Wednesday 27 June 2012

More Viagra In Your Marmalade Sir?

Or would you prefer it in your pie or cake?
Orchis italica - a possible candiate for the satyrion of antiquity?
In my last two posts I described some historical food items with mild sexual links - a chocolate cockerel covering its hen and a rather suggestive jelly which wobbled in a lascivious way. These novelty items were conceived purely for the amusement of the diners, but there has always been a more serious link between certain foods and carnality. No more so than when they were employed as aphrodisiacs. Oysters are famous for their alleged properties in this regard, but a number of other less well known esculents were also thought to possess the power to stir up lust. Classical writers on medicine, such as Dioscorides and Pliny described a number of plants which were famed in antiquity as powerful aphrodisiacs. The most notorious of these were various kinds of orchid. In Greek orchis means 'testicle', because a number of them have two underground tubers which resemble these male organs. Some like Orchis italica (images above and below) also have astonishingly convincing anthropomorphic flowers, although it was the testis-like tubers that were considered to be efficacious as a sexual stimulant.

Orchis italica. Woodcut from John Parkinson, Theatrum Botanicum. (London: 1640).The individual flowers of this Mediterranean orchid have an extraordinary resemblance to miniature well-endowed satyrs. Together with the two testis-like tubers this feature must have led early physicians to believe that plants of this kind could be used as love potions. Parkinson and his colleagues called this group of orchids 'fooles stones' because of the resemblance of the three upper lobes of the flower to a large fool's or jester's hat. This is strongly evident in the photograph below.

Caption anybody? What about 'My ears are bigger than your ears'?
It is easy to understand why these curious physical features led early physicians to conclude that the creator had designed these herbs as sexual stimulants. Various orchid species are still harvested for their tubers, which are used in the Middle East to make a beverage known as salep. This warm comforting drink is still considered by some to have sexually provocative properties. When I lived in Athens in the 1970s I remember the street cry of the salep vendor, 'Salepi zesta! Salepi zesta!' - 'Hot salep! Hot salep!' Their customers were always male, quickly downing small cups of this gelatinous beverage on the street before they headed home to their wives. In his seminal work on materia medica, A Complete History of Drugs (London: 1747), the great French botanist Pierre Pomet tells us. 'It is a great Restorative, and is good in all Decays; it is also esteemed a Provocative and Remedy againft Barrenness. The Turks have it in great esteem; their manner of taking it is boiled with Honey, Ambergrise, and Ginger, and drank hot in the manner of Chocolate. The general manner of using it here, is to put about a Tea-spoonfull of the Powder of it into a Bason of warm Water, which it turns into a Jelly.'

Salep, sometimes spelt salop, was available from the seventeenth century onwards in English coffee houses, together with other fashionable Ottoman beverages such as coffee and sherbet. It would appear that in Britain, the orchid tubers and the flour-like powder ground from them was mainly imported from the Levant. Salep is still popular in the Middle East as a drink, but is used much more nowadays as an ice cream ingredient. In Turkey it is still harvested from a number of wild orchids, some of which are facing extinction because of the enormous quantity used in the ice cream industry. This is based mainly in the city of Kahramanmaraş near the Syrian border. The thick salep ice cream, known locally as Maraş dövme dondurması does not melt as easily as ordinary ice cream and is incredibly elastic, stretching almost like putty. It is still made by some vendors using the traditional ice pail, sorbetiere and spaddle. Its amazing viscosity and ability to stretch has made the Maraş stalls in tourist destinations such as Istanbul very popular. It is the addition of salep flour and mastic to the ice cream mixture that gives it its extraordinary viscosity.

A recipe to make salep from John Nott, The Cook's and Comfectioner's Dictionary (London: 1723)
The most allegedly potent of all the plants from antiquity used as an aphrodisiac was known as satyrion, first described by the Greek physician Dioscorides in the 1st century AD. Its exact identity will probably never be known. Many of the English herbalists and botanists of the early modern period assumed that satyrion was a kind of orchid. In fact they called a number of English orchid species by this name. The celebrated Elizabethan plantsman and herbalist John Gerard describes a number, including Bee's Satyrion and Gnat's Satyrion. His rival John Parkinson, 'herbarist' to James II on the other hand believed that the original satyrion of Dioscorides was not an orchid, but a species of tulip.

Two Satyrion varieties from John Gerarde, The Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes . (London: 1597). 

However, the historical evidence points to the fact that the satyrion roots sold by English apothecaries were most usually the tubers of the common spotted orchid Orchis mascula. Elizabeth Blackwell, in A Curious Herbal (London: 1751) describes this plant. She tells us,

'This Orchis, which is the common Satyrion of the shops, grows to be a foot high; the leaves are a bright green, spotted with black, and the flowers, which grow on a brownish stalk, are a red purple. It grows in moist meadows, and flowers in April and May. The roots are accounted a Stimulus to Venery, strengthening the Genital Parts and helping Conception; and for these Purposes are a chief ingredient in the Electuarium Diasatyrium. Outwardly they are applied in form of a cataplasm, and are esteemed good to dissolve hard Tumours and Swellings. The officinal preparation is the Electuarium Diasatyrium.'

Orchis mascula. The common spotted orchid from John Gerarde, The Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes . (London: 1597). Though not the original satyrion of Dioscorides, this plant was the one used in England to make the aphrodisiac of that name.
In England Orchis mascula tubers were preserved in sugar syrup. There is a very early recipe for preparing them in this way in A Closet for Ladies and Gentlewomen, a little book of recipes for preserves, 'banqueting stuffes' and medicines, first published in London in 1608. Its title declares that its intended readership was the female sex, more specifically high status ladies and gentlewomen. So here was a recipe for an early homemade viagra for those ladies whose noble husbands were not living up to expectations in the venery department.

A later edition of A Closet for Ladies and Gentlewomen. This tiny book went through many editions and was often bound in with Sir Hugh Plat's Delightes for Ladies.

Here is the recipe

To preserve satyrion roots

Take your saterion roots and pick out the faire ones and keep them by themselves, then wash them and boyle them upon a gentle fire, as tender as a Quodling, then take them off and pare the blackest skin of then, and put them as you pare them into fair water, and so let them remain one night; and then weigh them, and to every pound of roots, you must take eleven ounces of clarified Sugar, and boyle it almost to the height of a sirup, and then put in your roots, but take heed they do not boyle too long, for then they will grow hard and tough: and therefore when they bee boyled enough, take them off, and set them a cooling, and so keep them according to the rest.

In some editions of the work, satyrion crops up as an ingredient in the complex 'restorative' marmalade described in the recipe below. This eccentric marmalade contains a host of other substances believed to be aphrodisiacs, including cock's testicles, cantharides, pearls and both the belly and back of the sand lizard Scincus scincus, described in the recipe incorrectly as a fish.

A foor legged scaly version of Levitra. These amphibious lizards were imported in dried form from Egypt. From Pierre Pomet, A Complete History of Drugs. (London: 1748)

'To make another sort of Marmelade very comfortable and restorative for any Lord or Lady whatsoever. 

Take of the purest greene Ginger, sixe drammes, of Eringus and Saterion rootes, of each an ounce and a halfe, beate these very finely, and draw them with a siluer spoone thorow a haire searse, take of nut kirnells and almonds blaunched, of each an ounce, Cockes stones halfe an ounce, all steeped in hony twelve houres, and then boyled in milke, and beaten and mixed with the rest, then pouder the seedes of redde nettles, of rocket of each one dramme, Plantane seeds halfe a dramme, of the belly and backe of a fish called Scincus marinus three drammes, of Diasaterion foure ounces, of Cantarides adde a dram, beate these very finely, and with the other powder mixe it, and so with a pound of fine suger dissolued in rose water, and boyled to suger againe, mingle the powder and all the reſt of the things, putting in of leafe golde sixe leaues, of pearle prepared two drammes, oyle of Cynnamon sixe drops, and being thus done and well dryed, put it up in your Marmelate boxes, and guild it, and so use it at your pleasure.'

The ingredient referred to as Diasaterion was in fact itself a compound medicine made in the form of a confect or electuary. It actually duplicated a number of the ingredients already added to the marmalade, such as satyrion itself, eryngo and even more generous helpings of the skink lizard.  The recipe below for Diasatyrion is from William Salmon, Pharmacopoeia Londinensis, Or The New London Dispensatory (London: 1682)

As well as the satyrion itself, the other important ingredient with alleged aphrodisiacal properties in both the restorative marmalade and Diasatyrion was candied eryngo root. This was made from the roots of the common sea holly (Eryngium maritinum). I have already written at length about Eryngo in an essay in the journal Petits Propos Culinaires, particularly about its long association with the town of  Colchester in Essex where it was once produced as an article of commerce.*

Eryngium maritimum or Sea Holly. The candied roots of this plant were once considered to be a powerful aphrodisiacs
At the Holly Trees Museum in Colchester there is a surviving box of eryngo roots dating from the eighteenth century complete with its lusty contents. If these little sweeties were the viagra of the early modern period, they were sent out all over Britain by the Pzifer of the day, the apothecary Charles Great, who traded them from his shop at The Sign of the Old Twisted Posts and Pots. The label on one of Great's eryngo boxes is reproduced below.

Courtesy of Holly Trees Museum
Many recipes for preserving eryngo roots survive in both manuscript and printed sources. The handwritten recipe below is from the manuscript receipt book of Elizabeth Rainbow, wife to Edward Rainbow, Bishop of Carlisle in the late seventeenth century. 

A late seventeenth century manuscript recipe to candy eryngo roots from The Receipt Book of Elizabeth Rainbow. Courtesy Dalemain Estates
Some of my candied eryngo roots. They have a subtle flavour halfway between a parsnip and a chestnut
Hannah Wooley's 1670 recipe for candying eryngo roots suggests twisting or braiding the roots . This makes me wonder if this is the reason that Great's eryngo shop in Colchester was called The Twisted Posts and Pots

Although the candied roots were taken 'to provoke lust -  even it would seem by bishops - they were also sometimes used as an ingredient in a number of pies and cakes. In his personal manuscript cookery book John Evelyn includes them in a recipe for a 'Hartichoak Pie', as well as in a moulded Eryngo Cream set with isinglass and garnished with pistachio nuts. The court cook Charles Carter puts them into a sweet Chicken Pie,

Charles Carter, The Complete Practical Cook. (London: 1730)

Like Evelyn, Carter also included eryngo roots in an artichoke pie. Plumcake pointed out to me a few years ago that these roots also feature in one of his cake recipes. In his diary he mentions a visit to Colchester and describes the town as being famous for oysters and eryngo candy. Perhaps he bought some while he was there. His Almond Cake contains a massive two pounds of them! Here is the recipe (courtesy of the late Christopher Driver).

To make an Almond Cake

Take 6 pounds of the finest flower drie it in the Oven after bread is drawne next morning rub it through a cource sive blanch 2 pounds of Almonds in cold water beat them with Orenge flower water very fine rub the Almonds into the flower very well then take 3 pounds of the best greene citron cut pretty small and 2 pounds of Eringo root cut small strew these into the flower one Ounce of Nutmegs and mace 3 parts mace a little cinamon a litle ginger wash pick and drie 5 pound of Corance lay them on a sive set them before the fire to keepe warme then beat 20 eggs all the whites beat them with a whisk very light straine them take two qts of the thickest creame put it on the fire slice in 4 pounds of the best butter let it stand till bloud warme a pint and halfe of new ale yest put a glass of sack to it and the eggs 4 ounces of loaf sugar beat fine strewd in then poure in the creame and butter on one side the yest and eggs in the other so melt yr cake very thinn and set it by the fire and at the first rising put in corance and let the Oven be ready at the second risng to put it into the Oven butter the hoop very well it will require somewhat better then two hours baking Ice it if you please.

I thought that Evelyn's cake with eryngo roots was a rare one-off example. But no! Plumcake also found another one in the manuscript receipt book of Margaretta Acworth. 

A Sweete Meate Cake

Take eight pound of fflower and Rubb into it 3 pound of new butter. Put in 3 grated nutmegs and 3 pound of Carroway Comfitts. Put 1/2 the Comfitts into the fflower after the butter is rubbed in, then take 1 pint of Creame and a pint and a 1/2 of Ale yeast, 12 eggs keeping out 4 of ye Whites. Beate them very well then mix ye eggs and Creame very well togehter. Straine them, then add 1/2 a pint of sack, a quarter of an ounce of Carraway seeds, mix them all these with the fflower then set it before ye ffire untill your Oven is hott. Cover it warme and stir it often. Then take 1/2 a pound of Cittorne and 1/2 a pound of Lemon and Orange, 1/2 a pound of Ringoo Rootes. Slice all these and put them with ye rest of your Comfitts, then put your Cake into the hoope but be sure your oven be ready before you mingle it up. Put it into ye oven as soon as it is in ye Hoope. 2 Hours bakes it. When it is Drawne ice it.

I wonder if eryngo roots were included in these pies and cakes for their supposed venereal qualities, or just as a another sweetmeat? Their flavour, unlike candied peel is very subtle and would have been lost, especially in Margaretta Acworth's cake with its inordinate amount of caraway comfits and caraway seeds. Did a knowing manservant give his master a slice of one of these cakes with a nod and a wink? However, there is no scientific evidence that orchid tubers or eryngo roots contain any substances that have the ability to arouse sexual desire or improve sexual performance. One orchid variety described by Dioscorides in the 1st century AD with alleged aphrodisiac powers was called cynosorchis in Greek - meaning dogs testicles. This led to English folk names like 'dog's stones', 'dog's cullions' etc. The herbals of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries ascribe powerful venereal properties to all these plants. But the lack of any scientific evidence for these ancient claims makes me wonder if the whole story is just a load of 'dog's bollocks'.

Banquetting Stuffe. The white roots on the left are candied eryngoes. 

The banquet course of sweetmeats after the main meal, or as a sweet collation in its own right was the time when eryngo candy was usually served in early modern period England. These two suggestions for laying out a banquet course are from the very rare A Delightful Daily Exercise for Ladies and Gentlewomen by John Murell, published in London in 1621. This work is entirely different to the same author's A Daily Exercise for Ladies and Gentlewomen published in 1617.

Secondhand copies of Margaretta Acworth's Georgian Cookery Book edited by Alice Prochaska are also easy to come by.  Pavilion - Michael Joseph 1988 ISBN 1851451242 (ISBN13: 9781851451241)

*Read much more about Eryngo in  Ivan Day, Down at the Old Twisted Posts and Pots. PPC 52, 26.

An amusing video of the extraordinary sleight of hand of a Maraş ice cream maker and vendor in Istanbul

Tuesday 19 June 2012

Spanish Paps and Steeple Creams

Or The Wobbliest Jelly In The Universe

A 1655 piramidis cream garnished with pine nuts ('Pine Apple blown')

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries one of the most widely used food moulds was simply a conical wine glass. Early modern period English dishes like Spanish Paps, Pirimidis Creams and Steeple Creams were all moulded in ‘an old fashion drinking-Glasse’. When released from their glasses each little cream would pop out in the form of a miniature steeple, thus one of the popular names for this type of dish. Spanish Paps, so called because they were reminiscent of little breasts, were thickened with ground rice, while Pirimidis and Steeple Creams were a type of opaque white jelly rendered solid with various types of collagen. Hartshorn, isinglass, calves foot jelly, gum tragacanth, gum Arabic and even ivory shavings were all used to set them. One of the earliest printed recipes for this type of sweet was published in W.M.’s The Queen’s Closet Opened (London: 1655). As you can see it is a fairly complicated procedure.

To make Piramidis Cream

Take a quart of water, and six ounces of harts horn, and put it into a Bottle with Gum-dragon, and Gum-arabick, of each as much as a small Nut, put all this into the Bottle, which must be so big as will hold a pint more; for if it be full it will break; stop it very Close with a Cork, and tye a Cloth about it, put the Bottle into a pot of beef when it is boyling, and let it boyle three hours, then take as much Cream as there is Jelly, and halfe a pound of Almonds well beaten with Rose-water, so that you cannot discern what they be, mingle the Cream and the Almonds together, then strain it, and do so two or three times to get all you can out of the Almonds, then put jelly when it is cold into a silver Bason, and the Cream to it; sweeten it as you like, put in two or three grains of Musk and Amber-greece, set it over the fire, stirring it continually and skimming it, till it be seething hot, but let it not boyle, then put it into an old fashion drinking-Glasse, and let it stand till it is cold, and when you will use it, hold your Glass in a warm hand, and loosen it with a Knife, and whelm it into a Dish, and have in readinesse Pine Apple blown, and stick it all over, and serve it in with Cream or without as you please.

The kind of wine glass used to make these conical creams and opaque jellies
Some recipes published in the second half of the eighteenth century, like that of Elizabeth Raffald's 1769 receipt for Steeple Creams with Wine Sours, instruct us to turn the little set creams out of the conical glasses made specifically for jellies. Round about this time the Staffordshire potteries started producing specialist ceramic moulds in either salt glazed stoneware or creamware, which enabled the cook to turn out these creams in more sophisticated shapes than was possible with a wine or jelly glass. It was discovered that a conical jelly, though stable at the base possessed the ability to wobble in a most suggestive and amusing way. This was particularly the case if the mould was made in stepped form.

A medley of late eighteenth century creamware pyramid and steeple moulds by Wedgewood. The large one  in the middle is an early version of the kind of stepped steeple mould that was destined to become one of most popular of all English jelly moulds
Spode and Minton copied Wedgewood's idea and were still marketing this particular steeple mould in the early twentieth century
In my long career I have come across a large number of these moulds, both in the antique trade and in collections. The reason for their enduring popularity is easy to understand. They must have provided a great deal of hilarious amusement to generations of diners. Watch this brief video and you will immediately appreciate what I mean by this. The second sequence in the video shows an attempt to travel with a steeple cream on my lap as a car passenger. As you can see the journey rapidly ends in disaster as the jelly self-destructs as the car goes over over a speed bump. The third sequence shows the sensual contortions of a Solomon's Temple in Flummery, another wobbly creature which I have already dealt with in a previous post.

Not all occasions were suitable for cavorting wobbly jellies - sometimes something more elegant was required. In the 1780s Wedgewood started producing two part pyramid, obelisk and steeple moulds which had an inner core decorated with flowers and other ornamentation. Their outer moulds were filled with clear calves foot jelly, so that the decorations could be seen through a thin film of transparent jelly.

Some steeple jellies were stiffened with a ceramic core decorated with flowers. Very beautiful, but  rather stiff and not half as amusing
These lovely Wedgewood ceramic cores have been separated from their outer moulds 
Stiffness and wobbliness combined. When unmoulded this core jelly has a very wobbly top. If you have watched the video above, you will understand the mirth that must have greeted it when it was placed on the table
A 1790s Neale and Co. obelisk mould and decorated core in my collection. The obelisk has been coated with a thin layer of transparent jelly
As a postscript to all this, a few years ago I was visited by Patrick Furlong, the producer of Heston Blumenthal's first Feast television series made for Channel 4. This was about a month before they started filming. Heston had suggested to him that I came on board the series as an historical advisor. I gave Patrick lunch and for his pudding served him a steeple cream similar to the one in the video above. He filmed the very amusing way that it cavorted and wobbled on his camera and showed it to Heston, who was knocked out by it. As a result Heston and his team made a giant conical jelly in a large stainless steel mould in one of the programmes. It swung dangerously from side to side when it was brought to his guests' table, but it did not have anywhere near the remarkable sensitivity to movement of the original jelly that inspired it. You can see Heston's jelly perform on YouTube on the link below. Sorry Heston - my jelly is wobblier than your jelly!!

Saturday 9 June 2012

Culinary Slapstick

Bacon and eggs made entirely with jelly from a 1769 recipe

I recently had a conversation with a television producer about some of the joke recipes included at the beginning of the medieval cookery poem, the Liber cure cucorum (ca.1420). He wants me to make some of these well-known old howlers for a programme he is producing. The anonymous author suggests that, Yf þe coke be croked or sward mane, (if the cook be a crooked or froward man) it would be a real hoot to put some soap in his potage, with the result that his kitchen would be flooded by a mass of bubbling foam, much to the amusement of all.

Þenne wylle þe pot begyn to rage
And welle on alle,

Another of his practical jokes was to cover meat with dried hare's or kid's blood in order to make it appear raw to the diners, even though it had been cooked.

How somme mete schalle seme raw I teche;
Take harus blode, or kyddus ful fayre,
And dry hit in powder and kepe hit fro ayre;
When flesshe or fysshe his served wele hote,
Cast on þe powder of hare I wot;
Hit is so frym, ren hyt wylle
An malt as sugar, by ry3t good skylle
And make þo flesshe to seme, iwys,
As hit were raw, and 3yt hit nys.

Food could also be tainted with fake maggots by strewing it with short pieces of gut harp strings, no doubt causing a considerable amount of mirth in the great hall, at least among the adolescents in the company,

Anoþer sotelté I wylle telle.
Take harpe strynges made of bowel,
In brede of stoe, þou cut hom þenne;
Kast hom on fysshe or flesshe, I kenne,
Þat sothyn is hote or rostyd, iwys,
Þat wynne seme wormes, so have I blys.

Well I suppose they did not have Channel 4 in the fifteenth century, so bumper wheezes and wizard japes like this were perhaps designed to add a touch of fun to a feast. Despite all the clichés to the contrary, high status medieval dinners were heavily ritualised and rather stiff, so a bit of slapstick and buffoonery would have made for a slightly less formal ambience. The best known joke dish of the medieval period was the cockatrice. To prepare one of these the cook had to attach the derriere of a pig to the front end of a cockerel. I suppose the result was meant to resemble those mythical beasts that one comes across carved on miserichords in cathedral choir stalls, or in the marginal illuminations of medieval psalters. However, on the few occasions that I have attempted a cockatrice, it resembled nothing more than a pig's bum sewn on to a sad looking dead cockerel's head - not a terribly appetising prospect, nor in the slightest bit funny. 

Not a cockatryce, but a common garden chocolate cockerel copulating with its chocolate hen. A rather lewd nineteenth century edible joke with a very long history
Some marginally better food jokes appeared a little later. Sir Hugh Platt in Delights for Ladies (1600) explains how to make an entire fake meal of roast rabbits, poultry and game birds out of a sort of moulded blancmange. They were even 'dredged' with breadcrumbs 'so they will seem as if they were roasted and breaded'. At least these required a degree of skill. Here is the full text of Platt's directions,

Sixty years later, Robert May offers us a few more comedic dishes, including a complex bride pie in which is concealed 'live birds, or a snake, which will seem strange to the beholders, which cut up the pie at the Table.' He goes on to comment 'this is only for a Wedding to pass away the time.'  Perhaps the pie was cut up and the snake released during a particularly boring best man's speech in order to cause a diversion. But the most legendary of all May's gastronomic drolleries was the remarkable piece of Stuart performance art outlined below. Sorry about the seventeenth century custard pie stain on my copy.

This amusing interlude is now well known. It was an old joke which had its roots in some of the remarkable banquets of Renaissance Italy. By using the word 'triumph' to describe this lively performance - based on trionfo,  the Italian name for a culinary fantasy - May gives us a clue to the origins of this particular joke. It was a baroque elaboration on a pie filled with live birds described in the 1598 English translation of Giovanne de Rosselli's Epulario.
Master cook and merry prankster Robert May. I guess he does look a bit like Bruce Forsyth. Seriously though, May was one of England's very greatest cookery book authors
With its leaping frogs and ladies throwing eggshells full of sweet waters at each other, May's 'Triumphs and Trophies in Cookery' was a lively Jacobean equivalent of a Brian Rix bedroom farce, but it could not compete with the culinary slapstick humour of the Italian peninsula. Take the image of the triumphal arch below, entirely made of cheeses, hams and sausages, with two roast pigs squirting wine from the spouts in their mouths on to anyone foolish enough to walk below. This was constructed for a coccagna festival in Naples in 1629. At the end of the festivities, all the food in the arch was up for grabs, so the poor of the city demolished it, fighting each other fiercely in order to get their share.

Triumphal arch of cheese, hams, sausages and suckling pigs, made to honour Duke Antonio Alvarez di Toledo, Viceroy of Naples, on the Feast of St. John the Baptist, 23 June 1629. Anonymous woodcut from Francesco Orilia, Il Zodiaco . Napoli:1630. Image courtesy of Getty Research Institute
Coccagna festivals were held in many Italian cities and in some other European countries, but the best ones took place in Naples. They had their origins in the pan-European myth of the Land of Coccagna (usually spelt Cockagne in English), where money and food grew on trees, rivers flowed with wine and if you worked you went to prison. With its promise of unimaginable plentitude, this fable gave a vain hope of a better life to the undernourished and overworked peasantry of Europe. The massive machine della coccagna erected in the royal square were usually paid for by the king of Naples. They were entirely made of food materials and were ransacked by the poor of the city as soon as the king gave a signal. 

The pavilion on the hill in the image below is made of cake and bread, the fountains flow with wine and the formal garden in the foreground is constructed from hams and cheeses. The animals grazing on the hillside have been roasted and then put back in their own skins. The Neapolitan citizens are ready to rush in from the sides to ransack the whole structure and take advantage of the king's generosity. I was privileged enough to have been involved in an exhibition about a decade ago at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles entitled The Edible Monument, which was devoted to the coccagne and other European culinary curiosities. If you want to find out more about this extraordinary backwater of food culture, visit the exhibition website from the link at the end of this posting.

Machina della Coccagna in the Piazza Reale in Naples. Engraving from Vincenzo dal Rè, Narrazione delle solenni reali feste (Naples: 1747). Image courtesy of Getty Research Institute
Neapolitans were also pretty good at making the kind of fake food that Sir Hugh Platt describes above. In the 1780s King Ferdinand IV of Naples and his queen Maria Carolina visited the convent complex of San Gregorio Armeno. The English travel writer Dr George Moore happened to be at the convent for the occasion and gave a very detailed account of the visit in his book A View of Society and Manners in Italy (London: 1790). He tells of a remarkable meal the sisters of the convent gave to the King and Queen. Although this sumptuous repast appeared to consist of a variety of fish, flesh and fowl, all the dishes were made entirely of moulded ice creams and water ices, a Neapolitan speciality.

The cloisters of the convent complex of San Gregorio Armeno in Naples
Here is Moore's account of the remarkable frosty feast prepared by the nuns.

These novelty moulded ices could be pretty convincing. Here is a one of a bunch of grapes I made just a few days ago. It was moulded from muscadine water ice, a lemon water ice flavoured with elderflower and coloured with red grape juice.

When Charles V visited the convent of Martarana in Palermo in June 1537, the fruit trees in the garden were bare, so the nuns hung them with fake oranges made of marzipan in order to impress the emperor - or so the story goes. Fake fruits of this kind were actually once made all over Europe. A few years ago I dressed a remarkable 1766 Sèvres dessert service which had been given as a gift by Louis XV to his minister the Marquess of Choiseul. I filled two extraordinary decorated flower baskets with trompe-l'œil marzipan fruit which I made in the manner of the day. Two very rare white biscuit Sèvres flower baskets needed artificial flowers, so I obliged with two bouquets entirely made from sugar.

A fruit basket from the Choiseul dessert service filled with my fake marzipan fruits at Waddesdon Manor in 2000

My sugar flowers among the biscuit figures on the same table
Early modern period sugar playing cards
This tradition of making novelty foods out of sugar paste has a long history. In the Renaissance, plates and cups formed of sugar paste were used for serving food and drink. At the end of the meal, they too could be eaten, elegantly saving the problem of the washing up. Many novelty items were made from this material, a blend of powdered sugar, gum tragacanth and rosewater. Complete chess sets and playing cards are just a few of the fun items that graced the Tudor banquet table. Curiously in the eighteenth century, floppy cribbage cards were made out of flummery or blancmange, like those made below from a recipe in Elizabeth Raffald's The Experienced English Housekeeper (Manchester: 1769). In the nineteenth century the New York based ice cream mould manufacturers Eppelsheimers retailed a set of pewter moulds to make a complete pack of ice cream playing cards.

One of a set of moulds to make ice cream playing cards produced in the late nineteenth century for Eppelsheimer and Co. of New York City. The same company retailed moulds to create a complete chess set in ice cream as well as a three foot high mould to create a seventeen litre ice cream model of the Statue of Liberty. Miniature ice cream statues were made for benefit dinners to raise money to build the real statue, so they actually predated Berholdi's finished structure.
Flummery or blancmange was a favourite medium for making fake fruits and other novelties for the English table. This melon was made in a 1750s salt glazed stoneware mould
Mrs Elizabeth Raffald's famous Hen's Nest Jelly of 1769
This ability of joke food to switch from one medium to another is best exemplified in the examples illustrated below. The cockerel and hen in the top left hand corner date from 1621 and represent two folded napkins, no doubt intended for an all male gathering. The black and white image beneath it, shows the same joke nearly three hundred years later as a representation of an ice cream mould in an early twentieth century catalogue. The sugar or chocolate mould on the right dates from the late nineteenth century and is the one I used to make the chocolate Chanticleer covering his mate towards the beginning of this post. I guess the old ones are definitely the best ones.

There are a number of accounts of Italian Renaissance feasts where a table appears in the dining room as if by magic and after one course is eaten suddenly vanishes, only to appear again laden with a fresh batch of dishes. This of course was one practical joke which depended on sophisticated and ingenious mechanics. As far as I know, none of these extraordinary tables have survived in Italy.* However, there is one that is still extant in a banqueting house dating from 1692, known as the Bellaria, in the gardens of Český Krumlov castle in Bohemia. The baroque kitchen and table date from 1746. Next year I will be staging my first Bohemian baroque meal at the Prague Carnivale with my remarkable artist friends Rostislav and Zlatuše Müller, who were responsible for reviving the event. It will take place in the Clam Gallas Palace in Prague in February, but another year we are planning to use the magic table at Český Krumlov to recreate a multi-course baroque dinner. So if you like historical practical jokes of this kind do watch this space.

The Bellaria summerhouse in the gardens of Český Krumlov Castle
The machinery of the magic table viewed in the Bellaria kitchen before it rises up into the dining room above. Photo courtesy and copyright Český Krumlov State Castle
The beautiful rococo dining room of the Bellaria with the magic table laid with some fruit. Photo courtesy and copyright
Český Krumlov State Castle
* I have just heard from Marina Revelant, a follower of this blog from Italy, who has pointed out to me that an Italian magic table has survived in the beautiful Palazzina Cinese in the Parco della Favorita in Palermo in Sicilia. Marina has kindly sent me the photograph below of this lovely casina, which was designed by Guiseppe Venanzio Marvuglia (1729-1814) for Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies. It is known as ll tavola matematica and is very similar in every way to the one in Český Krumlov. I have visited Palermo three times, but did not know about this. So thank you very much Marina for getting in touch with this great information.

Marvuglia's Palazzina Cinese in the Parco della Favorita, Palermo

La tavola matematica