WIPE THE WOOL OFF YOUR PEACHES!
We currently have listed for sale a mid-18th century sweetmeat glass; there’s nothing unusual about this – we’ve sold many over the years – and although this particular example has a rather striking dogs-tooth rim and a relatively rare opaque twist element incorporated into its stem, it’s merely a very nice piece rather than warranting a prohibitive price and much adulation. However, it’s the purpose of said vessel which has engendered disquiet in the Sutherland household, as – over the years – we have given scant regard to what might properly constitute a sweetmeat which should be served from this fine artefact.
There is a general school of thought – one which I myself have lazily perpetuated on more than one occasion – that sweetmeats were a non-specific collective of numerous, different toothsome delicacies, but a quick look at contemporary records of the period during which our vessel of interest would have been fulfilling its primary purpose with aplomb shows some interesting distinctions. For example, sweetmeats have invariably been said to include candied peel or sugar-coated fruits, but more than one list dating to the 1750’s makes very clear distinction between 'sweetmeats' and fresh or dried fruits, sugared and candied pieces, comfits, pastries or marchpanes and, instead, asserts that the last two of these can be used to make ‘small pies or tarts which are filled with sweetmeat’.
As ever, it’s best to seek information in the recipe and cookery books of the day, and so it is that we must turn to one such volume which has an entire section dedicated to the preparation of sweetmeats – each and every one of which is, in actual fact, a fruit jelly of some kind! Essentially, the process is pretty much the same for any one of the different varieties – prepare a boiled sugar syrup, add your mashed, macerated, chopped, diced, bruised or otherwise distressed fruit, boil the resulting mash for a bit longer then sieve the whole lot through – well – a sieve if you have such a thing, or linen cloth as an alternative.
Crucially, you are then directed to ‘put your mixture in to a sweetmeat dish, cover it with brandy paper and keep them for use’. The brandy paper – simply writing paper coated with brandy – is to aid short term preservation, and to ensure that your sweetmeat does not become ‘candied’ which is when the sugar crystallises on the surface, at which point it should be is considered to be mouldy and no longer fit for consumption – an interesting distinction from candied fruits with which the sugar coating itself was considered to be part of the preservative process.
There are numerous variations in the procedure for preparing these sweetmeats with different fruits; for those with stones or kernels, these are often required to be cracked and added to the boiling fruit syrup, for small fruits such as cherries or damsons – once stoned and chopped in to pieces – they ‘should have put over them mutton suet….or they will rise up out of the syrup’; you must never boil your syrups at too high a temperature or you will make them ‘of a dark colour’ and you need to ensure that your sugar is well-pounded to ensure that ‘the scum rises well’. I assume that the intention of this would be to clarify the syrup to some extent, although this could also be affected by the addition of an egg white or two to the mixture. Of course, should you be disposed to use peaches, you must make absolutely sure that the first step in their preparation is that you should ‘wipe the wool from them’!
So, let us assume that we have successfully negotiated the pitfalls of sweetmeat preparation and our delightful comestibles have been wrapped and safely stored in their glasses, remained clear from the dread candied mould, and are now ready to serve; there is one last point of order which should be observed. The esteemed Nathan Baily in his 1751 Universal Etymological English Dictionary notes that your sweetmeat glasses - once their contents had been eagerly consumed - should be carried away from the dining table on something called a ‘voider’ which he defined very precisely as ‘a wooden painted vessel to hold services of sweetmeats’. Later sources apply the term more broadly to any sort of basket to carry away plates or cutlery, and I’m at a loss to explain why Baily’s sweetmeat-specific container should have to be painted – I can only assume that he was inordinately fond of a jellied medlar, and thought his favourite dish deserved a little extra flourish…