Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Sweets for the Sweetmeats

One of the things that we collect at Darlington House is Anglo-Irish cut glass, concentrating on examples made during the first quarter of the nineteenth century, when the house was built.

A single Anglo-Irish sweetmeat urn and cover
circa 1815-1830

Initially we focused on buying articles for the table, such as salts.  As our confidence grew and we became more knowledgeable we added vases and other vessels.  Several years ago we splurged and bought a pair of fine Regency cut glass candlesticks hung with prisms.  More recently, we've added a number of footed urns with covers, known as sweetmeats.

The same sweetmeat, with cover off

When we bought the first of these vessels, the single one shown at the outset of this story, I wasn't exactly sure what sweetmeats were.  I knew that it was an old-fashioned term for tasty little delicacies, but I didn't know of what sort.  I wondered, were sweetmeats made with actual meat, like early mince-meat recipes?  And if so, were they really sweetened?  The thought of eating candied bits of meat served from these pretty glass containers was rather repulsive to me.

A pair of Anglo-Irish sweetmeat urns with covers
circa 1815-1830

Since then I've learned that the "meat" in sweetmeat is an old English word for "food," and that my forebears did not (as a rule) eat candied meat bits as a treat at the end of a meal.  Whew!

Sweetmeats are candied fruits and confectionaries, served both dry or suspended in syrups.  The term is rather broadly encompassing of what constitutes a sweetmeat, but it usually does not include chocolates.  I believe the covered urns we have at Darlington House would most likely have held candied fruit in syrup.  Put another way, they are Regency-era covered candy dishes.

The urns lend a certain glittering drama to a room when displayed on a sideboard or table.  They are fairly substantial in size, measuring between twelve and thirteen inches high with their covers on, and are quite dazzling when caught in the sun's rays.

Have we ever used them for their original purpose, you might ask, to serve sweetmeats?  No, not yet, but I am confident that we shall one day.  I once suggested to Boy that we fill them with green and red M&Ms at Christmastime, as a joke.

He didn't think it was funny.


  1. I have the most wonderful little Irish cut glass milk jug similiar in style to your urn which used to be my Grandmother's. I adore it too bits!

  2. C'mon, Boy! Where's your sense of humor?

    Perhaps he would change his mind if he knew it is possible to purchase custom colored M&Ms.

  3. I love cut crystal pieces, especially when they catch a bit of sunlight. Those are lovely and unique.

  4. Informative information on the term sweetmeat. Thank you.

  5. Well then surely pink and pale blue M&Ms, for Easter?;)

  6. I always thought sweetmeats refered to those 'jellied' candies - the precursor to modern day gummy bears and the like. I have a number of pieces my great-grandmother brought over from Ireland with her when they had to leave the country and they are just so pretty and mostly HEAVY! The irish knew substantial crystal!

  7. The foot details are so interesting...they must look splendid in the light reflecting the prisms of colour.
    Have you ever considered using them to hold candied peel ?

  8. As a long time collector of antique Irish crystal it was a true pleasure to read another of your wonderful articles. I recently bought a beautiful antique Irish decanter. It lights up the whole bar with all of the beautiful light catching cuts. Thank you again for your wonderful article.

  9. I agree with Sister. Sense of humor?
    M and M's can be customized with your photos!
    Easter is coming, how about filled with jelly beans and Hershey kisses or cinnamon red hearts for Valentine's day?
    Lovely to show off the gorgeous sweetmeat glass urns with color within.
    Seriously, why not bring a bit of the new with the old?

  10. I love cut crystal! My mother taught me how to distinguish cut crystal from pressed glass when I was a young girl. To me, there is a huge difference in quality and beauty. Your sweetmeats urn is just lovely. Tangentially, I just read that Waterford crystal is no longer being manufactured in Ireland. All the more reason to buy antique and vintage crystal.

  11. They so pretty...and my first thoughts were Easter M&M's too, although pastel candied almonds would be nice if you wanted to fancy it up a bit!
    xo J~

  12. Dear Mr. Darling,

    These are beautiful examples, and I can only imagine the fun you'll have using them and filling them with delicious little morsels to nibble on. How about some crystallized ginger to tempt the taste buds? I have a weakness for Georgian/Regency glasswares (both Irish and English), and admire the skill that it takes
    to make each and every perfect slice and cut. Thank you for sharing your stunning sweetmeat collection with your devoted readers.

  13. Late 18th-early 19th century Anglo-Irish glass is a sure way to my heart...unfortunately, so few of my customers agree, dammit.

  14. I don't like cut crystal per se but these are sensational...and why not red and green M&M's for Xmas? I just bought the Easter ones for the kids and I think they would look great in these. I am sure M&M's have never been displayed in such elegant urns!

  15. Interesting reflections on the term “sweetmeat”. In Mediaeval times, meat was often cooked with sugar and sweet spices to the point of being candied. Even today, the addition of sugar to meat is not a lost taste--think of duck with orange sauce, chicken with honey, lamb with mint jelly, turkey with cranberry sauce, sugary barbecue sauces for beef or pork, pork cooked with all kinds of sweet juices and glazes, etc.

    In Taiwan, sugar is added to many “savory” dishes, especially fish. A popular snack is Tuna Fish Candy, which is just what it sounds—chopped tuna fish mixed with sugar and red pepper, then cut into small cubes. It may sound repulsive, but trust me, it's addictive.

    The misnomer “sweetmeat” also brings to mind "sweetbreads", which, as Ogden Nash points out, "are neither sweet nor bread".

  16. These are delightful containers! I'd be tempted to fill them with martzipan, but for some darn reason, I only see martzipan at Christmastime!

  17. Sweetmeat jars, how lucky to find a pair in such good condition! Are they Waterford and
    is the style of cut glass, the 'strawberry' pattern?

  18. Love these charming little urns. I have lots of small containers like this, just not of such noble provenance. I use them quite often during parties and at the holidays for all sorts of small treats - from spiced nuts or cornichons to chocolates. I love the idea of real sweetmeats. Petrossian has those paté de fruits which I love as well as the river stones which could look charming!!

  19. I find it interesting that many commenters desire you to utilize these beautiful jars—I would prefer just to admire them. The problem is that I can imagine all the delicate cut points around the rim being knocked by the heavy crystal lid. (This raises the additional specter of the transparent chips and slivers landing on the sweetmeats themselves.) Most old cut glass suffers from this chipping, and the more perfect and important specimens should be conserved (pun intended).


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