When I was a kid, my mum used to make fruit jellies for Sunday tea. Simple fare. Boiling water was poured over cubes of “fruit”-flavoured gelatine, cut from Lego-like blocks of brightly coloured, sugary rubberiness. Once dissolved, and beginning to cool, the liquid jelly was poured into plastic Tupperware moulds and allowed to set in the fridge.
If we were lucky, mum added milk to one of the jellies, giving us, what we unimaginatively called, milk jelly – “raspberry” milk jelly was my favourite – or, luckier still, a tin of mandarin oranges would be set inside a “tangerine” jelly. The height of 1970s wobbly sophistication, I can still hear the satisfying squelch-and-plop as the jellies were turned out.
I’m not sure if back then I understood the animal origin of jelly (Jell-O, to you Americans); it was long before the rise of algae-based agar-agar powder.
I certainly had no idea that 700 years before my mum was improvising with orange segments the English were making their own jellied delights, though of a distinctly savoury kind, from obscure parts of animals and writing down their recipes.
Let’s take a look at those earliest jellies in English cookery collections:
First, an Anglo-Norman recipe, c.1275-c.1300
Geleye. E une autre viaunde, ke ad a noun geleie. Pernez un porcel e festes eschauder, e gelynes ou aukune autre char fresche; e pernez des especes, gilofre, galingale, e gingivre, e festes braer ensemble; e pernez blaunc vin, e pernez vostre purcel e vos gelines e festes couper en beu mosseus, e festes boiller en blaunc vin: en meymes la manere festes en jur de pesson, hors pris grasse chose; e puis dressez.
Jelly. Here is another dish, which is called jelly. Take a young hog and scald it, and hens or any other fresh [as against salt or smoked] meat; take spices, cloves, galingale, and ginger and grind together; take white wine, cut the young hog and hens into fair-sized pieces, and boil in the white wine. Prepare the dish in the same way on a fish day, but without meat, and then serve [when jelled].Text and translation from Hieatt and Jones, ‘Two Anglo-Norman Culinary Collections’, pp. 863 and 875.
As you see, the earliest surviving English recipe for jelly is written not in English but in the dialect of Old French that evolved in England after the Norman Conquest (1066), known today as Anglo-Norman.
The manuscript that contains the recipe, now located in the British Library (Additional 32085), has been dated to the end of the thirteenth century, so more than a couple of hundred years after William the Conqueror famously beat King Harold at the Battle of Hastings and irreversibly changed both the language and culture of the English peoples.
From a culinary perspective, I find it interesting that fresh meat is stipulated for this particular dish; interesting because it is generally observed by food historians that medieval jelly – gelatine – was used as a means of preserving meat and fish, an alternative to salting.
However, this particular recipe, unlike one we will take a look at later, doesn’t mention keeping the dish for any length of time; rather the cook is simply given the instruction: ‘e puis dressez’, literally, ‘and then dress [it]’, that is, arrange and serve the dish.
Setting unsalted meats in jelly was probably seen as a way of extending the opportunity for eating fresh meat, which may have been seen by some as superior to salted meats. Moreover, this particular jelly dish is about the enjoyment of elite meat. Why do I say this?
Well, the first ingredient is piglet, ‘porcel’ in Anglo-Norman. Today we would call this suckling pig (i.e., the animal is slaughtered before it has reached the age of weaning) and it is considered both a delicacy and a luxury. It was no different in medieval England where it was eaten both roasted and poached.
The succulence of the meat is what made it a delicacy. Its status as a luxury comes from the obvious fact that an early season piglet wasn’t going to bring anywhere as much meat as a fattened, older porker slaughtered in the autumn, which would then be salted to provide meat across the winter period and beyond.
Pertinently, a thirteenth-century record from Rochester Priory notes that ‘instead of one pig, two or three suckling pigs’ might on occasion be slaughtered ‘for the court’ (the brethren), underscoring its status as a special treat.
Another curious thing about this first recipe is that the jelly-making process is not described in any real detail. We are not given the method other than that portions of the pig and hens are cooked in wine.
So there is no mention that the subsequent broth, in which the meat is served, must be strained and then cooled in order for the jelly to form. Indeed, the translators decided to add the information ‘when jelled’, in square brackets, in order for the dish to make proper sense.
The assumption, then, appears to be that any medieval cook consulting the recipe would understand the intended jellied nature of the finished dish. Perhaps this was because jellies of meats and fish had a long tradition, even back then.
I think what would have been more important for an elite medieval cook was to make a note of the spices being used, in this case, cloves, galingal and ginger, which would infuse an otherwise bland jelly with a taste of the exotic.
Apart from imparting flavours to excite the palate, expensive spices from faraway lands were undoubtedly also used to signify the wealth and status of the household. As a consequence, then, our medieval jelly was far removed from the sphere of peasant fare, and hence from the humble roots with which we might associate some of its more modern analogues (I’m thinking, for example, of jellied eels).
Gelee of fish, c.1300-c.1325
The first English recipe for a dish of fish jelly (i.e., the fish is served within the set, gelatinous broth in which it was cooked) is also from an Anglo-Norman collection found in another British Library manuscript, which is dated a little later than the collection above, to the first quarter of the fourteenth century. Soon after, this recipe was translated into English (Middle English) as part of the collection known as Diuersa cibaria (‘Diverse foods’) (see Hieatt and Butler, Curye on Inglysch, p. 48).
Most of the recipes in this second Anglo-Norman collection are, to a modern reader, so concise that they read more like shopping lists of ingredients than true recipes. For ‘Jelly’ we are simply told:
Gelee. Pesshoun quit en vyn e en eawe, e saffran, poudre de gyngyvre, canele, galyngal; e serra mis en un vessel covert nettement; colour, blank.
Jelly. Fish cooked in wine and water, and saffron, powder of ginger, cinnamon and galangal; and should be put in a vessel completely covered; colour, white’.Anglo-Norman text from Hieatt and Jones, ‘Two Anglo-Norman Culinary Collections’, p. 867. Translation by Christopher Monk © 2021 .
Not quite Prue Leith or Mary Berry, then.
As with the gelee dish of young pig and hens, it’s really only the name of the dish that gives the modern cook any clear idea that the dish involves setting the fish in the gelatinous broth of wine and water.
That said, my literal translation ‘put in a vessel completely covered‘ does appear to point to the process of covering the fish fully with the jelly so that none of the fish is exposed to the air with the risk of it going off quickly.
Hieatt and Jones amplify the meaning of the Anglo-Norman text with their translation ‘it should be placed in a cleanly covered vessel to set‘ (Hieatt and Jones, p. 878; my own emphasis). Though the last two words do not actually appear in the original language, I can understand that the editors/translators were trying to capture the sense of the recipe. [Note: I do think that in this context ‘nettement’ is translated better as ‘completely’, not ‘cleanly’: see The Anglo-Norman Dictionary, nettement, 3]
It should be noted, too, that not all fish yield up a really good gelatine. As Peter Brears notes, most white fish when cooked in wine will not make a crystal-clear jelly: ‘a pound/450g of [white] fish will only make about a tablespoon of rather glue-like jelly after prolonged simmering and reduction’ (Brears, Cooking and Dining in Medieval England, p. 289) .
This suggests that an inexperienced cook following our fish jelly recipe could well be in for a culinary disaster if he didn’t know his fish. If, on the other hand, he used the fish mentioned by Brears, namely ‘eels or eel-skin, plaice, pike, tench and turbot’, then success would likely follow (Brears, Cooking and Dining in Medieval England, p. 289).
lat yt kele (let it cool): Diuersa servicia, c.1381
It is only when we get to the latter part of the fourteenth century that we find an English recipe that indicates explictly that dishes known as ‘jelly’ were meant to be eaten cold and, moreover, could be kept beyond the day they were prepared.
‘For to make a gely’, from the collection known as Diuersa servicia (‘Diverse services’), dating to about 1381, is probably my favourite medieval English jelly recipe, if only for its flourish of decor at the end:
For to make a gely, tak hoggys fet oþer pyggys, oþer erys, oþer pertrichys oþere chiconys, & do hem togedere & seth hem in a pot; & do in hem flowre of canel and clowys hole or grounde. Do þereto vineger, & tak & do þe broth in a clene vessel of al þys, & tak þe flesch and kerf yt in smale morselys & do yt þerein. Tak powder of galyngale & cast aboue & lat yt kele. Take bronchys of þe lorere tre & styk ouer it, & kep yt al so longe as þou wilt & serue yt forth.
To make a jelly, take hog’s feet, or piglet’s, or the ears; and/or partridges or chickens; and put them together and simmer them in a pot; and add to them cinnamon buds and cloves, whole or ground. To this add vinegar; and take and put the broth into a separate clean vessel; and take the meat and carve it into small morsels and add this to it [i.e., add the meat back into the broth]. Take powder of galangal and sprinkle on top and allow it to cool. Take branches from the laurel tree [i.e. bayleaf] and stick them all over it; and keep it for as long as you wish and serve it forth.Text from Hieatt and Butler, Curye on Inglysch, p. 73, no. 56; translation by Christopher Monk © 2021
Here, then, we start to get some detail, though hardly comprehensive, about the jelly-making process and the capacity for keeping jellies for some time after making them.
Trotters – pig’s feet – and pig’s ears are specified, both providing the vital collagen needed to form a really good jelly. They are best cooked long and slow in order for them to break down fully and release the collagen into the broth.
Surrounding cooked meats within the subsequently cooled jelly would enable the cooks to prepare jelllies ahead of time as the meat wouldn’t spoil. I wouldn’t like to say how easy it was to keep jellies without using our modern methods of refrigeration, but since large medieval households would have had pantries or larders, which were relatively cold, it evidently wasn’t too much of a problem for elite medieval cooks to manage.
Where’s the meat?
Now, the meat on a trotter is negligible. I think I may have managed in my own recipe development about one tablespoon’s worth from both feet. I’ve not yet cooked pig’s ears, but I don’t imagine them providing much meat either. So if a substantial amount of pork was wanted for this particular dish, it would be necessary to add to the pot the part of the pig’s leg just above the feet, too.
As a matter of interest, and as you will see in my forthcoming YouTube video, the organic farm from which I sourced my trotters does, indeed, unlike my local supermarket, generously include that extra part – some might call it the hock (though hocks are also sold separately). It made me wonder if a similar butchery practice occurred in the fourteenth century, and so when we read ‘pig’s feet’, we might think of something a bit meatier than just the pig’s metatarsals!
The poultry in this medieval jelly, partridges and chickens, will also yield up sufficient gelatine, even if you don’t use trotters or ears. (The original wording of the recipe may indicate an either-or rather than that pig bits and poultry are to be used.) If you’ve ever cooked a gravy from the juices of your Sunday chicken roast, you will know how, when cooled in the fridge overnight, it turns into a lovely, quite soft jelly the next day. Yummy!
You can’t hurry a jelly!
I think it is worth emphasising, unlike most medieval recipes, that timings are important. A jelly is a sensitive soul, a bit wobbly we might say. Long gentle simmering is not only the best way to break down things like trotters, but it also avoids you ending up with tough-as-boots meat. The likes of partridge and chicken need a gentle poaching not a rapid boil, and pork hock needs the slowest, kindest seething possible for it to fall off the bone.
Moreover, when cooking different meats, as may be intended in this medieval recipe, the length of time they spend in the pot will vary. When I slowly cooked my own jelly of pork and chicken (illustrated at the top), the chicken took about a third of the time (less than one hour) the pork took to cook (over 3 hours), so it was removed well before the cooking finished.
Again, we can see how the brevity of these medieval jelly recipes strongly hints at the experience a medieval cook needed in order to interpret the dish correctly and not end up with something quite dreadful.
Finally, on this recipe, it is noteworthy that vinegar has been introduced into English jellies, which is something that certainly appeals to my own palate as it adds some desirable zing to cut through the jelly.
In France, around the same time, both vinegar and verjuice (the unfermented juice of unripe grapes) were being used, as we see in ‘Gelee de poisson’, a lovingly detailed jelly recipe found in The Viandier of Taillevent, written by Guillaume Tirel, the chief cook of King Charles V of France.
The final English jelly recipes I want us to look at are found in Forme of Cury, an official cookery book of King Richard II’s court, compiled and written around 1390, and today located in the John Rylands Library in my home town of Manchester. The two recipes, one for fish jelly, one for meat jelly, are best read together, as indeed they are placed together in the book:
Forme of Cury, John Rylands Library, c.1390
Gelee of fysche .lxlix.
Take tenches, pykes, eelys, turbut & plays; kerue hem to pecys, skald hem & waysche hem clene, drye hem with a cloth; do hem in a panne; do þerto half vyneger & half wyne & seeþ hit wel; take þe fysche & pyke hit clene; cole þe broth þorow a cloth in to an erthen panne; do þerto poudour of peper and safroun ynowh; lat hit seeþ & skymme hit wel. Whan hit ys ysode dof þe grece clene; couche fysche on chargours & cole þe sewe þorow a cloth onoward & serue hit forth.
Fish jelly 99
Take tenches, pikes, eels, turbot and plaice; cut them into pieces, scald them and wash them clean; dry them with a cloth; put them in a pan; to this add half vinegar and half wine and simmer it carefully; take the fish and pick it clean; strain the broth through a cloth into an earthenware pan; to this add enough pepper powder and saffron; let it simmer and carefully skim it. When it is cooked, take off the fat completely; arrange the fish onto chargers and strain the sauce through a cloth over it; and serve it forth.
Gelee of flesche .c.
Take swynes fete & snowtes & þe eerys, capouns, conynges, calues fete & waysche hem clene & do hem to seeþ in þe priddel of wyne and vyneger & water & make forth as before.
Meat jelly 100
Take pigs’ trotters and snouts and the ears, capons, rabbits, calf’s feet and wash them clean and simmer them in a third each of wine, vinegar and water and make as before.Middle English text taken directly from the manuscript Manchester, John Rylands Library, English MS 7, folio 50 edited and translated by Christopher Monk © 2021.
We can see how this recipe for fish jelly is far more informative than the earlier Anglo-Norman one. We are given the types of fish that yield up good amounts of gelatine. We are told that the jelly broth must be twice strained through cloth – linen – and that it must be simmered again – for reduction, presumably – and that the fat must be completely skimmed off.
It seems, then, that the master chef of King Richard’s household wanted to leave less to chance than earlier recipe writers. Indeed, it is essential, if you desire a good, clear jelly, to scrupulously strain away any debris and skim off all fat. And since Richard had a reputation as both a grand gourmet and a somewhat temperamental monarch, I’m quite convinced he would have let his cooks know if his gelee of fysch was not up to scratch.
With the Forme of Cury’s meat jelly, the snout of the pig is added to the trotters and ears we saw in the Diuersa servicia recipe, it also being high in collagen and hence good for producing a firm gelatine. This is also the case with calf’s feet, though I can’t speak from personal experience, having never cooked with them.
Capons (castrated cockerels), bigger and fatter than hens, are the choice of poultry and rabbits, probably farmed on royal warrens, make an appearance. It seems that by this time jellies in England had become quite varied in their choices of the flesh to be encased in their wonderful wobbliness.
Zing and spice
Vinegar appears by now to have become an established ingredient in jellies. When it comes to spices, however, these two jellies are less experimental than previous English ones, relying solely on black pepper for any spicy heat, and saffron for colour.
As a cook, I find it interesting that the spices in the fish jelly are added after the cooking of the fish, and presumably, since it is to be made in the same way, after the cooking of the meat in the meat jelly, too.
Personally, I think it builds a little more flavour into the dish if the fish or meat are simmered with spices and then additional spices are added to the jelly broth once it has been strained and is being reduced.
And so, in this matter of spices, my own recipe development has perhaps been a little more in line with the spirited spicing of the aforementioned chief cook of France’s Charles V, than with the more reserved enhancements of Richard II’s cook.
That said, my use of ginger, galangal and black pepper for when simmering the meat, and my extra pepper and saffron cast into the reduced and strained broth, doesn’t quite match up with Tirel’s tally of twelve spices!
If I’ve understood his rather complex recipe correctly, he first made up a meat-wine-vinegar-verjuice bouillon/broth which he spiced with ginger, cinnamon, cloves, grains of paradise, long pepper, as well as (according to some versions of the text) nutmeg, saffron and chervil, before straining this and using it to cook additional meat (i.e., the meat to be presented in the set jelly) along with even more spices: bay leaves, spikenard, galingale and mace. Finally, when decorating the jelly, he sprinkled on cassia buds and extra mace (The Viandier of Taillevent, ed. Terence Scully, p. 287, no. 68). I can’t help thinking he was just showing off.
Is it really a set jelly?
Returning to the Forme of Cury recipes, you’ve likely noticed that it doesn’t clearly indicate that the jellies are left to go cold and set, as it does in the earlier Diuersa servicia recipe (‘let it cool’), or, most explictly, in the Viandier recipe (‘put your plates in a cool place to set’).
This may possibly indicate that a semi-set jellied sauce was intended; indeed, there are multiple medieval English recipes for dishes with galentine (deriving from Old French for ‘jelly’) in their name which generally appear to be dishes served with a sauce made from jellied meat juices. I’m not convinced, however, that this is the case here. [Read more about galentine.]
Rather, it is more likely the cook assumed that a set jelly was self-evident from the use of the name ‘gelee’. This is supported by the fact that a later copy of King Richard’s cookery book states, for the fish jelly, that one should ‘serue it forth colde’. [You can find this on folio 104v of the manuscript, Harley MS 1605/3.]
As already alluded to, above, I will be producing a video of me making a medieval-style meat jelly and hope to have that posted in about five or 6 weeks’ time. The recipe is still in development stage at present, but the intent is to combine ideas from all the meat/poultry jelly recipes discussed in this post today.
I will be making it alongside another recipe from the first Anglo-Norman collection mentioned, a sage sauce, as the two will make for a heavenly culinary marriage; I exaggerate just a little.
I’m hoping to amplify the cultural history quotient of the subject of jellies even more by tying these two dishes to the text I mentioned above from Rochester Priory, in which we learn that one of the servants of the brethren there received a daily allowance of ‘one of the best dishes’ served up to the monks by their cooks. I know you are dying to find out more!
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Selected works consulted
Peter Brears, Cooking and Dining in Medieval England (Prospect Books, 2012).
Constance B. Hieatt and Sharon Butler (eds.), Curye on Inglysch (Early English Text Society, Special Series 8; Oxford University Press, 1985).
Constance B. Hieatt and Robin F. Jones, ‘Two Anglo-Norman Culinary Collections Edited from British Library Manuscripts Additional 32085 and Royal 12.C.xii’, Speculum 61.4 (1986), pp. 859-882.
Christopher Monk, The Servants at Rochester Priory during the Thirteenth Century (Rochester Cathedral Research Guild, forthcoming).