|John Thacker's 1758 Marrow Pudding or Poudin de Mouëlle formée with its ornate cut cover|
A few days ago a researcher working on a TV bakery programme rang to say that she wanted 'to pick my brains' about 'the history of latticework tarts', as surprisingly Google and Wikipedia had not furnished any revelations on the subject. Funnily enough I had just filmed a short feature for a rival baking programme on puff pastry, in which I made the elaborate decorated lid for the baked pudding pictured above. So the subject was topical. Dishes like the good old woven pastry 'criss-cross' jam tart of modern England and the crostata of Italy have a venerable and surprisingly sophisticated history. Like other 'fossil' food practices, the contemporary survivals of this tradition are simplified and degraded when compared to those depicted in paintings and early book illustrations. In fact many made in the past were much more ambitious than those I have seen coming out of the ovens of modern bakers.
The great heyday of this kind of pastry trellis work lasted from the second half of the sixteenth century to the first half of the eighteenth. The practice almost certainly had its origins in a burgeoning fashion for knotted strapwork ornament inaugurated by Mannerist architects such as Sebastiano Serlio (1475-1554). Interlacing decorations like those published by Serlio found their best known expression in architectural detailing and garden design, but food ornamentation was strongly influenced by the same zeitgeist. The curious knotted biscuits or sweetmeats known as jumbals emerge at this period and elaborate tarts and pies in kaleidoscopic knot-garden form start to adorn the tables of the wealthy. Edible strap work was all the rage.
Although tarts with intricate strapwork lids appear from time to time in Netherlandish still life paintings like that of Clara Peeters below, it was not until the 1660s that designs for these tarts were published in recipe collections.
|A table setting by the Antwerp artist Clara Peeters (1594 – c. 1657) , including a pastry with a cut design, c. 1611, oil on panel. Museo del Prado, Madrid. Nothing to do with lattice work pastry, but note how Clara has painted the spit roast birds with their livers tucked under their pinions.|
Other than a handful of English cookery books from the seventeenth and early eighteenth century, no other European printed texts contain designs like those of Robert May. Apart that is, from one notable exception from Austria, Conrad Hagger's Neues Saltzburgisches Kochbuch (Augsburg: 1719). This magisterial collection of recipes occupies a full horizontal five inches of my bookshelf and is one of the most important books I own. I often marvel at my good fortune, as I was lucky enough to buy a copy of this rare work in Liechtenstein for $50 in the 1970s! No other cookery text allows us such a detailed insight into the pastry techniques of the baroque Hofkoch than Hagger's work. Its 305 full plate engravings provide a bewildering variety of designs for pies, pasties, marchpanes and torts. Here are some of his variations on the lattice work tart.
|Lattice work pastry designs from Conrad Hagger, Neues Saltzburgisches Kochbuch (Augsburg: 1719)|
Covers like this were usually made out of puff pastry and baked separately from the tart or pudding they adorned. Here is my interpretation of Thacker's design sitting on a sheet of paper on a baking tray and ready for the oven.
|Thacker's cut lid baked and dusted with icing sugar|
|Thacker gives no instructions for doing this, but I could not resist dusting the pudding with powdered sugar and then removing the lid. What a lovely effect!|
|Robert May's designs for cut laid tarts taken from my rather poor 1685 edition|
I made the cut laid tarts above, based on May's designs for my exhibition Supper with Shakespeare at the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts in 2012. Towards the end of Shakespeare's life, Gervase Markham in The English Housewife (London: 1615) describes similar tarts, though unlike May, he does not offer any illustrations. These edible stained glass windows were the mothers of all jammy dodgers!
|A strap work tart sits in front of a sugar paste banqueting house at the MIA exhibition|
Cut pastry continued to be popular well into the eighteenth century. One kind that emerged was the 'crocant', a technically difficult genre which involved placing a sheet of a specialised crocant paste (sometimes called 'crackling crust') over a domed mould and then cutting it by hand with decorative designs in the form of leaves, birds, animals etc. They were baked on the domed moulds. When finished, crocants were often iced and then placed over plates of colourful sweetmeats. We have a hazy idea of what these ephemeral creations looked like, because no specific designs have survived, though ceramic manufactories such as Wedgewood and Royal Copenhagen produced pierced lids for vessels which may have been influenced by these edible cut covers. However, we can be sure that standards were incredibly high and there were quite a lot of professional bakers and confectioners who were prepared for a fee to instruct ladies in the tricky art of cutting designs like this in pastry. We get a rare glimpse of a crocant in a tiny detail on a trade card for the London confectioner John Betterley who traded from 437 Oxford Street in the late eighteenth century. I am lucky enough to own a copy, so here is a scan of Betterley's crocant cover.
|Many of the professional London pastry cooks, including Betterley, offered instruction in 'cutting paste'|