Sugar was introduced to England in the middle ages, and was originally used medicinally, to treat coughs and colds. It was also believed to help digestion and began to be served at the end of grand feasts, frequently in the form of candied aniseeds.
Brandenburg Gate in Sugar
Banqueting House, Studley Royal Park
By the mid-sixteenth century, elaborate meals were being concluded with "banquets," a whole course of sweets and spiced wine that might only be served to the important guests at the top table. Spices were also expensive, and were also considered to have medicinal purposes and aid digestion.
Gibside Banqueting House
This dessert course might include candied fruit, jellies, thick marmalade, comfits (sugar-covered seeds, spices, or fruits) , sweet wafers and biscuits, and gingerbread and other cakes. Sugar paste and marzipan were also colored and formed into elaborate and fanciful items, such as eggs that broke open to reveal yellow yolks, strips of bacon, or fruit and nuts. Wood, pewter, or stone molds could be homemade, or purchased ready-made.
Sugar or marzipan might also be used to create "subtleties," or decorations for the tables. These could be buildings, images of saints, or statues of the guests of honor. A recipe book of the time gives instructions for molding sugar paste into "Rabbets, Pigeons, or any other little birde or beaste." Cardinal Wolsey's 1527 feast in honor of the French ambassadors featured sugar castles, St. Paul's Cathedral, animals, birds, a chessboard with chess pieces, and little human figures fighting with swords and crossbows, dancing, and jousting. This kind of sugarwork required a lot of skill and careful handling.
Sugar paste could be colored with flowers, spices, or other vegetable matter. Saffron produced a yellow color, cinnamon and ginger various shades of brown, young wheat or barley blades made green, and carrots could produce blood red.
Sometimes the banquet was served on glass-like plates, cups, and other dishes molded from sugar paste, "wherewith you may furnish a table [and] when you have done, eate them up. A pleasante thing for them that sit at the table." These dishes might be elaborately painted with flowers, scenes, or "grotesques," the fanciful representations of human figures or faces or animals intertwined with foliage and flowers that was very popular in Tudor England. Sometimes guests were encouraged to take the edible tableware home.
The Tudors considered some of the sugary luxuries that were commonly servced at banquets to have aphrodisiac properties, and perhaps they did, especially in combination with the vast amounts of wine consumed. Some of the sweetmeats were provocatively named. "Kissing comfits" were popular, and breast-shaped "Spanish paps" made of sweetened cream might titillate the guests at a sumptous banquet. Even the Cardinal d'Este decorated his table with sugar representations of Cupid, Venus, and Bacchus.
It was probably inevitable that all this excess sometimes led to disaster. At a 1606 feast at Hatfield House, the Danish King Christian IV rose to dance in a masque but fell down and was carried to bed, "which was not a little defiled" by the "wine, cream, jelly, cakes, spices, and other good matters" on his clothes. The pageant went on, but other performers had also eaten and drunk too much, and the performance faltered to an end while the ladies playing Hope and Faith "were both sick in the lower hall."