entertaing-fds-art - 2/10/06
"Subtleties, Entremets and Illusion Foods" by Baroness Faerisa Gwynarden.
This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.
These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org
Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author or translator.
While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.
Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous
stefan at florilegium.org
Subtleties, Entremets and Illusion Foods
by Baroness Faerisa Gwynarden
Although essentially a lost art compared to the grandeur of their history, subtleties survive today in more limited forms. Theme cakes, wedding cakes, ice sculptures, fancy garnishes and even molded chocolates incorporate some of the Medieval methods and ideas behind subtlety construction.
Many surviving cookbook menus list the subject matter, if not always the materials used, of the subtleties presented at the banquet. These subtleties could be either edible or non-edible (or a combination thereof).
Although there are various extant cookbooks form the Medieval era that provide us with recipes for subtleties, many more examples can be found in historical accounts of Feasts. They were generally served at the grandest banquets or presented as gifts to guests of honor. These accounts often provide us with a very detailed description, including scale, how many men were needed to carry it in, and other indications of the sheer scope of these works of art. There are even a few visual examples, such as the 1526 German woodcut "The Battle Before Rouanne" which portrays 5 men carrying 2 architectural subtleties on platforms. An example of a purely theatrical subtlety is depicted in a late 14th C illumination illustrating crusaders storming and capturing Jerusalem and a pageant ship at a banquet given by Charles V of France. Sometimes subtleties could serve as a means of conveying a political message, such as those presented at the Coronation Banquet of Henry VI, which illustrated his right to the throne by their subject matter.
The logistics of some of the fancier subtleties recorded in history may prove quite a challenge for the medieval re-enactor. However, even a modest subtlety adds greatly to the ambience of the feast hall. Consider creating a subtlety that fits the theme of the Event, and parading it around the hall (with great pomp and ceremony) before presenting it to head table so that they may divide it amongst the populace. For example, at our Investiture we were graced with the presence of both TRM of the Midrealm and TSH and Heirs of the Principality of Northshield. I presented a bread dragon with bay leaf scales and wing "feathers" to TRM and a gingerbread and candied orange peel gryffon to TSH and Heirs. Their Majesties created an impromptu "award of the dragon's body part". They proceeded to hand out different bits of the dragon to members of the populace (dragons "scale" for the musicians, dragon's tail for the cooks who worked their tails off, dragon's "wing tips" for people who were dressed exceptionally well, dragon's breast for the "Baby Knight" of the Kingdom, etc...).
Theatrical presentation is another type of subtlety well within the reach of the medieval re-enactor. Simple costumes or masks, and special props or dialogue can greatly enhance the presentation. For example, just before I served mock entrails, I had a friend dress in a paper-mache boar mask & dark brown cloak. He ran around the feast hall and into the kitchen, where he was "subdued" by skillet wielding cooks. I then announced that the "wild boar" had eaten the dessert course, so we would have to improvise...
Keep in mind the atmosphere of the feast hall. It's a shame to spend long hours creating an intricate subtlety only to have it cloaked in darkness so no one can enjoy it. Make provisions for adequate lighting and lines of sight. Consider setting up a small viewing table towards the middle of the feast tables to display it on until the next course is served, or if it's smaller, bringing it directly to head table so they may distribute it throughout the hall. Several of my subtleties have been ordered sent around the hall by the Royalty so that everyone could share in the eating as well as the viewing of them. Involve live musicians to accompany your subtlety's entrance with a musical interlude or even a fanfare. Perhaps incorporate people in costume to complement the theme. Exercise common sense. Some people may have severe allergies, and you should advise anyone enjoying your edible subtleties of potential allergens rather than keeping the ingredients secret to avoid spoiling the surprise! Many warners can look extremely convincing, especially by candlelight, and trick people into eating things they are allergic to. Also remember to warn people of any non-edible structural components, like internal armatures. People will remember you were responsible for their chipped tooth rather than for an artistic marvel.
Subtleties (sotleties, etc, there are many different spellings):
- Not necessarily edible.
- Generally presented between courses at large banquets and meant to impress!
- Can be figurative representations of individuals or events.
- Can be theatrical e.g. live tableaux, music & dance, mock combats, etc.
Illusion Foods or Warners
- A food disguised as another food e.g. "eggs in lent"
- Always partially or completely edible
- Literally means: between courses
- Meaning varies depending on time and location; in Italy, it refers to the live entertainment between courses, in 15th C France, the term covers both culinary and theatrical entertainment.
- Occasionally consisted of illusion foods e.g. the Coqz Heaumez in "The Viandier of Taillevent"
- May simply be a palate cleanser
- Can refer to gilding with gold leaf
- Can also refer to brushing with a flour paste containing egg yolks and/or saffron. For example, Le Menagier's recipe for Boar's Head describes endoring one half of the head with the yolk, flour, saffron mixture and the other half with the whites, parsley, flour mixture making the finished product half green and half gold. It then says to have the painters apply gold leaf. Occasionally this referred to the paste itself, regardless of color.
Trionfi di tavola
"triumphs of the table." As defined in John Florio's Italian dictionary of 1611, referring to the sweet sculptural components of Renaissance and Baroque Italian banquets. They often echoed classical Roman artistry, themes and architectural components.
- Boiled sugar syrup, poured into molds to create edible statues or made into small candies. This technique of Arabic origin was in use by at least the 13th C in Europe.
- A fine modeling paste made of powdered sugar mixed with gum tragacanth, lemon juice and rosewater. This became the modeling material of choice towards the end of the medieval period and into the Renaissance.
For the sake of convenience and comparison, I am sorting these examples of period subtleties into the following categories:
- Fancy Foods
- Colored or Decorated Foods
- Animals Made to Seem Living:
- Disguised Foods (one food masquerading as another)
- Trickery (foods with an element of surprise)
- Sugar Work
- Non-edible Subtleties
- Theatrical Presentations
Often simply referred to as entremets (between courses), these are precursors to later appearances of decorated figuratively representative food, comparable to modern day hors-d’ouvres (except that they were served between courses as opposed to before the meal). Although could take the form of true showpieces, originally the only special thing about them could be the complexity of preparation or delicacy of taste. In The Viandier of Taillevent entremets are defined as “Certain choice dishes served in between the courses at a feast or banquet”. Examples of undecorated entremets from French Manuscripts include: Larded Milk (a fried spiced cheese), Taillis (sweet thickened almond milk pudding with figs and raisins, cut into slices, Faulx Grenon (finely diced stewed meat, fried to stay juicy, and served in a thick spicy sauce).
The Cookbook of Sabina Welser (1553 German) refers to dishes of this nature as “lordly dishes”. Although she has some amazing examples of what I would term subtleties, some of the dishes are simply prepared in a complicated manner or considered by her to be very tasty. Examples of these include: crayfish prepared with wine and spices, an almond dish, and Nuremburg gingerbread.
Colored or Decorated Foods:
The earliest Medieval accounts of decorated food involve coloring foods. Gold is one of the most popular color choices, whether obtained by use of saffron or eggs, or by gilding with actual gold leaf. The “endoring” of foods was performed as much for health reasons as for spectacle. Arabic treatises claimed the ingestion of gold was beneficial to one's health and actually prolonged life. Some cookbooks, such as Le Viandier , and Chiquart's On Cookery specify what color various dishes should be tinted. Blues could be made using turnsole (actually an orchil lichen), columbine blossoms or even ground lapis lazuli! Reds could be obtained from saunders (more of a reddish brown) or rose petals, alcanet root and dragon's blood plant. Turnsole could also produce red in the presence of an acid. Green was often obtained from herbs such as parsley, sorrel, and sage. More brilliant hues could be achieved with the use of a mixture of verdigris and pennyroyal. Browns were often created by the use of cinnamon (as in the cammeline sauce popular throughout the period) or powdered toast. Blacks could be obtained with the use of cooked liver and burnt toast. There are 40 references to color in the earliest edition of Le Viandier and over 90 in the 15th C version. Some cooks even utilized limners colors. Although the modern cook may have food colors ready to use out of a bottle, extremely bright shades should be avoided for the sake of accuracy.
Parti-colored dishes were very popular, often being created out of a white base such as almond or rice dishes. The colors should not run into each other, but instead have very crisp dividing lines. “A dish of Particular Colors” in Sabina Welser's Cookbook involves roasting hens on a spit, but basting each one of them with a different colored flour paste. 15th Century “Tourtes Parmeriennes” (meat pies) were usually gilded or silver leafed as well as decorated with miniature banners of al the Lords present at the banquet.
The decoration of foods could also take the form of miniature “models”. An Ordinance of Pottage contains a recipe for little hats of meat/marrow/dried fruit stuffing enclosed in a pastry shaped to look like little hats. The Ambras Recipe Collection describes layered omelettes rolled and cut in such a manner that they look like roses. Among the multitude of molded meat subtleties described in period is a giant peascod from Curye on Inglish served with a wine/raisin sauce. Miniature hedgehogs could be made of molded meat studded with almonds (as described in 14th C. Forme of Curye and in much later cookbooks like The English Housewife 1615), or made with thickened almond milk, as illustrated in the Ambras Recipe Collection. Unlike illusion foods, these examples are not tricking the diner into believing they are something else, but entertaining them with their whimsy and ingenuity of decoration.
Bread could also be sculpted in different forms. There is a description of a sculpture of sweet bread in the shape of the wedding party before the door of the church from a wedding feast in England circa 1400. The bride's blonde hair and dress was decorated in candied flower petals. The pieces were baked separately and then assembled with marzipan and sugar syrup. Another mention of bread sculpture from a German wedding feast of unspecified date describes a savory bread sculpture of a rampant goat (one of the figures on the groom's arms) and a doe dormant (the bride's family) including the eyes of the goat and doe made of dried fruit. This tradition continues today in many cultures to celebrate festivals and holy days.
Animals Made to Seem Living:
There are countless accounts and recipes for redressing roasted peacocks and other large birds in their own feathers. Most directions instruct the cook to insert a wire in the neck and tail, so that these can be posed in a life-like way. These directions appear in Magia Naturalis, De Fait de Cuisine, Cuoco Napoletano, as well as being described in The Chronicles of King Joao II and many other accounts. They were also often made to “spit” fire by the use of cloth soaked in camphor placed in the mouth and lit just before the presentation. Since the flesh of peacocks is actually fairly tough, several sources instruct placing the feathered peacock skin over a roast goose instead, to further intrigue the guests with the succulence of the supposed peacock.
Sabina Welser's Cookbook provides two recipes involving suspending whole cooked fish in aspic, so that they appear to be swimming. One involves setting a basket in a slightly larger container before placing the fish and aspic inside, then carefully cutting away the excess aspic from outside the basket when it has set. This gives the additional illusion of a wicker basket holding water. De fait de Cuisine also references a whole pike, cooked in three ways, as spitting fire.
A Roman feast account from “The Satiricon” of Petronius describes a lifelike rabbit and fish:
“We saw them in the well (of the dish) fat fowls and sow's bellies, and in the middle a hare got up with wings to look like Pegasus. Four figures of Marsyas (a flute playing satyr) at the corners of the dish also caught the eye; they let a spiced sauce run from their wine-skins over the fishes, which swam about in a kind of tide-race. . .we all took up the clapping which the slaves started, and attacked these delicacies with hearty laughter. Trimalchio (the host) was delighted with the trick he had played on us.”
Whole roasted larger animals could also be made to seem alive by the use of wires through their legs to hold them upright, and coating with paste or other ingenious devices to simulate skin or fur. An Easter lamb is treated this way in Sabina Welser's Cookbook. The roasted lamb is propped up by use of spikes through it's legs (which were carefully protected with a wet cloth in the oven to prevent scorching) then allowed to cool and covered with butter squeezed through a cloth to simulate frizzled lamb's wool. A more dramatic account of this type of this type of subtlety is recorded in The Chronicles of King Joao II:
“And then there came to the head of the table a large golden cart which seemed to be pulled by two huge roasted whole steers, with guilded horns and hooves; the cart was completely filled with a large number of roasted whole sheep with guilded horns; the whole thing was on such a low contraption, with little wheels underneath where they could not be seen, that the steers appear to be walking. In front of them walked a young noble holding an ox goad in his hands, goading the steers which seemed to walk and pull the cart; he was dressed as a drayman with a jerkin and a cloak of white velvet lined with brocade, with a cap of similar material, so that from a distance he resembled a real carter; in this manner he went to offer the steers and sheep to the princess, and having done this, made them turn with his goad and go about the room and leave; then he gave meat to the people, who tore it apart with great shouting and pleasure, each person carrying away as much as he could.”
Disguised Foods (one food masquerading as another):
The love of deception in food was already quite popular in Roman times. Athenaeus’, Deipnosophistae describes how a very clever cook was able to fulfil his master, King Nicomedes’ seemingly impossible request with the aid of a little culinary deception. The King craved fresh anchovies while far inland. His cook miraculously produced them by artfully carving and frying turnip slices and applying 40 black peppercorns. Such deceptions could take place on a much grander scale as well. Petronius’ Satyricon describes a banquet where nothing was what it seemed. Prunes were studded with thorns to look like sea urchins and a supposed roast duck surrounded by various fish and birds was in actuality a course completely shaped out of pork. Many bronze baking tins in all shapes (chickens, pigs, rabbits, etc) were found in Pompeii, illustrating the popularity of disguised foods and the desire of the less gifted sculptors to be able to create them.
Medieval culinary playfulness also excelled at tricking the senses into believing certain foods to be something completely different. One food could be molded and tinted into the shape and color of another. Serving counterfeit foods with the traditional sauces or accompaniments of the dish being copied could also help reinforce the subterfuge. These counterfeit foods could also be called “warners”.
This sort of trickery could be employed to “flaunt” lenten restrictions by mimicking forbidden foods. Eggshells could be emptied out and refilled with almond cream (the center tinted yellow to simulate an egg yolk), as outlined in The Harleian MS. Cheese could be duplicated with the milt and roe of tench, pike or carp. Substitutes for butter and ricotta were created from almonds, and made even more believable by peddling them in the same wicker baskets “like those carried through the streets by peddlers who shout ‘Ricotta! Ricotta!’” according to the author of The Neopolitan Collection. Le Menagier contains a recipe to make beef taste like stag or venison (or bear).
Ground meat and bean pastes were an immensely popular modeling material. De Fait de Cuisine instructs making hedgehogs, apples, Spanish pots, molded figures such as hares, brachets, deer, boars, the hunters with their horns, partidge, crayfish, dolphins, peas and beans, all made of molded meat and endored, to adorn the lower court of his “lofty entremet that is a castle”. Other period references to this practice include “Poume d’orange” (oranges) in Two Anglo-Norman Cullinary Collections, “Farsur to make pomme dorryse (golden apples) and othere thynges” in The Forme of Cury and “Pear Puddings” from The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Opened (these are pear shaped meatballs made of ground chicken). A feast given by Pope John XXII at Avignon featured a Subtlety in the form of a castle, constructed from various birds mixed with flour, sugar, spices, and honey.
Trickery (foods with an element of surprise):
The old nursery rhyme “Four and twenty Blackbirds Baked in a Pie” could very well have originated from medieval practices. The Epulario MS gives instructions for baking an empty pie shell (temporarily filled with flour to hold it's shape), carefully cutting a hole in the bottom and inserting small birds, which will fly out when the pie is cut into, astounding all the guests. Taillevant suggests filling the pre-baked pie shell with live frogs. I’ve heard of a modern recreation using the cook's pet ferret as the live “surprise” inside the hollow pie, as well as other recreations involving small wind up toys.
A variation on the theme of making animals seem alive is to make animals that are very obviously dead and cooked seem alive. The Book of Secrets of Albertus Magnus provides instructions to make a cooked chicken appear to dance with the use of quicksilver. Quicksilver, along with sulphur, is also used to make a chicken “sing when it is dead and roasted” by placing it in the neck and tying both ends in Le Vivendier. A less humane form of this style of deception involves dry-plucking a chicken, painting it to look cooked and coaxing it to fall asleep. It is then served alongside all the other roast meats and creates quite a bit of excitement when it runs away, knocking over tableware, as the unsuspecting diner attempts to carve it!
A more subtle form of trickery could involve removing all the meat from a chicken drumstick, cleaning the bones very well, reapplying the finely spiced meat and coating it with breadcrumbs and egg to simulate skin as described in the recipe for “Coated Hens” in a 13th C Danish Manuscript. The diner would be pleasantly surprised to find only finest meat, free of cartilage and tendons. Sabina Welser's Cookbook contains similar instructions for a “Redressed Boar's Head”. Even more bewildering to the unsuspecting diner are the recipes in both Magia Naturalis, Cuoco Napoletano for “A Young Pigeon With His Bones Pulled Out” achieved by soaking the bird in a strong vinegar solution to dissolve the bones while leaving the flesh intact. A similar effect could be achieved by carefully removing the outer skin of a chicken and refilling it with a sausage stuffing mixture as in the recipe for “Farced Chicken” in Le Menagier. Imagine the surprise of not only finding no bones, but also finding pork instead of the expected chicken. Cuoco Napoletano has a further development on this concept in the recipe “To Make 2 Pigeons of One”, where in addition to the sausage stuffed skin, the second skinless carcass is coated in endoring paste to simulate skin.
The art of culinary subterfuge could also be used to dissuade unwanted dinner guests. Magia Naturalis suggests using cut up harp strings and dried powdered cooked hare's blood to strew on cooked meats. The powdered blood will melt and look fresh, while the harp strings will move from the heat, resembling live maggots. Battered and fried strung dried fruit creates an extremely accurate representation of entrails in the “Trayne Roast”recipe from the Harleian Manuscript. Worms could be created from strained peas (Welser).
Marzipan is among the earliest sugar sculptural mediums recorded. It was in use in France by the 13th C. Made from finely ground almonds or pistachios and sugar bound together with egg white, it is somewhat coarse for very fine work. Although finer modeling materials had become available, marzipan still remained in use for the rest of the medieval period. One late 16th C Spanish recipe from Libro del Arte de Cozina calls for pressing marzipan into a mold taken from a peach pit and hiding an almond inside to simulate the kernel. Banquetting Stuffe references the 16th C use of marzipan in England to make “collops of bacon” by alternating white and red layers, then cutting it into crossways strips to simulate streaky bacon. A Closet for Ladies and Gentelwomen 1611 suggests modeling “conceits of march-pane stuffe, some like pyes, birds, baskets, and such like & some print with moulds. They be excellent good to please children”. In fact, marzipan remains in use to the present day a favorite modeling material for miniature fruits to adorn cakes, etc, so there are various modern how-to books available to reference modeling techniques.
The use of sugar plate is believed to be of Arabic origin. It could be used to fashion every object imaginable, but is easier with smaller items. The Manuscrito Anonimo from the 13th c. describes how to make a castle and all its furnishings from poured sugar plate. 14th C. recipes call for sugar to be boiled together with water to a ‘correct height’: feathered degree of 240 degrees F or alternately to hard crack stage at 325 degrees F, and poured into dampened molds to create hollow sugar sculptures. This “sugar plate” was also sometimes flavored with rose leaves, violet leaves, gillyflower or other flower petals and spread on a marble board before being cut to small lozenges as candies. These could also be tinted red with turnsole. A further refinement on these candies in the 16th C. involved replacing the water with rosewater and coating them with gold leaf, thereby creating “manus Christi”. An Ottoman festival held in Istanbul in 1582 commissioned sugar artists know as “sukker nakkasrli” to make several hundred poured sugar plate statues, including giraffes, elephants, lions fountains and castles. Some were so large four people were required to carry them. This technique also survives to the present in Mexico to make “Day of the Dead” sugar skulls, called “alfeniques” in Spanish, from the Arabic word for candy “al fanad”.
Sir Hugh Plat's Delightes for Ladies describes the making of these poured sugar molds out of plaster of paris (known as “burnt alabaster”, terracotta (subsequently kiln-fired), porous stone or wood. They could also be made of sulphur, lead or pewter. One such mold (made of baked clay), of St Catherine of Siena holding a wheel as a symbol of her martyrdom, was found at the Old Bailey in London. It measured 5 1/2 inches tall and has been dated to the late 15th – early 16th C. This technique did have limitations. The final product remains semi-transparent and often retains a grainy surface, so that it is hard to decorate except for the application of gold and silver leaf, although they were also often painted with culinary food dyes. It was also difficult to successfully create very complex molds with fine detail or to join different pieces together.
Sugar Paste is a much more versatile medium. It can be modeled by hand, pressed into molds, or rolled thin and cut into shapes. The earliest reference to sugar paste is in Curye on Inglysch 15th C, but most references occur from the late 16th and the 17th centuries. The first written recipe is from The Secrets of the Reverend Maister Alexis of Piedmont c. 1562. It calls for finely ground sugar to be mixed with gum tragacanth (often refered to as ‘gum dragon’ in period), lemon juice and rosewater, producing a very malleable substance capable of achieving very fine detail work. One of the most complete period recipes is found in The Second Part of the Good Hus-wives Jewell, 1597:
"To make a past of Suger, whereof a man may make al manner of fruits, and other fine things with their forme, as Plates, Dishes, Cuppes and such like thinges, wherewith you may furnish a Table."
"Take Gumme and dragant as much as you wil, and steep it in Rosewater til it be mollified, and for foure ounces of suger take of it the bigness of a beane, the iuyce of Lemon, a walnut shel ful, and a little of the white of an eg. But you must first take the gumme, and beat it so much with a pestell in a brasen morter, till it be come like water, then put to it the iuyce with the white of an egge, incorporating al these wel together, this done take four ounces of fine white suger wel beaten to powder, and cast it into the morter by a litle and a litle, until they be turned into the form of paste, then take it out of the said morter, and bray it upon the powder of suger, as it were meale or flower, untill it be like soft paste, to the end you may turn it, and fashion it which way you wil. When you have brought your paste to this fourme spread it abroad upon great or smal leaves as you shall thinke it good and so shal you form or make what things you wil, as is aforesaid, with such fine knackes as may serve a Table taking heede there stand no hotte thing nigh it. At the ende of the Banket they may eat all, and breake the Platters Dishes, Glasses Cuppes, and all other things, for this paste is very delicate and saverous. If you will make a Tarte of Almondes stamped with suger and Rosewater of this sorte that Marchpaines be made of, this shal you laye between two pastes of such vessels or fruits or some other things as you thinke good."
Gum tragacanth is fairly expensive and can be difficult to obtain, except by mail order. Ready to mix powdered gum paste is available at most cake decorating stores, but can also prove too expensive for large projects. Peter Brears provides an alternate recipe in Banquetting Stuffe (using gelatin) which works almost identically to the ready to mix versions (although I’m not sure if it is quite as water-resistant when dry as the gum tragacanth versions):
To make the paste, take:
1/2 tsp. (2.5 ml) gelatin
1 tsp. (5 ml) lemon juice
2 tsp. (10 ml) rosewater
1/2 egg white, lightly beaten
12-16 oz (250-450 g) icing sugar (my note: modern icing sugar contains cornstarch filler, however this seems to add in the stabilization of the structure)
a few drops of food coloring if required
‘Stir the gelatin into the lemon juice and rosewater in a basin and place over a bowl of hot water until melted. Stir in the egg white, add food coloring and work in the icing sugar, little by little, until a dough is formed. It can then be turned out on a board dusted with icing sugar, kneaded until completely smooth, rolled out, and used as required.’
Sugar plate dries out very quickly. Make sure to keep it tightly wrapped in plastic until you are ready to use it and to only pull out as much as you need at a time. Finished projects need to dry for at least 24 hours, or up to a week if they are especially thick.
Banquetting Stuffe also describes many examples of later period objects fashioned out of sugar paste, such as playing cards, walnuts, eggs, cinnamon sticks, even plates and goblets! These 1/8 inch thick candy plates, or fruit trenchers and goblets, were actually waterproof, lasting for a couple of hours provided they were not exposed to heat. Used as actual plates for the banquet (dessert) course in England, they could be elaborately hand painted (sometimes including popular verses) and guilded: “with the white of an egge laide rounde about the brim of the dish with a pensill (fine paint brush), and presse the gold down with some cotton, & when it is drie skew or brush off the golde with the foot of a hare or Conie” (Hugh Plat's Delightes for Ladies). The finished product looks very similar to porcelain, but since they were completely edible, they could be broken up and consumed at the end of the banquet. Although no sugar plate banquet trenchers survive, there are extant examples of wooden ones, which were decorated in a similar fashion.
A dinner given by Gaston IV, Comte de Foix at Tours in 1477 in honor of an embassy from the King of Hungary (from Roy Strong's Feast a History of Grand Eating: provided this impressive finale to the feast – “a heraldic menagerie sculpted in sugar: lions, stags, monkeys, and various other birds and beasts, each holding in it's paw or beak the arms of the Hungarian king.”
Cardinal Wolsey served a sugar plate chessboard as a gift to the French visitors at his banquet, in addition to several other culinary marvels: “there were castles with images in the same; Paul's Church and steeple…as well counterfeited as the painter should have painted it upon a cloth or wall. There were beasts, birds, fowls of diverse kinds, and personages, most lively made and counterfeit in dishes; some fighting (as it were) with swords, some vaulting and leaping, some dancing with ladies.” These sugar paste figures were often served on “marchepanes” a baked almond cookie of sorts. These could be large and elaborately decorated, as evidenced by surviving marchepane molds.
This type of sugar work was also extremely popular in Italy, where it was know as “Trionfi di tavola” - or “triumphs of the table.” Trionfi were considered essential for every funeral, festival, procession, wedding, state visit or banquet. They could depict mythological themes like the phoenix or Apollo and Daphne or other hunting scenes, like sugar dogs pointing at the game the guests are about to eat, or sugar hunters throwing nets over it. Large architectural tableaux could also be constructed. Sculptors sometimes called in their friends from the foundry to cast images in jelly, ice or sugar. At the wedding feast of Henry IV and Maria de Medici, a life sized sugar sculpture was constructed by Pietro Tacca to take the place of the absent bridegroom. Trionfi were considered showpieces and kept separate from the sweetmeats meant for consumption. Often they contained gum arabic, turpentine, and very unhealthy coloring agents like white lead and cinnabar. A sugar sculpture not meant to be eaten could even be painted with oil colors.
John Florio's Italian dictionary of 1611 defines “Trionfi di tavola” simply as the sweet sculptural components of Renaissance and Baroque Italian banquets, however these were major undertakings by important artists that also encompassed many more aspects, such as supervision of fireworks and other non culinary forms of entertainment. One of these renowned artists, Buontalenti, constructed a table for the wedding feast of Maria de Medici And Henry IV that moved across the room by itself, where it transformed itself into two fountains. In the empty space the table had vacated, a sideboard gradually rose up out of the floor, laden with sugar paste sculptural trionfi as well as sugar plate drinking cups, plates and napkins, all in the form of a winter landscape. Afterwards, the lights were somehow dimmed, and two clouds slowly moved in from either side, opening directly over the guests. Inside were the goddesses Juno and Minerva, who had come in their jeweled golden chariots to “grace this superhuman banquet of the gods”. A theatrical argument was then staged over whose presence was more appropriate, ending with a blessing of the union and a projection of a huge rainbow across the hall. After the queen and her ladies returned to their table, it also transformed with the use of “peraktoi” (vertically turning frames used for scene changes on the stage) first into mirrors to reflect the paintings on the ceiling, then into a sugar garden complete with fruits and singing birds.
Wax is listed as the modeling material of choice for various late period subtleties, perhaps due to it's ability to take the finest detail work. Modern day wax museums rely on it for their uncanny reproductions of famous figures for the same reason. Peter Brears provides accounts of some of these wax subtleties in All the King's Cooks: “A Standing Dish of wax, representing the Court of Common Pleas, artificially made, the charge thereof (4 pounds)… A Standing Dish of Wax, to each mess one, (4 pounds)” 1555 feast held for PhillipIi of spain and Queen Mary. Anne Boleyn's coronation feast 1533 ”subtelties and shippes made of waxe, marvylous, gorgeous to behold”. A dinner given by Gaston IV,Comte de Foix at Tours in 1477 in honor of an embassy from the King of Hungary (from Roy Strong's Feast a History of Grand Eating): also featured a wax subtlety “A man attired in embroidered crimson satin appeared astride a similarly caparisoned horse. In his hands he carried a model garden made of wax which was filed with roses and a variety of other flowers, and set it before the ladies. This we are told, was the most admired of all the entremets.”
Practically all materials were employed in subtlety construction, from wood and plaster to fabric and paper. Contemporary accounts describe some of these items in great detail. They are more reminiscent of the work of a modern sets and props coordinator than that of a medieval cook!
Roy Strong describes a completely non edible subtlety in Feast a History of Grand Eating:
- in 1435, the Duke staged a feast in the aftermath of the treaty of Arras for King Rene of Anjou, it's décor consisted of two large tables on each of which stood a hawthorn tree covered in gold and silver flowers, the greenery enriched with gold tinsel and adorned with the heraldic arms of France and of the other guests. Eighteen smaller trees bore the ducal arms. This décor framed the entry of an entremet involving a peacock surrounded by ten golden lions, each holding a banner bearing the arms of the ducal lands.
A feast celebrating the wedding of Prince Afonso of Portugal in 1490 had these inedible subtleties:
“And it was a beautiful thing to see the way the tables were arranged, for on each one there were three large covered platters of food, and on top of the two at either end of the table were tents of white and purple damask, which were the colors of the Princess; the tents were embroidered and very gallant, with many little golden streamers…and the center dish was a fortress…made of delicate wood and cloth of golden taffeta, which was a very beautiful thing and very costly.
Le Viandier de Taillevent lists several “painted” subtleties:
202. The Swan Knight. If you wish to make the Swan Knight in his right, have 12 pieces of light wood, with the 4 uprights stronger than the others. Assemble everything and nail it very strongly. Have some lead sheets 3 feet in length and as much in width (you will need at least 2 or 3 sheets of lead). Make it in the shape of a little chest about a foot deep that can hold two or 3 buckets of water. Make a little skiff of glued parchment in which will be put the image of the Swan Knight. You need the likeness of a little swan made of glued parchment covered with fine vair or white down. You need a little chain resembling gold hung from the swan's neck and attached to the skiff within the lead box. For the box attach 4 wheels to 4 [inverted] chevrons attached here and there. You need some linen dyed like waves of water. Nail it to the top of the box so that one does not see the men who will be underneath.
203. A tower. If you wish to make a tower covered with linen dyed as if it were masonry, have 4 windows at the 4 corners of the tower. Have a likeness of Saracens and Moors seeming to fire at a wild man who would assail them. To make the wild man have a handsome man, tall and upright, clothed in a linen robe, hose and shoes all joined together, with the robe covered with [strands of] painted hemp. In the tower you need the figure of a young valet disguised as a wild boy. He should have some leather balls full of wadding or carded wool, dyed to resemble stones, for throwing at the wild man.
204. To make the image of saint George and his virgin. Make a large terrace of pastry or light wood (like that from which one makes pavises). Make the likeness of a saddled and bridled horse, with the image of saint George on the horse, a dragon under the feet of the horse, and the virgin holding the dragon tied by her girdle around its neck.
205. To make the image of saint Marthe. Make the image of saint Marthe, the dragon at full length beside her, with a gold chain tied to the dragon's neck by which this saint will hold it, since she conquered it. You can make this image using two persons if you wish, or with a work of painting of such height and size as you wish.
206. Lighter subtleties. Make terraces of brown bread, with a damsel sitting on the terrace, and with the terrace covered with green tin leaf strewn with herbs in a likeness of green grass. You need a lion who has his 2 forefeet and head in the damsel's lap. For him you can make a brass mouth and a thin brass tongue, with paper teeth glued to the mouth. Add some camphor and a little cotton, and when you would like to present it before the lords, touch the fire to it. If you wish to make the likeness of a wolf, bear, striped donkey [zebra], serpent or some other beast, tame or wild, make counterparts to the lion, each one in its own manner.
Later period banquets could have exclusively theatrical breaks between courses. Sometimes the theatrics were employed in conjunction with the serving of the food, although at other times these productions functioned more like pageant plays than the extraordinarily creative culinary subtleties that preceded them. Large elaborate sets and multitudes of actors could be used in their execution.
A late 14th C book illumination depicts a banquet given by Charles V of France in 1378 in honor of Emperor Charles IV, which features a completely theatrical subtlety. Actors portraying Godfrey de Bouillon and Richard Lion-heart are leading a charge of soldiers storming a stage set of Jerusalem, complete with actors with darkened faces as Saracens speaking Arabic. In the same illumination, a pageant boat containing various Christian knights and Peter the Hermit (the preacher who led the first crusade) is seen to enter from the left. This is quite possibly another example of a political agenda, this time pushing for another crusade, influencing the theme.
The Coronation feast of the queen of Pedro of Aragon 1399 (from Roy Strong's Feast a History of Grand Eating) featured quite an array of entertainment:
-Each course was prefaced by a little drama – men-at-arms killing a dragon, musicians on a rock bearing a wounded lion, actors imprisoned in a fully fledged ship flanked by sirens singing advanced to the table and disgorged the fish course. At supper a horse disguised as an elephant with a castle on its back ambled in. Cupid, attired in peacock's feathers emerged from the castle to shoot red and white roses at the diners. At another feast a huge pie was wheeled in and a man dressed as an eagle leapt out flapping his wings and releasing a flock of white doves.
The theatrical subtleties performed at a dinner given by Gaston IV,Comte de Foix at Tours in 1477 in honor of an embassy from the King of Hungary was recorded in great detail(from Roy Strong's Feast a History of Grand Eating):
-“Twelve men wheeled in a castle on a rock. Whether the men were concealed inside the rock or not we do not learn, but the castle itself had four corner towers and a large keep at the centre with four windows, at each of which could be seen a richly attired lady. The central keep was adorned with heraldic banners bearing the arms of the king of Hungary and those of the other great lords who made up the embasy. At the top of each of the four towers a child sang like an angel (though what they sang we do not learn).
-“Six men, dressed in the regional costume of Bearn, carried in a man disguised as a tiger wearing a colar from which was suspended the arms of the king of Hungary. He tiger spat fire and the Bearnais danced, to great applause from the onlookers.”
- 'Twenty four men were needed to bring it into the hall, an indication as to both it's size and weight. It was a mountain containing two fountains, one of which sprouted rosewater the other 'eau de muscade'. Suddenly out of this rocky promontory rabbits scampered while live birds emerged to fly around the hall. Four boys and a girl, all dressed as savages, descended to dance a morisco. Then the count distributed largesse to the various attendant heralds of arms, the one from Hungary receiving, in addition the two hundred ecus bestowed on the others, a fine length of velvet.”
A theatrical tribute to the Roman gods is featured in this banquet given by Ascanio Sforza in 1484 in honor of the Prince of Capua (from Roy Strong's Feast a History of Grand Eating):
- It consisted of eight courses, each of which was served by a different member of the hierarchy of Olympus: Venus, Jove, and Juno ushered in the roast course, Diana and her Nymphs the game, Neptune on a marine chariot the fish, Jason and three sirens jellies, Pan junkets and curds in golden baskets, and Pomona fruit and sweetmeats with hippocras. Golden brooms swept up what had been thrown to the dogs.
Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery-Books
Thomas Austin c. 2000 Boydell & Brewer
All the King's Cooks
Peter Brears c.1999 Souvenir Press Ltd.
Royal Sugar Scuplture 600 Years of Splendour
Ivan Day c. 2002 The Bowes Museum
Around the Roman Table Food and Feasting in Ancient Rome
Patrick Faas c. 2003 Palgrave MacMillan
“And Thus You Have a Lordly Dish” Fancy and Showpiece Cookery in an Augsburg Patrician Kitchen Medieval Food and Drink, Acta, Vol. XXI 1995
Fast and Feast Food in Medieval Society
Brigid Ann Henisch c. 1976 The Pennsylvania State University
Daily Life in Portugal in the Middle Ages
A. H. de Oliveira Marques c. 1971 The University of Wisconsin Press
Feast A History of Grand Eating
Roy Strong c. 2002 Oman Productions Ltd.
Early French Cookery Sources, History, Original Recipes and Modern Adaptations
D. Eleanor Scully and Terence Scully c. 1995 University of Michigan
The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages
Terence Scully c. 1995 The Boydell Press
The Viandier of Tailevent
Terence Scully c. 1988 University of Ottawa Press
The Appetite and the Eye
C. Anne Wilson c. 1991 Edinburgh University Press
C. Anne Wilson c. 1991 Edinburgh University Press
Additional references were obtained from:
- Sugar Paste: A Cook's "Play Dough" by Elise Fleming - Featured in:
Tournaments Illuminated Issue #103, Summer 1992
- “Incredible Foods, Solteties, and Entremets” www.godecookery.com
Many thanks also to the very helpful members of the SCA cooks list, who steered me in the right direction to track down source materials in the last couple of years. In particular – Countess Alys Katherine for her help with sugar paste and plate references, Mistress Hauviette D’Anjou for sharing her illusion feast ideas with me and THL Johnnae llyn Lewis for her book research suggestions and support.
I have also created a subtleties & illusion foods yahoo list
for (but not restricted to) SCA members dedicated to the research and recreation of subtleties (also referred to as sotelties, soltelties, etc.), entremets and illusion foods within SCA timeframe.
Copyright 2006 by Fernanda Gomes, 121 Fraser's Grove. Winnipeg, Manitoba. Canada R2K 0E6. <faerisa at mts.net>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited and receives a copy.
If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.