Final Sugar Project: Flowers, Fruits, and Birds!

I didn’t wind up entering gum paste dishes – I did flowers, birds, and fruit!  So indecisive, I know. I wanted to do the flowers most, and then a friend mentioned that there’s an account of them in 16th c. Ottoman Turkey. She forwarded a few articles on the big Ottoman festivals, and one of them had a list of what these small sugar figures were: birds, pomegranates, quince, anemone, crocus, rose, carnation, and narcissus. All of my research still applied, and investigating the Ottoman avenue opened up some additional sources that really rounded out my understanding of the cultural place sugar work had in noble households.

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My work competed in Meridies’ Kingdom A&S this weekend, and it was very well-received. I’m so pleased! This was such a fun project to do, in spite of all the frustrations I had with sugar paste in the humidity. I even won a beautiful gift basket for my category. Now I have a lovely olive wood salt cellar and tiny salt bowls – something I’ve wanted for some time!

If you want to read the documentation or see tutorials for how I made each flower, it’s here, on my Documentation and Handouts page. You, too could make a carnation like this:

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Gum Paste Dishes

My hope to build a castle out of gum paste has had to be deferred. Five kilos of gum paste to try and get one that would hold up like the modern stuff, and not a single one would work right. F-I-V-E. That’s over ten pounds. That’s more than eight hours of time just in hand-grinding the cinnamon for three of the batches. It’s brought my carpal tunnel back in a major way.

I’m going to try again in the summer space between rainy seasons to see if that helps any. However, the research on sugar paste’s historical usage is the same regardless of what shape the final project takes. No sense tossing aside all the reading and writing just because I can’t make a giant, intricate project of doom.

Now I’m making dishes out of gum paste for my competition project! They were all the rage at fancy continental dinner parties in the late medieval period. Guests could eat from them, then smash their dishes and nibble on the shards. These dishes were painted like pottery dishes, according to descriptions. Since no sugar paste plates remain, it seems logical that I should paint mine like ceramics from museum collections.

Ceramic deep dish from Manises, Valencia, Spain. 1430-1440. White tin glaze decorated with bronze and blue pigment. The Cloisters Collection at The Met.

Behold! The glory of Spain’s Hispano-Moresque lusterware from the latter half of the 15th century. (I have a Pinterest board of it if you want to see more.)

Plate with the Name "Maria", c. 1437 Spain, Valencia, 15th century tin-glazed earthenware, gold lustre, Diameter - w:46.70 cm (w:18 3/8 inches)
Plate with the Name “Maria”, c. 1437 Spain, Valencia, 15th century tin-glazed earthenware, gold lustre, Diameter – w:46.70 cm (w:18 3/8 inches)

Everything gold or orange on these dishes was done with powdered bronze. This was also a budget flat gilding technique used in scribal work, and the effect is wonderfully close to shell gold at a fraction of the price. Mix the powdered metal with water and gum Arabic – voila! Golden paint! These are stunning in person. We saw some in Paris this summer, and they’re decorated on both sides with vines, floral motifs, animals, family crests, and sometimes a monogram or a few words in Gothic calligraphy.

I made a plate out of period gum paste a couple of weeks ago, in a final attempt to make the blasted recipe work for me. Here it is after I tried to gently lift it from the waxed paper it was resting on. The good news is that it is delicious, so the tasting samples for judges won’t be a total failure.

I give up.
It still didn’t dry to a hard paste – more like dried frosting or glaze. I give up.

Here’s the exterior of my trial bowl. Don’t worry, y’all – it’s in progress. I’m using powdered bronze and powdered cobalt pigment. The paint gums up as you use it, since it reconstitutes the sugar paste beneath. You have to be really careful not to accidentally touch what you painted a few minutes ago, or it will peel off in a strange, mucous-y, plastic strip. Once it’s dry, it doesn’t rub off, even if I rub it kind of hard. I plan to seal it with egg white glair, once I finish painting the whole thing.

Meet Leona Roar, who is using his double-jointed skills to pop and lock through the stars...
Meet Leona Roar, who is using his double-jointed skills to pop and lock through the stars…

My final project is a plate (may show the bowl, may not), which is still drying. I hope it shrinks as it dries evenly. The bowl had problems with that, maybe because I mashed the excess paste around the curves into the rim to try and make a smooth transition from bowl to flared rim. Getting the rim evenly round was surprisingly hard, and then it pulled in at places a little as it dried. Now, it’s rock hard, and I’m not sure how to even it out in a medieval way. Maybe take a rasp to it?