Right - a spot of festive frippery for you as befits pre-Christmas congeniality, not (very much) tedious historical rambling, little or no archaeological investigation and absolutely no retrospectives of minor military engagements whatsoever – the chosen subject matter, carefully selected to enhance your seasonal glee is that simple delight – custard !

Well, to be strictly accurate, custards, plural, with an “s” - as in the vessels from which the comestible in question was consumed during the latter part of its history, be they made from porcelain or glass or, if we’re going to be wholly inclusive in our introductory listing - pastry.

It won’t surprise you to know that there is a degree of English arrogance about the very word itself, let alone any more prosaic departures which may become apparent. Initially, a custard was anything – sweet or savoury – eaten out of a small pastry case, for which the original French term was (and still is) a croustarde – literally, the crust of a pie or flan. In medieval times, croustardes could contain pretty much anything, fish stews, meat dishes, even hot-spiced preparations referred to as “curys” (just the one “r”), however, it was the sweeter end of the spectrum which proved most popular on this side of the channel, particularly those preparations made of sugar, milk, egg and vanilla which became known as crème anglais. However, it was, of course, entirely unreasonable to expect the English of all people to openly profess a liking for anything that hinted at being French, especially something which appeared to be a French version of an original English concoction, so rather than consuming “crème anglaise en croustarde” as should have been the case, these dishes became known as just croustardes, and eventually, with an application of the sort of deconstructive non-flourish peculiar to the English language, we were left with the bluff, uncompromising and far less elegant form which was just “custard”. The name was also now reserved solely for the sweetened sauce itself rather than anything in which it may have been contained.

And so to 1608 – Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher publish their tragicomedy "Philaster, or Loves Lies A-bleeding", a frolicsome piece recounting the machinations of the Sicilian royal family. During the narrative, a crowd of townsfolk are noted as being “dearly beloved of spiced cake and custard”, and thus the noble dessert sauce makes its first appearance in literature. A couple of years further on we find a sage warning in “A philosophical discourse of all things by way of nourishments” with regard to “how great therefore is the error of eating custards in the middle or at the end of meales”, the reason for avoiding this calamitous circumstance being that anything else will “breede more plenty of phlegmaticke and excrementall humours”, which – we can only assume – was perceived as a bad thing. But what of the constitution of the stuff, now adulterated and brutishly anglicised by the hands of far-baser folk than the practitioners d'originaire of French cuisine ?

The first recipe, as such, for custard suggests that it should be made from separated whey, not whole milk, and seasoned with salt, sugar, cinnamon, cloves, mace and a little nutmeg. However, we then regress a little to the “coustardes” of yore, as we are advised that this mixture should be baked in “coffins of good, tough wheate paste” the bottom of which are “strowed a good thickness over with currants and sugar”. Clearly, this mid 17th century dish needs no serving vessel, as it’s crust will serve in its stead, in the same way as bread trenchers obviated the requirement for dinner plates. It was not a great time for the purveyors of fine dining wares, with the common man more than happy to eat literally everything that was put in front of him – foods, sauces, plates, dishes – all were fair game to the 17th century gourmand !

So we can see that the English and French interpretations of what exactly custard might be were already at odds by the late 1600's – something that was to become yet more convoluted as time wore on. France, of course, following the extravagant lead set by the courts of various Kings Louis, was the epitome of brash, ostentatious excess. We have noted on numerous occasions that this largesse was perhaps more evident on the dining table as in any other walk of life, and the pursuit of fine porcelain manufacture was driven in no small part by a desire to set dinner services of the very highest quality before said kings. It was not just a matter of quality, though – quantity was equally important, and we have spoken at length elsewhere about the sheer number of pieces which made up a French 18th century dinner service.

One item which would always appear in such services – taking their place right at the very outset of extended and extensive banquets – would be trays of six, sometimes eight, small pots, about the size of a coffee can but with a handle and a fitted but unhinged lid. These were known as “pots a jus” and were specifically designed for serving consommé or bouillon – fish or meat stocks that were tantamount to soup starters. These dishes were richly flavoured, reduced from cooking juices and - if they were allowed to cool - would become gelatinous and rather unappetising, very like aspic. This unwanted jellifaction was the reason for the lids which were intended to keep the contents at a serviceable temperature to maintain liquidity. They could, if one chose, be eaten with a spoon, but it was considered quite acceptable to pick your pot up by handle and simply drink the contents down directly. Mechanics aside, though, by 1730 they were a staple part of the refined French dining experience.

On the other side of the channel, unsurprisingly, culture, delicacy and propriety were struggling to gain a foothold. British porcelain manufacturing in the first part of the century was unable to match the standard of continental production, and as a result a great many sets of French tableware were imported for the use of England’s nascent middle classes, dragged up from the (not always metaphorical) gutter by the momentum of the industrial revolution, and keen to affect every possible sense of seemliness and demonstrable wealth. And so the staff at England’s country estates and well-to-do town houses would unpack the tea-chests laden with fine French porcelain, set out the contents by course and usage – and be left somewhat perplexed by little sets of lidded pots with handles. Consomme, bouillon, jus de viande – call it what you will – had not yet made the passage “à travers la manche”; indigenous soups, such as they were, could consumed perfectly adequately from standard bowls. The mysterious pots, as far as the vulgar English were concerned, were quite literally neither use nor ornament.

However, it didn’t take that long for thoughts to percolate back across a few decades to the point where another French import had made it to our shores, one which specifically needed a container (of sorts), this was – of course – 17th century crème anglais presented in its croustardes. It was suddenly obvious that the French nobility must have still been consuming this deliciously sweet contrivance with relish, but that they had – of course - come up with purpose-made dishes from which it could be enjoyed; the small pots were clearly custard cups !

And so the English managed to wholly and almost wilfully mislead themselves as to the purpose of the “pots a jus”, christened them custard cups and relegated them from a starring role in the opening course of the fine dining experience to a place in the round of sweet desserts at the opposite end of proceedings – huzzah and indeed hurrah for English practicality taking these fancy French foibles and putting them quite properly in their place !

As the 18th century wore on, and English porcelain began to get its act together to the extent that the great and good of the nation were happy to avail themselves of locally-manufactured dinner services, we begin to see home-grown custard cups taking their place at table, usurping the former French finery from Sevres, Chantilly, St Cloud and the like. Worcester, Caughley, Bow, Chelsea and Derby were all more than happy to add their marks to small, lidded pots, safe in the slightly erroneous certainty that they were for the consumption of stout, sugary English custard rather than anything of a suspicious French nature.

Curiously, there was one other notable centre for the production of this type of product – Sweden. Towards the latter part of the 18th century, the Swedish empire which had once controlled the Baltic shores and beyond in all directions was in terminal decline, its borders assailed from all points. The Royal House of Holstein-Gottorp in its palaces at Stockholm and grand pavillion at Haga sought to bolster its dwindling reputation on the home front by embracing every aspect of aristocratic pretention that could be observed in more properly affluent kingdoms; porcelain production was actively pursued, which included the poaching of master ceramicists from France, and works such as those at Marieberg turned out vast quantities of high-end dining services – including small lidded pots, in the French style. The Swedes were far more familiar with rich soups, even more gelatinous than the original dishes at Versailles (must be the all reindeer and elk – very fatty), and as a consequence these Scandinavian pots a jus were to become known as jelly cups – further muddying the waters when it comes to clarity of definition and derivation some 250 years later !

In England, meanwhile, a resurgent taste had been growing for desserts other than dense, spiced custards eaten from wrongly-named pots. Altogether lighter, whipped cream dishes, still spiced and therefore not dissimilar to the crème anglais with which we started some 200 years ago, but now with the added ingredient of sherry or other fortified wines, were all the rage; these came to be known as syllabubs and, as with all good things, they begged to be afforded the distinction of having their own serving vessels.

We’ve already noted in other scribblings that the Regency period saw the emergence of exquisitely-worked glassware as the material of choice from which dinner services should now be made (briefly, the wherewithal had been developed work glass in such a way as to enable the production of pieces that would look far more dazzling than even the finest porcelain). So, by the time that "custard cups" got their second wind, as it were, they were in the first instance generally made of glass and, secondly, were more properly known as syllabubs, after the comestible which they were more likely to contain ! Crucially, these syllabubs were served cold or even chilled, so there was no need whatsoever for the little lids, which had characterised first-generation custard cups.

And so, a rather convoluted history for what may at first glance seem to be a very simple range of porcelain or glass vessels. The English adoption of a French dessert, named after the edible dish in which it was presented rather than the foodstuff itself, a French entrée of an entirely different nature which engendered its own specific serving dishes, which were in turn misappropriated by the English based on a dimly-remembered half-truth, by way of unhelpful Scandinavian pretention and – finally – a properly English dessert in a properly English dish, albeit one that was originally French that the English somewhat predictably attempted to improve with the addition of alcohol – got all that ? 

To be honest, rather than bothering to try and take any of this on board, you may well be better served by mixing up some of Birds’ finest, throwing together a quick trifle and eating it straight out of the serving bowl – it’ll be a whole lot more straightforward; but don’t forget the hundreds and thousands – or should that be sugar strands, or jimmies or hagelslags or nonpareils – on your trifle, or tipsy cake, or a cassata….

a link to all the custard-related wares on our website:

Our image shows a number of "custards", which – by row – were manufactured at:
1) Tournai; Marseilles; Sevres; Mennecy (all France; early 18th c.)
2) Meissen (Prussia); Kungsholmen; Marieberg; Marieberg (Sweden; later 18th c)
3) Worcester; Caughley; Derby; Spode (England; mid 18th c.)
4) English glass "syllabubs"

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