Tag Archives: Berlin

The Fruits of Summer in the Dead of Winter

Molly Taylor-Poleskey

In the seventeenth century, life ebbed and flowed with the seasons. In my research into the court household of Berlin, I noted seasonal shifts in livery, lighting, bedtimes, and, of course, recipes. Even with these seasonal adaptations, however, early modern Europeans sought to overcome seasonal growing constraints. One occupation primarily concerned with defying the seasonality of food was that of the court confectioner. It was his (and his wife’s) job to preserve the delicate summer fruits for wealthy Europeans to enjoy even in the depths of winter.

Nicolas de Bonnefons described the rewards of this play with the seasons in his 1654 Les Delices de la campagne, which was translated into English and German and even republished by a Berlin court physician, Johann Sigismund Elsholtz. Bonnefons raptured:

There is nothing which doth more agreeably concern the senses, than in the depth of Winter to behold the fruits so fair, and so good, yea, better than when you first did gather them; and that then, when the trees seem to be dead, and have lost all their Verdure, and the rigour of the cold to have so dispoil’d your garden of all that imbellished it, that it appears rather a desart [sic] than a paradise of delicacies; then it is, I say, that you will taste your fruit with infinite more Gust and contentment, than in the summer it self, when their great abundance and variety rather cloy you than become agreeable. For this reason therefore it is, that we will essay to teach you the most expedite, and certain means how to conserve them all the winter, even so long, as till the new shall incite you to quite the old.[1]

A view into the confectioner’s kitchen in The French gardiner, 1691,

Considering Bonnefons emphatic endorsement of summer fruits in winter, it is perhaps not surprising that confectioners were highly valued in Europe. The moist and cold properties of fresh fruit generally made it a nutritional no-no, according to Galenic principles of diet. However, candied fruits were considered medicinal and the position of court confectioner often fell under the office of the apothecary, not the kitchen.[2] In the Renaissance, it was common to seal the stomach at the end of a rich meal with either fresh or preserved fruits and fruit at a meal was emblematic of the wealth and refinement of the host.[3] By the eighteenth century, the task of the confectioner to create elaborate sugar sculptures for the table was so ingrained that one encyclopedist claimed they belonged to the artist class and prospects had to apprentice themselves to a city confectioner for six years until they had mastered their art.[4] 

Georg Flegel (1566–1638), Still life with cookies and confections (including dried cherries).

The importance of the confectioner is apparent at the court at Berlin in the seventeenth century. The household archives contain a frantic exchange from 1647 between the Great Elector Friedrich Wilhelm (1620-1688) and his counselors about finding a replacement for the deceased confectioner, Johann Schenke, whose wife did not want to carry on the job. It being early summer (Jun 27), the councilors expressed the pressing need to fill the vacancy because “now is the best time for juices and other garden fruits to be preserved.”[5] Friedrich Wilhelm ordered them to install the Prussian confectioner, Johann Tiegel, in the position. He wrote that although they would eventually draw up a contract for him, Tiegel should get started immediately collecting the fruit from the gardens and bringing them to the elector’s tables with the appropriate confections.[6]

When it was finally written, the court confectioner’s employment contract specified the supplies he would receive to carry out his charge: 700 Reichsthaler (in addition to his 80 Reichstaler salary), 960 eggs, as much flour and fruit as needed (from the gardens and from in-kind taxes), 1000 citrons, 1000 bitter oranges, as well as a supply of wood, coal and candles.[7] Occasionally, the confectioner did not get the necessary supplies, which hindered his ability to preserve fruits and was costly for the court. In 1657, Friedrich Wilhelm ordered that Tiegel surely be supplied with apples, cherries, and Black Corinths (Johannisbeere in German) in order to avoid the great expense of having to buy confections from outside of the palace, which had been necessary the previous year.[8]

Cherries were the first ripe fruits of the summer. The sandy soil of Brandenburg was well-suited to growing cherries and in 1656, there were eight varieties of cherries cataloged in the palace garden of Berlin.[9] Dr. Elsholtz wrote that cherries were ripe in June and July and described their consumption: “one eats cherries either fresh or cooked into a soup, or dried, or preserved with sugar. Some make cherry water or a syrup.”[10] Here is a translation of one such cherry recipe reprinted by Elsholtz from Bonnefons:

One makes the cherry syrup from the good, ripe cherry juice, which you press through a hair or linen cloth. For every quart of this juice, add a pound of sugar, boil that to a thick syrup. To clarify this syrup, let it run through a distillation sack.”[11]

Elsholtz’s descriptions also correspond with the menus and food receipts from the Brandenburg-Prussian household archive, which frequently list the ordering or consumption of dried cherries and cherry sauce (Kirschmus), in particular.

In some popular food literature today, there’s nostalgia for a time when humans adhered more closely to the foods nature provided each season. Even prior to industrialization, however, people clearly prized the rarity of a taste of an off-season food. What the archival record reveals, though, is that early modern Europeans of all orders were still hyper aware of what foods were available when and were careful about timing the work of preservation accordingly.

[1] Nicolas de Bonnefons, John Evelyn, and John Rose, The French Gardiner (London: Printed by F.B. for B. Took, and are to be sold by J. Taylor, 1691), p. 191-2. https://hdl.handle.net/2027/uc1.31822031020266?urlappend=%3Bseq=218.

[2] This was the case in Berlin. See Peter Bahl, Der Hof des Grossen Kurfürsten: Studien zur hoheren Amtsträgerschaft Brandenburg-Preussens (Koln: Bohlau, 2001), p. 365.

[3] Ken Albala, The Banquet: Dining in the Great Courts of Late Renaissance Europe (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007), p. 82-89.

[4] Johann Georg Krünitz, “Conditor,” Oekonomischen Encyklopädie oder allgemeines System der Staats- Stadt- Haus- und Landwirthschaft (Berlin: Pauli, 1773), http://www.kruenitz1.uni-trier.de/.

[5] Geheimes Staatsarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz I. Rep. 36 948, p. 57

[6] Ibid, p. 63.

[7] Ibid, p. 55. There is no mention of the quantity of sugar the confectioner would receive, but an earlier missive from the previous elector ordered the Office of the Domains (Amtskammer) to supply the confectioner with enough sugar for the dried fruits coming in as taxes-in-kind from the administrative districts (Ämter). Ibid, p. 16.

[8] Ibid. p. 73.

[9] Marina Heilmeyer, Kirschen für den König, Potsdamer pomologische Geschichten (Potsdam: Vacat, 2001), p. 10. Johann Sigismund Elsholtz’s 1656 plant catalog Horta Berolinensis can be found at the Staatsbibliothek Berlin Ms.boruss.qu. 12.

[10] Elßholtz, Vom Garten-Baw (Berlin, 1684), p. 258.  Ibid, Diaeteticon (Cölln an der Spree: Georg Schulz, 1682), p. 61.

[11] Ibid, p. 436-7. I translated Viertal as quart and “Luttersack” as distillation sack. There’s a picture of a 19th-century Luttersack here (item 30). According to Adelung, the Lutter is what came out of the first pass through the fire when making brandy (which required two firings).

On Berlin Plums: Recipes from Johannes Magirus’ Medical Diary

By Sabine Schlegelmilch

For some years now, I’ve been doing research on Johannes Magirus (1615-1697). He was a German physician, and by now has made me shake my head quite often because of a certain quirkyness his writings reveal. On the other hand: when not quarelling with his surroundings or boasting his genius (or then especially?), he makes me learn quite a lot about medicine in the seventeenth century in Germany and abroad. As a student, Magirus travelled through the Netherlands, England and France. He was stunned by the practical approach of bedside teaching he witnessed there, as it was different from any medical education he had known back in Germany.  After his return, he began to practise in Berlin in 1640, and afterwards moved to Zerbst (in Anhalt-Saxony).  He soon left the town again, steaming with anger because of a personal enemy he named the ‘Sauffteuffel’ (booze devil). Finally, he became professor of medicine in Marburg (in Hesse) and tried to implement his experience gained abroad into his own teaching.  In the announcement for his classes, he advertised to take his students to the sick whom, for demonstration purposes, he would treat for free – an early polyclinical  concept largely unknown in Germany for his time.

Titel of Magirus' Medical Diary (University of Marburg Library, Ms. 96)
Titel of Magirus’ Medical Diary [Credit: University Library Marburg]
Magirus managed to reach the respectable age of 82, although he displayed a certain proneness for self-experiment. So he couldn’t help to explore the construction of a fortress while it was besieged (!), and nearly was hit by a cannonball. In medicine, he was equally eager to gain personal experience. His special interest lay in drugs, and in particular in ‘chymical’ ones. We know this from his well-preserved medical diary and a notebook with commonplaces from his time in Berlin and Zerbst. For me, it was fascinating to see how systematical his approach was in drug-testing as a young practitioner. With each recipe he prescribed, he precisely noted its impact on the patient. With a woman in pain, he wrote in his diary: ‘after the first half of my pills, there was no bowel movement, after the second half she had a motion eight times’ or ‘before my pill, she always was in pain at two o’ clock, but afterwards at three o’ clock’. Often there are notes like ‘this is the powder I also have prescribed to the tailor in the roßstrasse’ that show how Magirus drew connections between different cases. He recorded successes as well as failures, and even tried to reduce side effects by singling out the one substance his patient showed an intolerance for, and then substituting it.

Fortunately, with drug-testing on his own body he was more cautious than in his cannonball-adventure. He surely was interested in the effect of new remedies and collected information on them. It is striking, however, that he made excerpts e.g. on mercury but, according to his diary, never used it with his patients, and never did test it on himself. Reading the excerpt in his commonplace book, one doesn’t wonder; it says that

if you use an ointment with mercury, it will cause convulsions, and the patients will get blisters in their throat, their uvula will fall off, they will develop ulcers, all teeth will beginn to loosen and  get black, and a huge amount of stinking spittle will run out of their mouth.

With less dangerous drugs, though, he experimented on himself and noted his personal experience. So we read that some aloe rosata ‘had dried up my stomach and I felt even worse than before’. When one of his colleagues prescribed a plum puree to one of his patients, Magirus took some of it to try it himself. He didn’t like the effect very much, as he ‘felt  a pain and rumble in my left hypochondrium’, and therefore came to the conclusion: ‘so it’s true: sugar and everything sweet are noxious for a spleen condition’. As unpleasant as this plum-related experience was for him, as rewarding was another: one of his patients, an advocat also named Johannes Magirus, obviously had told our Magirus how to prepare a formidable plum-juice with raisins, senis-leaves and fennel-seed that did wonders as a purge. Magirus must have tested this juice, as we can see that in the following time he began to prescribe it to his patients.

MS. 96, p. 22: Magirus crossed out the ingredients of his recipe that he pharmacy couldn't provide and that he had to add from his own stock (addantur in aedibus meis).
Magirus crossed out the ingredients that the pharmacy couldn’t provide and that he had to add from his own stock. [Credit: University Library Marburg]
I imagine Berlin at this time, i.e. just around the end of the Thirty-years-war, as a rather shabby place. Contemporary sources tell us that the elector was absent for most of the time and swine were roaming the mudden streets of the town outside the court-buildings. Magirus’ notes reveal that even the court-pharmacist was not able to provide some of the more sophisticated ingredients for his recipes. So it takes no wonder that something as simple as plums grew essential to his Berlin practice.