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07 Nov
Mon / 2011

Reading with Rienzi: “Taste”

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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!

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About Casey Monahan

Casey Monahan

Casey Monahan joined Rienzi as education assistant in 2010 after receiving her B.A. from the College of the Holy Cross in Art History and History. She is currently working on her M. A. in Art History at the University of Houston. At Rienzi, the Massachusetts native works with docents, tours, and other public programs. 

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