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.
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.
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.