Clarifying Sugar with Philippine Welser

Another source begins. Recipe 1 in the recipe collection owned by Philippine Welser (c. 1550):

Philippine Welser courtesy of wikimedia commons

1 Clarifying sugar

Take one pound of sugar and the white of an egg, beat this well with a spoon and put it into the sugar. Pour on one Maß of water and stir it together. Then place it in a brass pan and set it on a trivet. Place embers below and let it stand two hours. Do not stir it, but see that it does not boil over. When you see that the mass (der kitt) holds together (solidifies/coagulates) and it comes up and the sugar turns brown, take it off the fire and strain it carefully through a cloth. Then put it back on the trivet and let it stand for an hour, and when you see it is brown (prun ist), take the sugar off the fire and put it with the thing you wish to preserve, be it ginger or apples of paradise (paredeyss epfoll) or other things. Let it stand for a long time until it turns lukewarm (lab), that is proper.

We had other recipes for clarifying sugar from the sixteenth century, but this one is interestingly different. The goal does not seem to be producing a clear, white sugar but to caramelise it. As the final sentences explain, it is intended as a syrup to preserve foods, among other things ginger, a process often described in Renaissance cookbooks.

Egg white foam on boiling sugar syrup

The description made me curious, so I tried to replicate the basic conditions: a pound of sugar, about 800 ml of water, and one egg white beaten together and slowly brought to a moderate heat. It took more power than I thought it would, but the pot bubbled and produced a surprising amount of solid foam. This is caused by the egg white and probably is the kitt that “comes up” in the recipe. Since this was industrially refined sugar, there were no impurities in evidence and the syrup started out clear. After it had reduced by about half, it started to turn honey-coloured and I strained it, removing the foam. After being returned to the pot, the syrup again produced copious, but not solid foam and the colour darkened. In equal measure intimidated and bored, I decided to end the experiment before producing very dark brown and poured it off into a metal bowl. It promptly began to form small, grainy crystals, something that has often happened to me with German-made beet sugar. I don’t think it would have happened with the original.

Darker, honey-coloured syrup after straining

Incidentally, I am not sure what ‘apples of paradise’ are. There are various types of apple locally known by that name today, but I do not think the writer would use this distinction when everywhere else, “apples” was clear enough. Austrian dialect uses the word to refer to a tomato which is technically possible, but highly unlikely in the mid-sixteenth century. In the past, pomegranates were also called apples of paradise, but I have yet to find that term in culinary recipes. Finally, the manchineel (Hippomane mancinella) is sometimes called this, but that plant is not only strictly tropical, but also lethally poisonous. None of the candidates look like a good fit.

Philippine Welser (1527-1580), a member of the prominent and extremely wealthy Welser banking family of Augsburg, was a famous beauty of her day. Scandalously, she secretly married Archduke Ferdinand II of Habsburg in 1557 and followed him first to Bohemia, then to Tyrol. A number of manuscripts are associated with her, most famously a collection of medicinal recipes and one of mainly culinary ones. The recipe collection, addressed as her Kochbuch in German, was most likely produced around 1550 when she was a young woman in Augsburg. It may have been made at the request of her mother and was written by an experienced scribe. Some later additions, though, are in Philippine Welser’s own hand, suggesting she used it.

The manuscript is currently held in the library of Ambras Castle near Innsbruck as PA 1473 and was edited by Gerold Hayer as Das Kochbuch der Philippine Welser (Innsbruck 1983).

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