The Court Dessert in Eighteenth Century France
The elaborate dessert course of the eighteenth century was a direct descendant of the voidée, a court ritual of the medieval period, when the sovereign rose at the end of the meal to consume sugared anise and carraway seeds (dragées) and spiced wine (hippocras). As well as these medicinal aids to royal digestion, he also ate a wafer (gaufre) with the sweet wine, as a eucharist-like thanksgiving. After washing his hands the king then left the table, which was cleared. Both the verbs voider and desservir mean to clear the table - so dessert is a later synonym for voidée. However, in the eighteenth century the word dessert was considered to be a bourgeois term, the correct name at court for this final service of the meal being 'fruit'.
As sugar's remarkable powers as a preservative became more widely known during the Renaissance, the dragées were augmented with a vast range of conserves, candies and fruit pastes. When in season, fresh fruit and cream cheeses also became important features. As the nobility tended to imitate the sovereign, the custom gradually percolated down the social scale. However, as confectionery was an expensive luxury, the dessert remained an exclusive upper class practice. It also became an occasion for the noble lord to show off his status to important guests by encouraging his confectioner to create elaborate table decorations made from sugar paste (pastillage) and marzipan. An important Renaissance dessert would often feature allegorical figures of pastillage, sugar temples and colourful displays of artificial flowers.
By the middle of the eighteenth century, the court dessert was at its apogée. It had become a lavish display of fresh choice fruit, compôtes, biscuits and confectionery, all washed down with sweet wines and distilled waters. Although recipes for hippocras are included in contemporary confectionery texts, it was seen as an old fashioned digestif and was being replaced by a remarkable array of new spicy liqueurs, dessert wines and ratafias.
By the 1750's it had became fashionable to arrange the table in imitation of a garden, complete with flower beds (parterres) of coloured sugar, gravel walks made from dragées, trees of candy and sugar pastillage figures. The surtout de table, originally used for holding condiments and dragées, evolved into a full-length raised plateau of looking glass, on which these decorations were arranged. Parterres were sometimes made from mousseline, a coloured pastillage forced through a sieve to produce a mossy material, ideal for making little hedges and borders. They were also constructed from cardboard forms, covered in silk chenille, velvet or baize, and were filled with coloured sugar sands (sables d'office). Alternatively, sables and tiny coloured dragées (nonpareils) were sprinkled directly onto the mirror to create flowing patterns around fountains of spun sugar and pastillage garden sculpture.
Pastillage figures and buildings were expensive to make and unfortunately, due to the hydroscopic properties of sugar, must have often deteriorated while being stored in damp pantries. So it made a great deal of sense to substitute them with much more durable imitations in unglazed porcelain, such as the wonderful examples from designs by Boucher and Falconet displayed here.
The parterres Ivan made for the Waddesdon dessert were of the sprinkled sables type described above. The sugar sands were coloured with cochineal - for the two shades of red - and a mixture of gomme gutte (gamboge) and spinach juice for the yellow. They are made by dissolving the colours in sugar syrup, which was then boiled and stirred until the sugar formed small coloured crystals, which are sieved to create the sables. To ensure that the parterre design was contemporary in spirit, it wass based on an acanthus motif illustrated in a diagram in Gillier's Cannameliste, with some decorative elements also taken from the Choiseul service itself. Very little is known about the equipment and methods used by the confectioners who practised this ephemeral art, but it is certain that they used stencils. The effect must have been particularly striking by candlelight and it is easy to agree with the court cook and confectioner Menon, when he enthuses about these remarkable sugar embellishments, "Quelle intelligence! Quel goût! Quelle aimable symetrie!"
One of the chief duties of the officier was to preserve the fruits grown in his master's orchards and gardens, so that a rich store of marmelades, conserves, pâtes de fruit, gelées and confitures could be accumulated over the year. He also had to prepare compôtes, which were fresh fruits cooked in thin syrups for immediate consumption, rather than those prepared with preservation in mind
(confitures au liquide). The most luxurious of all liquid sweetmeats were the brandy fruits (fruits à l'Eau-de-Vie). Dried sweetmeats (confitures au sec) were well represented on the table, chiefly by candied fruits (fruits au candi), such as those of apples, pears, green almonds and green apricots.
There are also pâtes of apricot and cherry. These are thick marmelades, closely related to the celebrated cotignac (quince paste) and are made from concentrated fruit purées boiled with sugar.
The flavours of strongly scented flowers were much in vogue at this time - orange flowers in particular were very popular. However, tuberose, jasmin, jonquils, violets and roses were also used to create many confectionery items. These flowers were candied, or pralined and found their way into a vast range of marmelades, liqueurs, biscuits and ices.
The gaufres of the voidée survived as an important feature of eighteenth century desserts, though they were now sometimes flavoured with coffee or the ubiquitous orange flowers. They were made flat, curled, or in the form of cornets, just as they still are today. Both flat and curled wafers are represented in our dessert and can be seen in the compotiers ovales. The flat wafers were made with a pair of eighteenth century Burgundian wafering irons. In the same compotiers are bundles of canelons. These were related to wafers, but were baked in the oven. They were filled with fruit marmelades.
Very simple chocolate confectionery started to appear on dessert tables at this time. Pastilles de chocolat were made of sugar pastillage paste, flavoured with grated chocolate. They were moulded into the form of almonds, beans, grains of wheat and cockle shells. There is a selection of them in the compotiers coquilles at the corners of the table. In the same plateaux are some diablotins, which are true chocolates, made from chocolate mass and sugar. They are covered in nonpareils to protect the fingers from melting chocolate. With them are some bright red pastilles in the form of peach stones -
noyaux de pêche en suprise - the suprise being an almond concealed in the centre.
A dessert of this period was not complete without a good variety of ices, the most fashionable of all sweet dishes of the period. There were a number of different types in a huge range of flavours. Liqueurs glacées, rather like granita in texture, were the oldest and most primitive and were at this period giving way to the more sophisticated neiges, fromages glacés and mousses. Neiges were rather like our modern ices, though often sweeter, and were spooned directly from the cooler (seau à glaces) into the little serving cups (tasses à glaces). These are represented on the right-hand console by the soft green neige de pistachio, the bright pink glace de épine-vinette (barberry) and the creamy glace au pain de seigle (rye bread), the precursor of the brown bread ice so popular today. Various flavours were frozen in pewter and lead moulds to create novely ices in the form of fruits (fruits glacés), vegetables, cuts of meat and even animals. Fake biscuits and canelons moulded in ice cream were also very popular at this period. Powder colours were usually painted onto the inside of the moulds before the ice cream mixture was spooned in. We have used surviving pewter moulds of this type to create the replica fruits glacés on the left-hand console, which include a melon, pears, apples, apricots and pineapples. The asparagus ices are made from a mould identical to one illustrated in Gillier's Cannameliste of 1750. The craze for these shaped ices survived well into the twentieth century, until concern with a possible threat to health from the lead in the moulds made them unfashionable. Fromages glacés were rich custard ices frozen in moulds in the shape of cheeses. Mousses were lightly frozen creams, popular flavours being vanilla, saffron and ambergris.
The manufacture of strong liqueurs for the dessert was one of the officier's most important duties. Many of those popular in the eightenth century have not survived and their names have an unfamiliar ring today. Rossolì, distilled from the bog plant sundew, was popular for its reputation as an aphrodisiac and its bright golden colour, while populo was a potent concoction flavoured with orange flowers and pommes de reinette. Angélique too, was flavoured with the ubiquitous orange flowers, but in addition had a hint of citron and sweet sedge. The most surprising of all was escubac d'Angleterre, a kind of counterfeit whisky. It was flavoured with liquorice and cardamoms and sweetened with fruit sugar from dates and figs.
Literature:Ivan Day, 'Sculpture for the Eighteenth-Century Garden Dessert' in Food in the Arts (Ed. Harlan Walker) Prospect Books 1999.