So, we’re a couple of days past the end of the February half term holiday that contained the Elizabethan confectionery cookery at Hampton Court Palace….how did things go? As with previous posts, this is picture heavy, text light…and likely to end up being split into a couple of posts just to keep you coming back for more and because there’s a lot to cram in from 9 days of work!
Many of you will have seen the updates on Twitter over the week, so you’ll already know that the results look awesome…the guys really knocked this project out of the park.
I think it would be fair to say that the plans for this week haven’t had an easy life. I wrote a brief for the team at the end of last year listing what I wanted them to end up with…a sugar knot garden…as well as giving some specifications about what I didn’t want included or worked on (should be visually impressive and proportionate to the room it would be displayed in, but shouldn’t be “to scale”, should demonstrate correct period techniques and help visitors understand the use of sugar subtelties in the late sixteenth century as well as giving them some information about Tudor garden design and banqueting… but I left all of the detailed planning as to how this would be realised up to them. They had all of the Christmas cookery week to discuss ideas amongst themselves and to decide what they would be doing, how they’d do it, and more importantly, when it would get done. This was as much about the team learning to plan things that I would have done for them in the past as it was about working out how to make a sugar garden!
Their response to the brief was a good one, they gave some great examples of the sort of stuff they wanted to make, they said roughly how they’d make that sort of thing and when it might get made through the course of the 9 days, they even thought about who would be needed to bring which skills to each task…what they didn’t say was exactly what it would look like! So this past week has been as much of a journey of discovery for me as it has been for you on Twitter.
When I left you last, the team had made a start on the first quadrant of their plan, and the sketches and draft plats that they had created gave me some idea of what I should expect to materialise through the course of the next 7 days. They moved fast and converted almonds and sugar to marchpane paste for the hedges in swift order, all of which were textured to look like real hedges using Adrian’s nifty broken stick technique I showed in the last post. These hedges were then laid over the drawings on the plats they’d made out of replica medieval paper and hey presto…knot gardens!
With all the hedging being made, it was easy to forget that there were all of the rest of the garden parts to manufacture as well, from architectural details like a fountain or decorative obelisks to gravel paths and flowerbeds. The gravel and flowers would be made from sugar comfits, what today we’d call hundreds and thousands, and these would be needed in bulk . Comfits are made by coating seeds with a thin layer of sugar syrup, then drying it out until it’s hard and then repeating that process a number of times depending on how big you want the final product…this can be anything from a few dozen times for hundreds & thousands, to a few hundred times for gobstoppers! Ivan Day has already described the process in great detail which means that I, a very lazy man, do not have to. Making comfits is something that the team have been slogging away at each cookery weekend through January and early February to ensure a stockpile of sufficient size for this garden project…if only they had the modern mechanised process of making them with what look like large heated copper cement mixers to rotate the seeds and syrup automatically.
Probably the best historic description that’s easily accessible for comfit making is contained in Delights for Ladies… by Sir Hugh Plat it’s chock full of detail and echoes descriptions and mentions that are found in earlier texts and recipes.
For the architectural features like the pillars, columns and fountains, I’d specified to use sugar plate made from fine ground sugar and gum tragacanth. This was to be moulded with wooden or plaster moulds, not free modelled…which they’d have much preferred (I know, I’m a total git!). This meant that they would need to plan what they wanted to make, then make moulds of those items and only then, could they begin to manufacture the pieces for the garden…easy right?!
Again, they grasped the task with both hands and really went for it. While some of the ideas for moulds were complete from the get go…an architectural obelisk, and a plinth/base for it for example…many were planned with no particular end function in mind, such as decorative strips that would eventually find a use as applied decoration on the fountain base, or to form the steps of the classical temple.
With these moulds made before the start of the week, work could begin at any time, but the need for a number of other moulds only became apparent mid-way through the week, once the team started to work out what was and wasn’t likely to be achievable, or just went and had some mad ideas. These included the mould for the rustic arbour pieces as well as the columns for the temple. As we’ll see later, the arbour pieces were designed to interlock, providing support for the completed piece as well as looking like tree limbs and leaves.
Along with the carved wooden moulds, I had challenged them to make and use plaster of Paris moulds as they had done when they made the sugar queen in 2016/17, though on a considerably smaller scale this time!
Robin decided that he’d use this technique to make the figure that would top the fountain he wanted to make…this would be based on the Diana fountain image a few pics up from here. His plan was to sculpt a wax master of the figure, make a two part mould from this and then use that mould to either cast boiled sugar figures (really adventurous), or press sugar paste into it to make them that way. As is more and more the way of late, because of other responsibilities, I was out of the room when he started the process of making the mould and only caught it as he poured the second batch of plaster to make the top half.
Having made a bed of plaster within clay retaining walls, the small wax figure was laid into the plaster and locating marks were sculpted into it just before it fully set. Then an hour or so later, the second half of the mould was poured in and the whole left to set…which is about when Robin realised that he’d got so carried away with wanting to get the mould made, that he’d not actually added any barrier or release agent to either the wax figure, or the first half of the mould. Had he just encased his delicately carved wax model inside a block of solid plaster??
No…he was a VERY lucky chap, and at the end of the day when the plaster was fully set and dry, some gentle prising with a stout blade…and a few choice words uttered…popped the two halves of the mould apart. Admittedly it did decapitate the figure, but as the mould was good, with no air bubbles or voids, that mishap could be overlooked. The two halves were popped into the airing cupboard to dry overnight, and the next day Robin used it to create tiny “marble” statues around 5cm tall, each one made slightly different by adding more sugar that was free modelled to make draping cloth or clothing pieces.
These were all well and good, but his plan was for a figure topped fountain, complete with water…and fish…because why not?! Obviously it wouldn’t be real water, boiled sugar would substitute for that as it should set hard but stay transparent enough to see the tiny sugar fish that would be “swimming” in it, but it did mean that the main tank had to be “water” tight.
The image of the Diana fountain was fairly easy to follow, especially as in July 2019, Robin had made a series of moulds that made up an octagonal box and he hoped he could re-purpose these to make the main base/tank of the fountain; it’s actually why a fountain was suggested by the team as they though it would be fairly easy to make and that time could then be spent on other details within the garden….that didn’t really work out that way though.
It turned out that the box mould was a little smaller than the fountain needed to be, so Robin proceeded to create a kit of parts of flat panels cut from a sheet of sugar paste. When these were dry, they were “glued” together with a thinned down sugar paste and the joints covered in thin strips of paste for rigidity and decoration, as well as helping to seal the tank to keep the “water” in.
as an aside here before the details of the rest of the fountain, it’s probably worth pointing out the bone tools Robin is using…which he had to make for the job…a nice and useful piece of recycling kitchen waste…and by custom making, it ensured he gets the exact tools he needs, not some that are only “close enough” for the job.
I’m going to leave it here for now and give myself a couple of days to write the next post and you time to digest this…it’ll also allow me time to fit in the day job and prepare a report on the past week, carry on planning the next major cookery run at Easter, and sort out end of year reviews for the team…fun or what?!?
By the way, there’s cookery in the Kitchens at Hampton Court each weekend through until the end of March, so plenty of opportunity for you to visit and see some of this sort of thing in the flesh…who knows, you might even fancy lending a hand! Details of cookery events at Historic Royal Palaces sites can be found by visiting the website and searching for “what’s on” at Hampton Court or Kew Palaces (if the eighteenth century is more your thing)