This month we have been reading Taste: The Story of Britain Through Its Cooking by Kate Colquhoun, the third book in Rienzi and Bayou Bend’s History Reading Series. We thought it would be appropriate to have a British culinary-themed text to celebrate Rienzi’s current exhibition, English Taste. This book provides some supplementary information on some of Mrs. Raffald’s dishes that grace Rienzi’s dining-room table, including dishes that are the most puzzling to the modern eye.
In the aptly titled chapter "Taste," Colquhoun details how “Raffald devoted more than a third of The Experienced English Housekeeper to confectionary ... she was the undisputed queen of the jelly,” creating elaborate flummeries. Flummeries are molded jelly dishes that appeared on the 18th-century table not necessarily for consumption purposes (although they were edible), but rather as a fancy, amusing, table element. They were made of calf’s foot jelly, almonds, and cream, and colored with things like chocolate, spinach, and cochineal (a dye made from crushed insects). They were not a passive table element like the sugar sculptures that also appeared in this period. Rather, they wiggled, creating an active decoration to the delight of dinner guests (think 18th-century Jell-o Jigglers).
The flummeries actively used trompe-l'œil; the jellies were made to look like something they were not. (For example, one of Mrs. Raffald's flummery recipes is for "scrambled eggs and bacon.") Exhibition co-curator Ivan Day created several of these for Rienzi’s table using original Staffordshire and Wedgwood molds: celestial objects, gilded fish, a castle-like structure called “Solomon’s Temple,” and most entertainingly (at least to me!), cribbage cards.
Below is Mrs. Raffald’s recipe that Mr. Day used for the whimsical cribbage cards:
To make Cribbage Cards in Flummery
Fill five square tins the size of a card with very stiff flummery. When you turn them out have ready a little cochineal dissolved in brandy and strain it through a muslin rag. Then take a camel’s hair pencil and make hearts and diamonds with your cochineal. Then rub a little chocolate with a little eating oil upon a marble slab till it is very fine and bright, then make clubs and spades. Pour a little Lisbon wine into the dish and send it up.
If you are interested in joining our November 9 book club discussion on Taste: The Story of Britain Through Its Cooking, or visiting Rienzi to investigate the flummeries and the many other historic dishes please let us know! Rienzi@mfah.org or 713.639.7800!