Everyone’s favorite stop at the dessert table or the focal point at a formal dinner is the showpiece. And the traditional pièce montée has been around a very long time. In 1864, the Parkinson’s confectionery family talked about creating gum paste vases, nougat baskets, and spun sugar webs in The Complete Confectioner, Pastry-Cook, and Baker. Jump to the 1910’s and the 1920’s, and the term pièce montée was widely used in upper-end American kitchens, such as the acclaimed Delmonico’s of New York.
For a rich description of what makes up a traditional Pièce Montée, including the design and thought process behind a showpiece (as well as what the make up is), the one from The Epicurean is word-in-art. It also shows that these pieces were considered ‘works of art,’ and anyone thinking of NOT doing their best work, or who don’t have any talent of recreating their ideas into 3-D sugar objects need not start the project in the first place. From the passage below: “Special care must be taken that they be faultlessly executed….A well-executed idea has more merit than a well-finished, but badly conceived one.” Yikes. In other words, no room for error. But just like in kitchens back then, modern confectioners and pastry chefs still work very hard to produce works of art from sugar. And still admired today.
Center Pieces – Pyramids (Pièces Montées).
Table ornaments called pyramids are used for replacing the cold pieces in the third service for French dinners. they are placed on the table at the beginning and at the dessert for a Russian dinner. The principal object is to flatter the eye of the guests by the regularity, their smoothness and their finish. To attain this end it is necessary that the subjects be chosen according to the circumstances in which the dinner is offered. Special care must be taken that they be faultlessly executed. The pieces can be selected from a number of designs, such as: Swiss cottages, temples, pavilions, towers, pagodas, mosques, fortresses, heritages, belvederes, cabins, cascades, houses, fountains, ruins, rotundas or tents; then there are lyres, harps, helmets, boats, cornucopias, vases, baskets, hampers, beehives, trophies both military and musical, fine arts, agriculture, navigation, commerce, science, etc. A very prolific branch almost entirely overlooked is a figure representing some well-known character. Then come animals, trees and flowers, which offer an infinite number of beautiful subjects.
Few workmen are capable of making these different styles of pieces, their talent being limited, for their use is confined to a very small number of houses. Therefore it would be most useful if the workman engaged in making these pieces confine himself solely to figures, as this art is certain to become fashionable in the near future. Authors of the best works on cooking and pastry only casually mention these ornamental pieces.
The workmen while executing them must give his entire attention and talent, for the persons before whom they are generally placed are accustomed to works of art. In case he finds it impossible to produce a perfect figure, then he had better devote himself to other kinds of work in which perfection need not be so scrupulously followed; for after all, these pieces only serve to decorate one dinner and consequently are very rarely preserved. Still, whatever style of work he may see fit to undertake, let him endeavor to excel and attain the pinnacle of perfection. A well-executed idea has more merit than a well-finished, but badly conceived one.
The quantity of figures and subjects to select from are numerous. First, we have mythology; what a fertile theme – here a Cupid on a shell drawn by swans; Neptune among the tritons and Naïads; Bacchus; the Centaurs; the Muses; scenes from Iliad and Odyssey! How delightfully ingenuous would be a group representing Venus teaching Cupid the art of dancing: the young one in the act and the mother directing his steps; Apollo playing the flute and Jupiter benignly watching the scene, surrounded by other gods and goddesses. Then we have the history of the flood: Noah standing at the door of the Ark contemplating the ingress of all the animals into it.
We can choose from the customs of different ancient and modern nations: the Normandy peasants dancing opposite to each other; a Tyrolian descending a rock carrying on his back the carcass of a chamois; an American Indian dressed in war garb burying the tomahawk; or a Tartar on horseback. Then there are scenes in ordinary life. We can also choose from animated nature: birds, animals, the fox ready to attack an innocent rabbit, fish, swans on a lake surrounded by their families, birds pecking their young, and many other interesting subjects too numerous to mention