Tag Archives: banquets

Christmas Special: Minced Pies

I once knew a chap who absolutely hated mince pies. To be honest they are not my favourite Christmas fare, but they are quite nice in the right context (hot, topped with some thick brandy cream and served with a glass of mulled wine of the side, ideally). Anyway, this fellow loathed them. The reason for this was the first time he was offered one, as a child of about 11 I believe, he had never heard of the things before. Nevertheless, he accepted, assuming it was just a small version of a hot minced beef pie. However, when he bit into what he expected to be a meaty treat, he found instead some very unexpected sugary fruit. The experience of getting such intense sweetness when he expected savoury put him off the things for life.

It is fairly common knowledge, I think, that mince pies at one point back in the mists of time actually did contain real meat (and no, I don’t just mean beef suet). It’s the kind of fact that comes up in Christmas quizzes and the like around this time of year. The name “mincemeat” is apparently a remnant from the days when there would be some meat in there. The taste would probably not have been much less surprising to a modern day eater expecting a standard meat pie though, for as we shall see in the recipe (coming soon in the next post!) there was indeed plenty we would recognise in early modern minced pies. In looking for recipes, I found quite a number. Not all contained beef mince, however – I found a recipe for “Minced Pye of Eggs” in one of the ever helpful Hannah Woolley’s cookbooks (The compleat servant-maid, 1677) containing hard boiled eggs along with suet, dried fruit, sugar, caraway seeds,orange peel and a few other sweet things. Mounsieur Marnette’s The perfect cook (1656) features recipes for Italian style minced pies (featuring veal, partidge, chesnuts, currants, sugar, sweet-breads and many more ingredients), Spanish minced pies (including capon, pork, mutton, kidney, bacon, suet, leeks, salt and sweet spices), several kinds of fish-based minced pies,  and “Princesse” pies (containing roast or boiled meat, beef marrow and sweetbreads). The most popular ingredient, however, did seem to be beef, or more specifically neat’s tongue (ox tongue). The aforementioned Hannah Woolley cookbook has tongue as the primary ingredient for “An excellent Minc’d pie”, as does The accomplished ladies rich closet of rarities (J.S., 1687). I didn’t go for the tongue when I tried it as I already had some beef leftover from cooking the hash of raw beef.

So, we have many recipes for mince or minced pies, but were they considered Christmas fare? It seems not exclusively so – one of Martnette’s fish pies for example specifically excludes butter so that it can be made and eaten during Lent. However, the phrase “a mince pie at Christmas” comes up in a number of texts, and minced pies are included – alongside a large number of other foods, mind you – on a Christmas menu in Robert May’s The Accomplist Cook (1660). Here’s the menu in full – it’s length is certainly not uncharacteristic for the feasts and banquets of the upper classes during the period:

A Bill of Fare for Christmas Day, and how to set the Meat in order. Oysters

  • 1 A coller of Brawn.
  • 2 Stewed Broth of Mutton Marrow bones.
  • 3 A grand Sallet.
  • 4 A pottage of Caponets.
  • 5 A Breast of Veal in Stoffado.
  • 6 A boild Partridge.
  • 7 A Chine of Beef, or Surloin roste.
  • 8 Minced Pies.
  • 9 A Jegote of Mutton with Anchove sauce.
  • 10 A made dish of Sweetbread.
  • 11 A Swan roste.
  • 12 A Pasty of Venison.
  • 13 A Kid with a Pudding in his Belly.
  • 14 A Steak Pie.
  • 15 A hanch of Venison rosted.
  • 16 A Turkey roste and stuck with Cloves.
  • 17 A made dish of Chickens in Puff-paste.
  • 18 Two Brangeese rosted, one larded.
  • 19 Two large Capons one larded.
  • 20 A Custard.

The second course for the same Mess. Oranges and Lemons.

    • 1 A young Lamb or Kid.
    • 2 Two couple of Rabits, two larded.
    • 3 A Pig soust with Tongues.
    • 4 Three Ducks, one larded.
    • 5 Three Pheasants, 1 larded.
    • 6 A Swan Pie.
    • 7 Three brace of Partridge, three larded.
    • 8 Made dish in puff-paste.
    • 9 Bolonia Sausage, and Anchove, Mushrooms, and Caviare, and pickled Oysters in a dish.
    • 10 Six Teels, three larded.
    • 11 A Gammon of Westfalia Bacon.
    • 12 Ten Plovers, five larded.
    • 13 A Quince Pie, or Warden Pie.
    • 14 Six Woodcocks, 3 larded.
    • 15 A standing Tart in puffpaste, preserved fruits, Pippins, &c.
    • 16 A dish of Larks.
    • 17 Six dried Neats Tongues.
    • 18 Sturgeon.
    • 19 Powdered Geese.

Jellyes

And you thought your Christmas dinner was extravagant! It’s interesting to see turkey on the menu, along with goose and swan, the latter of which we don’t eat at all any more. I thought this had something to do with them being owned by the Queen, I did a bit of googling but didn’t find anything definitive. Anyway, they were apparently still eating them in the 17th century. Turkeys, however, we are often told are a recent introduction as a Christmas dinner, but this seems to contradict that. Turkeys are relative newcomers to these shores, having been brought here from America in the mid-16th century. By the time of this menu they had been available to eat for around 100 years. But this huge menu doesn’t prove much about mince pies being Christmassy, so to make my case I have for your delectation a short interlude of sorts included in a festive pamphlet entitled Mother Shipton’s Christmas Carols with her Merry Neighbours (1668). The eponymous (and no doubt fictitious)  Mother Shipton also includes a dialogue between roast beef, mince-pie, and plumb pottage contending for superiority (remind you of anything?), complete with terrible food-based puns. I shall be back with a recipe for mince pies very soon, but in the meantime I present to you this jolly interlude that I have transcribed it myself from a scan on EEBO:

Here followeth a Dialogue Between Roast Beef, Mince-pie, and Plumb-pottage, contending for superiority with the verdict of Strong beer, their moderator there on

Strong B. Now Gentlemen this is the time and this the place you have appointed for your disputation : and having chosen me for your Moderator. I advise you (and good counsel too I hold it) to do nothing rashly, but first lets drink

All. We relish it

They drink

Strong B. And now having liquored your lips, pipe on and spare not

Plumb-pot. Why then Mr. Beer craving your good attention, I declare and hope to prove it is my property to preceed, Mr. Mince-pie and Roast beef, and ought in any sound opinion to be the first dish on the Table, and my plea for it is Ancient Custome, which I hope may suffice without any further reasons

Mince-pie. Pish, never tell me of your Reasons: your Reasons are not in Date and therefore starj nought, and as for Custome, I say ’tis more Customary to prefer Pye before Pottage, ergo your Custome is not worth a Cucumber

Roast B. Nay then Gentlemen room for Horns, though I have been silent all this while, don’t you think to rule the Roast

Mr Beef, consider I am Beef, a good substantial food: a dish for a Prince, and indeed (as ’tis Recorded) the King of meats

Plumb-P. Gravely spoken

Strong B. In truth so it is, and I think it fit to exalt the Horn

R.B. And not without cause considering the Dignity his Royal Majesty King James was pleased to confer on me, when one day coming down into his Kitchin, I gave him such satisfaction that he daign’d me with the Honour of Knighthood, with the title of Sir Loine, and therefore claim precedency before these mincing Mimicks

P.P. But pray Beef, was you ever in this jovial time of Christmas prefer’d before me

Mince P. Or even gave that pleasing satisfaction or delight to Ladies, or any sort of Persons as I have done

R.B. Mr Sweet tooth hold you your prating I always had the upper hand of you

M.P. Tell not me of upper hand nor underhand I say I am a dish full of dainty

Roast B. Yes for old women that have no teeth: besides you come but once a yea, but I am in season at all times. You but please Children and Fools, but I am in repute with all sots of what quality soever

Plumb P. Pray Gentlemen let me speak

Roast B. Prethee what can’st say? nothing: but mutter as if you had plums in your mouth, why thou art nothing of thy self, whence art though deriv’d or what’s thy pedegree? nothing by a little water, and fitting for nothing but to cleanse the dishes after me, were it not for the goodness of Beef that gives the being by its favor

Strong B. Mince pie, me thinks thou should’st bear up man, slid for all their talking thou makst their teeth water sometimes at thee

Roast B. And we are much obliged

Mince P. You are a stinking peice of Beef to abuse me so, I make you rotten?

Roast B. Yes sweet Sir, that you do

Mince P. Tough Sir but I do not

Strong B. Nay lets have no quarrelling good, Mr Beef, pray Mr Pye

Roast B. Slid tempt me a little more, I shall fall foul on you

Mince P. If you doe, I’m sure you, you’ll shew foul play and bite me, but Ile maintain my honour in spight of they teeth

Roast B. Let me come at him Ile crumble him Ile warrant you

Strong B. Nay good Beef be not so hot, Let him alone a little till he is colder then you may fasten on him at more advantage

Mince P. I shall pull down his fat sides no doubt

Strong B. Come Gentlemen i’m sorry to see you at violence, pray let me moderate the business between you, why should friends fall our? Come what say ye will you all stand to my award

All. With all our hearts? Eloquent Strong-Beer!

Strong B. Then first for you Mr Plumb Pottage: Since it hath been so long a Custome for you to be first ushered to the Table, we shall continue it still to you during the time of Christmas, so that you do not take it ill, that some at other times make use of you last of all, as is sometime necessary to fill up the chinks, And for you Mr Mince-pye, for the time of Christmas also are to be the Senior in all mens mouths, but ever after to disappear and vanish. As the Prince at Lincolns Inn was cominus factoreum for twelve days but afterwards shrunk into his former peasantry for ever after So must you yeild the preheminence to Mr Roast Beef as royal for all the year after. What say ye, are ye all satisfied!

All. O very well, very well! Rhetorical Strong Beer!

Strong B. Come on then, then lets end all differences in a cup of Strong Bub, and spend the time in singing and carouzing a health to all that love Plumb-Pottage, Mince pye, Roast Beef and Strong Beer.

The Song

Of lusty brown Beer I joy for to hear

But a pox of your White-wine and Claret

I hate for to hear

Of such pittiful geer

For a barrel-ful’s not worth a Carret

Then bub with good courage

‘Tis season’d with Burrage

Their’s nothing more wholesome and merry

Though our cloathes be but thin

It warms me within

And makes us sing he down a derry

There’s nothing above it

He’s a food does not love it

At Christmas it maketh good cheer

Nay more to invite you

And still to delight you

‘Tis as plentiful all the whole year!

I hope you enjoyed that. Don’t say I never give you anything! Merry Christmas everyone!

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Hippocras

Hippocrates, engraving by Peter Paul Rubens, 1638. Image via Wikipedia.


In this blog, I’m looking drink rather than food, and like the drinks I’ve looked at before, this one is alcoholic. Early modern people drank rather a lot of alcohol, and it wasn’t just reserved for an evening tipple – beer, and especially ale, were regularly drunk throughout the day with meals, even breakfast. Water was generally too unsanitary to drink, and tea and coffee entered the national diet sometime around the mid-to-late 17th century, so for the majority of the early modern period were not widely consumed. By the 18th century tea and coffee were very popular indeed, but heavy drinking had certainly not gone away – just look at the gin crisis.

Anyway, early modern society had what you might call a complex relationship with alcohol, though I suppose the same could be said about many societies, including our own. Drunkenness was a problem much bemoaned by many 16th and 17th century writers, such as James Hart of Northampton who, in his treatise on health and morality Klinike, or the Diet of the Diseased (1633), wrote that “Drunkenness is an excessive and unseasonable powring downe of strong drinke” that was the cause of “mischiefs there insuing to the soule, body, and good”. On the other hand, alcoholic drinks were a key part of the everyday diet, they provided nourishment, and in some cases, they were used as medicine.

This is where hippocras comes in. Also spelled hypocras, ypocras, ipocras (and others I’m sure), this was an ancient drink, popular during medieval times as well, very popular at banquets and for medicinal purposes. Hippocras takes its name from the ancient physician Hippocrates, he of the Hippocratic oath fame, though only indirectly, it is in fact named after the hippocras sleeve. This was an invention of Hippocrates, essentially a bag used to purify water. Presumably this lends its name to hippocras as the drink is made by filtering spiced wine through one of these bags. The medicinal associations of the name, however, were quite fitting given the various uses of the drink. In one 1612 text, Child-birth by Jacques Guillemeau, hippocras is suggested to help “the weake and dainty women” during labour, or alternatively they can “be fed with yelkes of egges, cullis, a tost with wine and sugar”.

The end to a great feast would often involve “wafers and hippocras” being served together. This was either served after the banquet course or was part of it. Banquet courses themselves generally consisted of comfits, sugar-plums and other kinds of sweet foods. Robert May in The Accomplisht Cook (1660) suggests serving wafers and hippocras, along with other banquetting foods, at the end two of his suggested menus:

First set forth mustard and brawn, pottage, beef, mut|ton, stewed pheasant, swan, capon, pig, venison, bake, custard, leach, lombard, blanchmanger, and jelly; for standard venison roste kid, fawn and coney, bustard, stork, crane, peacock with his tail, hearn-shaw, bittern, woodcock, partridge, plover, rabbets, great birds, larks, dowcets, pampuff, white leach, amber-jelly, cream of almonds, curlew, brew, snite, quail, sparrow, martinet, pearch in jelly, petty-pervis, quince bak’t, leach, dewgard, fruter-sage, blandrells, or pippins with carawayes in comfits, wafers, and ipocras…

…and later in another menu…

…Fresh sturgeon, bream, pearch in jelly, a jole of salmon, sturgeon, welks, apples, and pears rosted with sugar can|dy, figs of molisk, raisins, dates capt with minced ginger, wafers, and ipocras.

Medicinal or not, hippocras was a popular drink – but did it taste good? I shall soon be finding out when I try making some! It does involve leaving the wine and spices to infuse for a while though, so I won’t be posting the results right away. I have a feeling this is going to be a good one though, my previous adventures in early modern drinks have been some of the nicest things I’ve cooked. Anyway, thanks for reading, come back for the recipe in a week or so!

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Comfits Part 1: History and background

“Comfort in comfits!” by piX1966, used under a Creative Commons License Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

It’s been a while since I’ve been able to post (for a variety of reasons – largely work related), but I’ve been thinking about doing a post on comfits for a while, and I have a little bit of time free so I thought I’d get on with it.

I actually tried making comfits when I made the custards, but it was an utter disaster – more on that when I post the results of my second attempt at making them.

I found this page with some interesting information about comfit making and some lovely pictures. I just love that one with the mouse, although that might have something to do with my enduring affection for rodents in general (I have two pet rats).

A comfit is essentially a sugar coated spice, seed or other small morsel. We still have them today, in fact licorice comfits are one of my favourite sweets. References to comfits in 16th and 17th century drama and poetry seem to be quite frequent. They are sometimes mentioned in diet books and regimens as a way of consuming certain herbs and spices – Thomas Cogan, for example, in The Haven of Health (1584) suggests taking coriander comfits after meals to help those “much troubled by rhumes” – rhume seems to be essentially a runny nose.

Comfits were associated quite strongly with banqueting. I have mentioned banquets before, but I don’t think I’ve gone into much detail. It’s worth pointing out that in the medieval and early modern periods, banquet didn’t quite mean what it means today. We think of a banquet as a being a large feast, but in the past the banquet did not generally refer to  an entire meal (though it was sometimes used in that sense), but more often to a course served at the end of a meal, after the dessert. It was also sometimes known as a voydee. Comfits, marchpane, candied fruit and other sweetmeats generally made up the banquet course.

References in early modern literature, drama in particular, are quite frequent. A particularly interesting example, I think, is a poem by Nicholas Breton called “An odde kynde of wooing, with a banquet of comfettes” which comes at the end of his 1577 poetry collection The works of a young wyt. The poem is described in an introduction as such:

A gentleman being of late at an odde banquet, where were diuers women of diuers disposition, and being serued in at the table diuers comfits of sundry sorts, being come home from the supper to his owne lodging, sitting alone in his chamber, hee compared the women with the comfites, in verse as followeth

And that’s basically the gist – the man has a selection of comfits at a banquet, he dances with some ladies, then he goes home, eats the comfits, and thinks about the women. “Long comfites” remind him of a fair, tall and gallant dame, but “in the comfit was a bitter pill, so in the dame might be some bitter will”. Now, this “pill” is not a pill as in a tablet, but it’s an “Orenge pill”, as in peel. Next up, the man eats round coriander seeds which he declares wholesome, and which bring to his mind “a round, plumpe wench”. Ginger is the next kind of comfit, “whose tast did set my mouth all in a heate”, which reminds him of a tall woman “Whose lookes, mought set his mouth and hart on flame”. The man moves onto biscuits next, which make him think about “a prety wenche”. Then he hears someone shouting “fire”, so he runs off to help, and when he gets back someone has eaten up all his comfits. And that’s where it ends. Very curious indeed! I think the link between women and food might warrant some more investigation at some point.

Here’s a lovely passage from Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage (1594) referencing comfits:

Such bow, such quiuer, and such golden shafts,
Will Dido giue to sweete Ascanius:
For Didos sake I take thee in my armes,
And sticke these spangled feathers in thy hat,
Eate Comfites in mine armes, and I will sing.

The lines are spoken by Venus, who is trying to tempt Dido’s son Ascanius away so her own son Cupid can temporarily take his place. She also offers him “Sugar-almonds” and sweet conserves. It’s interesting to see just how far back the familiar trope of children having a taste for sweets and sugary things goes.

Comfit-makers are often mentioned in plays too, it seems to have been a well known profession. A character in Nicholas Breton’s (him again!) play An olde mans lesson, and a young mans loue (1605), during a little speech on the virtues of feasting, mentions how feasts provide work for “the Vintner, the Grocer. the Comfit-maker, the Cooke, the Brewer and the Butcher”. Even their wives make their way into drama – Hotspur in Henry IV part 1 berates his wife for swearing too meakly “like a comfit-makers wife”.

Finally, I just could not resist this lovely bit of word play from Thomas Heywood’s The Fair Maid of the West (1631):

I will make bold to march in towards your banquet, and there comfit my selfe, and cast all carawayes downe my throat, the best way I have to conserve my selfe in health

Thanks for reading, good to be back after a little break. The recipe will be along in the next few days.

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Custards: Part 1

Custard tart by Shanti, shanti used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license

 

I am working on a chapter section about The Great Duke of Florence by Philip Massinger (1636) at the moment, and  these lines spoken by Calandrino, a servant of one of the main characters, gave me the idea of trying out a custard recipe:

Why how to behave my self in Court, & tytely
I have beene told the very place transformes men,
And that not one of a thousand, that before
Liv’d honestly in the Country, on plaine Sallads,
But bring him thither, marke me that, and feed him
But a moneth or two with Custards and Court Cakebread,
And he turnes Knave immediately. I would be honest;
But I must follow the fashion, or die a beggar.

Calandrino is the play’s comic relief character – the comedy usually centres around him wanting to fit in at court in spite of his country roots, as seen in the extract above. The difference between country and court life, one plain the other elaborate, is a recurring theme in the play, and is in fact fairly common throughout Renaissance drama, particularly 17th century works.

“A custard” does not just refer to the thick yellow stuff we know and love (well, I do anyway), an early modern custard is almost always referring to thick custard baked in a pastry case, we still have these today in the form of custard tarts (which I also love).

Custards are referred to in many plays of the period, I’ve noticed that they’re often listed as part the menu of a banquet, seeming to bring with them connotations of richness, excess and courtly luxury. Here is an example from Thomas Heywood’s A Maidenhead Well Lost (1634):

Enter the Clowne with his Table-bookes.

Clowne: Let me see, the Prince is to bee married to morrow, and my young Mistris meanes to keepe a Feast in the Forrest, in honour of his wedding at the Court: Now am I sent as Ca|terer into the City to prouide them victualls, which they charg’d me to buy; no ordinary fare, no more it shall, and therefore I haue cast it thus; First and foremost, wee will haue—(yes downe it shall) we will haue a Gammon of Bacon roasted, and stufft with Oysters; And sixe Black-Puddings to bee serued vp in Sorrell-sops; A pickell’d shoulder of Mutton, and a surloyne of Beefe in White-broth, so much for the first course. Now, for the second, we will haue a Cherry-Tart cut into Rashers and broyled; A Custard Carbonado’d on the coales; A liue Eele swimming in clowted Creame; And sixe Sheepes-heads baked, with the hornes peering out of the pasty-crust.

A tablebook is a notebook so I suppose the clown is keeping a note of his bizzare food ideas unless he forgets them. Though I would think it would be hard to forget about the live eel swimming in cream. The first course sounds fairly normal, if extravagant, but everything in the clown’s second course is comically absurd. “A Custard Carbonado’d” is, to quote the OED, “A piece of meat or fish scored across and grilled over coals” which sounds like a very strange thing to do with a custard tart.

Heywood appears to have had a thing about custards – he mentions them, again in a list, in The Late Lancashire Witches (1634, written with Richard Brome):

‘Tis a busie time, yet will I review the Bill of fare, for this dayes dinner—(Reades) for 40· people of the best quality, 4. messes of meat; viz. a leg of Mutton in plum-broth, a disSection of illegible text of Marrow|bones, a white-broth, a Surlovne of beefe, a Pig, a Goose, a TurkiSection of illegible text, and two Pyes: for the second course, to every messe 4. Chickens in a dish, a couple of Rabbets, Custard, Flawn, Florentines, and stewd pruines,—all very good Country fare, and for my credit,—

Enter  playing before, Lawrence, Doughty, Arthur, Bantam, WhSection of illegible texttstone, and Gregory, with dishes: A Spirit (over the doore) does some action to the dishes as they enter.

The service enters, O well sayd, play up the meat to the Table till all be serv’d in, e see it passe in answer to my bill.

The spirit over the door casts a spell on the food that transforms it strange things, and the custards become “cow sheards” – cow dung. Strange goings on with food are often a feature of witchcraft plays – I’ve written a little on this before, see my post on marchpane.

Custards are also mentioned in at least two of Heywood’s other plays – How a Man May Choose a Good Wife from a Bad (1602) and The Fair Maid of the Exchange (1607).

Thanks to their consistency, custards are often described as “quaking”, as in these lines from James Shirley’s The Wedding (1629):

They fight? a doublet, stuft with straw, aduancing
A bull-rush, were able to fright em both
Out a’their sences, tha’not soule enough
To skirmish with a field-mouse; they poynt a duell?
At Hogs-don, to shew fencing vpon Creame
And cake-bread, murder a quaking Custard,
Or some such daring enemy.

While the Captain may mock the ferocity of custard, an anonymous broadside ballad from 1684 reveals that it could prove very dangerous indeed – it is entitled Strange and wonderful news from Newberry: concerning a youth that was choak’d by eating of custard. The story goes that a boy named Chuf made a wager with another young lad that he could eat a custard in the time that the boy could run a certain distance and back. The boy was quicker than Chuf expected, however, and he hadn’t finished half of the custard by the time the boy was on his way back, so Chuf “Thrust t’other half into his Throat”, with unpleasant results:

The suffocating Custard wrought
within his Gullet so,
That to the ground he tumbled down;
a woful overthrow.

The ballad writer ends with this warning about the evils of custard, which, whatever the old joke says, is apparently yellow and dangerous even without the sharks:

Let this a Warning be to you
that go to Islington,
Custard will kill, Experience shows,
as quick as any Gun.

Beware you that on Holydays
abroad do feast your Wives,
For you that feed on Custard go
in danger of your Lives.

I laugh in the face of danger, however, so I shall be ignoring this warning and making a delicious custard from a recipe in Gervase Markham’s Countrey Contentments. Check back for the recipe later in the week!

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Marchpane Part 1: History and background

My first food experiment is marchpane, these days more commonly known as marzipan. I’m hoping to get hold of more books and resources as I go along, but for now I only have a few things at my disposal – a couple of original texts from EEBO and a lovely little book about “Banquetting Stuffe” editing by C. Anne Wilson. I thought starting with marchpane would be a good introduction as it is quite a common food mentioned in a lot of Early Modern literature, it’s something we are familiar with today, and also it seems (fingers crossed) like it might not be too difficult to make, nor the ingredients too difficult to get hold of.

First, let’s look at a definition from the OED:

marchpane, n. and adj.

Pronunciation:  Brit. /ˈmɑːtʃpeɪn/ , U.S. /ˈmɑrtʃˌpeɪn/

Forms:  marchepane, marche payn, marche payne, marche peyne, march pain… 

Etymology:  Italian marzapane or German †martzepan 

Now arch. and hist.

 1. n Originally: a flat disc of marzipan mounted on wafers and usually decorated with motifs made from similar paste or other materials (by the 18th cent. often iced with sugar and mounted on a rich fruit cake, esp. a bridecake). Subsequently: a cake or sweet made of marzipan; Now hist. 

Just speculating here, but presumably the “pane” or “pan” indicates the etymology has something to do with bread. Any marzipan I have ever eaten has certainly been of a bread-like colour, and like bread it was certainly a versatile substance. Marchpane was used as it is today to make edible models which could be quite realistic. In fact, in Arcadia, Sir Philip Sidney seems to consider marchpane more lifelike than life itself, so to emphasise the perfect beauty of flesh he compares it to the sculpted food:

But back vnto her back, my Muse,
Where Ledas swanne his feathers mewes,
Along whose ridge such bones are met,
Like comfits round in marchpane set. 

I suppose the “you’re so beautiful you look like a work of art” is fairly ubiquitous, but doesn’t “you’re so beautiful you look like food made to look like a work of art” just give it an extra level?

Sweets like marchpane could be a token of affection. Peter Brears, in my treasured “Banqetting Stuffe” book (which is actually a collection of lectures from a symposium in the 1980’s) describes how Queen Elizabeth’s courtiers would present her with sculpted marchpanes – from chessboards to miniature castles to scale models of St Paul’s! I bet the chessboard guy felt a bit upstaged. And in Shakespeare we can see how sweets like marchpane were, like an Early Modern equivalent of your last rolo, something to be sought after and saved as a treat (or maybe given to a couple of girls you fancy):

1 Servingman: Away with the joint-stools, remove the court cupboard, look to the plate. Good thou, save me a piece of marchpane, and as thou love me, let the porter let in Susan Grindstone and Nell

Romeo and Juliet, Act 1 Scene 5

Finally, here’s one more literary mention of marchpane, and weirdly this was the one that made me think about making it in the first place. In Middleton’s The Witch, foods, particularly sweet ones, have a slightly more sinister role. The Witch is, I think, an under-read play, to me it is particularly interesting because it is just so hung up on the idea that eating and luxury are very dangerous things. There are plenty of examples, such as the part where Francisca, an unmarried woman, blames her unwanted pregnancy on the fact that her secret lover wooed her with foods such as “wine, chewets and currant-custards”, leading to my favourite line “I may curse those egg-pies”. As for marchpane, and this is where it gets a little bit icky, Hecate (the titular witch) trades a love potion (also a kind of dangerous food, I suppose) for “a toad in marchpane”, something wicked and witch-like innocuously hidden in something tasty and appealing. See, sweets don’t just make your teeth rot, they are actually a path to the dark side.

If you are brave enough to continue after that, then carry on to part 2 for the (toad-free) recipe.

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