Tudor Confectionery

Human’s attachment to sugar began several thousand years ago, exact date unknown, with the growth of the sugar cane plant, and with steady cultivation across Asia meant it was one of the most valued and rich export from the Asian world to Europe. Sugar itself was incredibly expensive up until the year 1500 when sugar was grown extensively across the tropical climates of the South Americas and earned the name ‘fine spice’ which was reserved for the wealthy. Sugar under the Tudor dynasty (1485-1603) developed an economic status, you were rich if you were able to provide sugary treats for dessert and most specifically have a cook capable of creating sugar sculptures of monumental sizes. But it also played a part in court life in romance since sugar items were used as a way of a gentleman sweetening the woman he was courting.

From Henry VIII to Elizabeth I it was well-known that the monarch adored rich, sweet and fruity tastes for their meals. Everything could be laced with honey or drenched in a thick sauce or spiced wine that would eventually turn your teeth black. Due to the rise of cookery books in the late sixteenth century, experimentation with food created new puddings and dishes; the most popular of all was confectionary. This expanded once exploration of the supposed new worlds expanded the food available to the Tudor society. ‘Sweetmeats’ was a delicacy of crystallised fruit or a piece of candy that was popular in banquets and feasts, this included home-grown strawberries and pears to the more exotic pomegranates and oranges. These are still popular today but due to mass marketing in the nineteenth century they lost their ‘only for the wealthy’ status. But in Tudor times this was reserved for royalty and the top echelons of society. The term ‘sweetmeats’ also refers to the course that came after the meat course during dinner. The prime example of this would be ‘marchpane’, marzipan to today’s confectionery world. Powdered almonds would be combined with what would be considered as icing sugar and then moulded into sculptures. This became popular under the late Plantagenet dynasty but is better remembered as a delicacy of the Tudor age. One Tudor feast was known to have displayed transformations of Ovid in marchpane, another would be a scaled model of a bear and other legendary or mythological scenes. The sculpturing of marchpane eventually gave way to being known as ‘subtleties’ and was usually covered in gold leaf. The Tudor court would eat the entirety including the gold and usually the biggest or most prominent piece would be given to the monarch. Slices would get smaller the further down the table of the Tudor hierarchy you were. Since the Tudors were the epitome to pageantry and obvious conspicuous consumption, it was natural that the properties of sugar was used to full effect when putting on a show since it was so expensive. The sweetmeats course would occur at dinner, around 3-4pm, every day but on special occasions or important diplomatic feasts, sugar would be used to create the finest confectionary. Occasionally there would be a whole extra banqueting tent put up in the royal gardens to house the subtleties, especially if it was portraying a scene from a play, or a scale size version of a palace/castle.

All sugar products were handmade in the Tudor era and was a skill highly valued in an upper class house’s kitchen. Many cooks would find themselves occupied in mixing sugar to make ribbons, bows or table decorations as and when needed. Something similar to what we would recognise as red laces coloured with fruit juices would be a popular treat. Children were not given a lesser diet then the adults so they would be introduced to sugar from a young age so naturally sugary products would be used as gifts to children or as part of courtship between an unmarried couple. Romance was attached to the products alongside it being part of daily life. There is one story of Elizabeth I attending Kenilworth Castle, home of the Earl of Leicester, and arriving to confectionery hanging from the trees. The idea was for a gentleman to take the confectionery from the tree and present to the lady he was courting. Once again this was all to do with the parade that was court life, yet sweets and sugar still hold a connection within today’s society with it being one of the most affluent sect in the business of food.

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