This month’s post further explores the intersection between architecture and wedding cakes, following the publication of the first segment in May. In this post, I turn my attention to evidence that reveals how important it was for a confectioner or domestic cook to showcase his or her talents by creating cakes inspired by classical ruins or gothic buildings. It also sheds light on how the making of architectural cakes resembled the construction of actual buildings.
Before I showcase my evidence, it is important to firstly mention that elaborate wedding cakes were symbols of wealth. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, food was re-enforced as a platform on which the struggle for status took place. Through this, ‘food became increasingly ornamental – and vertical’. Emily Allen, English professor at the University of Purdue, asserts that the British wedding cake ‘began the nineteenth century as a rather low-lying affair', but in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the structure of the cake changed dramatically, and stretched from a single-tiered cake to a vertical, multi-level edifice. As an object of conspicuous consumption, a wedding cake had the power to display wealth, as well as perform status among the upper and middle classes.
Another short detour into the life of a culinary genius gives us insight into some of the origins of architectural cakes more generally. Many food historians writing about major turning points in the history of cooking, mention chefs like Marie-Antonin Carême (1784-1833), who once worked in the royal kitchens at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, for Russian Tsar, Alexander I, in St. Petersburg, and for the Rothschild family. I am tempted to retell Carême’s extraordinary, and somewhat miraculous life story, which takes us from the violence-ridden streets of pre-revolutionary Paris, to the royal kitchens of England and Russia, but I will limit myself to what is relevant.
Carême is memorialised by scholars as one of the key figures who possessed a memorable talent for creating jaw-dropping extraordinaires or pièces montées, sculpture-like pieces that decorated the dinner tables of the wealthy. This is where the architectural element comes in, so don’t skim this part. While Carême was working for Sylvain Bailly, a Parisian pastry-chef, he spent time studying prints and drawings of classical and Gothic architecture at the French Bibliothèque Nationale. He would draw, and then re-create ‘the ruined castles and hermitages, temples, pyramids and fountains he had seen in the Bibliothèque’ in pastry, marzipan, sugar-paste and spun sugar albeit in a more stylized manner.
Carême’s work paid homage to a style of confectionery that was thought to demonstrate the high level of a confectioner’s skills. In ‘Some Thoughts on Cutlery, as it Relates to Dining’ (1805), a short essay written by Grimod de la Reynière, author of The Gourmand’s Almanac, cooking was considered an art in its own right, but if cooks and confectioners wanted to rise to the top of their game, they were expected to be competent in many disciplines, including architecture.
It is widely held true that all of the arts are interconnected, that they overlap, and that they are mutually beneficial; it is a less generally held opinion, but just as true, that cuisine is linked to nearly all branches of human knowledge, by which we mean all the physical sciences, as well as the applied arts, and even those offering only pure enjoyment. Chemistry, painting, sculpture, architecture, geometry, physics, pyrotechnics, all are more or less closely allied with the great art of fine dining; and the artist who, in addition to a profound knowledge of culinary art, possesses a fair smattering of all these sciences, should reap great benefits indeed. (Unfortunately, I know little about the importance of pyrotechnics in the kitchen, so that will have to remain a mystery for now.)
In Paris à Table (1846), Eugène Briffault, a French journalist, equally underlined that ‘to make a good dessert, one must be not only a good confectioner, but a talented decorator, painter, architect, sculptor, and florist as well.' In Jules Gouffé’s weighty cookery book The Royal Book of Pastry and Confectionery (1874), it is clearly stated that pastrycooks’ culinary merits were judged on their abilities not just as confectioners, but as veritable craftsmen.
In his section ‘Advice to Beginners’, Gouffé wrote that a youth [a young cook] must be quick and intelligent – twin qualities which by imperceptible degrees transform a workman into an artist. He must have a lively and inventive fancy, one able to originate ideas […] he should have that artistic feeling which imparts to everything, great and small, that harmony of style which captivates the eye.
In line with Grimod de la Reynière’s statement, Gouffé added that ‘A pastrycook must have a rudimentary knowledge of drawing, of sculpture, and of architecture.' Included in Gouffé’s book were a number of colourful plates that let you imagine to what extent a confectioner’s skills were put to the test.
Somewhat amusingly, and perhaps realistically, Gouffé claimed that his creations demonstrated ‘what can be done with but few implements – to wit, plain cutters, a small kitchen knife, a camel-hair brush’. ‘In my younger days’, Gouffé continues, ‘I had often nothing else at my disposal’. Surely, Gouffé was downplaying his own talent when he added that ‘A few simple aids’ plus ‘a little thought’ was all that was needed to create villas, summer houses and pavilions out of almond and sugar paste, or nougat.
During my research, I came across a book called The Book of Cakes (1903), in which is described how the ornamental icing on wedding cakes must be ‘built up’ in layers of borders, scrolls and lines. This process of ‘building up’ the decoration, I believe, can be applied to the overall construction of the cake. Considering that a wedding cake is made up of several levels, its construction, much like a house or other architectural building, needs to begin at the foundation.
Gouffé’s publication helpfully included a series of drawings that look unmistakably like floor plans. To start off building the ‘Italian Villa’ in nougât for example, a framework would have been made out of confectioner’s paste first.
The individual parts that are visible in the above image would have been ‘cemented’ together using ‘gum paste diluted with water’. Then, Gouffé instructed his readers to ‘roll out some of the nougât quickly to 3/4 inch thickness on a marble slab slightly oiled’, out of which patterns of each part of the structure were cut, based on the floor plan below.
To this, Gouffé explained that ‘the ground plan or sheet of nougât A B C D E F, placed horizontally, supports the whole fabric and forms its foundation.’ From this initial layer, more nougât is cut out according to the plan, and placed horizontally, stacked on top of each other. Then, the first walls are erected, after which a roof is put in place, which creates the first ‘floor’, or tier. The process is repeated until it is ready to be painted or decorated with icing.
We may have veered away from our topic ever so slightly, but the principal behind making, for example, an Italian Villa is similar to that of a wedding cake. The wedding cake is ‘built up’ in much the same way: from the bottom foundation, to the last ornament that graced the top tier.
________________________________________ Emily Allen, ‘Culinary Exhibition: Victorian Wedding Cakes and Royal Spectacle’, Victorian Studies, Vol. 45, No. 3 (Spring, 2003), p.460  Emily Allen, ‘Culinary Exhibition: Victorian Wedding Cakes and Royal Spectacle’, Victorian Studies, Vol. 45, No. 3 (Spring, 2003), p.459  Ian Kelly, Cooking for Kings: The Life of Antonin Carême, the First Celebrity Chef, (NY: Walker & Company, 2003), p.95  Ian Kelly, Cooking for Kings: The Life of Antonin Carême, the First Celebrity Chef, (NY: Walker & Company, 2003), p.38  Ian Kelly, Cooking for Kings: The Life of Antonin Carême, the First Celebrity Chef, (NY: Walker & Company, 2003), p.39  Cited in: Denise Gigante, Gusto: Essential Writings in Nineteenth-Century Gastronomy, (New York; London: Routledge, 2005), p.8  Denise Gigante, Gusto: Essential Writings in Nineteenth-Century Gastronomy, (New York; London: Routledge, 2005), p.xxiii  Jules Gouffé, The Royal Book of Pastry and Confectionery, (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Low, & Searle, 1874), p.2  Gouffé, p.144  T. Lewis and A.G. Bromley, The Book of Cakes, (London: MacLaren & Sons, 1903), p.16  Gouffé, p.131  Gouffé, pp.132-138
Zenia Malmer –
Zenia graduated from Oxford Brookes University with a degree in English and Arts Management. She worked at the Ministry of Culture in Luxembourg as a project coordinator for three years before embarking on the History of Design course. Her current research interests lie at the intersection of food and design history: from the nineteenth-century tools and technologies designed to make smooth and creamy ice cream, to figuring out how Baumkuchen got its distinctive shape.
Follow me on Twitter! @Zenia__M
© Zenia Malmer, 2014. All Rights Reserved.