Minglinge starche with the suger

As I work through the Grocer’s path, there comes a time to ask the question starch or not to starch.  Most modern US powdered sugars contain up to 5% corn starch. It is an anti caking agent.  Left to it’s own devices, powdered sugar will clump like nobody’s business.  But it is also a big no no for Grocers.

In 1562 the Court made an order that “grocerie wares should not be sold in the streetes, figges onlie excepted ;” and that the Apothecaries, freemen of the Company, should not use or exercise any drugs, simple or compound, ” or any other kynde or fortes of Poticarie wares but such as shall be pure and perfyt good.”

In 1571 King, a brother of the Company, ” and certein others, makers of comfytes, charged before the Wardeyns for their misdemeanours in minglinge starche with the suger, and such other thinges as be not tolerated nor suffrid. And the said Rauf King having now in his place a goode quantitie of comfytes, made with corse stuffe, and mingled as aforesaid with starche and such like,” it was ordered, that the comfits mould be put into a tub of water and so consumed and poured out ; “and that everie of the comfytt makers shall be made to enter into bondes in £20, that they shall not hereafter make any biskitts but with clere suger onlie, nor make any comfytts that shall be wrought upon feeds or any other thinges, but with clere suger onlie.”

The Wardens and Court of Assistants, by the Charters before mentioned, possessed the power of committing to prison any individuals guilty of vending damaged or adulterated goods which came within their jurisdiction ; and accordingly, on the 7th February 1616, we find that Michael Eason, having been convicted before the Court, he being an Apothecary and brother of the Company, of selling ” divers fortes of defective Apothecarie wares, which, on triall, were found to be defective, corrupt, and unwholesome for man’s body;” and it being further proved, “that he had sould and uttered the like wares to Mr. Lownes, the Prince his Highness’s Apothecarie, and others;”[1]

So mixing your starch and your sugar gets you arrested, fined and put in prison. It isn’t specified where not to mix starch and sugar, but one can presume it’s any place where someone wont think it will be noticed. Most likely sugar paste. I don’t do period sugar paste 100% of the time. It isn’t economical, especially the larger structure I’m building. I save the expensive materials for smaller pieces where I am trying to show a comparison between right and acceptable.

If I am working 100% as I can get to period paste, I start by buying my sugar from a vendor that is doing a late 17th/early 18th century refining from cane sugar. I use pigments that were made and ground pigment makers. I am using eggs I can source from chickens. I get my gum tragacath from a Asian apothecary. I use rose water that I know is distilled. I scrape my sugar loaf cones. Grind with a mortar and pestle. Sift. And repeat until I have powdered sugar. I do not add starch. I seal everything with bees wax/turpentine mixture. I store my unused paste in cerecloth until I need more.  It is labor intensive and expensive. I am either working on a science project for A&S or I love the person dearly who is getting the end product.

But wait a minute, what about Plat who says you can cut your sugar with a starch if you do not have enough to make sugar paste? Plat catered to the housewife. He was not selling medicines. Grocers = no starch in your sugar (or at least don’t get caught).

I do not add starch to my pieces, except for what comes naturally in large scale projects where I use modern powdered sugar. IF I were to add a starch, I would likely use with rice flour.  It mixes into the paste white and is relatively light. Some wheat is flecked and that does show up in the end paste. It also tends to be heavier.

[1]– Some account of the Worshipful company of grocers of the city of London- BY BARON HEATH  (John Benjamin Heath)



In medieval era, the way bodies were prepared for embalming included several steps[1]:

1) spurging (washing)
2) cleansing (emptying of the bowels and plugging the rectum)
3) bowelling (removal of the intestines)
4) searing (cauterising of the tom cavity blood vessels),
5) dressing (the application of a resin mixture in volatile oils),
6) furnishing (wrapping the corpse in cerecloth).

It is the final step that is the most interesting. Cerecloth was supplied by the Grocers and used by the Apothecary as they prepared dead bodies. Cerecloth is cloth that has been soaked in wax with resins that created a moisture barrier around the body and kept out the elements.

The remains of that warlike Prince, Edward the First, repose in a plain tomb of grey marble, which has sustained but little injury. At the request of the Society of Antiquaries, this tomb was opened in the year 1770, and the royal body was found wrapped in a strong linen cloth waxed on the inside. The head and face were covered with a facecloth of crimson sarcenet, wrapped into three folds ; and on throwing open the external mantle, the corpse was discovered richly habited in all the ensigns of majesty. The body was wrapped in a fine cerecloth, closely fitted to every part, even to the face and fingers.[2]

So how does this all tie to sugar work? I went searching for a material that I could use while working sugar, that wasnt plastic wrap. They had to have something for larger sculptures. Sugar paste will harden and crack when it is exposed to air. And it is probable they were not making a lot of small paste batches while working on a large project. It is more prudent to make a larger batch and not have to stop every 2 minutes to make more paste. Cerecloth is a product of the Grocers, used by the apothecaries. It creates an airtight, waterproof seal around things. This means it can be used to keep sugar paste fresh, in a medieval fashion, without using plastic.

For my first experiment, I made a 1/2 lb of sugar paste and kept it wrapped up in cerecloth for over a month. When I cracked open the waxed linen, my sugar paste was still fresh and pliable. It has proven effective as a tool, even in the humid NE summers.

Cerecloth recipe:
I use a high quality mid weight linen that has been washed and ironed. Soak it in melted beeswax, until fully saturated. Hang to dry, Lay flat to store. If you need to clean it, use mild soapy water. You can rewax as needed.

A thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy by Philip Stephen Gore
Department of Sociology, Brunei University December 2005

[2]London scenes, or, A visit to Uncle William in town : containing a description of the most remarkable buildings and curiosities in the British metropolis ; illustrated by 78 copperplate engravings ([1824?])

Appodiment Experimente- failen

Stale bread does not work as an armature. It failed at a chemical level.

I used stale manchet bread, as this is the type of bread that would be available to a wealthy household in 16th century England. Sugar was rolled to 1/16″ of an inch and sealed around a shield shape of stale bread 1/2″ thick. It was allowed to dry with the other samples created for the A&S event. By the second day, the sugar had cracked and started to ooze some sort of substance.

Cracked sugar

This had the appearance of a modern royal icing. By the time of the event 5 days later, the ooze dried to a hard crust. But flakes of paste started to flake off. The flakes were paper thin and sticky. The bread underneath had a glazed appearance and was also sticky. The consensus of the folks who say the end state was that the carbohydrates in the sugar and bread, were competing for “resources.”

This was a neat failure at the chemical level. However, it makes for a very poor substance to use as an armature. This will be the last time I use this medium as an armature for sugar paste.

Appodiment Experimente

Recreating 16th century appodiments
When building a structure it is important to know the limitations of various materials, and work to compensate for them. Sugar is a temperamental material, prone to many problems. When added to an armature structure, these problems can be compounded.

  • Sugar is heavy. The larger the piece, the more it needs an internal structure for support.
  • Sugar is very porous and extremely hygroscopic. In certain areas of the world, it should be sealed against humidity in order to prevent cracking and rehydration.
  • Metal can add significant weight to the overall piece. Depending on the material used, it can rust and is difficult to seal.
  • Paper, wood, and other plant-based materials (pasteboard) are hygroscopic. This can cause an armature to warp and rot if kept in moist conditions for too long. It is also highly flammable if working with a subtlety, which will be employing fire.

When selecting a material for armature, finding a lightweight, transportable and still structurally sound was critical.

Craft grade aluminum mesh is a good modern armature material. It is rust resistant, very pliable and can be formed easily without the need for specialized tools. Most grades of mesh is “porous” and sugar does not adhere well. Sugar has to be pushed deeper into the structure and this adds significant weight to armature. To prevent this, a secondary layer is applied to the general shape. A shape can be formed and bound with wire, however, once the secondary layer is applied, the wire has a tendency to rust. Silk beading floss is a better option for binding shapes. It can be noted, that plaster mesh can also be used to create a base armature. Though it takes a significant amount of the base material to get a shape formed. This adds to drying time and over all weight to the final piece.

There are several materials that work well over metal armatures. When paper maché/pasteboard is used asthe second layer, it creates a good barrier between metal and sugar. The paper mache’s rough texture is ideal for grabbing sugar paste. The clean white paper pulp does not have a binder and is “activated” with water. It is starch free, which means that it is safe for people with starch/gluten allergies. It is white, which reduces potential ink bleed through to the sugar. The down side to this secondary layer is time. It takes a very long time for the paper to dry completely.

A better material is plaster mesh. The plaster mesh also has a rough texture and is white. It has several advantages over paper. It can be used to create small stand a lone structures hat do not need a metal foundation. It is closer to plaster of paris in behavior than the paper. It has a better bond when securing irregularly shaped pieces of armature together. The fabric nature of the mesh allows it to be freely applied around corners and rounded edges. The dry time for the plaster mesh is roughly 10 hours. The dry time for paper mache is roughly 28 hours. This time difference allows for faster creation of a structurally sound armature.

Plaster of Paris would be the best choice for a more medieval armature. However, the combination of metal mesh and paper maché/plaster mesh does not have the heat or toxicity of plaster of Paris. Plaster of Paris when mixed with water causes an exothermic reaction and can cause severe burns. Chemicals in plaster are considered to be irritants to the skin, lungs, eyes and stomach (if ingested).[1] These hazards make Plaster of Paris dangerous for a re-creationist to use safely.

Paper and pasteboard
Paste board is a type of medieval cardboard. It is a by product of the paper industry. It can be soaked in water and allowed to form a shape. This shape can then be covered in sugar paste. The paste dries rock hard, but is difficult to get to adhere to the paper.  This armature is not for strong structures as it has to sit undisturbed while the paste dries.

When these materials are used as armatures, they need t be sized. Sizing is a material that prepares paper or other porous surfaces like terracotta for painting. It reduces the surface’s tendency to absorb liquids. The secondary layer between the armature and the sugar must be sized or the paper will leech the liquid out of the sugar too fast. Paper will pull moisture from the environment, which will cause the sugar to crack and the armature to warp. Both of these things would be catastrophic to the overall piece. A simple solution of glare prevents the paper from moisture exposure, warping and has the added benefit of being food safe.

Bees wax was used as a base. It was hard to get the sugar paste to adhere to the wax. The paste had to be wet on one side, and then stuck to itself to seal. Of all the medium, this one was one of the easiest to work with. Though it would be very heavy if used to create a large free standing structure.

Plaster mesh
Plaster mesh is a great armature surface for working with sugar paste once it has been cured, roughed and sealed. This gives the sugar a surface to grip and avoids the leeching problem caused by the porous plaster. It is ideal to use with metal and creates the lightest structure of all the bases. It takes the lease amount of time to dry.

Plaster mesh when allowed to be compacted and used as a stand-a-lone base gains a lot of weight. On a large-scale structure this would require a number of people to move.

The first attempt at sugar application was directly to the sanded wood. The sugar would not stick. There was not enough grip to the under surface for the sugar to make a solid bind. It peeled off the form, like bad paint peels from a wall that has not been properly primed.

The second attempt came after priming the surface with paper mache. I knew that sugar could grip the paper form my earlier attempts with the metal armatures. However, the paper mache would not stick to the surface either.

The third attempt came after a rasp was taken to the entire form.  This process created an uneven surface in the wood. The sugar stuck, but when it was dry it would not stay in position. It slid off the form.

The fourth attempt was a combination of priming the surface with a tempera paint, a layer of paper mache sealed with glare, followed by the sugar paste. The surface of the sugar was a bit bumpy than it normal would be as there was only one layer of sugar. The sugar was “smoothed” by burnishing it with water while it was still pliable.

As a final experimentation, wood was sanded with rough grit paper. It was sealed with glare and allowed to dry to a semi-tacky state. Sugar paste was rolled thin and water was brushed onto the surface to create a semi-tacky surface. These two tacky surfaces were then pressed together to create a bond. The sugar stayed in place to dry against the form. The dried sugar has bonded to the surface and remains in tact. The form was allowed to dry in position and sugar has created a hard shell and was able to be sanded. This could be further decorated with an additional layer of thin paste to create intricate details.

Pure paste, the control
The final display is ½” thick pure paste. It was molded in a form and has been allowed to dry.  Each of the armature experiments brought to this event were started 4 days ago. The pure paste is still soft in the middle. This takes the longest to dry and uses the most amount of paste of all the options. There is more paste in this shape than there is on the wood form. The paste on the other armatures has been rolled thin enough to see my kitchen counter through. Sugar in the 16th century was an expensive commodity. I try to use as little as possible.

Perferred armature
At the end of the experimentation, my preferred armature configuration for large structures is wire mesh, tied with silk floss, covered in plaster mesh and sized with glare. It gives me the lightest and most stable of base materials. For smaller molded pieces, I like the bees wax.

[1]”MSDS :: Calcium Sulfate (Plaster of Paris).” Educational Science Supplies, Toys, Games and Kits. Science Stuff, Inc., 1 Sept. 2006. Web. 26 Jan. 2012

Gumme and dragant

Gum tragacanth, also known as gumma dragantis and gum dragon, is a sticky extrude of a family of plants belonging to the genus Astragalus. This plant family grows in the Middle East. By the 1300s, gum tragacanth was an article of commerce in Europe. Just as with sugar imports, gum tragacanth’s main entry point into the rest of Europe was via Italy. [1] It is also one of the ingredients that the Grocers had the power to garble and examine.

The type of plant from which the gum is harvested dictates the type and usage of tragacanth. The sweeter, whiter ribbon tragacanth or “maftuli,” was employed in pharmaceutical mixtures and confections. The bitter, less clear flake tragacanth or “kharmony, ” was employed in textiles, leather working, paper making and gilding. The point in the harvest cycle when the gum is collected generally determines the grade.

The terms ribbon and flake refer to the way the gum looks during the extrusion process. Gum production begins through a cut in the tap root. As the gum is harvested, the quality of the ribbon degrades. It is a seasonal product. Much of the harvesting occurs in June and runs through the start of Autumn. It is viscous, odorless, tasteless and water-soluble. These are the qualities which make it an excellent binder.

[1] Gentry, Howard. “Gum Tragacanth in Iran.” Economic Botany 11.1 (1957): 40-63. JSTORE. Web.

To make a paste of Suger

To make a paste of Suger, whereof a man may make al manner of fruits, and other fine thinges with their forme, as Plates, Dishes, Cuppes, and such like thinges, wherewith you may furnish a Table: Take Gumme and dragant as much as you wil, and steep it in Rosewater till it be mollified, and for foure ounces of suger take of it the bignes of a beane, the juyce of Lemons, a walnut shelful, and a little of the white of an eg. But you must first take the gumme, and beat it so much with a pestell in a brasen morter, till it become like water, then put to it the juyce with the white of an egge, incorporating al these wel together, this don take four ounces of fine white suger well beaten to powder, and cast it into ye morter by a little and little until they be turned into ye form of paste, then take it out of the said morter, and bray it upon the powder of suger, as it were meale or flower, untill it be like soft paste, to the end you may turn it, and fashion it which way you wil. When you have brought your paste to this fourme spread it abroad upon great or smal leaves as you shall thinke it good, and so shal you form or make what things you wil, as is aforesaid, with such fine knackes as may serve a Table taking heede there stand no hotte thing nigh it.
Dawson, Thomas. Good Hus‐wiues Iewell. Where Is to Be Found … Wayes to Distill Many Wholsome and Sweet Waters … In Which … Is Shewed the Best Maner in Preseruing … Fruits … With Diuers Conceits in Cookerie with the Booke of Caruing. At London: Printed by E. Allde for Edward White …, 1597. Print.

Modern recipe
1 tbl tragacanth
1/3 cup warm water
1 tbl rose water
1 tbl lemon juice
1 egg white
1-1.5 lbs of powdered sugar

1.Mix water, rose water, lemon juice and tragacanth together.
2.Set mixture aside for 2‐4 hours
3. When liquid has been completely absorbed, mush in the egg white using a fork. The mixture will become a milky white color.
4. Then begin adding small amounts of powdered sugar until you can work the mixture with your hands.
5. Continue adding small amounts of powdered sugar while kneading the mixture on a table top.As soon as the mixture is pliable and can be shaped without sticking to your fingers, you’ve added enough sugar.
6. Keep covered in an air tight container wrapped in plastic wrap when not in use. It will dry out quickly when exposed to air.