The inspiration for this article comes from two completely unconnected sources. My husband’s recent dental problems and synchronised swimming. I will spare you the details of the former, suffice to say that an operation this Wednesday will hopefully remedy the situation once and for all. On each occasion the problems have flared-up, he requests a meal of jelly or blancmange which is easy for him to eat and soothing on his gums. I have become quite good at making blancmange, which can be easy to burn during preparation if you leave it unattended, even for a split second. My second source of inspiration has a slightly stranger link with this article. I am a fervent admirer of synchronised swimming, a skillful, beautiful sport and one which I made sure to watch all Olympic sessions for. Whilst watching, I became increasingly fascinated by the swimmers’ super-glossy hair and wondered how this look had been achieved? A quick on-line search revealed that it is created by painting layers of melted gelatine onto the head using a hair-dye brush. It apparently takes years to perfect the skill and at least four sachets of gelatine to achieve the finished look. The only other athletes, that I can think of, who use a food product as part of their preparation are cross-Channel swimmers. The swimmers smear goose fat all over their bodies prior to the start of their marathon open water swim. Although, some Channel swimmers now use a grease mixture made-up of Lanolin and Petroleum Jelly.
The history of jelly, blancmange and junket is extremely interesting and gelatine plays an integral part. Jelly (or known as jello in America) used to be made by boiling bonestock or calves’ feet. This process releases collagen, the substance gelatine is formed out of. Originally, jelly was a savoury dish. I always love to eat the turkey jelly left over from the Christmas dinner, spread on toast it is delicious! Historically, jelly was sometimes made sweet by adding honey, sugar, wine or fruit puree. Jelly has long been thought of as a food suitable for the sick or convalescing. I found an interesting article ‘Food in Typhoid Fever’ by Dr William Ewart, published in The British Medical Journal, May 1897. Dr Ewart advocates jelly and also blancmange as a suitable food for patients recovering from typhoid:
As soon as the “typhoid” condition has been overcome by medication and this is well borne, a yolk of egg and a little later the white of egg also, or calves’ foot or chicken jelly. Yet later blancmange, custard, honey, which is specially indicated in constipation, or even chocolate may be enjoyed.
Mrs Beeton devotes a whole chapter to ‘Invalid Cookery’ in her Book of Household Management, which includes many recipes for jelly. Her advice on suitable food for patients states that:
Savoury jellies are more nourishing when made from veal or calves’ feet, for they then contain not only gelatine, but also other extractives of considerable dietetic value. When variety, and not the amount of nourishment afforded, is the chief consideration, jelly may be more easily prepared from isinglass or gelatine, the purest forms of which should alone be used for the purpose.
(Beeton, E., 1915 edition, p. 1349)
Here is her recipe for calves’ feet jelly:
Ingredients: 2 calves’ feet, 5 pints of water, 1/2 a pint of sherry, 1/4 of a pint of lemon-juice, 6 ozs of loaf sugar, the rinds of 3 lemons, the whites and shells of 2 eggs, 1 inch of cinnamon, 4 cloves.
Method: Wash and blanch the feet, and divide each one into 4 pieces. Replace them in the stewpan, add the water, and boil gently for 6 hours, skimming when necessary. Strain and measure the stock, and if there is more than 1 quart, boil until reduced to this quantity. When cold remove every particle of grease, turn the jellied stock into a stewpan, and add the lemon-rinds, pared off in the thinnest possible strips, the lemon-juice, sherry, sugar, the stiffly-whisked whites and crushed shells of the eggs, and the cinnamon and cloves. Whisk until boiling, then draw the stewpan to the side of the fire, and let the contents simmer for 10 minutes. Strain through a scalded jelly-bag, or scalded tea-cloth tied to the legs of a chair reversed, and turn into moulds rinsed with cold water. Turn out when firm, and served. Takes 12 hours to make.
Victorian French chef Alexis Soyer, in his, A Shilling Cookery For The People (1855), wrote of calves’ feet jelly:
It is possible, even in the poorest family, that jelly [calves' feet] may be recommended in cases of illness, and they may be at a distance from any place where it could be purchased.
(Soyer, A., 1855, p.133)
Isinglass has been available as a cooking aid since Tudor times when it was boiled with new milk to make ‘white leach’. Isinglass, a pure form of gelatine, came from Russia and was extremely expensive, only the wealthiest of households would have been to have afforded its use in their cooking.
Isinglass is found in the swim bladder of the sturgeon. Historian Kate Colquhoun, in Taste: The Story of Britain through its Cooking, describes the process of making ‘white leach’:
..’white leach’ was made by boiling new milk with Russian isinglass, sugar and sometimes rosewater, leaving it to cool and set firm until it could be cut into subtle, lubricious squares that might be gilded. Cream was thickened, or clouted, by heating it very gently and leaving it to stand and form a crust overnight, ready to be used in tarts and custards or keep safely for up to two weeks – clotted cream today is made in the same way.
(Colquhoun, K., 2008, p.109)
Isinglass began to be commercially produced in the sixteenth century and by the eighteenth century was combined with aspic to create elaborate, edible, table displays. There was a craze in Georgian and Victorian times of preserving everything in aspic. A large range of moulds were produced, made out of pottery, brass, copper or tin and Victorian cooks couldn’t own enough of them.
Blancmange, like jelly, originated as a savoury dish until late the Tudor period when it became a milky rice dish. Blancmange is made from a combination of milk/cream, sugar, gelatine and cornstarch or Irish moss. In the Prologue of Geoffrey Chaucer’s (1342-1400) Canterbury Tales, the Cook mentions blancmange:
A cook they had with them just for the nonce/To boil the chickens with the marrow-bones/ And flavour tartly and with galingale./Well could he tell a draught of London ale./ And he could roast and seethe and broil and fry/ And make a good thick soup, and bake a pie./ But very ill it was, it seemed to me/ That on his shin a deadly sore had he/ For sweet blanc-mange, he made it with the best./
In the Middle Ages blancmange was made with milk or almond milk, sugar, shredded chicken or fish, mixed with rosewater and rice flour. Blancmange began to be made without meat from the start of the seventeenth century and by the nineteenth century arrowroot and cornflour were added to the milk and sugar mixture to give it extra stability and a silky smooth appearance and texture. Blancmange made for a very fashionable and attractive centrepiece on the Victorian dining table.
In Medieval times junkets were made with sweetened milk and rennet, a popular dish with the nobility. Medieval cooks would add rosewater, spices and sugar to the basic junket. During Tudor times junkets were not as popular as syllabubs. By the eighteenth century junkets became a sweet, street food. According to Kate Colquhoun junkets were particular popular in the Georgian period: ‘Junkets were produced by curdling milk, flavouring it with flower waters, sweetening it, setting it with rennet and decorating the dish with comfits.’ (Colquhoun, K., 2008, p. 229).
Below are a selection of Mrs B’s jelly, blancmange and junket recipes, from her great tome. For more blancmange and jelly recipes, please see my previous article on the Georgian ‘Queen of Jellies’, Elizabeth Raffald. CLICK HERE.
Aspic Jelly from Gelatine
Ingredients: 2 1/2 ozs of leaf gelatine, 1 quart of water, the whites and shells of 2 eggs, 1 lemon, 1/4 of a pint of malt vinegar, 1 tablespoonful of tarragon vinegar, 1 onion, carrot, 2 or 3 strips of celery, a bouquet-garni (parsley, thyme, bay-leaf), 10 peppercorns, 1 teaspoonful of salt.
Method: Whip the whites of eggs slightly, pare the lemon rind as thinly as possible, and strain the juice. Put them with the rest of the ingredients into a stewpan, whisk over a brisk fire until boiling, and simmer very gently for about 20 minutes. Strain using a jelly-stand and bag. Takes 1 hour to make.
Ingredients: 1 pint of claret, 3/4 of a pint of water, 1/4 of a pint of lemon-juice, the thinly cut rind of 2 lemons, 6 ozs of loaf sugar, 1 1/2 ozs of leaf gelatine, the whites and shells of 2 eggs, a few drops of cochineal.
Method: Put all these ingredients into a stewpan, and whisk over the fire until it boils. Simmer for about 10 minutes, then strain through a scalded bag or cloth, add a few drops of cochineal to improve the colour, pour into a wet mould, and put in a cool place to set. Takes about 40 minutes to make.
Ingredients: 1 pint of water, 1 wineglassful each of rum, sherry, and kirsch, 1/2 a lb of loaf sugar, 1 1/2 ozs of French gelatine, 2 lemons, 1 egg, 1/2 an inch of cinnamon, 20 coriander seeds.
Method: Put the water and sugar into a stewpan, and boil to a syrup. Add the finely-cut rind of the lemons, the gelatine, previously softened in a little cold water, and stir until the latter dissolves. Now put in the lemon-juice, rum, sherry, kirsch, cinnamon and coriander seeds, bring to the boil, and let it cool. Beat up the white and shell of the egg, add the mixture to the contents of the stewpan when sufficiently cool, and whisk by the side of the fire until boiling. Simmer very gently for 10 minutes, then strain through a hot jelly-bag or a cloth until clear, and pour into a mould rinsed with cold water. Takes about 1 hour to make.
Carrageenan is now used as a vegetarian/vegan alternative to gelatine.
Ingredients: 1 teacupful of carrageenan (Irish sea-moss), sugar to taste, vanilla-essence to taste, 1 saltspoonful of salt, 1 quart of milk.
Method: Pick and wash the moss, let it lie in cold water for 15 minutes, then drain well, and tie it loosely in coarse net or muslin. Put it into a double saucepan with the milk and salt, cook until the milk will jelly when a little is poured on a cold plate, and sweeten to taste. Strain, add vanilla essence to taste, and pour the preparation into small moulds previously rinsed with cold water. Takes 1 hour to make.
Ingredients: 4 heaped tablespoonfuls of arrowroot, sugar to taste, 1 1/2 pints of milk, lemon-rind, vanilla or other flavouring.
Method: Mix the arrowroot smoothly with a little cold milk, bring the remainder to boiling point, put in the flavouring ingredient, and infuse for 20 minutes. Strain the milk over the blended arrowroot and stir, replace in the stewpan, sweeten to taste, and boil gently for a few minutes. Rinse the mould with cold water, pour in the preparation, and put aside until set. Serve with stewed fruit, jam, or cold custard sauce. Takes about 35 minutes to make.
Ingredients: 2 bananas, 1 quart of milk, 2 ozs of cornflour, 2 ozs of castor sugar, 2 yolks of eggs, 1/2 a teaspoonful of vanilla essence.
Method: Mix the cornflour with a little milk, boil the remainder, add the sugar and blended cornflour, and simmer gently for 5 minutes. Let it cool, add the beaten yolks of eggs, and stir by the side of the fire until they thicken. Now put in the bananas thinly sliced, and the vanilla essence, and pour the preparation into a wetted mould. Takes 35 minutes to prepare.
Ingredients: 1 oz of patent isinglass, sugar to taste, 1/2 a pint of cream, 1 pint of milk, 1 wineglassful of sherry, 2 or 3 thin strips of lemon-rind.
Method: Soak the gelatine in the water for 1/2 an hour, then add the lemon-rind, and simmer gently until the gelatine is dissolved. Strain into a jug containing the yolks of eggs, add the wine and lemon-juice, and sweeten to taste. Place the jug in a saucepan of boiling water, stir until the contents thicken, and, when cool, pour into a mould rinsed with cold water.
Ingredients: 1 pint of milk, junket powder, or 1 dessertspoonful of essence of rennet, 1 teaspoonful of castor sugar.
Method: Warm the milk (the exact temperature should be 98F, the natural heat of the milk), put it into the bowl or deep dish in which it will be served, add the sugar, and stir in the rennet or junket powder. Let it remain in a moderately warm place until set. The amount of junket powder required is stated on the wrapper; its use may be recommended in preference to the liquid essence, which, in consequence of its, varying strength, is uncertain in its results. Takes about 1 1/2 hours to coagulate the milk.
Ingredients: 1 pint of new milk, 1 dessertspoonful of brandy, 1 dessertspoonful of castor sugar, 1 teaspoonful of prepared rennet, whipped or clotted cream, ground cinnamon or grated nutmeg.
Method: Heat the milk to about 80F and stir in off the fire, the sugar, brandy, and rennet. Pour this preparation into a deep dish, in which it will be served; put it aside until set, then cover the surface with either whipped or clotted cream, sprinkle on a little cinnamon or nutmeg and serve. Takes 2 hours to make.