SOME SWEET TERMS
By Alys Katharine, O.L., O.P. (Elise Fleming)
One of the difficulties in working within the SCA is that we come from so many different times and places. Even if one’s persona is English there is still a thousand years separation from AD 600-1600. Those of us who are cooks confront an ever-changing language as well as "regional variations" for the same words. In foods and confections, certain terms started as meaning one thing in the fourteenth century and referred to something different by the seventeenth. Here are some of the words you might encounter with a few of their possible meanings.
SUBTLETY (also soteltie, sotelty, soteltee, suttlety) was used in France until the 17th century. It often refers to skilled craft work by the cook or confectioner. Subtleties can be non-edible, partly edible, or totally edible. There are several possible sources for the term. "Subtil" referred to the widely-held belief in the medicinal effect of sugar. Today in France the meal still ends with a "digestif", to help digestion. "Sotil" also meant "subtle", a reference to wit or wisdom. This was a time for witty after-dinner chatter, a time for showing off, for puns and pointed comments.
At first these fancy works may have been called "warners" because they warned or gave notice of the meal. Wood, plaster, wax, lard, jelly and sugar were some of the materials from which they were made. Many of the subtleties served at the end of each course bore mottoes to explain the allegorical meanings that were intended. In a number of cases, the herald's office recorded the particular mottoes from a feast. In some instances, the term "subtelty" included the idea of entertainment within the meal.
INTERLUDE, ENTREMET frequently refers to an entertainment occurring within a meal or between the "mets" (entre-met). "Met", a French word, referred to the individual course. Sources such as Le Viandier use "entremet" to refer to a simple dish, sort of a palate-cleanser, between the courses of fancier dishes. Some of his entremets include pates, frumenty, meat and fish gellies, boiled millet, rice, aspics, and some sweet dishes. However, entremets also referred to what we think of as a subtelty or an entertainment. Le Viandier's entremet of the Swan Knight needed 12 pieces of wood to make the boat, lead sheets to form the coffer which held the water, parchment and down to cover the boat, a painted cloth to simulate waves, and strong men to carry the whole thing! St. George consisted of foodstuffs to make the platform, horse, St. George, and dragon, although non-edible materials might be used as well. A human maiden led the entremet through the hall.
One source for "interlude" is the term "intromitto" which means "to introduce, let into." The Romans had an "intermissum" which referred to an extra course which was added to the meal, generally consisting of some expensive, luxurious food to top off a fancy dinner. This has some similarity with the use of a subtlety to show off one's wealth by using such an expensive commodity as sugar.
Interludes were also entertainments that came between the various courses. One supposition is that this came from the 14th and 15th century pageants which also gave rise to mummings and disguises. Interludes were plays that were short enough to be squeezed in between the courses. The earliest reference is a few short lines from 1300. There are additional references in the 14th century with recorded ones dating from the end of the 15th century. Interludes allowed the players to interact with the guests. There was an intimacy between player and diner that was not permitted in "mummings" or "disguises." Guests were often targeted as the butt of jokes or comments by the actors.
DISGUISES, while not a food, were romantic fantasies played out between the courses. Frequently the host (Edward III and Richard II among others) played a role. The earliest records are from 1347 and show up in the clothing and props that were planned. Costumes were often outlandish but did not necessarily hide the participants' identities. Disguises were most frequently done during Tudor and Stuart periods. The disguisers might sing and dance but never interacted with the dinner guests as was done with the interludes. So that everyone might be aware of the meaning of the strange costumes and activities, a "presenter" would make comments. Mumming may have been an offshoot of the early disguises.
BANQUET had two meanings. It could refer to a grand dinner as it still does today, or to the final course of sweets. In Tudor and Stuart times the banquet often referred to the latter. There were specialized recipes just for the banquet. Period cookbooks such as Thomas Dawson's Good Huswife's Jewell list "all things necessary for a banquet". Among the items are various seeds and spices (pepper, licorice, nutmegs, saffron, sugar, ginger, cloves, mace), fruits (prunes, currants. lemons, oranges, raisins, dates, cherries), waters (rose water, damask water), marchpanes, wafers, marmalades, preserves, conserves, suckets, comfits, sweet biscuits, small cakes, gingerbread, jumballs, syllabubs, and on and on.
The origins of the term may come from several sources. In Italian "banchetto" is a small table or bench. "Banquet" itself is a French term. In England Caxton first used it as "bankettis" in 1483. Banquet was still used through the 18th century as a term referring to a separate dessert course. Banquetting rooms or houses were popular during Tudor and Stuart times. These were often small, intimate rooms where the guests stood up to eat their sweets, but some were several stories high with several rooms on each floor.
DESSERT is the term that we now use for the banquet course. In the 14th century Le Menagier uses dessert for the separate course of fruit and confections. Its source is "desservir" meaning "to clear the table". In the late 1500s and early 1600s the term "dessert" was regarded as un-English but by 1666 was commonly used. By now not only the upper class was serving a dessert course in a separate room but even the wealthier middle class had picked up the custom. In the late 18th century dinners became more intimate. Rather than retiring to a separate room as had been done during the Tudor and Stuart times, the sweets were served immediately after the food in the same room. The remnant of the old banquetting rooms lingered on in the modern world with the guests leaving the dining rooms to have coffee and nuts a little while later in the living room.
COLLATION was a light meal served cold with an emphasis on sweets. In the 16th century it was part of the French court. Themes often centered around classical mythology or allegories. In 1571 at a feast honoring Elizabeth of Austria, new bride of Charles IX, the dinner was followed by dancing. After dancing a collation was served with preserves, sweet biscuits, fruits, marzipan, sugar paste formed into meats and fish, with six large sugar sculptures of Minerva bringing peace to Athens.
VOID or VOIDEE was a French custom. It referred to the final segment of a banquet and became quite ceremonial. A procession entered with the chamberlain leading the household staff who bore all of the elaborate silver and gold plates and cups. It was usually held in a separate room where the guests stood to consume the candied spices and sweets. In England, to “void the table” meant to tidy up between courses. "Voiders" were vessels for collecting leftovers and into which crumbs were swept. Their appearance at the table signalled that it would soon be time for apples, nuts, or spiced wine to be served.
RERESUPPER was a late evening supper against which the Church preached as sinful. It consisted of light foods, often sweets, and for men it was primarily alcoholic. Generally, when guests finished their dinner, that was expected to be enough food until the next morning. However, some people began to take snacks in the late evening, a practice which was considered by the Church to lead to sinful activities. Men frequently became drunk during reresuppers which sometimes led them to further “licentious activity.” As you will note, there is a definite overlapping of meanings among banquet, entremet, and subtlety. Terms waxed and waned in popularity, but whatever you choose to call your special plans to enhance your feast, you can be sure your audience will be most appreciative!
'Banquetting Stuffe', edited by C. Anne Wilson, Edinburgh University Press, 1991
Fast and Feast , Bridget Ann Henisch, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976
Form of Cury, 1780 edition as printed in A Collection of Medieval and Renaissance Cookbooks, compiled by Duke Sir Cariodoc of the Bow and Duchessa Diana Alena, Fourth Edition, Volume I, 1987
Good Huswife's Jewell, Thomas Dawson, 1596, Falconwood Press, 1988
Petits Propos Culinaires, Issues 17, 20 Prospect Books Ltd., London
The Viandier of Taillevent, edited by Terence Scully, University of Ottawa, 1988
Savoring the Past, Barbara Ketcham Wheaton, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983