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Three British Desserts: Syllabub, Fool and Trifle

Syllabub, fool and trifle are children of the same family, often so closely resembling each other in old recipes that it is hard to tell them apart. To engage in a study of this threesome is to dive into swirling waters where wave overlaps wave. Like those eddying waters, early recipes overlap and what purports to be a recipe for a trifle more closely resembles a fool. Then, too, a trifle is actually quite substantial, but evolves from syllabub which is a drink.

While I was examining recipes for syllabub, fool and trifle in a much perplexed state, some papers, torn from a diary, recording an early method of making syllabub came to my hand, giving me a starting point for the history of this sweet and traditional threesome.

As to the author of the document, I can give no manner of satisfaction; however, I am credibly informed of its authenticity, and that it accurately presents an eyewitness account of the original method of making syllabub. Let us begin in the beginning, then, with this document.
Syllabub or Sillabub

"In that part of the western division of England which is commonly called Somersetshire, there lived a gentleman whose name was Someworthy. It was the middle of May, and the morning was remarkably serene, when Mr. Someworthy walked forth on the terrace, where the dawn opened. Mr. Someworthy raised his arms and declared, "I want syllabub. Where is that foundling I adopted? Where is that slatternly milkmaid? Where is my cook?"

Heeding the call for syllabub, the cook ran from the kitchen carrying sugar, nutmeg and cinnamon. The foundling, Tom, a lad of an ingenuous countenance, and the oh-so-buxom milkmaid, Molly, appeared together, running from the direction of the barn. Both were flush of complexion, and both had unlaced outer garments. Bits of straw stuck to their clothing and tangled in their hair."

(Dear reader, it is obvious that Tom and Molly had been in the hayloft engaged in a ritual more ancient than making syllabub. Though I am tempted to digress to the complex topic of morality in Olde England, I shall avoid any discussion of the salacious. I know your only concern is to discover syllabub, and our Mr. Someworthy's demand must be met.)

"Upon hearing Mr. Someworthy's desire, nimble-footed Tom immediately fetched a bowl, placed it in front of Mr. Someworthy and filled it to the halfway mark with ale. The cook rushed to mix in sugar and spices. Molly, now perceiving the weakness of which she had been guilty, hastened to the the barn and led out one of Mr. Someworthy's fine, milk-giving Guernseys.

Molly brought the cow directly to the bowl of ale. She could not forbear giving the cow a hearty kiss, then reached to grasp one swollen udder. With as great raptures as she had experienced in the barn, she fell to squeezing the udder. A stream of warm fresh milk shot directly into the bowl causing Molly to cry out, "O, the dear creature!-The dear, sweet, pretty creature!"

When the bowl was full of frothy milk, Molly stood and took a cover from the cook. Bending, she placed the cover on the bowl which would sit for one hour before drinking. Mr. Someworthy smiled broadly as Molly bent, his smile elicited by the perfection of the syllabub, the natural sweetness of Molly's countenance, and the revelation of that which lay under her unlaced bodice."

* * *

Though this account of syllabub in the making may seem to resemble fiction, the details accurately record the earliest methods. In the hour or two that the syllabub was set aside, a curd formed over the ale. With the possible addition of a layer of cream on top, the syllabub was ready to drink. The solids that formed on top of a syllabub were eaten with a spoon, the wine at the bottom drunk.

There was a second, more citified kind of syllabub, one that probably reflected class distinction, as well as evolving techniques. Though Mr. Someworthy used ale or cider, the citified version would have used an alcohol called sack. Also referred to as Sere (or to Shakespeare sherri-seres - click to see what Shakespeare has to say), this intoxicant came from Jerez, and developed into the famed sherry wine of Spain. Cream replaced milk, and with no cow at hand, the cream was spooned with vigor into the wine. Sometimes it was whipped to a froth with a birch whisk, a task surely performed only in upper-class houses that had a kitchen staff more industrious that Mr. Someworthy's country milkmaid.

Like its country cousin, it was served in a glass, and in due time a special syllabub glass was designed. This glass had a spout located at the bottom of the glass so the wine could be sipped without the clotted milk.

At some point the discovery was made that a syllabub stayed firmer when the proportion of wine to milk was reduced, and the two didn't separate. This syllabub was called an 'everlasting syllabub' for its powers of endurance. Cookbook authors of the day laid claims to having a recipe for syllabub that would last the longest. This was an early way to market cookbooks, giving evidence that hype is another of our ancient rituals.
Fool or Foole

The mind races through the numerous allusions made to fools, from the fool that accompanied King Lear on his howling journey across the moors to the more modern blunderer plaintively asking "What Kind of Fool Am I." But the name of this gossamer dessert comes from the French word foule meaning pressed or crushed, and refers to the combination of crushed fruits and thick cream. It is a dish that is sublime in its simplicity.

The British countryside is a paradise for berry lovers. It offers gooseberries, red currants, strawberries, raspberries. One can even sing "here we go round the mulberry tree" while plucking the small, blackberry-like fruit. Any of these fruits might have been used to make fools.

This simple dish, so refreshing on a summer's day, might find its modern equivalent in popularity to the omnipresent 'yogurt with fruit on bottom,' though no artificially sweetened yogurt can compare to fresh crushed fruit and cream. The fool is also the beginning of ice cream, a dish that required refrigeration to arrive at the status it holds today as summer's favorite dessert.

What can we expect to evolve from a fool? Merely a trifle, of course, though in its evolution it became a substantial, highly decorated dessert. Helen Saberi, in her article "Whims and Fancies of a Trifle-Lover" (in The Wilder Shores of Gastronomy) has unearthed an early trifle recipe that has no fruit and is merely cream flavored with sugar, ginger, and rosewater. Saberi believes that this is actually a fool recipe, but offers it to us in illustration of the overlapping nature of these desserts. Originally the words fool and trifle were used interchangeably.

As early as 1654 we find a recipe that instructs to slice a 'manchet' very thick, lay it in the bottom of a dish and moisten it with sack. A 'manchet' was a loaf of fine bread, and was probably day-old bread. We see here the imaginative leap that turned a fool into something more substantial, possibly inspired by leftovers.

The trifle allows for infinite variations on its theme, but demands rigor in its assembly. A trifle is generally made in a glass bowl to show off the many-textured layers that combine to create a dessert of beauty. In their book, Trifle, Helen Saberi and Alan Davidson equate its assembly to architecture. Its construction begins with a layer of sponge cake (many varieties are used today) that has been moistened and softened by wine. This is followed by fruit or jam which in turn is followed by custard and finally whipped cream. This is the end of layering, but not the end of the trifle as the top must be decorated. Among those decorations are candied fruit, angelica, or comfits. Once again, the Old French word confit was the inspiration. Confits were made by sugarcoating bits of rind, seeds, or aromatic roots. Sugared caraway seed were among the most popular.

All serious research tells us that the word trifle comes from the Middle English trufle, which in turn derives from the French word trufe which is literally translated as something whimsical or of little importance. The adopted word may be a bit of a red herring, as the French had nothing to do with the creation of this dessert. We are left with our own imaginations, wondering why this multi-layered, substantial dessert has been dismissed as a trifle. Could it be that an early cook, finding a way to use leftover bread or cake shrugged off this creation as a thing of no importance? Or could it be the opposite, a bit of mock humility from a cook who was covering pride? Just as we might say today, "oh, just something I whipped up," an early cook may have dismissed a proud creation as 'just a trifle.'

The trifle may be an international traveler. In Scotland, the trifle appeared under the name 'whim-wham.' In Ireland, the name trifle was maintained. Both countries increased the alcohol which may have given rise to yet another invention - the 'tipsy cake.' Further afield, the Italian creation Zuppa Inglese (English soup) is a form of trifle, as is tiramisu. Mousse a l'anglaise is a French variety.

We have but touched on the complexities and varieties of trifles. We would like to acknowledge our debt to the fine research done by Helen Saberi and Alan Davidson, while also humbly apologizing to Henry Fielding to whom we owe a debt of another nature.

For an extensive selection of recipes and more information, we recommend reading Trifle by Helen Saberi and Alan Davidson, published in the UK by prospect books.

And the last word belongs to Shakespeare, this on sherry-sack:

Falstaff: "A good sherris-sack hath a two-fold operation in it. It ascends me into the brain, dries me there all the foolish and dull and crudy vapors which environ it, makes it apprehensive, quick, forgetive, full of nimble, fiery, and delectable shapes, which, delivered o'er to the voice, the tongue, which is the birth, becomes excellent wit. The second property of your excellent sherris is the warming of the blood, which, before cold and settled, left the liver white and pale, which is the badge of pusillanimity and cowardice. But the sherris warms it and makes it course from the inwards to the parts extremes. It illumineth the face, which as a beacon gives warning to all the rest of this little kingdom, man, to arm, and then the vital commoners and inland petty spirits muster me all to their captain, the heart, who great and puffed up with this retinue, doth any deed of courage, and this valor comes of sherris. So that skill in the weapon is nothing without sack, for that sets it a-work, and learning a mere hoard of gold kept by a devil, till sack commences it and sets it in act and use."

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