Feast and Fast: how pineapple mania hit Cambridge
Anyone passing the Fitzwilliam Museum will have spotted the new sculpture gracing its lawn - a four metre tall golden pineapple.
The giant fruit is just a hint at the extraordinary new exhibition launching at the museum this week, which includes the story of how Cambridge kicked off Britain’s pineapple craze.
Feast & Fast: The Art of Food in Europe, 1500-1800 looks at the history of food - from astonishing banquets of peacock and owl pies and houses sculpted from sugar to religious fasts, the strict diets of the earliest vegans and notions of sin surrounding overeating.
Luke Syson, Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, says: “The allure of food magazines and luscious food photography, the cult of celebrity chefs, the publication of new diets, and the concerns over eating disorders and food-related diseases, are anticipated in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. So, too, are the debates around vegetarianism and veganism, the desirability of the seasonal and local, versus the exotic and imported, the vulnerability of food supply chains, the ethics of food production, and sustainability.
“All of these urgent contemporary concerns have their parallels in the period of early modern food culture tackled by Feast & Fast. We stand to learn a lot.’
The pineapple and its link to Cambridge has its own dedicated display, celebrating 300 years since the first one was grown in England.
Now a cheap pizza topping, it was once considered an emblem of power and luxury after its “discovery” by European colonists in the late fifteenth century..
The Cambridge connection is that Matthew Decker, a wealthy Dutch merchant and grandfather of the museum’s founder, Richard Viscount Fitzwilliam, grew the first commercially viable crop of pineapples in Britain.
But pineapples became an obsession for Britain’s wealthy when by Decker’s friend, Richard Bradley, the first Professor of Botany at Cambridge University, wrote the guide book on how to grow them in glass houses.
One of the curators, Victoria Avery, said: “Most pineapples that actually arrived transatlantic were sour and off, so when Bradley publishes his instructions he creates pineapple mania, which was like tulip mania for the Dutch a century before.
“Now anybody who has a large enough garden, gardening staff and money and wants to say I’m fashionable and I have the status can grow them.
“Everybody goes berserk and you get pineapple recipes, pineapple shaped teapots, all the pottery moulds in the shape of pineapples to make pineapple flummeries and blancmange.
“Pineapples only became affordable in the 20th century when they were produced in Hawaii and canned so they could be shipped. I hope this exhibition will make people think about the history of the pineapple and how come the height of exotic luxury that only kings could afford and now these days someone can buy it for a quid in Aldi.”
Other highlights of the exhibition include reconstructions of a Jacobean sugar banquet, a Georgian confectioner’s shop, and a European feasting table topped by swan and peacock pies decorated with the taxidermied birds.
Some of the most magnificent meals ever consumed in England were ‘banquets’ served at the end of elite feasts, often in specially designed banqueting houses, consisting entirely of glittering displays of sugar in different forms. This recreation at the exhibition, by food historian Ivan Day, includes a sculpture of a banqueting house made from sugar as well as edible jokes such as a pair of sugar gloves, playing cards, and even a plate of bacon and eggs.
Mr Day said: “This is the after course for a wedding feast. It became a theatrical occasion where sugar was used as a preservative, for fruits such as apricots. Sugar also worked as a medicine on the digestive system and it became an art material which they learned from the Islamic world. The piece in the middle created from sugar was called a conceit.”
This sculpture is a recreation of Long Melford banqueting house in Suffolk. Even the plates on which the food was served were made from sugar and designed to be eaten at the end of the feast.
Mr Day says: “Guests were able to eat their sweeties off the sugar plates and turn them over to see a line of verse, often warning of the sin of gluttony.”
The next cabinet shows a confectioner’s window, where the now extinct “Twelfth cakes”, to be eaten on Twelfth night, were on display, along with cones of sugared almonds.
Overshadowing all this indulgence is a section telling the stories of enslaved people being sold to sugar plantations in Jamaica who produced the sugar crops that ended up on these cakes and confectionary.
The most jaw-dropping reconstruction is left until last - a table of gilded bird pies crowned with the stuffed birds themselves, which was the height of luxury in the 17th century.
Feast and Fast, at the Fitzwilliam Museum opened yesterday (Tuesday) and will run until April 26.
More by this authorAlex Spencer