Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Burning Questions

Today, while I was boiling my blackcurrant jam and staring into the furiously hot and hypnotic bubbles, I wondered about my great grandfather and his craft.

He was a master Pattisiere who owned a shop and restaurant on the outskirts of Paris for a while as well as a shop or two in London at different times. He made his name in sugar craft, where molton sugar is grabbed directly from the pan, then pulled and shaped, pinched and rolled, in order to make brightly coloured confections in various shapes and sizes with different degrees of opacity. My great grandfather made all sorts of displays with his sugar, from furniture to flowers, to popular "scenes" of the day. He made a jewelery chest for the Empress of Somewhereorother who thought it was made of wood, and according to family legend, his sugar roses were almost impossible to discern from real ones. My grandmother, his daughter, told me that he would boil his sugar, and when it got to the precise temperature it needed to be, he would freeze his fingers in iced water, then swiftly dip them into the pan and pull some sugar out, which he would then stretch and shape in the old fashioned way. The last grand piece he attempted to do, was a scene from "Swan Lake" for a show at Crystal Palace. His staff were under strict instructions not to disturb him while he worked on his masterpeice in the cool basement of his shop. But one staff member was not present when this instruction was issued, and when a calling salesman stopped by, he was sent down the stairs to do his business as usual ... the ensuing interruption caused my great grandfather to break the neck of the swan he was working on, and in a fit of artistic rage, the entire composition was swept mercilessly to the floor. Great grandfather never worked with sugar again after that.

My burning question is ... How do you work with sugar that way? I wish I could learn how to do it - or at least find more stories about it as I don't think I would have the nerve to dip my fingers in hot sugar! But I fear it's a dying, if not dead, art. I read somewhere quite recently that there is a sugar chandelier, made in this fashion, somewhere in a shop in London .. perhaps I'll have to track it down.

My other burning question is this ... How come Moogsmum's new girls have already laid an egg? Congratulations!! My girls, who remain un-named (I just can't decide!), had better hurry up or I might just be subject to an attack of egg envy!


Monica said...

Hi Julia, I've just started to read and enjoy your blog. In answer to your 'boiled sugar' question 'is it a dying art or is it dead' Well no, it's not. It's taught in collages all over the country where the City and Guild Sugarcraft Part 2 course is taught. Its a modual to be completed and assessed. You still need cast iron fingers but now days there's a cream you apply to your hands that gives them some protection. It's certainly not an easy skill to master. I did this 8 years ago and I must admit I havent tackled it since. The fingers were just too sensitive!

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful heritage. I love the thought of artists who work in sugar or chocolate or pastry. I love that creativity should be allowed into even the most necessary areas of our lives - food.

Dragonfly said...

He must have had cast-iron fingers, I remember burning myself on just the spoon I was using to boil some sugar - it was agony!
How lucky you are to have such a lovely story in your family. Do you know where his London shops were? I wonder what they are now?

Lesley said...

Your great Grandfather sounds like a fascinating man and his creations must have been a sight to behold!

Re: the egg situation - Moogsdad reckons they put a rogue old bird in - not sure I agree with him as they all look the same!!

I'm dying to nip down the garden and check them but don't want to disturb anyone mid-egg!!


Fancy Elastic said...

Hello, What a great story. Your Grandfather sounds like a legend!
thanks for sharing.

Joleo said...

What a fantastic story. You surely have to try out a course and find out if you have the fingers for it!

jennyflower said... that word conjurs up images! It is almost erotic....please tell me it's not just me....dosen't everyone get a bit aroused at the thought of clouds of icing sugar settling gently upon palmieres?

janie said...

Fascinating family history, sounds like he was an amazing artist, I have worked with clay and found it difficult enough , can't imagine trying to sculpt with boiling hot sugar. Good luck in your quest, it is a shame the way old skills are being forgotten.

Helen said...

Amazing family story! And I love the name 'les delices de l'ermitage'! Those old photographs are so evocative.

Kitty said...

What an amazing story! thank you for sharing it.