Friday, May 30, 2014

Jellies: Dessert, Medicine, Art Pieces and More!

by Lauren Gilbert

Growing up, when I thought of jelly, I thought of jelly as the apple-grape jelly my mother spread on toast and on my peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I never thought of Jell-O as “jelly.” However, jellies have been popular since medieval times, and are so much more than a spread or a 9” x 13” dish of rubbery fruit-flavored treat adored by 20th and 21st century children. Expensive ingredients and elaborate moulds turned jelly into something extraordinary. They are a flexible dish that can take on certain aspects of many ingredients. They can be clear; they can be opaque. The addition of cream can add a creamy flavour and a silkier texture. Obviously powdered gelatin was not available. Hart’s horn, calves’ feet and isinglass (an expensive ingredient imported from Russia, made from the stomachs of sturgeon) were used to obtain the desired “jell”. Clear jellies required additional work, having to be filtered through the “jelly bag” to remove any pulp or fibers that might cloud the jelly.

Savory jellies, or aspics, have been a standby for centuries. Le Viandier, a 14th century French cookbook contains a recipe for aspic. The fact that a meat broth could become a jelly with cooling (thanks to the collagen in bones and cartilage) made all kinds of things possible. A wide variety of meat, poultry,eggs and fish have been served in this way. A very popular dish was jellied eel, which became popular in English cuisine in the 18th century. Eels produced a broth that jelled easily. In the Regency era, Careme, a famous French chef who at one point was employed by the Prince Regent, invented a dish called Chaud Froid (hot cold) which was prepared hot but eaten cold, which apparently included aspic.

Sweet jellies have always been favourites. These included fruit-flavoured jellies, wine jellies, sweetened cream jellies, and flummery, among others. They could be all one flavour or combinations of flavours and textures. The clear jellies were served in glasses, frequently in pyramids, which would have created a lovely effect with the light shining through. One example of a special jelly was “Oranges en Ruben”, which were orange skins filled with alternating layers of red wine jelly and creamy flummery in stripes, which must have been a lovely presentation. (The Petworth House and Park website has a recipe called “Stripey Orange Jellies” that seems very close to this special treat.)

It was considered that invalids were best nourished with dainty portions of foods that were easy to eat. Jellies would slip down easily, not aggravating a sore throat, or requiring much effort in chewing or swallowing. Calves’ foot jelly and pork jelly were considered especially strengthening. Pork jelly, such as Dr. Ratcliffe’s (or Ratteliff’s) Restorative Pork Jelly, was highly recommended for loss of appetite or any sort of consumptive complaint. There are multiple recipes for jellies recommended for varying complaints, most based on calves’ feet or hart’s horn. (I ran across one that included snails and citrus juice.)

There were establishments dedicated to the jelly. Just as there were coffee houses in the Georgian era, there were jelly houses that served jelly in special glasses. (According to Clarissa Dickson Wright, they were popular with prostitutes and their customers, so acquired a bad reputation.) In THE EPICURE’S ALMANACK, John Rylance specifically listed Tomlinson’s Jelly House in St James’s, that specialized in jellies only, and had been in business for over a century.

One of the aspects of jelly that maintained its popularity was the shape. Jelly moulds came in all kinds of shapes and sizes, from architectural forms (such as Solomon’s Temple) to fruit garlands, fish shapes and even multipart moulds that allowed for colour and textural contrasts. Moulded jellies maintained their popularity through the Victorian era, but gradually lost their appeal in the 20th century. Do visit the Petworth House and Park website; there are some wonderful photographs of jellies made in Georgian moulds. Take a look!

Sources include:

Brears, Peter. JELLIES AND THEIR MOULDS. 2010: Prospect Books, Totnes, Devon England. On-line at

Dickson Wright, Clarissa. A HISTORY OF ENGLSH FOOD. 2011: Random House, London.

Rylance, Ralph. THE EPICURE’S ALMANACK Eating and Drinking in Regency London. Edited by Janet Ing Feeman. 2013: British Library, London.

Historic Food blog. “Jelly, Flummery and Creams.”

Petworth House and Park website. “Jellies, Jellies Everywhere!”

Lauren Gilbert published her first book, HEYERWOOD A Novel, in 2011. She is currently working on another novel, in which Tomlinson's Jelly House will make an appearance, and has notes for a non-fiction work as well. She lives in Florida with her husband.

1 comment:

  1. If you look at some mediaeval recipes, you find that things we think of as sweet had meat in them back then, so savoury jellies are nothing new. :-)


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