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The Crystal Palace

Over a period of nine months from August 1850 the residents of Kensington witnessed a colossal glass building being erected in Hyde Park. The structure, based a design by Joseph Paxton, head gardener at the Duke of Devonshire’s Chatsworth estate, was to host the ‘Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations.’

The Crystal Palace via WikiCommons

The Great Exhibition was the ‘baby’ of Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert. Housed in the gleaming ‘Crystal Palace’ (a moniker given to the exhibition hall by Punch magazine) some 15,000 contributors from Britain, its colonies and further afield displayed around 100,000 objects. On 1 May 1851 crowds gathered outside the building with ‘tremendous cheering, the joy expressed in every face’ to watch Queen Victoria and Prince Albert officially open the exhibition. Victoria was extremely proud of her husband’s achievement:

‘This day is one of the greatest & most glorious days of our lives, with which, to my pride & joy the name of my dearly beloved Albert is for ever associated! It is a day which makes my heart swell with thankfulness.’ Queen Victoria’s Journals. Thursday, 1 May 1851.

Initially the cost to enter the exhibition was five shillings but within a few weeks this was reduced to one shilling making it accessible to most levels of society. Millions would visit the exhibition until it shut its doors in October 1851. Once inside, with so much to see, the question of refreshments arose. If visitors left the ‘palace’ to obtain food and drink then they would have to pay again to re-enter. The Commissioners appreciated the need to provide some sort of sustenance but wanted to ensure their visitors remained on their best behaviour.

‘The refreshment department of the Exhibition – a department at which the catering was of the meagre kind – was conducted on strictly teetotal lines; neither wine, beer, nor ardent spirits being obtainable by the thirsty thousands who flocked to Hyde Park,’ remarked author George Augustus Sala.

What the visitors could purchase were ices, pastry, sandwiches, bread, butter and cheese, patties, fruits, tea, coffee, chocolate, cocoa, lemonade, ginger beer, spruce beer, seltzer and soda water (the catering contract eventually went to Messrs. Schweppe for £5,500). However, the quality of the food and drink on offer was questionable as noted by one reader’s letter to the Editor of the Morning Chronicle:

‘SIR = I fully sympathise with your correspondents who bitterly complain of the want of refreshments at the Exhibition. I tried (like them) lollipops and the worst and smallest sandwiches I ever tasted, for the first days that I went there; but a bright thought struck me, which I impart for their benefit. I now take with me good wholesome sandwiches, cut at home, and a small vial of ‘eau de vie’, with which I flavour the excellent water which they can there procure in abundance, and I feel myself refreshed. This water is the only good thing to be got there. The coffee I have found always nearly cold and good for nothing; tea I have never yet seen; and anybody who has not breakfasted at the fashionable hour of twelve will find, as your correspondents say, that the whole refreshment department is a job and an unworthy imposition. Your correspondents complain of the ‘tenuity’ and dryness of the very dear sandwiches; but they should try the little, dry, sixpenny dollops of pork pie.’

Fortunately, there was another catering option close to the Crystal Palace for those who had had their fill of the exhibition. Celebrated chef Alexis Soyer had opened his Symposium Of All Nations at the nearby Gore House, but I will come back to this in a later post. In the meantime, I leave you with the recipe below which was inspired by the Great Exhibition.

Crystal Palace Pudding

Crystal Palace Pudding

I found this recipe in Good Things in England by Florence White. No source is provided, only a date of 1851. This jelly dessert glitters like the Crystal Palace. I’ve used an Alexis Soyer’s recipe for lemon jelly from The Modern Housewife, or, Ménagère (1850). White’s recipe suggests using dried cherries but I prefer fresh fruit here. My boys insisted I use raspberries and blueberries in honour of Crystal Palace FC, the football team they champion.

Ingredients - Makes 1 500-600ml jelly mould or pudding basin (Serves 4-6)

3 lemons

50g caster sugar

125ml water plus 3 tbsp

75ml dry, floral wine e.g. Bacchus, Sauvignon Blanc

4½ leaves gelatine

150g fresh raspberries, washed

150g fresh blueberries, washed

300ml whole milk

150ml double cream

2 egg yolks

75g caster sugar

1 tsp vanilla bean paste or extract

Method – Lemon & Fruit Layer
  1. Grate the zest from half of one of the lemons. Juice all the lemons then place the zest and juice in a bowl.

  2. Place 50g sugar and 125ml water in a sauce pan. Bring to the boil then cook until reduced to a thick syrup (roughly 110℃ on a sugar thermometer).

  3. Add the juice and rind then bring back up to the boil, skimming off any scum that rises to the surface.

  4. Add 3 tbsp cold water, one at a time, to assist with the clarification. Finally, add the white wine and remove from the heat to cool slightly.

  5. While the lemon syrup is cooling, soak 1½ gelatine leaves in cold water for 5 minutes (or follow the instructions on the packet). Squeeze out the excess water then stir them into the hot syrup until they have completely dissolved. Strain the warm jelly through a sieve lined with a piece of muslin then allow to get completely cold (but not set).

  6. Place 50g of the raspberries and 50g of the blueberries into the base of your jelly mould or pudding basin. Pour some of the cooled and thickened jelly over the fruit – just enough to cover it. You probably won’t need it all so pour the remainder into a bowl to enjoy separately. Place in the fridge to set completely.

Method – Custard Layer
  1. Soak 3 gelatine leaves in cold water for 5 minutes (or follow the instructions on the packet).

  2. While the gelatine is soaking, heat the milk and cream in a small saucepan to boiling point. Remove from the heat.

  3. Squeeze out the excess water of the gelatine then stir them into the hot milk until they have completely dissolved.

  4. Beat the eggs and 75g caster sugar together until thoroughly combined. Pour over the hot milk then return the custard to the saucepan. Cook until almost boiling, stirring constantly. Do not allow the custard to boil otherwise you will end up with scrambled eggs. It will thicken slightly. Remove from the heat then stir in the vanilla bean paste or extract. Pour through a sieve into a bowl. Lightly cover with cling film to prevent a skin from forming then allow to cool, but not set.

  5. Once the custard jelly has cooled pour over the SET lemon and fruit layer. Cover with cling film and return to the fridge until completely set.

To Serve
  1. If you are using a glass mould remove it from the fridge an hour or so before you plan to serve it.

  2. Just before serving, find a bowl large enough to stand the jelly mould in and to surround it with water. Pour some hot water into the bowl (if the water is straight from a recently boiled kettle then allow it to cool slightly before proceeding). The water should be hot but not scalding.

  3. Run a round bladed knife around the very top of the mould then carefully dip the mould in the water for a few seconds making sure as much of the mould as possible is submerged without any water lapping over the top.

  4. Remove the jelly from the water then place your serving plate on top of the mould and flip it over. Hold the plate and the mould and give both a firm shake. If this doesn’t dislodge the jelly then try dipping the mould in the water again. It may take a few dips and shakes before the jelly emerges so be patient. The important thing is not to leave the jelly in the hot water for too long otherwise it will melt.

  5. Once the jelly is out of the mould scatter the remaining berries around the base of the jelly before serving.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Clement-Lorford, F. Illusions and realities of The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations of 1851. (2007)

  • Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, 1851: Official descriptive and illustrated catalogue.

  • Johnson, B. The Great Exhibition. Historic UK (Online)

  • Marsden, C. The Great Exhibition. The Gazette. (Online: )

  • Morning Chronicle Friday, 16 May 1851, page 7 (British Newspaper Archives)

  • Picard, L. The Great Exhibition. British Library. (Online: 2009)

  • Punch, Volume 19, (1850)

  • Queen Victoria’s Journals. Thursday, 1 May 1851.

  • Sala, George Augustus. The Life and Adventures of George Augustus Sala Volume 1 (1895)

  • Soyer, A. The Modern Housewife, or, Ménagère (1850)

  • White, F. Good Things in England. (1932)

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