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Feast & Fast

The Art of Food in Europe, 1500 – 1800

94: Still life of a bowl of wild strawberries

Still life of a bowl of wild strawberries, standing cup, a bottle of rose water, a sugar loaf and a box of shot comfits This painting is a homage to sugar and sweetness in various forms. At front left is a dazzling white refined sugar cone, its thin end still wrapped in special blue ‘sugar paper’, dyed with indigo to keep insects away. Made by pouring refined molten sugar into conical earthenware moulds by enslaved people, this part of the production process was particularly dangerous but rendered the sugar easier to transport. Sugar cleavers, nippers, pestles and mortars, and sugar-graters transformed the solid cone into increasingly fine granules. At front right, a small, lozenge-shaped, confectioner’s ‘bane box’, also lined with sugar paper, is filled with luxury ‘nonpareils’ or ‘shot comfits’ made by coating orris root powder (from irises) in multiple coats of syrup. In the background, the glass bottle contains rosewater, either home-made or acquired ready-made from an apothecary’s or grocer’s. Scented rosewater was used for many sweet dishes and confectionery, including marzipan, which also required almonds and refined sugar. Would early modern viewers of this image of sweetness have had any idea of the brutality and exploitation that lay behind the production of sugar?

Germany or Alsace, c.1620 –1700

Oil on canvas

The Merchant’s House, Marlborough (003)

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