Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Sweet Life - Banqueting

                During the 17th and 18th century the ideas of the medieval “void” were evolving into a scrumptious banquet of sweet treats and sugar artistry.  Once sugar had only been for the royals and aristocracy, prepared in private kitchens.  Through the widespread establishment of sugar plantations in the Colonial New World and slave labor, sugar became more readily available.  Professional confectioners came out of private kitchens and opened shops in towns where they sold their sugared treats and cookbooks included recipes for genteel women to preserve fruits at home.  
                The fashion for after dinner displays of a grand rococo dessert course became very elaborate in the 18th century.  Preserving fruits in sugar syrups for decorating and eating at banquet led to the popularity of marmalades, jellies, brandy fruits, compotes and jams.  One of the most popular preserved fruits was quince marmalade.  Originally the name marmalade referred to this particular fruit, its Greek name being melimelon (honey apple) or its Portuguese name marmelo.  The Italians and French called the fruit cotognata or ctoniack which led to its English name quince. 1  Quince marmalade recipes outnumbered other fruits and gardener John Parkinson enthused about the culinary delights and medicinal properties of this fruit:  “There is a fruit growing in this Land that is of so many excellent uses as this, serving as well to make many dishes of meate for the table, as for banquets, and much more for the Physicall vertues…And being preserved whole in Sugar, either white or red, serve likewise, not onely as an after dish to close up the stomacke, but is placed among other preserves by Ladies and Gentlewomen, and bestowed on their friends to entertaine them, and among other sorts of preserves at Banquets.  Codimacke also and Marmilade, Jelly and Paste, are all made of Quinces, chiefly for delight and pleasure, although they also have with them some physical properties.”2

Whole quince, melon, nuts and paste in boxes


quince paste from a mold 

This type of quince marmalade was a thick jelly, more like a paste.  The natural pectin in this fruit would thicken when boiled with sugar.  Molds could be used to create intricately designed pastes flavored with rosewater or stronger musks.  They would be stored in boxes and displayed on the banquet table with comfits or modeled into knots, jumbals and artificial fruits.  By the 17th century various confections and jellies were being called marmalades and came in many different flavors: cherry, red currant, plum, citron, apricot and grape. 
                Another important part of the 17th – 18th century banquet were creams and ices.  In 1684 Hannah Wooley gives these directions to the gentlewomen in charge of the sweetmeats, “when the Meat is all taken away, you may present several sorts of Cream Cheeses; one Meat, one dish of cream, of one sort, the next of another.”3   Blancmange, syllabubs, flummery and possets are some of the dishes Hannah Wooley refers to, these are dessert works of art made with starch, milk, sugar, exotic flavorings and wine.  Syllabubs and possets were cream and wine or cider drinks served cold or hot.  A syllabub was a refreshing drink made by whipping cream, lemon juice, sugar and wine together.  The bubbles that formed in the whipping process had to be skimmed off many times and the process of whipping the cream to make it more solid could take hours.  By the 18th century less wine and a thicker cream were used to create an “everlasting syllabub” much like modern whipped cream which would be put on the wine in a belled top glass then served with ices and jellies on an elegant pyramid of glass salvers at the table.  Blancmange and flummery are starch thickened puddings made with milk, sugar and flavorings then molded into beautiful table decorations.  The moulds started out being wooden but then become more decorative cream ware and would allow for turrents and obelisks that could be filled with different colored jellies. 

Flummery and molds 
               This established taste for rich dairy desserts leads to the fondness for ice cream starting in the late 18th century.  Cream ices and water ices had been around since the 17th century but they didn’t come in many flavors.  A confectioner to the Spanish Ambassador offered a wide range of flavors in the 1770s including pistachio, white coffee, brown bread and royal cream ice made with coriander, pistachios, cinnamon and preserved citrus peel.  Some aromatic ice waters flavored with violets, jasmine and orange flower never caught on but one flavor did become very popular, bergamot water ice, a lemon sorbet seasoned with bergamot essence.  Molded ices in the form of fruits and animals were a striking novelty item for the dessert table.  These cream and water ices were made in a pewter sorbertiere (freezing pot) which would be filled with cream, custard or flavored water, covered with a lid then plunged into a wooden pail or freezing tub filled with a mixture of crushed ice and salt.  The sorbertiere would be turned and the contents scraped down with a long handled spoon until they were hard and smooth.  These desserts were easy to find in the local confectionery shop to eat there or order for an event.  A porcelain ice cream pail could be used to serve the dessert cold at table.  The bottom would be filled with crushed ice along with a lidded top. 4

Copper ice cream pail 
porcelain ice cream pot 

                Cordial waters started out being used medicinally “to reviveth very much the stomach and heart, strengthenth the Back, procureth Appetite and digestion, driveth away Melancholy, sadness and Heaviness of the Heart.”5   A number of these herbal cordials which helped digestion or settled the stomach were drunk after the banquet making them more of a social drink than medicine.  Recipes for cordial waters were included in household manuals under “banqueting stuffe”, all sugarwork and preserves instead of under domestic medicines.  Sugar became an important ingredient in these banquet cordials, to disguise the bitter flavor of the herbs.  Most of cordials or liqueurs, as they were also called, were distilled however a less complicated method was used for fruit cordials.  The ingredients were steeped in brandy and sealed in jars left out in the heat of the sun.  Strawberry and Black Cherry cordial were made this way.  Ratafia or “kernel waters” were made by steeping kernels of apricots, almonds and peaches in brandy and sweetening with sugar.  Amaretto would be the modern equivalent.  Other flavors included orangeflower, green walnut, quince and sweet lime. 
                All of these dessert items would not be possible without sugar.  The introduction of sugar to Europe brought a whole new style of eating for pleasure and taste besides sustenance.  With the growing availability of Caribbean sugar confectioners expanded their dessert offerings and households with the means to entertain found a sweet ending for their elaborate banquets.  Table decorations made out of sugar also became more popular from the 16th – 18th centuries.  This is a subject for another tale. 

1                     Day, Ivan.  “Art of Confectionery”.
2                     Parkinson, John.  Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris. London, 1629. p. 589-590.
3                     Wooley, Hannah.  The Queen-like Closet  5th edition.  London, 1684. p. 262.
4             “Georgian Ices.”
5                     Parkinson, John.  Theatrum Botanicum, London, 1655. p. 1049-1051.

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