Dessert by any other name tastes as sweet

Elaborate edibles of the Elizabethan era are on display at the MIA, and there's a party to celebrate.

Despite its bad reputation, traditional English fare is not all mutton, Yorkshire pudding and visions of Henry VIII waving around a giant gnawed turkey leg. In fact, it's having a very arty moment -- both on television and at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Many a fan of "Downton Abbey" has salivated at the sophisticated dishes the staff makes for the Grantham family, with even the lobsters arranged as if performing a ballet. But Twin Citians have the chance to see equally astounding -- and more authentic -- works of English culinary art at the Art Institute, where an ornate table full of dessert reproductions has been set up in the Tudor Room.

"Supper With Shakespeare: The Evolution of English Banqueting" is the first installment of a series that the institute plans to make a yearly habit -- food-related exhibits that tie in with art, set in one of the museum's period rooms.

To the chefs who served Britain's 1 percent in the Elizabethan era of the late 16th century, food was art. Ivan Day, a food historian with a staggering knowledge of English cookery through the ages, re-created a wedding-feast course for what was then known as an "intimate banquet."

"What we today call dessert, a word taken from the French, was called a banquet in Shakespeare's day, and often served in a different room than the meal," said Day, in town recently to give a public talk and host a private dinner with Heartland chef Lenny Russo.

Art imitates life

Day took part of the inspiration for his table from the 1603 Franz Francken painting "Lazarus and Dives," which hangs in the Bread Museum in Ulm, Germany. His edible art includes molded quince marmalades, a miniature Renaissance house built with plated sugar and a pie crust imprinted with the image of a stag so delicate and detailed it could be embroidery. Also brides' cakes filled with spiced fruits, and playing cards, serving dishes and guests' initials and likenesses in the form of cookies, all made entirely of sugar -- you could get diabetes just looking at them, and a headache imagining the labor-intensive processes of making them.

"This would be bird food compared with what they had already eaten," Day said. No wonder part of the royal dining tradition was giving the monarch "hypocras," a special spiced wine, and "dragees," sugar-coated seeds, to aid digestion. Some of the delectables are adorned with gold leaf, which the Elizabethans thought would "liven their spirits," he said.

Preserving fruit was a problem in pre-refrigeration times, but when sugar became readily available through trade with Venice, at least for the wealthy, "this sort of food could be stored for years," he said.

While "Downton Abbey" is set in a period more than three centuries after Shakespeare's, Day is versed in Edwardian culinary arts, as well. For all the apparent grandness of the meals prepared and served on "Downton," he bemoans a lack of authenticity, especially in table settings, such as a tendency to use 19th-century glassware before its time. Even in the period film "The Young Victoria," on which he consulted, the plates were all wrong.

"All I could do is cover them up with food," he said.

Day won't be on hand tonight, but local pastry chefs from some of the Twin Cities' top bakeries have whipped up their own versions of his ancient recipes, and they're offering samples.

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046

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  • SHAKESPEAREAN DINNER PARTY

    What: Activities include samplings of Tudor-era pastries made by local bakeries, mingling with Shakespearean actors and music by L' Assassins.

    When: 6-9 p.m. Dec. 20.

    Where: Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 2400 3rd Av. S., Mpls.

    Tickets: Free.

    More info: www.startribune.com/a1944

    See more photos online at startribune.com/taste

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