Saturday 28 December 2013

Chef Comes To Pemberley

And Throws His Teddy Bear Out Of The Pram!

A still from a kitchen scene in Death Comes to Pemberley, a BBC drama production based on the novel by P.D. James
Earlier this year I was invited to dress a couple of food scenes in the three-part period drama series Death Comes to Pemberley, which is currently screening on BBC television. One of them, a very ambitious ball supper table that features in an Elizabeth Darcy day dream, hardly made it into the final edit. A pity, because it was truly spectacular. But two brief kitchen scenes I set up did get used. In order to make the kitchen sequence exciting from a cinematic point of view, I suggested to the director that I should train the actors to carry out real culinary tasks from the Regency period - larding meat, icing Savoy cakes, garnishing hatelet skewers and unmoulding jellies. I thought these would be more visually exciting alternatives to the stereotypical choppy-choppy, kneady-kneady activities that had been suggested. He thought this was a great idea and put it to me that I actually play the chef. I had some reservations, but accepted the role as I thought it would actually make my job easier supervising the kitchen activities, so my measurements were passed on to the wardrobe department.

The ball supper that never happened. A somewhat out of focus pan of a few dishes made it into the final edit
I enjoy doing this sort of thing for film and television, but I come from a different world and I sometimes get annoyed by the rather elastic licence that is frequently taken by media creatives with the word 'authentic'. It is usually given as the reason for involving me in productions of this kind. When I was first invited to work on this one I was told, 'We want the kitchen table to be really, really authentic and you are the man to do it'. Now that is fine, because I have built a career on attempting to recreate period food in all of its glory in historic settings. So why was I more than a little surprised when I saw the way in which the wonderful kitchen at Harewood House had been set up by the art department prior to my arrival? 

Blood drips from the game birds on to the fine pastry and elaborate ball supper dishes below, but it does n't half frame the shot!
The flagged kitchen floor had been covered with numerous large sacks of vegetables, making it look more like a market place than a palace kitchen. Hanging from an improvised gantry over the ancient Harewood work table were dozens of pheasants and rabbits. Now what is wrong with that you might well ask? Surely it sets the scene and creates a great atmosphere of a busy kitchen, the hanging game framing the shot perfectly. 

Let us take the vegetables first. The only vegetables that found their way into a kitchen of this status were ones that has been cleaned, peeled and prepared for the chef and his maids by the scullery staff. Raw vegetables were stored well away from the hot kitchen in specially designed bins to keep them cool and from under the feet of the staff. As for the game, there was a specialised game larder for that. Any game bird that came into the kitchen at Pemberley would have been plucked, cleaned and singed in the scullery before it arrived in the kitchen. Some great houses, like Chatsworth, the main location for the production, actually had a specialised 'plucking room'. The last thing you would hang over a table that was designed for the preparation of very fine food were game birds and rabbits dripping blood. I pointed this out and added the observation that the pheasants were in fact hanging by their legs when they should have been hanging by their necks. I was reassured that 'nobody will notice'. A few minutes later Lady Harewood, whose family owns the house, popped in to see how her wonderful kitchen had been dressed and expressed exactly the same concerns about the inappropriate game birds that I had. When told, 'but don't they look good', she replied, 'they look ridiculous'. 

An hour or so later, I noticed the pheasants had been hung the right way round, but remained suspended over a table dressed with delicate pastries and dessert dishes. This was the moment I decided that I did not want to be seen dead in front of it as a member of the cast and told the director that I was turning down my 'bijou' role as the chef. I threw my teddy bear out of the pram! A stand-in was found - a real actor, who suited the part much better than me and the show went on. However, you will notice my hands unmoulding an intricate macedoine jelly at one point. 

Despite my misgivings about the way in which the kitchen had been decorated, I really enjoyed working on the production. The crew and cast were delightful. And it is always a pleasure to work at Harewood, a house with which I have a long professional association.
Mrs Darcy (Anna Maxwell Martin) and Mrs Reynolds the housekeeper (Joanna Scanlan) inspect the preparations for the ball supper in the Harewood kitchen.

Tuesday 24 December 2013

Royal Jelly

Jim Broadbent as King William IV having a row with the Duchess of Kent in front of an assemblage of some of my Georgian dessert food, including some Savoy cakes and a moulded ice cream in the form of a palm tree.
About five years ago I recreated King William IV's birthday dinner for The Young Victoria, which has recently been repeated on BBC television here in the UK. I remember arriving at the chosen location Arundel Castle in my rather small Citroen with enough food to set up a vast dessert table for one hundred diners. Nobody on the set could believe how a repast of such ambitious scale could emerge from the back of such a modest vehicle. I guess it was a kind of regal retake on the miracle of the loaves and fishes. However, having a background in decorative arts and museums, I was horrified by the rather inappropriate tableware that was provided by the prop department. At the original entertainment in 1836 at Windsor Castle, William's table was dressed with brother George VI's Grand Service, still used by the present Queen for state banquets. This was far, far grander than the bric-a-brac we were given to dress our table. The food stylist Katherine Tidy and I set about attempting to hide all the late Victorian crockery under the food. I think we succeeded in creating a fairly royal impression as the dishes were so glamorous, the rather poor stuff upon which they sat fortunately went unnoticed. 

A hundred diners sat down to William's birthday table in 1836. It was much grander than this version we produced for The Young Victoria, as the table was laid with the Grand Service purchased by William's brother earlier in the century from the London goldsmiths Rundell, Bridge and Rundell. 
If you have not seen this film, it is a love story spiced with some juicy dynastic intrigue in its early stages. It attempts to give an impression of the grandeur of court life at this period with lots of fancy frocks and ringlets - and with the food of course. However for me the more successful moments were the quieter ones which explored the passionate love which developed between the young queen and her handsome prince, eventually culminating in their marriage. In real life they had twenty happy years together, but Albert sadly died at the age of forty-two and Victoria mourned him for the rest of her long life. Whenever I walk past my kitchen dresser I tend to think about the lonely widowed queen, as in a prominent position sits a solitary jelly mould made in her image. It is a typical neo-gothic creation surmounted with a profile of the young queen. When it was issued to commemorate the royal marriage in 1840, it had a pendant - another mould, which I do not possess, representing Prince Albert. So sadly the young queen sits in my kitchen alone, just as she did for 40 years after her Prince Consort's death.
Queen Victoria (1819-1901)
Below is the royal jelly anthropomorph which the mould creates, looking somewhat like a cameo. Just recently I was offered a matching Albert mould, but at such an inflated price, that I am afraid Victoria continues to sit alone on my dresser.
The absolutely staggering jelly created by the mould looks like a cross between a cameo and a penny red stamp.
The other half of the pair - Prince Albert of Sax-Coburg and Gotha (1819-1861).
Would look good with a clean, but too many $$$$s, so Victoria remains widowed

The Royal pair were also made in this plainer version
Has any nation other than Britain celebrated their rulers in this eccentric way? 

Wednesday 18 December 2013

Some Christmas Night Caps

My favourite Christmas tipple -  Punch Royal - but why the orange peel? Recipe and explanation below.
I was recently given a small job by a television production company to check the historical accuracy of the script of a programme about Christmas drinks. Though it only dealt with a limited number of period tipples, the show, which will be transmitted by the BBC over the holiday period, was fairly well researched and I only identified a few issues that needed changes. One of these was an erroneous statement that 'mulled wine' was first mentioned by the poet Geoffrey Chaucer in 1386. This was probably based on a search on Google which yielded information about the medieval spiced beverage hippocras, a cordial wine used as a digestive after a meal and as a celebratory drink at weddings and other important events. The researcher had come across this line from Chaucer's Merchant's Tale,

 'He drynketh Ypocras Clarree and Vernage Of spices hoote tencreessen his corage'.* 

She assumed that the word hoote (meaning hot) referred to the wine, implying that it was heated up before serving. Chaucer was in fact using the adjective 'hoote' to describe the warming nature of the spices as understood in the Galenic system of medicine - just as we would today describe ginger and pepper as being hot. He did not mean that the wine was served heated up. Although hippocras is almost certainly one of the the noble ancestors of our modern European mulled wines, glühwein etc., I have never come across any instructions in medieval or early modern period recipes to serve it hot. The overwhelming evidence indicates that hippocras was imbibed cold, though I don't suppose we will ever be totally sure about this. A number of Victorian and some latter-day commentators have assumed that hippocras was served hot on the basis of scant or no evidence.

Mulled Wine

Making assumptions about how our ancestors ate and drank based on the nature of our contemporary culinary practices is a common error. Food and drink in the past were often very different to our own, as was the culture that surrounded them. Take our modern understanding of mulled wine for instance. Although the word 'mull' starts to occur in the early seventeenth century, recipes for 'mulled ale' and 'mulled wine' do not appear in any frequency until late in the following century. Among the earliest to appear in print are these by the Manchester confectioner Elizabeth Raffald,

From Elizabeth Raffald, The Experienced English Housekeeper. Manchester: 1769)
With its egg yolks and slices of toast, as well as the method of pouring it backwards and forwards from one vessel to another, the mulled wine of Raffald's Georgian Manchester bears little resemblance to that served at the German style Christmas fairs that have been springing up all over England recently.  Raffald gives a second recipe for 'mulled wine' which actually contains no wine at all, though I expect this is a mistake, as it is identical to other Georgian recipes for mulled milk, a kind of hot spicy custard served with toast as a supper dish. In 1795 Sarah Martin, cookery writer and housekeeper to Freeman Bower of Killerby Hall, Bawtry, Yorkshire, borrowed Mrs Raffald's book title in her The New Experienced Housekeeper (Doncaster: 1795). However, she did not steal Raffald's mulled wine recipe, as her own version is distinctly different. Its most interesting feature is her very specific use of  'mull' in the context 'mull it backwards and forwards till frothed and smooth', indicating that the verb was being used to describe this to and fro action, rather than meaning 'to heat'.

From Sarah Martin, The New Experienced Housekeeper (Doncaster: 1795).

Our ancestors were very found of comforting winter nightcaps like these, particularly at supper. In a world without central heating or electric blankets, you can understand why these hot beverages were so popular before the dreaded ascent of the stairs to an often ice-cold bed chamber. The medical books of the eighteenth century are full of references to mulled wine, often combined with more powerful medicaments for treating all manner of disorders. Both Raffald's mulled wine and ale, with their fusion of egg yolks, spice and alcohol were really types of caudle, a beverage often consumed in a medical context. When cream or milk was added to the alchemical formula, these restoring beverages were usually called possets. Variations on the theme were legion, often requiring specialist cups or pots in which to to serve the drinks. Mrs Raffald instructs us to serve her mulled wine in a chocolate cup. The two examples illustrated below were made during her lifetime. They are both as far as you can get in terms of elegance from the utilitarian plastic cup out of which I drank some modern mulled wine at the marvellous Arundel Christmas Fair a few weeks go. When it comes to elegance the Georgians knock us into touch every time. 
Chocolate cup and saucer of soft-paste porcelain painted with enamels with exotic birds amongst bushes, and insects. Chelsea ca.1756. Courtesy V&A.
Caudle or chocolate cup, cover and saucer of soft-paste porcelain painted with enamels and gilded. Derby porcelain ca.1770.  Courtesy V&A. This set was made a year after Raffald's recipe for mulled wine was published.

Bishop, Lawn Sleeves, Cardinal and Pope

One hot spiced drink, which a few years ago we never heard much about, but which recently has practically gone viral on the web - there are that many postings about it and none of them terribly accurate - is 'Smoking Bishop'. If it sounds vaguely familiar, you may recall it as the Christmas draught that Ebebezer Scrooge promises to Bob Cratchitt towards the end of Charles Dicken's novel A Christmas Carol (London 1842). Scrooge says, 'we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob!'

However, I suspect that Dickens inadvertently coined the name 'smoking bishop'. I am pretty sure that the novelist's intention in using the word 'smoking' was to evoke an image in our mind's eye of a punch bowl emanating clouds of alcoholic steam. This was a great choice of adjective by a skilled wordsmith to create an atmosphere of warmth and good cheer. The drink was commonly known to one and all at the time as just plain 'bishop' and had been since at least the mid-eighteenth century. I have failed to find any instances of the usage 'smoking bishop' before 1841 when A Christmas Carol first appeared in serial form. A few of Dicken's contemporaries started to use the term in their books a few year's later - Charles J. Lever in Arthur O' Leary (London: 1845) and Henry Dier in Dustiana (London: 1850).  But by then just about everyone in the English speaking world was familiar with the antics of Ebenezer and Bob and the name Smoking Bishop had been subsumed into the national imagination. No doubt one of you will write to tell me that you have found an instance of the name before 1841 and bang will go my theory! But that would be great. This is the reason why I write this blog. Let us together cut through the bullshit and celebrate the real truth about the history of our food and drink.

The earliest full English recipe for bishop known to me (and it is just plain 'bishop') is to be found in a lovely and incredibly rare book first published in Oxford in 1827 called Oxford Night Caps. This little collection contains recipes for many of the so-called alcoholic nightcaps favoured at the time by the students and dons of the Oxford colleges. In his Year Book (London: 1832), the great Georgian antiquarian William Hone gives a very favourable review of this little forty-two page pamphlet, 'In the evenings of this cold and dreary season, "the dead of winter", a comfortable potation strengthens the heart of the healthy and cheers the spirits of the feeble'. In its pages are to be found numerous recipes for 'potations' such as Rum Fustian, Egg posset, Beer flip and Brown Betty.

Decorative title page of Richard Cook, Oxford Nightcaps (Oxford: 1827)
The author of Oxford Nightcaps, Richard Cook, opens his book with a discussion of the history of bishop. He suggests that 'it derives its name from the circumstance of ancient dignatories of the Church, when they honoured the University with a visit, being regaled with spiced wine'. He then gives the recipe below,
Probably the first published recipe for bishop from Richard Cook, Oxford Nightcaps. (Oxford: 1827).
Jonathan Swift wrote the couplet Cook quotes in 1738. It appears to contain the earliest mention of bishop in English. His complete poem consists of just four lines, so I will give the full version here, 

Come buy my fine oranges, sauce for your veal,
And charming, when squeezed in a pot of brown ale;
Well roasted, with sugar and wine in a cup,
They'll make a sweet bishop when gentlefolks sup.

J. Swift, 'Women who cry Oranges' from Works. (London:1755) IV. i. 278. 

However, in the year that Swift's poem was first published, a recipe for bishop appeared in Sweden in the first edition of a cookery book by Cajsa Warg, Hjelpreda i hushållningen för unga fruentimber. (Stockholm: 1755). In this popular book, which went into many editions, it is called in Swedish 'biskop', though in some later Swedish works the more German 'Bischof' is used. As in Swift's poem the drink is flavoured with roasted oranges rather than the lemon mentioned in Cook's recipe. I am indebted to Madame Berg for this information. Her English translation of the recipe, perhaps the earliest for bishop in Europe, can be found in her comments at the end of this post. It contains some fascinating details. Do any of you know any early German recipes for bischof?

Frontispiece from Cajsa Warg, Hjelpreda i hushållningen för unga fruentimber. (Stockholm: 1755). This book contains a recipe for 'biskop' which is much earlier than any published in England.
Although I have never seen any evidence that they were ever used in England, in the German and Scandinavian world, bishop was sometimes served from  specialist lidded bowls made in the shape of bishops' mitres. A number of these have survived, the earliest dating from the 1750s. Perhaps bishop was adopted from the German speaking world and is not English at all. These extraordinary vessels indicate that the beverage had a high profile on the continent nearly a hundred years before Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol.

A Danish tin glazed earthenware bishops mitre bowl, St. Kongensgade faiance ca.1750. Danish National Museum
German faience bischofbowle with rococo design and orange handle. ca.1750s. 
German faiance bishop bowl ca.1776. Courtesy of  Kunstgewerbemuseum, Berlin
Returning to England however, a few other literary men seem to have aquired a taste for bishop well before Dickens wrote of it. Boswell tells us that Dr Johnson was very fond of the beverage and Coleridge in one of his poems calls it 'Spicy bishop drink divine'. The ritual of making Richard Cook's Oxford bishop, especially if you have an open fire, makes for a great kitchen performance. First a lemon has to be spiked with cloves and roasted in front of the fire. This not only releases a flood of essential oil, but also caramelises the surface of the lemon.

Roasting bishop - the clove-spiked lemon toasts in front of the fire
This done, some cloves, cinnamon, allspice, mace and ginger are added to a half pint of water and the liquid boiled until it reduces to half. The room slowly fills with the delicious fumes of roasting lemon and the simmering spices.

Boiling bishop - cinnamon, mace, ginger, cloves and allspice bubble in simmering water until it reduces to half.
Soon added to this is the perfume of the port as it bubbles in a saucepan. The alcohol fumes given off are ignited with a burning paper, resulting in a spectacular electric blue aurora borealis exploding above the pan. If you try this yourself at home be careful not to singe your eyebrows. The way to get it to work is to leave the lid on as the port simmers, light your paper and put it over the pan as you remove the lid and stand well back - pop goes the weasel! As so much of the alcohol is burnt off in this way, it looks like the Oxford scholars preferred their bishop quite weak, which I find rather surprising.

Flaming bishop - the excess alcohol burns off in a spectacular fireworks display
Some lumps of sugar are rubbed on the rind of a lemon and put into a jug or bowl and everything else added. Finally some nutmeg is grated over the surface and the hot bishop is ready to serve. Over to you Ebenezer and Bob!

'Spicy bishop drink divine' - the finished potation 'smokes' in front of the fire with its grate of nutmeg and roasted lemon.
Cook's recipe for bishop was quickly plagiarised, appearing word for word two years later in a rather silly book about food and drink called Apician Morsels (London: 1829) by one Dick Humelbergius Secundus. A slightly enlarged edition of Oxford Night Caps was then published in 1830. Fifteen years later Cook's recipe for bishop was also quoted exactly as it was first printed by the celebrated Victorian poet and cookery author Eliza Acton. Curiously she illustrates the recipe with an amusing engraving of some naked cherubs swimming in what resembles a baptismal font!

Cook's recipe quoted word for word in Eliza Acton, Modern Cookery (London: 1845).
As well as bishop, the gentlemen of Oxford University also enjoyed some other, closely related winter warmers. These were Lawn Sleeves, Cardinal and Pope. Cook tells us that these variants, 'Owe their origin to some Brasen-nose Bacchanalians, and differ only from Bishop as the species form the genus.'

Lawn Sleeves was made with madeira or sherry rather than port. To impart a satiny texture, 'three glasses of hot calves-feet jelly' were added. Cardinal was made the same way as Bishop, but with claret instead of port. Pope was made with champagne using exactly the same method. Another variant called Cider Bishop was made with a bottle of cider, a pint of brandy and two glasses of calves-feet jelly. It seems strange to us today to add hot melted calves-feet jelly, but this also appears in a number of other Oxford nightcaps, such as Negus, Oxford Punch and 'Storative' (Restorative Punch). At this time, this crystal clear nutritious jelly could readily be purchased in a prepared block from the butchers.

A plate of prepared calves-feet jelly, a popular ingredient in punches and spiced wines. It was considered to be a restorative and an easily digested food for invalids, but was also appreciated for the satiny 'mouth feel' it gave to the finished beverage.

Wassail Cup or Swig

Towards the end of his little book Cook discusses the celebrated festive drink Wassail Bowl, which he tells us was known to the fellows of Jesus College as 'Swig'. In 1732 a former student at Jesus, the celebrated Welsh Jacobite Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn (1692 –1749), presented the college with a gargantuan silver punch bowl weighing 200 ounces. 

Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn,  (1692 –1749). Oil on canvas. Michael Dahl.
Here is Cook's recipe for the swig that was once served annually at the Jesus Christmas feasts from Sir Williams-Wynn's enormous bowl, which holds ten gallons of the stuff,  

Cook goes on to tell us that earlier versions of Wassail Cup had roasted apple or crab apples added to the mixture instead of toasted bread. He then gives recipes for both the well-known wassail cup variant Lamb's Wool and the lesser known Brown Betty. Sir Williams-Wynn's great silver bowl is actually a standard Georgian punch bowl. Earlier wassailers had drunk theirs from wooden bowls called mazers. In the cider drinking regions  of England these were turned from apple wood and frequently ornamented with seasonal greenery and ribbons.

From Frederick Bishop, The Wife's Own Book of Cookery, (London: nd. ca.1850)
During the course of the seventeenth century, the wealthy drank their Christmas wassail, usually at Twelfth Day entertainments, from beautifully turned bowls made of lignum vitae and ivory, frequently adorned with silver bands and mounts. 

Lignum vitae wassail bowl with silver mounts made for the Grocers' Company. 1693. Courtesy  Birmingham  Museums and Art Gallery.
Wassail drinking set. Lignum vitae and ivory. 1640-60. Courtesy of the V&A. The curious finial on top of the bowl is a box for storing the spices.
The form of the wassail bowl was imitated in some of the very earliest punch bowls, some of which had little spice boxes on top as well as the foot and stem typical of the wassail bowls. 

Seventeenth century punch bowl in the form of a wassail bowl. Tin glazed earthenware and lignum vitae
During the course of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, ardent punch made from arrack, rum or brandy started to become as popular as the weaker native wassail drinks made from ale or cider. Usually served hot in the winter months, by the 1780s it was also being chilled with ice, or even frozen into an alcoholic water ice for summer usage.

Punch Royal

My own favourite Christmas tipple is a drink I first came across in John Nott's The Cook's and Confectioner's Dictionary (London: 1723). Punch Royal is a delicious, but deceptively powerful potation based on brandy and lime juice. It contains no spice and has a lovely clean flavour. I always serve it to guests at my Taste of Christmas Past course in a punch bowl garnished with curling zests of orange peel. Here is Nott's recipe with a couple of others thrown in for good measure. 

So why do I serve my punch royal with orange zests hanging over the rim of the punch bowl as illustrated at the beginning of this post? Well over  the years I have noticed that many eighteenth and early nineteenth century images of punch drinking show exactly that. Here are a few examples.

Thomas Patch, Detail from A Punch Party (1762) Courtesy National Trust (Dunham Massey)
Detail from William Hogarth, A Midnight Modern Conversation (engraving) 1732.
Another detail from above. Note the discarded zests of orange peel sharing the floor with the human debris.
Detail from James Gilray, Anacreonticks in Full Swing. Aquatint 1801. It's that Christmas feeling again!
Oranges peeled to make long zests for the punch bowl form William Hogarth, A Midnight Modern Conversation. Oil Oainting 1732. Courtesy Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.
A definition of zest from John Nott, The Cook's and Confectioner's Dictionary. (London: 1723). In his comment below, Adam Balic offers some other definitions of the word with some fascinating thoughts on flaming zests to flavour these beverages.
These are just a few of the images in which I have noticed strips of orange zest hanging out of punch bowls, though none are 'several fathoms long'. There is a time span of nearly seventy years between the earliest and latest of these illustrations. I have often wondered what the purpose of this custom was. My pet theory is that these strips of what were probably bitter orange peel, would be hung in the punch to impart a nice citrus flavour. If it became too bitter, the peel was removed (rather like we may pull out a tea bag when the tea gets too strong) and thrown on the floor to join the discarded tobacco pipes, empty wine bottles and human debris who could not take their drink. But this is just a guess. It is still a mystery. So can one of you anacreontick enthusiasts out there enlighten me - but only if you have found some convincing evidence! 

Can I draw your attention to the comment by the sharp-eyed Adam Balic, which he has posted below. Adam suggests that these early punch drinkers may have been flaming the zests of peel in the candle flames to flavour the punch in the way that it is sometimes done today in making a number of cocktails.

Whatever nightcap floats your boat this season, Plumcake and  I say 'Cheers' and wish you all a Merry Christmas.

Merchant's Tale. 365.

While we are on the subject of Christmas, Ivan was recently interviewed by Michael Mackenzie, the host of the excellent Australian ABC RN First Bite food programme. We chatted about the extraordinary phenomenon of Empire Christmas Pudding, the subject of which Ivan dealt with in a former posting on this blog. Click here to listen to the programme.

Listen to Ivan talk about Bishop on BBC Radio 4 Sunday with William Crawley

Saturday 14 December 2013

An Early Modern Christmas Party

Or The Pastry Kunstkammer

The Burghley Nef. Nautilus shell with parcel-gilt silver mounts, raised, chased, engraved and cast, and pearls. France 1527-1528 Courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum
Christmas is a time for celebrations and parties, though the style of our entertainments has changed over the centuries. In the past, the really big day for a blowout was the last day of the Christmas holiday - Twelfth Day. Almost half a century ago I came across the passage below in Robert May's The Accomplisht Cook (London: 1660) for a twelfth day entertainment. I was in my early teens when I first read this hilarious account of a slapstick performance at the end of a great Jacobean feast and it really fired my schoolboy imagination. Since then the passage has been much quoted and with its pies full of skipping frogs and flying birds, is the sort of thing that reinforces the modern reader's conception of early modern period dining as a 'Baldrick-style' free for all. If you have never come across it before, please read it now. It is great fun.

From Robert May, The Accomplisht Cook (London: 1660)
Just the sort of thing that television producers of 'food history' programmes and tabloid journalists love. Though in in my view this kind of thing can act as a serious distraction, because it tends to reinforce the 'four and twenty blackbirds' stereotypical perception of British food history, when the truth about our gastronomic past is much more complex. 

However, when I was in my mid-twenties back in the 1970s, I actually had a bash at re-staging the whole thing, not to celebrate twelfth day, but for a friend's twenty-first birthday party. With three pet canaries (unharmed) and five frogs from my father's pond (slightly puzzled by the experience but who lived to tell the tale) I made some hollow pies according to May's instructions as temporary homes for these creatures. I proceeded to construct a paste-board (cardboard) armature in the form of a ship's hull and covered it with pastry. I furnished it with cannons made out of kickses (hollow cow parsley stems) and foolishly charged them with some homemade gunpowder. The rigging I made from twine and the sails from wafer paper. I also constructed a castle out of pastry and armed it with the same kind of ordinance. The pastry stag proved more difficult, but I owned a copy of Conrad Hagger's marvellous Neues Saltzburgisches Koch-Buch published in Augsburg in 1719 and made a seated pastry stag along the lines he illustrates. I concealed a pig's bladder inside the stag, which was half filled with red wine and tied with cord so it did not leak. 

Diagrams for making pastry deer from Conrad Hagger,  Neues Saltzburgisches Koch-Buch (Augsburg: 1719)
We blew the insides out of a dozen eggs, melted candle wax over one of the holes, filled them with rosewater with a syringe and sat them upright in the salt sea around the pastry galleon and stag. All the pies, the stag, ship and castle were all gilded 'over in spots' as in May's instructions. Unfortunately, I overloaded the cannons on the pastry castle with too much gunpowder and when we lit the fuses, the shattered pastry battlements blew across the table, knocking one of the stag's antler's off. The cannons on the ship behaved a little better, though one of the sails went up in flames. Until then I did not realise how well rice paper burns when ignited. Fortunately a quick thinking guest, in the spirit of the occasion put the flames out by emptying a couple of rosewater filled eggs over the ship's rigging. 

As to the frogs, when the lid of their pie was lifted, they refused to budge and despite the noise of the cannons just sat there looking comatose. May explains what should have occurred, 'Out skip some Frogs, which make the Ladys to skip and shriek', but this did not happen. The frogs having found a nice dark warm home, they decided to hibernate. The ladies present hardly noticed them. My friend Andrew's tame canaries did fly out of the pie and took off around the room, but failed to put the candles out. Andrew eventually coaxed them back into their cage. I do not think the 'blood stains' created by the red wine when it poured out of the stag were ever successfully removed from that rather expensive linen table cloth belonging to Andrew's mum. Forty years later I still feel guilty about it. Seen from today's point of view, the whole thing was ill-conceived and a health and safety nightmare. We were lucky that the house did not catch fire.

Examine this carefully and you will see that the pies and birds are gilded 'over in spots', just as Robert May describes in Triumphs and Trophies of Cookery. Jan Breughel the Elder, An Allegory of Taste (detail). 1618. The Prado, Madrid
Though terribly misguided, I must admit that my juvenile recreation of this event was a lot of fun. But the question I asked myself afterwards was did this sort of thing really happen at great feasts, or was it just something that May invented? He tells us that before the English civil war, 'These were formerly the delights of the Nobility, before good Housekeeping had left England'. But are there any accounts of events like this being held at court or in some of the great ducal palaces? 

The nef was an important symbol of status on the medieval table. From the Grimaldi Breviary. Ghent and Bruges 1515-20. Ms. Lat. I, 99.  Courtesy of Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, Venice.
There are some elements of truth in May's account, though we have to look to the European mainland to find the evidence. Take May's pastry ship with its firing cannons for instance. In France and the German speaking parts of Europe, there had been a custom dating back to the medieval period of embellishing the aristocratic table with a miniature ship called a nef, usually made of goldsmith's work. These frequently served as ceremonial salts and graced many a high status renaissance table. Good examples of these precious objects have survived, such as the Burghley Nef (1527-28) in the Victoria and Albert Museum, illustrated at the beginning of this post. In the second half of the sixteenth century, in German towns such as Augsburg and Ulm, clockmakers started turning their hands to making nefs which doubled up as table automata. Some even had crew members who climbed up the rigging or played musical instruments. Others were fitted with miniature cannons which could actually be loaded with gunpowder and fired, like the example below by Ulm silversmith Joss Mayer.

Table centrepiece or nef in the form of a galley by Joss Mayer (active 1573-1609) Ulm. Silver gilt. The guns can be loaded with powder and fired. Courtesy of the Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien.
Table centrepiece in the form of a ship. Hans Schlottheim (1544-1624). Silver gilt, brass, enamel with oil painted sails. A mechanism driven by a mainspring and fusee is concealed within the hull. Augsburg 1585. Courtesy Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Another remarkable survival of a nef style table automaton is also to be found in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. It was made for Emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612) by Augsburg silversmith and clockmaker Hans Schlottheim (1544-1624). A small statuette of the emperor stands on the deck. The ship's masts fly flags emblazoned with the imperial double eagle, so the vessel represents the Hapsburg Empire itself securely captained by Rudolf. The ship actually moves across the table as if putting to sea while miniature musicians play sackbuts and timpani, the finale being a salvo fired by the cannons. A marvellous video of the whole performance has been produced by the curatorial staff of the Kunstkammer in Vienna which I have included below. Please, please play it, as it is an absolute treat. And if you get a chance, visit the superb new Kunstkammer layout in the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum, where you will be able to see the real thing and a number of other remarkable table automata.

Although made from precious metals with oil painted sails, Rudolf II's warship is highly reminiscent of May's more humble pastry version. May was born in 1588, just three years after Schlottheim made his ingenious galleon for the Hapsburg emperor. As a child apprentice cook he trained in Paris between 1598 and 1603 and it is possible that he may have come across similar table automata while in France. Fame of the remarkable example in Emperor Rudolf's kunstkammer had certainly spread across Europe by this time.

Conrad Hagger's designs for pastry stags were published much later - in Augsburg in 1719. Like May, Hagger was an 'old school' cook who worked for the prince archbishop of Saltzburg, a conservative ecclesiastical patron who presided over a table that was more in the style of a renaissance prince than of an enlightenment cleric. Remember, Augsburg, where Hagger's book was published, was also the town where Schlottheim fabricated his Schiffsautomat for the emperor's table.

So, we have parallels for May's cannon firing ship and his pastry stag, but what about the pastry castle and the pies filled with birds and frogs? Pies in the form of castles go back a long way. In the medieval recipe collection The Forme of Cury (1390s), there is a receipt for a complex pastry in the form of a battlemented fortress called a Chaselet (little castle). Each tower is stuffed with a different filling and presented to table ardent, that is flaming with burning brandy. William Rabisha in The Whole Body of Cookery Dissected (London: 1661) gives some very similar recipes, including this 'orangado pie' in the form of a castle, 

An orangado pie in the form of a castle from William Rabisha, The Whole Body of Cookery Dissected (London: 1661)
These curious structures were also made out of sugar paste. The extraordinary mould below, which is in my own collection, was designed for making a battlemented gatehouse out of gum paste.

So what about the blind-baked pies filled with live birds? Well that is a very old joke, the earliest recipe in English being published in 1598 in a translation of Giovanne de Rosselli's Epulario, 

From Epulario, Or, The Italian Banquet, (London: 1598).
Title page of Giovanne de Rosselli, Epulario quale tratta del modo de cucinare ogni carne, ucelli, pesci, de ogni sorte, e fare sapori, torte, e pastelli al modo de tutte le Provincie. (Venezia: 1555). Rosselli's work was first published in Venice in 1516. It heavily leant on the Libro de arte coquinaria by Maestro Martino, though its content varied in later editions with extra recipes being added by the publishers. 
Here is Rosselli's original recipe, from which the English version above was translated. Per fare pastelli volativi literally means 'To make pies of flying birds'.
The original recipe in Italian for the pie filled with living birds from Giovanne de Rosselli, Epulario. (Vinegia: 1594).
So to sum up, May's extraordinary Triumphs and Trophies of Cookery passage contains elements of culinary extravaganzas from all over Europe. The eccentric live bird pies appear to have been based on the pastelli volativi of Renaissance Italy. The nef, which originally emerged in France was fiddled around a bit by the automaton makers of Augsburg, who added a few firing cannons and musical sailors for dramatic effect. The pastry stag featured at Imperial Hapsburg bean-feasts. Even May's use in the title of the passage of the word 'triumph' is a rare reference in English to the Italian name for an elaborate table ornament made of sugar - il trionfo.

This kind of thing had died out in England well before the Civil War, though if Hagger's illustrations are based on actuality, similar entertainments were still being carried out in the Archbishop's palace in the Hapsburg city of Salzburg as late as the early eighteenth century. Four years after Hagger's book was published in Augsburg, John Nott in The Cook's and Confectioner's Dictionary (London: 1723) re-wrote May's text, presenting it as an antiquarian curiosity. Here is his version. He refers to the long dead May as an 'ancient artist in cookery'.

'Divertisiments' and 'diverting Hurley-Burleys' of this eccentric nature did take place at some European courts, though it is likely that many of the real triumphs of the table were made by the goldsmiths and clockmakers of renaissance Augsburg rather than pastry cooks. Below is another video of a remarkable table automaton made for the imperial Hapsburg kunstkammer, this time by the Augsburg goldsmith and inventor Achilles Langenbucher (1579-1650). He fabricated this wonderful triumphal car with Minerva in Augsburg in 1620. Like Schlottheim's Schiffsautomat, this Triumphwagen travels down the middle of the table, its two horses rearing up as it goes. Do watch it. Again, it is a remarkable insight into the lavish entertainment style of the renaissance Hapsburg emperors.