Monthly Archives: November 2012

Insulae Draconis Coronet & Yuletide University

Last weekend, the Insulae Draconis Coronet and Yuletide University took place in Glen Rathlin. Aodh has written about it elsewhere in detail. For this blog, its interest mainly lies in the gingerbread subtlety that I presented at the feast. I had carefully written documentation for it in advance, but discovered on the site that no A&S display or competition was being held this time. Not to worry; that is what the blog is for. 

Below is the documentation I would have presented. 



1. Description

 A stylized castle incorporating heraldic elements of Drachenwald, Insulae Draconis and Glen Rathlin, all made from gingerbread dough, put together with melted sugar, decorated with edible gold paint, sugar paste, sugared almonds, cinder toffee and spices. Presented as a subtlety at the feast accompanied by a story written by me.

2. Concept of subtlety in the Middle Ages and Renaissance

 A subtlety/sotelty/soteltie was the English term for entremets (between meals), an elaborate entertainment consisting of a display piece made from edible materials, wood or canvas, and, additionally, in more sumptuous settings, automatons or live performers.[i] Besides entertainment, entremets served purposes of allegory and honouring of important people or events. Sweet subtleties could be made from materials such as pastry, butter, marzipan and sugar paste. We know that subtleties were made in shape of buildings; for example, at the enthronement of William Warham as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1505, one of the subtleties was in the shape of the interior of an abbey church.[ii] We also know that display castles were made from pastry and decorated and/or filled with sweets and/or savouries, as the example of chastletes shows.[iii] Subtleties went out of fashion in mid- to late 16th century.

3. Gingerbread (Lebküchen/pfeffernüsser/speculaas/leckerli/pepparkakor/piparkakut) dough in the Middle Ages and Renaissance

 The history of spiced biscuits that have become one of European Christmas specialities stretches back to the Middle Ages. We cannot pinpoint their origin, but it is thought that the first ones would have been made in German monasteries.[iv] As an interesting detail, a 13th-century Provencal poem of Flamenca states that at Christmas tide the best trade is plied on spices, so we might argue that spiced biscuits at Christmas/Yuletide table have a very early justification.[v] A 16th-century German recipe calls for honey, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and pepper.[vi] In late Medieval England, honey and breadcrumbs were used, sometimes coloured with saffron or sanders (powdered sandalwood), with cinnamon and pepper for flavor. Decoration was used, as an example of box leaves held in place with gilded cloves shows.[vii] In the 17th century, breadcrumbs were replaced by flour, honey by treacle, and butter, eggs and raising agents added to enrich the dough.

4. Method

In order to incorporate the Period concept, ingredients and flavor with the methods of modern cookery, I used an adaptation of a recipe for German honiglebküchen available from Petruksen Piparkakut, a carefully researched Finnish-language blog on historical biscuits and gingerbreads. I left out the cocoa and replaced the unobtainable raising agent with commercial baking soda. Other ingredients of the dough include: honey, sugar, butter, lard, egg, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, allspice, rye flour and wheat flour. As I could find no suitable Period illustrations, I used a freely available non-Period pattern. The heraldic pieces I drew myself, freehand, first on paper and then traced the design on rolled out dough. The pieces of the castle are stuck together using melted sugar and the decoration is done using Period ingredients as far as possible. Sim (2005: 153-7) notes that the art of sugarcraft was very developed in the 16th century and she documents the use of sugar paste and how to dye it in different colours.[iii] The sugared almonds and cinder toffee used were made by Lady Fianna Rua Nic Mhathúna.

[i] Alan Davidson, The Oxford Companion to Food (OCF), First Edition, Oxford University Press, 1999: 760

[ii] Alison Sim, Food & Feast in Tudor England, The History Press, 2005: 11, 152

[iii] Constance Hieatt et al, Pleyn Delit, Second Edition, University of Toronto Press 1996: Recipe 140

[iv] OCF: 446

[v] OCF: 493

[vi] OCF: 447

[vii] OCF: 338


Here is the subtlety at the feast, presented to Their Highnesses Prince Richard and Princess Lena. The photo was taken by Stefano de Mohac.



Of Undead, and of the Arts of the Living

Pesky mundane life. I have been up to my eyes in work and have had to neglect the Medieval side of things. I did, however, manage to finish my early Period garb for the event this weekend. Here I am, in a bad iPhone picture. All the fabrics are from IKEA, so they do come from a viking marketplace of sorts. ImageIn the meantime I also managed to find some real verjuice, in Fallon & Byrne’s food hall in Dublin city centre.  Naturally it’s nothing like what I tried to recreate in the last post, without really knowing what I was doing. It is exquisite: made from cold pressed grapes and tastes like summer rain. I like to call it ‘extra virgin wine’.

This weekend was Medieval Dead 2, a seasonal event organised by the Shire of Eplaheimr in central Ireland. It was my first event since returning to play and I enjoyed it immensely. Our entire household was present, much fun was had and we even excelled at various arts, Tuathal winning the archery competition, Cassandra and one of the little ladies getting prizes for their A&S projects and yours truly winning the ‘scary’ category of the bardic performances. Dressed as a valkyrie, I recited a prophecy of the valkyries from Njal’s Saga concerning the Battle of Clontarf and the death of Brian Boru. I am thinking that I may need to look more closely into the whole area of storytelling and reciting.

I helped in the kitchen in general, but I also got to do my first stint of event cooking. It was given unto me to provide the hangover breakfast on Sunday morning. This was made more interesting still by the fact that my own consumption of wine at the feast the previous night had been liberal. Nonetheless, if a word is given, it will be kept, so I was in the kitchen bright and early, knocking back apple juice and coffee, with Aodh as my kitchen boy. I mixed together a veritable vat of pancake batter for paper-thin crepes and served them forth with lemon wedges, sugar and mashed spiced apples that were a leftover from a mulled apple juice of the previous day. Viscountess Susannah made a delicious honey butter, which tasted amazing on the crepes, together with the apple. We also served leftover bread and bacon sliced from large chunks, boiled for an hour the previous day and baked in the morning with a glaze of honey, cinnamon and ground cloves. Other leftovers were gingerbread men and a selection of cakes and biscuits. It was remarkably satisfying to step into the great hall and be received with an applause, albeit not a huge number of people had made it to the breakfast.

Another event is coming up in the Shire of Glen Rathlin in a couple of weeks time. I may have offered to provide a subtlety. This may have been unwise.