The regency confectioner
Updated: Apr 3, 2020
"The confectioner’s art required as much precision and craft as a sculptor or silversmith."
Jane Austen's World
My other major occupation on the computer is to update my family history website. Many years ago now I started to look into my family history and discovered so many wonderful stories along the way, even though the vast majority are very ordinary people, that I determined to share their stories on the net so that they would not be forgotten and so that maybe others might contribute some more information.
I am currently writing up the wonderful looking man above. He is my great-great-great grandfather, Robert Mollett, in a direct line back from my father. He lived from 1783 until 1866 and he was a confectioner and pastry cook. It's a wonderful portrait is it not, and aptly reflects the fact that by the time he died he was calling himself a gentleman, even though his Norwich father was a mere cow keeper (a milkman if you will). But then it seems he was in a good profession to make money.
"In the eighteenth century, the confectioner was the most highly regarded of all tradesmen involved in the preparation of food. His skills were considered to be of a more elevated order than those of a mere cook or baker and if he was successful in his craft he could command not only impressive financial rewards, but a respectable social standing usually denied to other food professionals." Ivan Day
And most of that prestige carried over into the nineteenth century. After all the early years of the nineteenth century - the Regency era and the time of the Napoleonic wars, Jane Austen et al. were a sort of carry over from the eighteenth.
But I am not here to tell you more about him - if you want to know more you can read all about him here. No, I thought I would talk a little about the Regency era pastry cooks and confectioners. Well Victorian ones, too.
It seems that the eighteenth century was a defining period in fancy food in England and the continent of Europe. This is the era of all those fancy cakes and ice creams and pastries. Various techniques such as meringues were invented, and ice was imported from the icebergs of Iceland and Greenland to keep everything frozen. It was a lucrative trade, for the demand for the new confectionery of ice cream was huge. I found an eighteenth century recipe for an apricot ice cream which demonstrates what hard work it was to make.
"Pare, stone and scald twelve ripe Apricots, beat them fine in a Marble Mortar, put to them six Ounces of double refined Sugar, a Pint of scalding Cream, work it through a Hair Sieve, put it into a Tin that has a close Cover, set it in a Tub of Ice broken small, and a large Quantity of Salt put amongst it, when you see your Cream grow thick round the Edges of your Tin, stir it and set it in again ’till it all grows quite thick, when your Cream is all Froze up, take it out of your Tin, and put it in the Mould you intend it to be turned out of, then put on the Lid, and have ready another Tub with Ice and Salt in as before, put your Mould in the Middle, and lay your Ice under and over it, let it stand four or five Hours, dip your Tin in warm Water when you turn it out; if it be Summer, you must not turn it out ’till the Moment you want it; you may use any Sort of Fruit if you have not Apricots, only observe to work it fine." – Ice cream recipe fromThe Experienced English Housekeeper by Elizabeth Raffald, 1769, page 228
Of course the rich may well have had their own in-house confectioner but others bought their ice creams from confectioners shops. They may even have eaten them on the premises, as these lovely drawings and cartoons show.
It was the thing to do, the place to go. And this would have continued well into the nineteenth century.
In the nineteenth century though, as the price of sugar came down, in addition, the confectioner moved into the manufacture of what the English call sweets and the Australians lollies.
"Now the confectioner had to learn to pull sugar, boil sugar to degrees with exciting names such as hard crack, soft ball and caramel, and to flavour and colour it with the new, synthetic flavours and colours which became available after 1850. It was hot, dangerous and physical work." Sarah Orme - Who Do You think You Are?
By 1850 my ancestor would have been thinking of retiring, but he also most likely made these too. These were rather different shops, and if you have been to Sovereign Hill in Ballarat you will have seen them making these sweets and the kind of shop, like this one, in which they were sold. Indeed this type of set up continued well into the twentieth century. I remember sweet shops in my childhood where we would spend our farthings - yes farthings - on a gob stopper or two.
But confectioners made other things too.
"Confectioners dealt with anything sugar-based, including jellies (from calves’ feet), ice creams (using ice and salt), sweet pastries, set creams, and French-style cakes, which would become known as patisserie." Sarah Orme - Who Do You think You Are?
For my great-great-great grandfather Robert was a pastry cook too. I have a picture of his actual shop, which as you can see is fairly substantial, and it was in a busy street which later became the Holborn viaduct - a very central part of London. Well some reports say the street was a financial disaster, but the painting below of the actual street, does not seem to confirm that opinion.
Alas I do not really know what kind of shop it was. What did he make? Ice cream, lollies, cakes, pies or did he do catering? Did he have tables inside so that it was a sort of café too. Did he deliver to houses and businesses? Unless I am lucky enough to one day find an advertisement for the shop - there must be one somewhere - I shall never know. There are so many things he could have been making and so many ways that he could have been selling them as well as from the shop. I am guessing he was somewhere in the middle echelons of the confectionery trade. Not at the top serving the aristocracy and the very rich, and not at the bottom just selling from a tray in the streets.
"Increasingly, confectioners combined general cookery and catering with specialist sweet confections requiring different skills." Sarah Orme - Who Do You think You Are?
The only other ancestor I have ever found with a cookery background was Robert's great grandfather who was a baker, although he did have an ironmonger cousin who invented an oven. I was thrilled to find him, and even more thrilled when I was sent the portrait at the top of the page from a distant relative who found my website.
But I haven't really told you a lot about Regency confectioner's have I? Apologies. There are various accounts on the net, mostly centred on Negroni's which later became Gunter's a very successful confectioner's in Mayfair and much fancier than my ancestor's establishment. He was only in his twenties when he took on that shop and died leaving a fairly substantial sum to his remaining children. And he has a pretty fancy tomb in Abney Park Cemetery in Stoke Newington too - then a fairly posh neighbourhood where he had a second home. Back then, as now, there was/is money to be made from confectionery - from sugar. We all desire it - probably particularly in these dire times. And come to think of it they were pretty dire times back then too.
I seem to have found another ancestor pastry cook - one of Robert's grandsons. It seems that he actually rose to being Master of the Worshipful Company of Cooks in London. And yet in his census records he never says he is a cook. Which is really interesting, because it's definitely the same guy. I have evidence. Was he ashamed of being a cook? Still evidence that cooking is in the genes somewhere.