of the architectural details…he’s making these details from a mouldable sugar paste that is very similar the the modelling sugar used to make decorative flowers and such like for wedding cakes. This is then pressed into the moulds to shape it before it’s turned out and left to dry and set hard; the kit of parts is then stuck together with more paste to create some (fingers crossed) impressive pieces for the garden.
One of the new sugar moulds
The first test of the mould
With all this activity this morning, seeing the first quadrant change from this:
To this, in such a short space of time
was a bit of a shock! The plan is to create all of the hedging and then “paint” it green with a parsley juice based colouring. This was the second method tried back in 2015 (if you’ve not gone a read that post…slackers) and while it doesn’t produce as solid a green paste, it does mean you aren’t held up waiting for the green to be made before you can get on and model the marchpane.
You’ll notice that there’s a texture to the marchpane, and at first I thought it was just roughly made, but how wrong I was. Adrian wanted to make it look like it was actual box hedging, so started to stipple the surfaces with the point of his knife but found that took too long…
cue some quick thinking and a broken stick, and suddenly you have a tool for making box hedging
Obviously, on top of all this confectionery construction, there’s the usual roasting of beef taking place. That’s a staple within the kitchens as it’s the primary function that the surviving spaces were designed for. It’s also great on a cold, wet and blustery day like today when it becomes the single most popular place in the kitchen if not the Palace!
There’s still 7 more days of the knot garden construction to go, the last day is Sunday February 23 2020, so hopefully time for a few updates between now and then, if not here then certainly on Twitter. Fingers crossed it all ends up as impressive as these first steps look like they might lead to.
Waaaaay back in the mists of time (2016) I set the Historic Kitchen Team the task of trying to make large figurines from cast boiled sugar; you can read about it <HERE>. Try as they might, there was little success…but we did end up with a very nice mould that’s been sat in storage ever since crying out to be used. Well this October, for the school half term holiday, the opportunity presented itself to push the team one more time to try to produce a cast sugar figure…and this is the short update about what happened, though as there’s a picture of a dirty great sugar figurine at the top of the page, I’m pretty certain it’s not going to be a great shock to you when you get to the bottom of the page.
But was that something they actually did in the past I hear you ask….well, as I detail in the post from 2016 (don’t worry, you don’t have to scroll back too far through the blog to find it, I’m lazy and haven’t written a great deal since then) there are plenty of recipes that run through the process, so it seems likely.
There’s also descriptions of subtelties in the form of people being presented to the table, such as the description of vaulting and leaping figures served by Cardinal Wolsey to French guests in Cavendish’s “Life of Cardinal Wolsey” 1 as well as suitable Elizabethan period references…all very handy as Hampton Court is showcasing all things Elizabeth this autumn (2019), to coincide with the temporary exhibition of the Lost Dress, the former Bacton Altar cloth, thought to be made from one of Elizabeth’s dresses.
So, fast forward to the present day and the nine day half term event, during which I charged the team with the task of repeating much of what they’d done in 2016, but with the added demand of having to produce cast models.
The first test of the week looked promising, and half a queen was produced in short order…though not by pouring boiling sugar into the mould, but rather by creating a sheet of sugar then slumping it into place to create the form.
The resultant half a queen needed a stick to support it…which very swiftly begat the concept of a “lickable, ‘lizabethan lolly”!
This test piece was left overnight when it was thought it might firm up as it dried out a little more in the airing cupboard…
but that was not to be, and by the morning,the once 3D form of the front of a queen was now an accurate sugar model of a Dr Who character from the Troughton or Pertwee eras.
Quite a lot of the rest of the week was spent with the team fixated on improving the results of the slumping method and with creating a crystal clear sugar that would set hard despite the awful weather we had over the week and the rain soaked and sopping wet atmosphere in the Kitchens…
it’s no great surprise to find out that confectionery kitchens are nice and warm and dry, and Henry VIII’s were no exception.
Situated at the end of Fish Court in the midst of the Kitchen complex, upstairs above the pastry house where it could be kept warm and dry by the heat from the ovens and the working rooms below. Here in 1539, Bonaventure Carter, James Fulgam, George Herd and John Bartlett would have worked to produce sweet delicacies for King Henry VIII and the upper echelons of his Court…but I digress…back to the Elizabethan stuff!
The obsession with the slumping wasn’t what had been asked for and isn’t how the recipes describes figures being made, so that had to stop and work needed to concentrate on working out how to work with boiled sugar in quantities that could fill the mould, or at least fill it to coat a layer sufficient to hold the shape of the Queen figure and most crucially, survive removing from the mould (the principal problem back in 2016). By now, Friday was upon us and there’d been no great signs of progress. Several changes of staffing had occurred and work on comfits was proving to be popular because it was nowhere near as complicated as the casting work was turning out to be. 5.45pm on Friday rolled round and I left for a weekend of shopping and the normal “adult” things that have to be done on days away from work, only to be greeted at four o’clock on Saturday afternoon on Twitter by the image of a ‘perfectly’ cast sugar figure posted by Jeremiah from the team…they’d actually done it, pulling it out the proverbial bag at the 11th hour. Like buses, it wasn’t long before Robin (it was Robin and Jeremiah who were working on the figures over the weekend) sent me a photo of a second figurine…
This one was much less caramelised than the first one as you can see from the handy mobile phone torch being shone through it from behind.
Unfortunately, these two were the only two sugar queens they made, but its not about quantity, its about the ability to make them, and to repeat making them which is the whole point of the recipes…to be able to make as many as you need, repeatedly. On returning to work after the weekend, I was able to check the team camera to see if they’d managed to record any of the manufacturing process…which luckily for all of us, they had (click on the images to see larger versions).
So, is that it you ask? Pretty much. As is was all rather 11th hour, there was no real time to experiment with the decoration as it’s described in the recipes and colouring the finished article. Likewise, time didn’t allow for working on a less clear version of the sugar to see if not caring about clarity would make a difference. The recipes never mention the end result being clear, especially as they go on to describe how to colour and paint them with coloured sugar. The notion of ‘clear’ is a modern one in my opinion, and not likely to be something they were either worried about or possibly had worked out how to achieve as it took a LOT of work and patience to keep the boiling sugar from crystallising on the stove or as it cooled and started absorbing moisture…still, lots of things to look at next time I pick this as a topic to work with. =o)
George Cavendish, The Life of Cardinal Wolsey, 2nd edn (London: Harding and Lepard, 1827) (pp. 197–198) ↩
When Henry VIII and Francis I met for the treaty negotiations now known as the meeting at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520, little did they realise than almost 500 years later, someone would have the reasonably insane idea of recreating part of that meeting in three dimensions out of sugar. Well of course they wouldn’t realise that, it would be stupid to think so, and even more stupid to consider making a sugar version as an idea; which possibly tells you more about me than anything else, as it was the first idea that sprang to my mind when my colleague Suzanne asked for ideas to link the family “make and do” activity planned for this summer with the work that the Historic Kitchens Team would be doing in the Kitchens at Hampton Court Palace.
Her intention was to have something that any visitors to the Palace could participate in, that built in scale over the course of the event, was a genuine community effort but also allowed people to try real historic techniques and methods out…the only problem was that she didn’t have any idea what it could be as she didn’t want to suggest anything that the Kitchens Team wouldn’t be happy with…what did I think it could be?
Now, those of you that have followed the exploits in the Kitchens over the last quarter of a century (dear God has it really been that long!?!) might recall that the team have been responsible for a lot of sugar models in the past…I touched on some of them when we were talking about the making of the sugar knot garden a couple of years ago (HERE). You also might know that I’ve never been a great fan of this work, not because I don’t appreciate the immense skill that my friends and colleagues have in order to turn powdered sugar into stunning models, but rather that it is work that was never done in the room we have to work in and so by making confectionery models and such like we run the risk of giving a false impression of how the spaces were used in the past. That being said, sugar work can be ideal as a public interactive activity because if using the later sixteenth century recipes for sugar plate, as for example was published in the Second Book of the Good Huswifes Jewell by Thomas Dawson in 1597, then you’re essentially working with edible modelling clay…ideal for kids of all ages to play around with.
So setting aside my reservations, I suggested sugar work to Suzanne and we were then merely faced with working out what this would be used to make.
In fact it didn’t take long, she mentioned that we could use the Field of the Cloth of Gold painting (held by the Royal Collection and displayed at Hampton Court Palace in the Young Henry exhibition) as a subject and I did the rest. As there would be a finite number of days that the build would take place over, we really needed a subject that couldn’t be finished…nothing worse than saying you’ll be building XXX over a month only to be so busy with helpers that you finish on day 2! That meant that the obvious candidate, the main temporary Palace in the foreground was out, yes we could have added lots of decoration, but how interesting is it to ask people to make a tiny brick or tile? Much better to be able to make lots of something, where numbers weren’t important…and what are there lots of in the image and what were there lots of at the actual meeting?? People and tents. All that was needed was a bit more focus and we’d have an idea to work from.
If you look in the top middle of the painting, you’ll see a large golden tent…no, not the fancy double ended one, just above that, the round one with the two kings in front of it all surrounded by a circle of tents in the Tudor colours of green and white. That was what we’d make, and if we had too much help then more tents or more figures could be made to bulk it all out. On the days that the guys in the Kitchens were making the “real” thing, people could also work in one of our other Palace rooms and help make more of the image in paper and card, that way everyone had the chance to try historic and modern methods of model making all to create a giant 3D version of as much of the painting as we could get done.
So with the flimsiest of ideas to work from, I dropped the news on the team that starting in just over a week, they’d have two and a half weeks to make as much of the image as they could, and that on 6 of those days they’d have as much help as they could coerce visitors into giving them…you can imagine how popular I was that day! They might have been fuming, but I was pretty confident in their skills and abilities and was sure that by the due date (21 August) there’d be something pretty spectacular to see. I walked back to my office to leave them to cogitate and come up with a plan and within a very short time, Adrian and Robin came up with a blinder.
Construct a large sugar central tent, possibly on top of a paste board framework to support it, and gild that. Make a Henry VIII and Francis I out of a combination of sugar plate and marchpane (almond and sugar paste) and paint them with natural food colours. Make a mould to construct sugar figures and press them out to make an army and the crowning glory of an idea, break the green and white striped tents down into individual stripes, make the white from sugar plate and the green from coloured or painted marchpane then when each “stripe” was sat next to the others you would build up a tent; all you needed was a “straight” piece and a wedge piece to make the curved tents (a bit like an [insert name brand here] chocolate orange)
All they would need to do would be to have people churn out stripes and wedges like there was no tomorrow along with a few dozen soldiers, while the team concentrated on the marchpane monarchs and the massive gold tent…easy! Well I say easy, because for me it has been…pop in to the Kitchen once in a while to see how things are progressing, take a few pictures in anticipation of this blog post, order sugar and almonds…a lot of sugar and almonds…then at the last minute, buy a load of gold leaf and go on leave for a few days leaving the guys to it for the final big push to the finish. For them, it’s not been as easy, but it’s been a genuine revelation in some respects.
Firstly there’s Jeremiah…who knew the hidden talents the man had?! We got our first inkling when he wanted to try his hand at sugarwork in the first planning week, so “had a go” at making a sugar playing card:
the man’s a demon with a brush…turns out he’s none too shabby when it comes to freehand modelling too as his marchpane Henry and Francis heads showed:
Robin once again demonstrated that for a man with what he describes as “builders hands”, the detail and finesse with which he can make things is astounding, from the bone modelling tools that the whole team used, to an alabaster mould for making tiny sugar figures
He also proved more than capable when it came to modelling marchpane
too…something that for years he’d never tried to do…perhaps we should have pushed him earlier?!
These are just some of the stand out examples in a sea of skills that have genuinely shone over the last few weeks of work.
Zak working wonders with kids and families alike, convincing them that making loads of identical tent pieces was something they should aspire to, and without that coercion and cooperation, there really would be so much less for you to see here. He was also responsible for finishing off the sugar part of the golden tent and helped add the gold leaf with Dave…when Dave wasn’t busy gilding children’s fingernails or noses to order!? [note to self…discuss profligate use of gold leaf with Dave 😎 ]
and all ably assisted by Robert and Liam who when not explaining what the others were doing, were providing the other daily cookery for visitors or helping them turn out tent sections, soldiers and a host of other sugary delights.
So, enough smoke blowing, how did they actually go about making the model I hear you cry?
Well the segmented green and white tents were ‘easy’, just pressed out in the moulds that Adrian and David whittled out of wood from the firewood pile in the Kitchen. Sugar plate was made following the Dawson recipe you can look at above (as with all the images, clicking on them should expand them to full size…or at least a larger size more conducive to viewing), and this was used like edible play dough. the marchpane was made by grinding almonds in a mortar and pestle…very ‘hands on’ for visitors…with a little rose-water and then powdered sugar was added and the whole pounded into a paste. You can see from the two images of the heads above that Jerry was a little less fussed about how fine his marchpane was ground compared to Robin, but either way the result is the same, a pliable almond modelling paste that can be coloured with natural colouring just like the sugar can.
Colours were made up from parsley juice for the green, cochineal for the reds (ideally we’d use kermes for this, but time and tide meant that the more readily available cochineal would have to suffice), woad powder for blue, oak gall ink for blacks and saffron for yellows. These were applied with brushes made from assorted hairs, furs and feathers, bound together to make tips and held onto wooden hafts with goose quills.
The main golden tent was always intended to be made of sugar, but this was highly unlikely to be strong enough to be self supporting, so Adrian got the first few groups of visitors helping with the project to make some paste board with him. This was easily made from our archival paper glued together with a flour, water and alum glue then pressed until dried and hard. This was then cut to shape and stuck together to form a board base upon which to place the sugar.
Initially Adrian had made moulds that included integral decoration so that a raised foliate design would be cast into the tent walls, but it turned out that the carving wasn’t quite deep enough to consistently guarantee that a panel would turn out with decoration on it…it was a fine line between not quite deep enough and too deep to easily come off the mould, so erring on the side of caution was probably the best thing he could have done.
Once turned out and set aside to dry, the panels were placed onto the pasteboard former and then a thin ‘mortar’ of liquid sugar plate was used to bond the panels together…and to the board it appears as Zak was quite generous with how much he used! When this was all complete and dried, the whole tent was painted with a saffron based paint, principally to act as a base to put the gold onto, but also as a fail safe in case I forgot to order the gold leaf (oh ye of little faith!!). Apparently the guys had planned for the painting to take at least a day, if not longer so that plenty of visitors could get a chance to help. Turns out that on that day all our visitors were budding painters as they covered the whole thing in a couple of hours or so…perhaps finer brushes to slow them down next time?
I think it was around the start of the painting phase that Jerry noticed that the tent in the original painting had a figure as a finial, so he knocked one up out of marchpane, but all I can see when I look at it is the
old magic robot game from the 1970’s….I still keep expecting it to spin round and point at things 😀
The final things to make were the wrestling monarchs which Adrian had intended to be made from sugar and marchpane and probably would have been about the same size as an Action Man figure, but Jerry ended up taking the reins and they turned out a little more in scale with the tent…and waltzing we think rather than wrestling.
Meanwhile, Dave started to gild the tent and when he wasn’t doing it Zak took over; together they plastered about 6 books of leaf onto the tent (about 150 leaves of gold)…less what Dave put on children or blew into the air to show how light gold can be when it’s very, very thin.
Finally all that was left to do was put all the pieces together to form the diorama…
So that’s that then. One roller coaster ride of a month, tens of kilos of sugar and almonds, innumerable bunches of parsley, 6 books of gold, the blood, sweat and tears of all the team, the help of hundreds of visitors all to make something that was designed to be ephemeral…displayed for a short time to show the skills of all concerned, then broken up and eaten….I think it was worth it.
So, almost a year since I bothered posting anything here, I suppose I should put some effort in eh?!
Well as I sit here on enforced sick leave I’ve got some time to think and write, which makes a nice change. First things first, and for the inquisitive…you know when you go into hospital for a procedure and they tell you there’s a xx% success rate, well earlier this year I fell into the other percentage and a septoplasty I had needed more corrective surgery which I got last week, leaving me high and dry away from work until after Xmas…though looking ever so stylish.
The second thing that makes a nice change, I think, is Xmas. We’re now less than a week away and the usual stress and panic about the forthcoming week of cookery in the Kitchens at Hampton Court is completely absent, mostly because the week of cookery is completely absent this year!! Yes, for the first time since 1991, when Christmas festivities were started at Hampton Court, there’ll be no cookery over the course of the week between Christmas and New Year and we all get the same Christmas you all normally get. Now to put that in some perspective, this is the first Christmas since 1992 that I won’t be with my friends at Hampton Court on Boxing Day, New Years Eve or New Year’s Day…it will be the first complete Boxing Day, New Years Eve and New Year’s Day I’ll have ever spent with my family… it’s quite a big deal; but why is it happening and why no cookery?
If you visit the official HRP website you’ll find full details here if you scroll down, but the important bits are…
Henry VIII’s Tudor Kitchens
Electrical upgrades, re-decoration and re-presentation works.
Henry VIII’s Tudor Kitchens and surrounding cloisters are now subject to major work as we lay down new electrical cables to power our palace in the years to come. Archaeologists are also using this opportunity to help us better understand the history of the Tudor Kitchens and passageways.
The existing electrical system is almost 70 years old, and the work will allow the palace to continue operating into the future – as well as giving a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to study buried archaeology in this part of the palace.
Unfortunately, this work will impact on what visitors to Hampton Court Palace can see in and around the Tudor Kitchen area. There will be no fire in the Tudor Kitchens for the duration of the works.
The long and the short of it is that access in and out of the main Kitchen building where we work and roast is extremely restricted due to the electrical upgrade, with the main Kitchen building having become a cul-de-sac because of the necessary closures and it’s simply safer to not try to cram hundreds of visitors into a space they wouldn’t be easily be able to leave if there was an emergency; so the painful decision was taken to cancel the Christmas cookery this year, but plan to bring it back bigger, brighter and bolder next year.
Just because there’s no cookery, doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to see and do over the festive period at Hampton Court though, and the HRP website details all there is for you to enjoy here.
Special shout out to my colleague Hannah who now has the full weight of worry and stress about the Elizabethan Christmas event to see her through this week of technical rehearsals and soft openings and then through the Christmas festivities…I feel for you, and in a weird way, kind of miss the sleepless nights and panic….not! 😈
On the up side, the excavations to allow the new electrical cabling have turned up some interesting features..possibly a hearth feature from an earlier phase (Wolsey or possibly even pre-Wolsey when discussions were had during my visit to the site) of the building
Now all we have to do is wait for the dig report to see what else they found.
The electrical upgrade work is scheduled to last up until just before Easter 2018 and that’s the next time you’ll be able to see live cookery in the Kitchens at Hampton Court. This will also be the last time you’ll get to see the Kitchens as they currently appear as, another thing that’s taken up huge chunks of this year, we’re in the middle of planning an updated interpretation scheme for the Kitchens and Service areas…indoors and out…which will refresh the Kitchens for the next decade of visitors (the last refresh and re-interpretation was done for 2006 and is now showing its age and looking tired)…but more on that and the wonders it all holds in a future post…possibly next week once I’m back at work and can catch up on all the latest comings and goings and photograph some of the new stuff we’re having made.
Probably the biggest change over this year, and the main reason there’s been nothing much posted…even on Twitter, where I’m virtually attached at the hip, is that I’ve had a change to my job…a big change!
Previously, I planned and organised most of the nitty-gritty, day-to-day, on the shop floor details for the Kitchens Interpretation Team, but reported to a manager who dealt with the higher level things like budget responsibility, training, “how does this all fit into the big picture” sort of stuff, you know, all that grown up management sort of stuff. That left me time to do some research, do some work in the Kitchens with my friends, keep up with the idea of doing a blog again, Tweet interesting stuff…and well, do fun stuff. Well in April all that changed when we had a small department shuffle and I became the line manager for the Kitchen Team and went from a frantic, pushed to the limit, part-time position to full time…theoretically to ease the burden a little and smooth out the management.
Well that didn’t really work as hoped and the extra days of work a week were instantly taken up with the new work required as a manager…budget, team management, training, pastoral care etc, etc, and the work I hadn’t had the time to fit in beforehand still doesn’t get the time, and what’s had to give is all of the “fun” stuff…research, blog, Twitter etc…yes I still Tweet, but the quality, such that it was, has taken a bit of a nosedive!
So, is this the end of all this witter…not just this post, but me online in general? No, safe to say it’s not, it just might be that the sporadic nature of posting over the last year will be the norm for the future…believe me when I say I have lots of good intention, but little energy at the end of a day now.
As I said above, I’ll post an update on plans for the Kitchen as well as a likely update on plans for interpretation of live cookery into the future at a later date, possibly the week after Christmas when I’m back at work…and with no cookery to worry about it should be nice and quiet in the office. Work also continues on all the previous research I’ve posted about into fires and roasting, along with some interesting work that Barry has been doing on apotropaic marks in the main Kitchen building and he and I have been looking into drains and water too…all fascinating stuff that hopefully we’ll get time to work on and write-up this coming year.
Well, that’s about it for now as I’ve run out of steam and am struggling to write stuff that makes any sense…thank God for the ability to edit is all I can say.
So just the last two days of the Christmas event to cover and we’re done and dusted…is it just me or does Christmas seem a really, really long time ago? Where have those two weeks gone?
Anyway…day 5 dawned and there was no getting away from it for Adrian and Jorge…they would have to make a start on the boiled sugar working.
As a measure of caution, they decided to only cast one half of the figure, they weren’t sure if the sugar would come loose from the plaster when it had cooled and didn’t want to go the whole hog and create a huge sugar and plaster lump that they couldn’t pull apart. Both of them eschewed the instructions in the Platt recipe for casting sugar items to soak the mould in water before use as they reasoned there was still plenty of moisture in the plaster that hadn’t completely dried still…I very much suspect this was the root cause of what was to come, though as always hindsight is 20:20.
First job…boil some sugar into a syrup and then keep going until it is at the hard crack stage or thereabouts
It’s a lousy picture, but it really does do this attempt justice. As I have said several times before, the Tudor Kitchens at Hampton Court Palace in the winter are most definitely NOT the place to attempt sugar work, hell, even in the summer they’re less than ideal. As the sugar began to melt and the liquid bubbled…in the blink of an eye the whole lot crystallised and turned into a dry lump of junk, fit for nothing. The problem was the cold and damp…after a nice dry week, albeit a cold one, the weather had changed and warmed up enough for all the frost to turn to water and the fog of the day before had been washed away by a light but constant drizzle.
My suggestion for the second batch…pre-warm the skillet before putting the sugar and splash of water in; which they duly did and it seemed to do the trick, allowing the sugar to melt and start cooking away.
Pretty soon the whole mixture was boiling away nicely and after a few drop tests into some cold water both Adrian and Jorge decided to go for an initial casting
With Adrian taking the mould in hand, Jorge poured in the boiling sugar and with a combination of tilting and pouring the whole of the half of the mould was coated.
Showing admirable restraint, both Adrian and Jorge then left it alone for a few minutes rather than try to pull it out straight away and gave it a chance to harden off…in truth they were deep in conversation with the fascinated visitors to the Kitchen, explaining what it was they were doing and why, and fortunately not blaming me for the insanity of it all.
A few minutes passed and it was time to try to remove the sugar…
…it was however, stuck fast. Perhaps they hadn’t left it long enough? Perhaps some time would cause it to harden more…or soften in the damp atmosphere…or…???
It was at this point I left the sugar casting to catch up on some paperwork and knock out a tweet or two in the relative calm of the office. It was by now late in the day and I got into the ‘zone’ with some writing and lost track of the time. When I emerged from the office the Palace was closed and the Kitchen empty…I strode into the break room and scanned round looking for some semblance of a cast sugar figure, but saw nothing. Adrian looked at me with a look that spoke volumes and I walked into the break kitchen to put the kettle on. As I walked to the sink to fill the kettle I was greeted by this sight…
…the plaster mould soaking in the sink to try to dissolve the last of the boiled sugar! Neither time nor damp atmosphere had helped remove the bonded sugar and the only recourse had been to soak the whole thing in water to try to dissolve the bond between the two materials…or at least soften the sugar enough to finally pull it clear of the plaster. So much for tea…it was time for a beer and some thinking!
Day 6 – Go large then go home!
Day 5 had been New Years Eve, Adrian had a life and thus more interesting places to be…dancing the night away near Heathrow airport; a third of the team had gone home and the rest of us sat in front of one of the worst DVD’s I can recall ever watching, all of which meant there was little discussion about how to crack the casting problem that evening. Day six dawned and the new year brought new ideas to Adrian and he thought he’d cracked how to solve the sugar bonding to the plaster problem. unfortunately this idea meant completely abandoning the whole of the casting process as described and “solving” the problem by means of redesigning the whole process and mould material…in short, cast into a clay lined mould. As innovative as that might have been, and more of which shortly, solving the problem by throwing the whole thing away and inventing a new method wasn’t a solution. The end result, the cast figure, wasn’t as important as trying the process the correct way and then, not ignoring the parts that ‘don’t work’ or make no sense, but investigating the whole and complete process…just because we can’t make it work doesn’t mean the recipe/description is wrong after all, just that we are.
I will confess that at this point I lost a lot of interest in the sugarwork. Both Jorge and Adrian, though appreciating the idea that following the recipe as it was written was a good thing had gone off on one and were trying to come up with solutions to the problem rather than simply following the words…I went and concentrated on the roasting and the multi spit and got lost in the fire for a while
I returned from my funk just in time to see Jorge put the skillet down having just poured their final attempt using the plaster mould, though this time they had lightly greased the mould with oil before pouring.
A short wait for it to set and it was time for the moment of truth…
Heroic failure! A little longer and who knows what might have come out. Adrian was being a lot more positive than Jorge and his optimism was rewarded a short wait later as the remnants of what had solidified popped out of the mould with a deft pull
Wile the plaster attempt had been cooling they tried the clay lined version using the second mould
This was worse and they got no results from their ‘solution’…history was partially vindicated 😎
So was that it? No, not a chance. While all of the casting shenanigans had been going on, Elly and Tom had persevered with the press moulded sugar figure and worked on a base for her based on the Ditchley portrait of Elizabeth that had kick started the whole affair.
And with that, the sugar queen was complete…or as complete as she was going to get. A little bit of a brush and tidy up, a few more photos for the record and then this ephemeral object was gone, her job done.
Was it a successful project?…Yes, most definitely, thousands of people coming through the Kitchen saw the work progress over the course of the week and tens of thousands watched the trials and tribulations online via Twitter.
Could it have been improved?…Of course! I’m sure that both Adrian and Jorge and all the rest of the team that put something towards the sugar figures had the skill and abilities to not need to have been as cautious as they were when it came to the casting. I think that if they’d gone for the casting first, following the recipe, rather than staying safe and going for the press moulded figure then there may well have been a complete cast figure by the end of the week…though what was I saying earlier about hindsight?? The flip side to that would have been no press moulded figure for people to see early on through the week and it could all have kept failing as the final casting attempts did and we could have ended up with nothing at all to physically show after six days apart from two plaster moulds. Those are the choices that were made though and we ended up with a fantastic end product.
As always, I doff my cap to my more dexterous colleagues, as I said in a previous post, I just come up with the ideas, they’re the ones who actually make it all a physical reality for you all to see. Also we must not forget all those in the team who were working on other things over the week like the roasting, marchpane and comfit making…all of which I’ve ignored here, but are so important in order to bring the Kitchens to life and make everyone’s visit extra special.
A usual…comments gratefully received. There’ll be another short break before the next post on boiling in pewter vessels, and a new gallery of all the images from the event as I have a conference paper to write and present within the next week along with a mountain of paperwork and meetings, but keep an eye out on Twitter and here for the next blog update.
So, last time I went through the first couple of days of the Christmas event and detailed how the plaster of Paris mould was made ready for casting the sugar figure. The next stage of the plan was to follow the instructions in the Platt recipe for casting in plaster moulds and soak the mould in water; whilst this was happening there would be a little experimentation with boiling sugar and then about three-quarters of the way through day three the mould would be dried, put together, filled with boiling sugar and an attempt made at casting the first figure. Meanwhile, another part of the team would make a second mould from the wooden former in case things went awry with the casting in the first and it became unusable or broken in some way….well they were what I thought the plans were at least.
One of my major failings is that because I live with the planning for so much longer than the rest of the team I can never remember if I’ve passed on all the details to them, or if I just think I have! Posting a blog post with all the details in is one thing, but did I actually remember to tell all of the team these details? Either way, the result was the same and over the course of day 2 and through the evening it became clear that Adrian and Jorge had decided to forge another path. Yes a second mould would be made but there would be no casting with boiled sugar…worries and doubts had set in and they felt much more confident in trying to get a full, press moulded figure out made from sugar paste and then work up to the cast boiled sugar…so much for go large or go home!
The first thing they decided to do was make a second plaster mould, but this time they would use one half of the first mould to cast against rather than the clay. This meant the wooden figure was placed back into one half of the mould and then the whole exposed surface, wood and plaster, was then coated liberally with the tallow & oil mixture.
This was then coated in plaster exactly as before and when set, the original half was removed and the mould finished exactly as with the original…though in this case it contained a few more air bubbles than the first attempt and these needed to be filled with some putty consistency plaster after the fact
While Elly and Jorge were working on this, Adrian was working on some test pressings before steeling himself for a full on queen.
all the ingredients were there, just not necessarily in the same order or quantities. Once made, and as Adrian started to fill the front half of the mould, it became clear that it would take an awful lot more paste to fill the entire mould…good job this was just a test. He decided to push the boat out…and push his luck, by trying for a complete front of the figure, and to make it a bit more flash, he used some of the marchpane that Zak had been making with various visitors, to give some colour and pizzaz to the face and hands. These parts of the mould were filled and then the rest had the standard sugar paste pressed into it at around 10-30 mm thick depending on both a) what was needed and b) what past was left, having started at the head and worked down. The results were pretty damn impressive, if a little flimsy…and this at least would give people the idea of what was being attempted.
With some more marchpane and sugar paste, Adrian finished off the day seeing how much material he was going to require to press out an entire figure
Once the mould was separated, the results were encouraging…even if it wasn’t the boiled sugar I had hoped for.
…and so finished day 3.
In an ideal world, day 4 would have seen the press moulding done and finished with nice and early and thence they would have moved on to the real deal, the boiled sugar. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be so, only this time it was most definitely my fault! A previously booked and unchangeable appointment meant I would be away from the Kitchen for the bulk of the day, the instructions I left…under no circumstances do anything interesting or adventurous as there wouldn’t be anyone there to record it! I HAD to leave by 12.00 and absolutely no later in order to make the appointment, so anything interesting had to be done PDQ at the start of the day…Adrian did not disappoint!
First mission…paste…lots of sugar paste
Once the paste was made, it was simply a case of packing it into the plaster mould
and then closing the two halves together…with some vigour
From this point on things got a bit…well, physical, with an awful lot of grunting and groaning from Adrian as he tried to force more paste into the mould so that all the detail was filled and there was sufficient wall thickness for the whole to not sag and droop when it was finished.
It turned out that without a solid base though there was little chance of the figure standing upright upon removal from the mould, so Adrian made a base out of a hastily made batch of paste and used this to seal the bottom of the skirts, the void now being packed full of flour to hold her steady when she was complete.
All it took then was a little bit of fiddling and the first half of the mould popped off a treat. This meant Adrian could do a quick tidy up around the join while the figure was still supported by the back half of the mould as he wanted to avoid excessive amounts of handling until the paste had hardened a little
Then with the deft hand of a master…as well as a little shaking, cajoling and a healthy dose of luck, out popped the Sugar Queen!
I think the voice of the child watching from Adrian’s elbow said it all…”Oh my God! Wow!”
By now it was 12.30…and I was VERY late!
As I sprinted out of the Kitchen my parting words were once again…”Don’t do anything interesting!” and with that I was away for the afternoon. So what did I find on my return? Turns out they’d been quite busy…
…and that’s how day 4 finished.
Had they chosen to, the surface of the figures could have been smoothed out quite a bit before the paste set and that would have removed all of the cracks and imperfections, but to be honest, I don’t think anyone cared. They’d managed to get two fairly impressively large figures made and run through the process in front of a couple of thousand visitors plus several thousand more online…they deserved a beer…or two!
Next post…the last two days of the event and finally some boiled sugar casting!
As always, comments gratefully received, and once again, some of the images will expand to a larger size if you click on them, so give that a go if you want to see some more detail.
Girolamo Ruscelli, The secrets of the reverend Maister Alexis of Piemont : containing excellent remedies against diverse diseases, wounds, and other accidents, with the maner to make distillations, parfumes, confitures, dying, colours, fusions, and meltings …, trans. by William Ward (London: Thomas Wright, 1595) (p. 61). ↩
If you’re interested in some more historic details regarding plaster of Paris, albeit a little later in history than the Tudors, then you should take a look at this blog post on plaster of Paris which is part of the ever excellent Recipes Project.
Enjoy that and I’ll furnish you with the next part of our confectionery capers early next week.
So the equipment is cleaned and put away, the team returned to their homes and the dust has settled on another Christmas of cookery at Hampton Court Palace…but what did we achieve?
Two posts ago, <HERE> , I detailed the plans for the work over the week and gave a little insight into the methods that would be applied to making a cast sugar figure in front of our visitors. Those who follow on Twitter will already have seen most of the results but, free of the 140 character limit of tweeting, I can flesh all that out for you here and lay bare the highs and lows for those who eschew Twitter.
So the plan was a simple one, we would make a wooden former, we’d make a mould from that former, we’d cast a positive in sugar from that mould, and Robert is your mother’s brother…we’d bask in adulation and glory! As always through this, when I say ‘we’ I mean ‘the team’ and then, mostly not me…I come up with the stupid plans and can manage the donkey work when called upon, the skilled work needed for this insane idea was all due to the rest of my extremely handy and talented colleagues.
Contrary to his Davros related text message, Adrian turned up with a cracking wooden model to be used as a former for creating the mould with. Apparently she’s a little lopsided, but only Adrian noticed that…it irks him because he made it and it wasn’t “as good as it should be” but I’m damned if anyone else noticed…even when he pointed it out to us.
The plan of action was : Day 1, coat the wooden former in wax to seal it and then get this ready for casting. Day 2, construct the casting box, line with wax/oiled paper and begin the casting process with plaster of Paris. Taking the resultant mould and leaving it somewhere nice and warm to dry overnight (shouldn’t be a problem, everyone at HCP seems to like having their office at volcano like temperatures 😉 ). Day 3, investigate boiling sugar and spend the day making sugar paste1 as practice for … Day 4, cast the first attempt in boiled sugar; trying as many times as possible through the day…continue this for the rest of the week. Simultaneously, from Day 3 on, make a second mould with which to make press moulded sugar paste figures with and to use as a backup when we inevitably took things too far with the first mould and ended up with an irreparable kit of parts.
Day 1 started with a bit of a shock…ice and frost! We were expecting things to be less than conducive to confectionery work in the Great Kitchen, after all there’s a reason that the original confectionery area was above the pastry department…it’s large ovens meaning that the rooms above would remain warm and dry, unlike our Kitchen which is cold and damp, I suppose at least now it was just cold and much less damp than usual.
First task, seal the wooden former, so Jorge fired up the portable stove while Adrian got some beeswax from the store cupboard and threw it into a skillet to melt.
Once the charcoal was up to temperature, the wax filled skillet was placed on top and left until the wax had all melted. At this point, Adrian ladled it over the former until it was mostly covered and he then began the rather laborious task of smoothing the lumpy wax out so that the wood was evenly covered and sealed for plaster casting.
Clearly it would have been so much simpler to just have a deeper pot and more wax allowing the former to be dipped into this to coat it in one go, but unfortunately we a) didn’t have enough wax to do this, b) didn’t have a suitable pot that both wax and former would adequately fit into and, most importantly c) We aren’t allowed to do that sort of thing…and a damn good job too! Our key Principle at Historic Royal Palaces is Guardianship…
“We exist for tomorrow, not just for yesterday. Our job is to give these palaces a future as valuable as their past. We know how precious they and their contents are, and we aim to conserve them to the standard they deserve: the best.”
We are extremely lucky in being able to cook, experiment and experience life within the Kitchen at Hampton Court as close as it is possible to in the ways these things were done in the past, there are limitations though and these are there to ensure that the building is still there for future generations to come…and not coated in beeswax by a bunch of cretins playing with a mad idea!…but I digress (as usual).
By the morning of day 2, Adrian and Jorge had completely rethought how they wanted to make the plaster mould. Rather than make a mould box and create a large two piece mould that was essentially a cube in shape with the hollow of the figure in the middle, they wanted to use thicker plaster to cast a more organic mould off of the wooden figure and without using a casting box. Admittedly this would save a lot of time that would have been spent making the box and would end up using much less plaster…a win all round. All that would be needed would be to divide the wooden former into two halves with some clay, create a fence of clay around the bottom of the figure
and then slap on some thick plaster. Once side one was dry, the clay could be removed and a second coating of plaster on the un-moulded side applied to create a complete two-part mould.
Of course, things aren’t ever going to be that simple, and wax or not, the former still needed a coating of a mould release/grease to ensure that it slipped from the plaster when it had set. This was made of a mixture of tallow and oil, heated together over the charcoal and then liberally applied to the former and clay surfaces that would be coated in the plaster. Once this had been applied and all was cleared and ready to go, Adrian and Jorge mixed the plaster up to a consistency of raw meringue and began to liberally apply it to create the first half of the mould.
The plaster didn’t take too long to harden to a degree that meant Adrian wasn’t forced to hold it in his hands all afternoon and they were left with half a mould curing in the Kitchen. Once this was set sufficiently the clay could be peeled off and the plaster tidied up a little where it had formed areas that would allow the back half of the mould to lock to the front with no chance of separation.
Once this process was complete a clay fence could be added to the base of the rear of the former, and another liberal coating of the grease mixture applied all round before coating with more plaster.
Once the final coat of plaster had been applied, and as you can see from the videos, the consistency was fairly varied meaning that there was quite a difference in the amount of water in the batches and thus quite a difference in drying time, the whole affair was left to cure for a while until it was solid enough to move on.
Once a suitable length of time had elapsed…calculated in tea breaks and trips to warm up in the break room; it’s not often you can be thankful for an exothermic reaction like plaster curing to keep you warm in a cold kitchen 2 …it was time to take the leap and crack the mould open!
First step was to trim the edges with a knife to make sure all of the splashes and any plaster overlap that still remained between the two halves was finally removed.
Then with a little bit of coaxing, the rear portion of the mould popped off…
Then with a little more wiggling and jiggling…and a few muttered words
The former was free and we had two halves of a mould ready to go!
All that was left was to do a quick test press with some sugar paste to check that the figure would be visible
then it was off to a warm, dry place overnight to dry and fully cure.
Whilst typing this it has become very clear that there is no chance of me being able to write a single post that covers the whole of the week’s confectionery capers…not if I want you to not die of boredom whilst reading it at least. So consider this the first post, with more to come when I’ve typed it all up and had a little family time to myself; I’ll also add a gallery of all the images that I took over the week, but again, that’ll have to wait a few days. For now it’s worth noting that some of the images in the post will expand to larger size if you click on them…might make some of the detail a little clearer for you.
As always, comments gratefully received…positive, negative, ambivalent…and keep an eye out for the next part some time early next week.
Girolamo Ruscelli, The secrets of the reverend Maister Alexis of Piemont : containing excellent remedies against diverse diseases, wounds, and other accidents, with the maner to make distillations, parfumes, confitures, dying, colours, fusions, and meltings …, trans. by William Ward (London: Thomas Wright, 1595) (p. 61). ↩
Yes, I am well aware of the dangers and damage that the heat from curing plaster can cause. A full risk assessment was carried out and the plaster work was carried out as safely as is possible to do so. No hands or other appendages were kept in wet plaster as it cured, only the outside of the mould was held and then only for very short lengths of time ↩
Just to let you know that some degree of concern has been assuaged today as I’ve heard from Adrian that the wooden former he was supposed to be making does indeed exist….hooray!
Unfortunately the wording of his text message read thus:
She’s looking more like ‘Davros’
Don’t be surprised to find that we may gravitate towards making the potentially more lucrative sugar Davros figures rather than the sugar woman…I’ll just have to square things with the boss and we’ll be good to go! ;o)