In the Georgian period, those invited to Twelfth Night festivities were assigned king or queen and other guests given a character or role to play for the evening. Picked from a pack of cards, characters such as Toby Tipple; Mrs Prittle-Prattle and Sir Tun Belly Wash were popular. Again, until the stroke of midnight, when a large yeasted plum cake, heavily iced was cut, and the spell lifted.
Based in the Lake District, Ivan Day is a renowned expert in British and European culinary history and, one of my food heroes. Without realising it, you’ve probably come across some of his work: he has been advisor for many historical/period dramas and films; created food replicas for exhibitions and museums and with his business partner, renovated kitchens for many a National Trust property.
It was from Byzantium that sugar made its way to Europe; Venice becoming the main trading place. The stranglehold that the Venetian merchants and traders had on its export to the rest of Europe and its wild expense, is thought to be part of the driving force for countries such as Britain, France and Portugal looking for cheaper ways of production and control. This, coupled with the discovery of the New World and Caribbean and cultivation of sugar cane within those climes, fuelled not only sugar production and its popularity but the slave trade alongside.
By the late 16th Century, sugar was being refined in London and Liverpool and only the very poor were not using it. It came in many forms, the cone being most common. Chipped with a hammer and clipped into nibs, it had to be boiled into liquid sugar that was turned out and allowed to set. Grey in colour, this was crushed and dissolved in water before being boiled with egg whites and passed through a jelly bag. The end result was then pounded or crushed into the consistency required for each recipe.
Thankfully for our sugar paste work, we used icing sugar straight from a box. To this we added gum tragacanth a powdered resin, and small amounts of water to make a putty like modelling material that when dried, would be as fine as porcelain. Interestingly, in places such as Meissen and Wedgewood, the early model makers were all confectioners who had transferred their skills to porcelain. Delicate posies, tazzas and figurines now often bought as collectibles, were originally designed to decorate the table at banquets replacing sugar paste confections.
During the course, it quickly became apparent that a large part of the skill and artistry lay in the carving of the moulds used for the paste work. Carved in inverse from mainly boxwood or pear with an astounding degree of detail, these remain the legacy of the early confectioners, whose handiwork was otherwise ephemeral.
Dusting the moulds with starch, or for the more intricate ones Trex vegetable fat, we pressed in the off-white sugar paste, softened and made more pliable by kneading in further Trex. Originally spermaceti, a wax found in the head cavity of mainly Sperm whales would have been used -so Trex then. Squeezing and cutting away any excess, the motifs were pricked out of the mould and then left to dry.
Working in teams, we decorated two dummy cakes, destined for museums. One had the more traditional Regency motifs celebrating the Union, with Prince of Wales ostrich plumes, roses, shamrock and thistle. The second; cornucopias of fruit, vines and bunches of grapes, a nod to Bacchanalia where some of the Twelfth Night festivities stem.
Being part magpie, I was disproportionately excited by the prospect of gilding sugar work. This time we used a gum Arabic, an unrefined chunk pounded with a pestle and mortar, stray bark removed and milled to a fine powder. An equal quantity of boiling water was added to this and left to settle in a warm place until it formed a gel like glue. Painting the yellow sugar work with this resin, we were shown how to cut, apply and gild using sheets of 24K gold leaf.
Across the weekend, having had no experience in Regency sugar work, we created two marvellous Twelfth cakes (below). Alongside, we also learnt how to make sugar tazzas, comfits, marchpanes, gingerbread, wafers and white spun sugar work. All using period kitchen equipment that Ivan had collected over the years. I’d write about it all, but there is too much to tell.
Aside from learning these confectionary skills, we were also treated to sumptuous lunches and dinner, each showcasing old, almost forgotten recipes. It was surprising to realise how well spiced and flavourful English cooking used to be and that the impression of it being grey and drab is actually false. The effect of two successive world wars, rationing and loss of knowledge and skills made such an impact on the way the British cooked and ate, as well as its culinary image . It is, however, being reclaimed and rediscovered.
My favourite meal: a Tudor steak pie with French puddings -little balls of minced mutton, breadcrumbs, pennyroyal and spices. Followed by a 19th Century recipe for quince trifle and Mrs Agnes Marshall’s melon ice cream served with coffee glazed meringues and white spun sugar.
For me this was a fantastic weekend of cooking, eating and imbibing generous amounts of culinary history. If that sounds like your cup of tea, I cannot recommend Ivan Day’s Historical Food courses enough. Now then, where do I sign up for moulded foods and ice cream? And, who’s for a Twelfth Night revival?