The festive season at the Tudor Court meant many feasts, featuring many delicious foods, and especially sweets, such as the Elizabethan favourite, marchpane.
Marchpane was an almond and sugar based sweet, similar to modern day marzipan. Though we have accounts of marchpane being made as far back as Roman times, it peaked in popularity in the late 15th and 16th centuries. It was featured heavily at Elizabethan feasts, and it is said to have been one of Elizabeth’s favourite sweets – hence her problems with tooth decay later in life.
During the 16th century, it was often used decoratively; it would be dyed and moulded into elaborate sculptures to decorate the feast tables before being consumed. Shaping marchpane to look like other foods was very common, particularly bowls of fruit, and there is even one recipe to make marchpane look like bacon!
These sculptures could also be very elaborate; in 1562 alone, Elizabeth I was given a marchpane model of Old St Paul’s Cathedral by her ‘Surveiour of the Workes,’ a ‘very faire marshpane made like a tower, with men and artillery in it’ by a Yeoman of the Chamber, and a ‘faire marchpane being a chessboarde’ by her Master Cook, George Webster.
Below is a recipe for marchpane found in a cookbook published in 1587 entitled ‘A book of cookrye Very necessary for all such as delight therin. Gathered by A.W.’ The identity of the author, A.W., is sadly unclear. Though this recipe does not provide sculpting instructions, but it does offer an insight into how sweets were being made over 400 years ago.
How to make a good Marchpaine
First take a pound of long smal almonds and blanch them in cold water, and dry them as drye as you can, then grinde them small, and put no licour to them but as you must needs to kéepe them from oyling, and that licour that you put in must be rosewater, in manner as you shall think good, but wet your Pestel therin, when ye haue beaten them fine, take halfe a pound of Sugar and more, and see that it be beaten small in pouder, it must be fine sugar, then put it to your Almonds and beate them altogither, whē they be beaten, take your wafers and cut them compasse round, and of the bignes you will haue your Marchpaine, and then assoone as you can after the tempering of your stuffe, let it be put in your paste, and strike it abroad with a flat stick as euen as you can, and pinch ye very stuffe as it were an edge set vpon, and then put a paper vn∣der it, and set it vpon a faire boord, and lay a lattin Basin ouer it the bottome vpwarde, and thē lay burning coles vpon the bottom of the basin. To see how it baketh, if it hap∣pen to bren too fast in some place, solde papers as broad as the place is & lay it vpon that place, and thus with attending ye shal bake it a little more then a quarter of an houre, and whē it is wel baked, put on your gold and biskets, and stick in Comfits, and so you shall make a good Marchpaine. Or euer that you bake it you must cast on it sine Sugar and Rosewater that will make it look like Ice.