Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Medieval and Tudor Sweets. The Sweet Makers - A Tudor (and Medieval) Treat

There's a BBC TV program today about Tudor sweets - The Sweet Makers: A Tudor Treat

The mention of waffles, wafers and elaborate sugar creations holds true for the late Medieval period as well. Sugar then was so rare it was considered a spice.

The heroine of my historical romance novella Amice and the Mercenary is a Mistress of Sugar, versed in the art of complex sugar craft. Here's the opening of my novella, where Amice speaks of her craft:

Summer, Kent, 1357
 “I need your help,” Duke Henry said. “I need your help to guard the king of France.”
Amice said nothing. She and the duke sat together at her best friend’s wedding, drinking French wine and watching the other guests dance. Throughout the simple country marriage feast, Duke Henry had spoken of the great golden beauty of the bride Isabella, of the good fortune of Stephen, the bridegroom, and of the mild summer weather—all safe, conventional subjects. His leaning toward her now and speaking of the guardianship of kings was unexpected. She raised her dark eyebrows.
Duke Henry lowered his voice still further. “I need someone with a knowledge of plants, medicines and spices, like yourself, a woman with a knowledge of sugar. The reward for such an undertaking will be generous, very generous.”
Listening, Amice was in no haste to commit herself. To a less powerful man than the duke she might have said, “What is the captured French king to me? Why should I care to watch over him against an assassin?” Instead, she asked, “You fear an attack against this mighty hostage? You fear he might sicken or even die and you will be blamed because he is in your charge?”
“I do,” the duke answered, frowning over his wine. “This is an angry time, a time of war and trouble.”
And knights and nobles live for such times. Again, Amice remained silent.
After a sigh, the duke continued. “There are many who might wish to strike against my royal captive. Perhaps an angry Englishman, who believes all Frenchmen are the spawn of the devil.”
“Or Charles of Navarre,” Amice remarked. “He does not lack ambition.”
“True, ‘tis true,” the duke grunted. “It may even be one of the French King’s subjects, one who does not wish to pay his ransom.”
“And you believe I can help. Why? I am no warrior.”
“But you know poisons,” the duke countered.
“As do your food tasters,” Amice answered. “Or you could have the king drink from a cup made from the horn of a unicorn to neutralize the poison.”
“I will do both,” Duke Henry agreed. “But I need still more.”
“I do not blend in,” Amice said, interested to see how Duke Henry responded to that truth. Her parents had been Londoners like herself, but her grandparents were African. She was as dark as Saint Maurice. Even at home, people stared at her in the street.
“That is all to the good,” the duke said quickly. “Tall and handsome, striking as you are, you will attract notice.” He smiled, a look of surprising sweetness. “They will see your beauty and naught else. You will be stationed close to the serving tables, if it please you.”
“To watch for a poisoner? That will be a large undertaking.”
Duke Henry sighed. “I know it will be difficult, Amice, but if you are willing to pretend to work there, you would be another pair of eyes. You have expertise my servants do not have. King Jean—King John in the English way—has a particular liking for almond dragees and anise in confit at the end of every meal.”
Sweets, spiced and difficult to create. Their taste would mask much, including poison. “I can make those.” And watch perhaps as other sweets are made.
“Stephen told me that was likely. That you are a superb cook of sweets. Is it true that your mother trained in Italy and learned all the secrets of sugar?”
“She lived there for a time, yes.” Amice replied. Isabella has been bragging on my behalf to Stephen. And what else has Isabella’s new husband told the duke? “Does the French king not have his own people watching him? His own food-tasters?”
“Of course. King John has many tasters. But still it would be embarrassing if they detected poison, especially in a dish or a confit made solely for the king.”
“I see.” How strange. This king is his captive yet the duke still wishes to be regarded as a perfect host.
Duke Henry glanced away to the dancers again. “I trust my own tasters, of course, but not all of them have your skill and knowledge, especially with spices and sugar.”
Very prettily put, but Amice realized then that the duke did not entirely trust all those within his household. She decided to be blunt. “I will not work in the main kitchen.”
Duke Henry flushed to the roots of his fair hair and looked horrified at the idea. “A young woman such as yourself amidst those raging fires and sweating, half-naked scullions? Indeed, I would not ask that of you. No women work in my kitchens. Women do not work in kitchens. You will be in the still room, with my wife Isabel and her ladies.”
Amice wondered why he felt it needful to stress this. In great houses, castles and palaces, the cooks were all men. If I venture anywhere where food is prepared I shall stand out. But then I do already. “Your wife agrees to this?”
Now Duke Henry looked surprised. “Of course.”
“Shall I wear your livery?”
Duke Henry shook his head. “You are elegant enough already.”
Amice inclined her head at the compliment, glad to hide her eyes as she thought furiously. If I agree to this and I am mostly in the still room , does it mean he suspects a woman? Has there already been trouble? “And for other kinds of assassins?” she prompted.

“King John has Sir Gilles in his household, a most capable warrior, and Harry Swynford, Gilles’s captain.” Duke Henry sniffed. “Swynford is your true mercenary. He is English, but he fights for any side that pays him. Sir Gilles rates him highly.”

Here's another excerpt, where Amice is preparing more sweet treats.
Amice checked on her boiling water, honey comb and the residues of the hive. She was making mead, boiling all in a crock and preparing to add rosemary, cloves and ginger to flavor the drink. She did so, covered the crock and set it aside, ready for the yeasts to grow and change the water and honey into mead.
The duchess and her ladies had gone out into the gardens, leaving her alone in the chamber. When they return the duchess will want me to make wafers, so I should prepare the things I need. These were easy tasks for her, her bed was comfortable and her meals very fine, so why was she discontented?
My friend Isabella says I am impatient and Issa is right. But it is so hard to know that Sir Gilles is here or close and I cannot reach him, be revenged on him. Perhaps I should pray to my grandfather’s sacred spirits and sweeten my request with some of this honey. Instead she moved to the store cupboard, glancing at the brazier to ensure it still burned steadily. She could use the small oven, but that tended to smoke and she could make more of a show with the brazier.  She set another crock of water over the brazier, so as not to waste the flame or fuel, and lifted a wafer iron from the cupboard.
A loud crash then a stricken cry, followed by “Please, no!” and the unmistakable sounds of a solid fist pounding flesh, propelled Amice out of the chamber. Stepping across a broken wine pitcher by the threshold, she found a cowering maid and a squire. The lad, plump and well-dressed, had clearly been beating the girl for dropping the wine jug but he was deathly still now, one fist frozen against the door, the other hovering free in mid-air, and no wonder. A small, slender woman held a knife to his throat.
Amice recognized the squire as one of the duke’s by his livery and the woman by her bright golden hair. “Isabella.”

If you want to read more about Amice and her friend Isabella, please look into my boxed set, To Love A Knight, which contains both my "Amice and the Mercenary" and "Mistress Angel" novellas. This title is also available in print.

You can read more about medieval sweets here.

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