Once upon a medieval time, a ‘banquet’ was the final course of a grand feast or entertainment, not the feast itself. The banquet has thus morphed into our dessert course. It used to consist of offerings of fruits and sweetmeats which were taken with hippocras, a sweet spiced wine used as a digestive.
The word banquet comes originally from the Italian word banchetto, meaning a bench, because the sweet delicacies were often displayed on a long side table, so that they could be admired in advance. In later centuries, this part of the meal was often taken away from the main dining area – sometimes even in a purpose-built Banquet House, perhaps situated in the grounds of the residence.
The Italian celebrity chefs of the Renaissance developed the art of making fine sweetmeats and incredible sugar sculptures, and for a time these were exported to the rest of Europe. Sugar at this time was very, very expensive. It was used in small quantities as a spice, and was believed to have medicinal qualities as did most other spices. It was taken as a digestive, particularly in the form of sugared spice seeds called comfits – think of the brightly coloured sugar-coated fennel seeds that are often at the cash register at Indian restaurants.
Because sugar was expensive, it was a status symbol for the wealthy (cones of sugar were often given as gifts or bribes). As sugar became more accessible (but still not cheap,) its use became a fashionable way to impress one’s guests – and the more varied the ways of using it, the better. Even in very wealthy households the preparation of these banquet sweetmeats was the responsibility of the lady of the house and her daughters because it was too valuable an ingredient to allow the household cook to have access to – and in any case sugar-working was also a special new skill and not part of the repertoire of most household cooks and chefs of the time. The other reason for this role division was because it was always the responsibility of the mistress of the household to prepare home remedies for medical problems. Many of these included sugar, and many were also made by distillation in the ‘still-room’ which was definitely the domain of the mistress, and very conveniently was a warm dry place with a good source of heat such as usually charcoal.
Whole chapters of sixteenth and seventeenth century cookbooks were given over to recipes for ‘banquetting stuffe’. Sugared spices (comfits) and sweetmeats were the earliest delicacies. They were classed as ‘wet’ (in a syrup, like Italian mostarda), or dry (as in crystallised ginger). Over time, sugar became more easily available, and more exotic ingredients were imported and used liberally (rosewater was very popular). Brilliantly coloured and decorated jellies and ‘creams’ (firm custards), small crisp biscuits (similar to macaroons and biscotti), gingerbread (which was more like firm fudge than cake), a great deal of marzipan, ‘composts’ (fruit in spiced syrup), and fruit pastes similar to the quince paste we now eat with cheese were all added to the banquet table.
Gervase Markham in his Country Contentments: the English Huswife, published in 1615, gave over considerable space to the preparation of banquetting stuffe. Amongst the recipes is this early form of iumbals (‘jumbles’ or ‘jumbals’) - a sort of sweet spiced biscuit (in the English sense of the word, which equates to the American ‘cookie.’
To make the best Iumbals, take the whites of three egges and beat them well and take of the viell; then take a little milke and a pound of fine wheat flower and suger together finely sifted, and a few Aniseeds well rubd and dried; and then work all together as stiffe as you can work it, and so make them in what forms you please and bake them in a soft oven upon white Papers.
(There is a recipe for Jumbals from 1724 in a previous post, here.)