JASNA AGM 2016
Satisfy Your Sweet Tooth: A History of Sugar and Dessert
I was lucky enough to get a spot in this talk by food historian and historic foodways consultant Joyce White. Sugar and sweet desserts evolved over time from Medieval England to the Victorian era when desserts became closer to the modern sweets we enjoy today. In Medieval times, sweets were incorporated into the meal. Sugar came from sugar cane and was expensive so honey was more widely used. In the 14th and 15th century sugar-coated seeds and flowers, known as dragées or comfits, were common eaten. We had the opportunity to try candied violets, which taste very floral. Too much for me.
Sugar was also used for medicinal purposes. It balanced the humors, especially when combined with vinegar. Sugar and spices were blended with sugar and eaten at the end of a meal to aid digestion. Crystallized ginger was also eaten as a digestive aid. I tried a nibble and it wasn't bad. A larger bite packed a real punch. Eater beware! Sugar coated fennel seeds were eaten We also tried sugar coated fennel seeds. Those were actually good. They taste just like crunchy Good and Plenty candies. They must be the forerunners of that type of candy.
Gingerbread was another popular sweet beginning in the medieval period. It was literally ginger bread-made with boiled honey, breadcrumbs and sometimes ground sandalwood chips added for color. This is not the rich molasses gingerbread we know today and it doesn't taste like it. Joyce White's recipe is a transliteration of a medieval recipe. By the 16th century, the honey was replaced by molasses and breadcrumbs with flour. In the 18th century, chemical leavening agents were used in baking.
Before marmalade became common in the 19th century, quince paste was the equivalent in the 16th century. Read more on A Taste of History. I did not like this at all. It smelled strange and tasted as bad as it smelled. It wiggles like Jell-O. I don't eat wiggly foods so after a tiny bite, I passed this one on to my relatives.
Starting in the medieval period, no banquet or dinner party was complete without a fashionable sugar sculpture, known as sotiltees (or subtleties).. Like ice sculptures today, but significantly more ornate, these served as centerpieces on the table. They were 3D objects or scenes made to be admired while food was served around them. Food historian Ivan Day has some magnificent photos of his creations on his blog. These remained popular into the Victorian period.
In Jane Austen's time, small cookies made with currents and flavored with wine, rosewater and/or orange water were popular. Joyce White chose to make Barnet cakes.
Ices and creams of all kinds were popular with Georgian and Victorian diners. Ice cream was a rare and expensive treat until the Georgian era.
Regency era people enjoyed eating ice at a confectionery shop.
You wouldn't find ice cream like in a modern ice cream parlor but something more like Italian ice or gelato in flavors that seem unusual and exotic to us, like parmasean cheese, alongside normal flavors like lemon. Ice could be molded into fancy shapes for a dinner or ball. The ice cream making device, known as a sabotiere, differed from a Victorian ice cream maker in that it lacked a crank. The sabotiere was placed in a bucket surrounded by ice and salt and then the cream was hand-turned.
The ice cream was flavored with natural flavors like berries, spices and rosewater.Creams could be fancy molded confections or flavored whipped creams.
As technology advanced and sugar refining become easier, desserts evolved into the modern sweets we know today.
This was a great presentation with some unusual historic sweets to try.