Wednesday 8 February 2012

Syllabub Revisited and Sugar Plumb Theories

I recently bought a copy of James Gilray's satirical cartoon Heroes recruiting at Kelseys (1798) which is in its original uncoloured state (see detail above). All the other copies I have seen of this print have at some time been painted over with watercolour, as below. This very interesting image shows two military officers sampling the delights of a London confectionery shop. A bonneted proprietress of ample proportions is walking towards them with a bobbin-stemmed salver set out with jelly glasses. These are heaped up with a creamy froth, which the officer on the right is spooning out of a fairly conventional jelly glass. Is this ice cream, or  something else? 

A small bobbin stemmed waiter with pan top syllabub glass - both second half of eighteenth century. Note how the spoon is perfectly visible through the clear white wine below the foam of the whip syllabub

If you could afford it, ice cream was very popular and common enough in 1790s London confectioners' shops. But close scrutiny of the detail of the uncoloured Gilray reproduced above, shows that a spoon is visible through a clear liquid sitting below the frothy head. This would indicate that the artist's original intentions were to depict a glass of whip syllabub rather than ice cream. Ice cream is opaque and the spoon would therefore be concealed. The water colourist who tinted the print below (probably at a later date) did not appreciate this and has filled in the glass with a uniform pink wash.  It is amazing how much can be learnt from such small details.

The other officer is holding a conical twist of paper filled with 'sugar plumbs'. What on earth were these? Well according to some authorities, such as television historian Ruth Goodman, food historian Sharon Cohen and many websites out there in cyberspace, sugar-plums were quite literally plums that had been preserved or coated with sugar. Well I am afraid that this is terribly lazy and inaccurate history, because it is just not true.

Let me explain. Many of us are now familiar with the term sugar-plum from Tchaikovsky's Dance of the Sugar-plum Fairy from the Nutcracker, first performed in St Petersburg in 1892. Tchaikovsky's original French name for this music was Danse de la fée dragée. Dragée is a word still used in France. It means a sugar-coated seed, or nut, not a sugar-coated plum. The Italian equivalent word is confetto, giving us the English comfit. So the literal meaning of Danse de la fée dragée was the Dance of the Sugar Comfit Fairy. However, in England comfits had been known by the nickname sugar-plums since at least the early seventeenth century, because they were the shape of a plum, not made with plums. The Dance of  the Sugar Plum Fairy was a more poetic translation and made perfect sense in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Nowadays, the term is so obsolete that even some self-styled historians, who are meant to study the past critically from primary sources have forgotten what it means.  But anyone who cares to look up sugar-plum in the OED will find the definition, 'A small round or oval sweetmeat, made of boiled sugar and variously flavoured and coloured; a comfit.' The definition is followed by many instances of its use. This is not to say that plums were not preserved with sugar. They were, but they were not called sugar plums in the past.  

There is a bit more on sugar-plums and comfits on my website, including explanations of how they were really made. Below are links to some sites which have misunderstood the true nature of these interesting sweeties. If you would like to learn how to make real sugar plums, come to my Historic Food Sugar and Confectionery Course.


  1. I guess the Sugar-Nut Fairy would have made her sound like a carbs addict ;)

  2. I have always liked this comment from Sir Walter Scott's Journal:

    "Sir Thomas Lawrence did the honours very well, and compliments flew about like sugar-plums at an Italian carnival."

    1. Sugar plums or confetti were also thrown enthusiasticaly at carnivals in France. After some nasty accidents in which there were eye injuries caused by sugared almonds and other sweet missiles being hurled into the Mardi Gras crowds, the custom was banned in France in 1892. An enterprising British stationery manufactory based in Marseilles called J and E Bella started making paper confetti and the modern Englsh understanding of the word was born. This sounds like a tall story, but it is true. In fact in 1894 Bella and Sons commissioned Toulouse Lautrec to design an advertising poster to publicise their new invention. You can see a copy of the poster at the Tate Britain website -

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