A Collection of Christmas Cokentryce!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heston’s cokentryce

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

Add. M.S. 42130 f182r

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“and the boiling….or lack of it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Knot Shots! Part Deux

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

Tiny test fish

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

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

Obelisk and plinth moulds, image courtesy Ian Franklin

but this one was different…though vaguely familiar

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

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

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

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

Building the temple

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

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

The rustic arbor

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

The painted arbour pieces awaiting construction

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


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

The classical temple

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

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

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

Some of the fountain parts mocked together

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

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

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

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

The cloudy fountain water

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

Jeremiah painting the pantiles

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

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

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

The third quadrant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeremiah Smash!

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

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

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


Food Fakery!

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

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

shelves of equipment
Some of the historic cookery equipment in store

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

Spits full of fibreglass beef from 2006

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

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

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


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

Francatelli’s Boars Head

Click on the recipe to enlarge and read!

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

The VERY rough Link Hogthrob boars head shape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alginate mould of a piece of beef

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

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

Lapping it up

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

Fake bread and milk version 1 with rubber milk

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

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

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

Got milk?!

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

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

next post…back to the knot garden!