Colonial Williamsburg puts 18th-century confections on display

Andrea Castillo
Contact Reporteracastillo@dailypress.com
Colonial Williamsburg puts 18{+t}{+h}-century confections on display

People living in colonial Virginia (at least those wealthy enough to afford it) satisfied their sweet tooths with some of the same desserts we do today — it just took more effort to do so.

At "Sugar and Spice and All Things Nice," hosted on Feb. 13, visitors to Colonial Williamsburg got the chance to watch staff with CW's Historic Foodways program make confections like gelatin, candies, ice cream and other items.

While those are desserts many in modern times have easy access to, the triple refined white sugar needed to make them was expensive and therefore only available in colonial Williamsburg to people like the governor, who would have also had to employ cooks and staff to maintain a proper kitchen, said Frank Clark, who supervises Historic Foodways, a program that uses period tools and equipment to research 18th century food and cooking techniques.

While Colonial Williamsburg has hosted small confection-making events in the past, it is the first time they've all been showcased together, Clark said.

Mary Poppins might have been on to something when she said, "A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down," as confections were often used by colonial apothecaries. Horehound candy and licorice were used to soothe sore throats, for example.

"A lot of these things start as medicine," Clark said.

After a Bible, cookbooks were often the first books many 18th century families owned, Frank said. In the first half of the 1700s, more than 250 cookbooks were published in London.

The first record of ice cream served in the U.S. was in 1744, served at an event hosted by Maryland Gov. Thomas Bladen, said Rob Brantley, a Historic Foodways journeyman. Thomas Jefferson is credited with bringing a recipe for vanilla ice cream from France and popularizing the dessert. Virginia governors Francis Fauquier and successor Lord Botetourt also served ice cream at the palace in Williamsburg in the mid- to late-1700s.

During the "Sugar and Spice" event, below-freezing temperatures made it easier to make ice cream — because otherwise, it's a process.

A chocolate custard was poured into a pewter cylinder called a sarbotiere, and the sarbotiere is placed into a wooden bucket that later was filled with alternating layers of ice and salt.

Think the next step is to turn a hand crank? Sorry, those weren't invented until the 1830s, so the cylinder had to be spun by hand, with warmer outdoor temperatures requiring more time spinning the cylinder in the ice. Colonial Williamsburg staff, along with children in the audience, took turns with this task.

Colonial chefs experimented with flavors like tea, coffee and Parmesan. Even chocolate was seasoned with spices like cayenne, cinnamon and nutmeg, as did the Aztecs and Olmecs. Fruit and jams were used to flavor ice cream as well.

There was also an oyster ice cream (think: chowder) that diners often watched melt before eating, Brantley said.

Guests got to see how other desserts were made, like candied flowers, which involve rose and carnation flowers with simple syrup, as well as gelatin made with pigs' feet. Pro tip: Crushed up eggshells help make the finished gelatin appear clearer and give the dessert a calcium boost. Ingredients like white wine, lemon zest and sugar add flavor.

A few children got the chance to try their hand at decorating their own marzipan pigs, chickens and other items of their creation. Colonial cooks used items like spinach, saffron and cochineal, a red dye extracted from insects. Marzipan hedgehogs got their quills from slivered almonds. Another class gave adults the chance to make a confection called a sugar plate.

Melissa Blank, a fourth-year apprentice at Historic Foodways who focuses on making confections, said providing children interactive lessons is key to getting them interested in history.

The lesson resonated with her back in the fourth grade, when she took a trip to the Missouri Capitol building and became fascinated with a man dressed as a fur trader. She worked as a social studies and theater teacher before coming to Williamsburg.

"When they get their hands in it, they learn and are having fun at the same time," she said.

Among those in the marzipan class was 7-year-old Matthew Gilbert of Williamsburg, who made a flower, a dish and a chicken and learned that beets can produce red dye.

"It was fun," he said.

Kaitlyn Fado, 9, of Arlington, worked on a red marzipan pig.

"I like sculpting and coloring all of this," she said.

Castillo can be reached by phone at 757-247-4635.

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