This week it is the ultimate test on the Great British Bake-Off – the grand final between three astonishing bakers, Richard, Luis and Nancy. The challenges have not been announced, but there is little doubt it will involve something very large and architectural. We may think the trend for man-size towers of croquembouche or gingerbread houses you could happily inhabit, are new phenomenon – but as ever, history is merely repeating itself.
In Britain a fashion for sculptural food can be traced back to Medieval Royal feasts and the use of sotelties moulded in the shapes of people, animals, and mythical creatures in wax, marzipan or sugar. These in-between courses showstoppers were accompanied by texts or verses that revealed their allegorical nature, for example an angel accompanied by a text: ‘Thanke all, god, of this feste’.
More surreal were the Italian food festivals of Renaissance Italy, often referred to as Cuccagna, a term related to ‘Cockayne’ or the mythical land of plenty. At their centre were extraordinary architectural fantasies constructed of cheeses and hams; in fact gigantic pavilions built of food. Provided by local nobles, the amusement lay in watching the poor and homeless destroy these edifices in a ravenous rampage - it seems the entertainment value of watching others eat is nothing new.
On a more modest scale, the eighteenth century saw the height of elegant sugar architecture. Classical temples, military monuments and ornate gardens were constructed to form the centrepieces of breathtaking banquets. The secret to constructing so many edible buildings was the use of carved moulds that allowed sugarpaste to be ‘mass-produced’ and then assembled. To conquer the inherent problems of food architecture – wobble and collapse – many decorations were not intended for consumption, strengthened by rice flour, plaster, starch and ground marble. Furthermore, to prevent slumping, buildings were often supported by wires and armatures.
By the nineteenth century such ostentatious trionfi di tavola (triumphs of the table) were deemed excessive. Urbain Dubois, chef de cuisine to Wilhelm I of Prussia, created sculptures that reflected the Kaisers two greatest passions: warfare and hunting. A sculpture depicting the pleasures of the hunt in the form of a boar’s head and miniature stags, made from fat, must be one of the most ghastly food sculptures ever made. More attractive were the huge Gothic sugar centrepieces, such as that recreated by food historian Ivan Day at www.historicfood.com
On a more modest scale, in my novel The Penny Heart, even the more aspirational Georgian households hankered after something architectural on their dining tables. The Wedgewood potteries, ever alert to customers’ aspirations, created a dessert mould in the form of a small turreted ‘Solomon’s Temple’ to be filled with flummery, similar to blancmange. Extremely wobbly and rather ridiculous, this seemed to me the perfect dish to illustrate my heroine Jane’s apprehensions at her wedding feast and her concerns about the dysfunctional family she is marrying into.
Looking ahead to the Bake-Off final, it does look as if Richard, master builder by trade and devotee of pencil and ruler, enters with a clear advantage. However, unlike the food sculptures of the past, I hope that ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating’ and sheer ‘scrumminess’, as Mary would say, will win the day.
~ How to Make A Solomon’s Temple in Flummery ~
Take a quart of stiff flummery and divide into three parts. Make one a pretty pink colour with a little cochineal, bruised and steeped in brandy. Scrape an ounce of chocolate and mix with another part of flummery to make a stone colour. The third part must be white. Then fill your mould first with pink flummery for the tower and then white for the turrets. Fill the base with chocolate flummery and let it stand for one day. Then loosen it round with a pin and shake it out gently. When you set it out, stick a small sprig of flowers into each tower, which will strengthen it and also give it a genteel appearance.
Extracted from THE PENNY HEART by Martine Bailey, to be published by Hodder & Stoughton in 2015.
Martine Bailey’s debut historical novel, AN APPETITE FOR VIOLETS, is available now in trade paperback and as an eBook from Hodder & Stoughton. Find out more on the Hodder website here, by visiting Martine Bailey’s website and by following her on Twitter.