My theme is food that wobbles. It’s one of those things you either love or hate. My interest in jellies grew out of the creation of Jack Buzzard, Master Confectioner of Oxford Street, and husband of Nellie Buzzard, Humble Companion to Princess Sophie of Hanover.
Moulded desserts with a wobble factor would have been a big item for artisans like Jack during the Georgian era. People loved to see a table decked with some kind of elaborate edible monument, food made to look like a building or a tableau. But the idea of a jelly-like dessert was nothing new.
In the Beginning was flummery. Flummery was originally a simple waste-not-want-not dish made from the husks and dust in a bag of oatmeal. They were soaked in water to release their starch and the resulting liquid was boiled with sugar. In Scotland it was called sowans, in England it was called wash-brew. The Welsh claim a hand in naming it flummery. It was cheap and bland and recommended as a food for invalids. Leach was a similar dish but made from almond milk - its name is probably derived from the Spanish leche. Leach was also known as blancmange, or even jaunemange if it was coloured with saffron, and sometimes called shape, a very popular item on Victorian and Edwardian tables. By the mid 20th century blancmange had deteriorated into a milk-based wobbler, artificially coloured and thickened with corn starch. It was one of the nursery food horrors of my childhood.
Clear jellies were something else. I’ve always found them magical to look at. How on earth were they made? By Jack Buzzard’s time, the late 18th century, isinglass would have been the jellifying ingredient of choice. Hartshorn (literally the grated, dried horn of young red deer) had by then gone out of fashion for its gelatine though it was still used by bakers as a leavening agent and by swooning ladies for its ammonia kick in smelling salts. Isinglass is a strange substance, a type of collagen found in the swim bladders of fish. Sturgeon was the usual source when sturgeon were still abundant in British waters, but as they became over-fished isinglass producers turned to the cod and hake that were more plentiful.
Jellies became a popular, affordable bonne bouche. While the toffs headed to Berkeley Square for Italian ices, the lower classes flocked to jelly houses and Covent Garden was jelly-house central. The area that was formerly an exclusive residential address had been abandoned in the relentless westward drift of those with money. Covent Garden was turning commercial. On the corner of Russell Street a shop opened selling saucy engravings. Coffee shops proliferated (plus ça change), the streets were crowded with theatre-goers, and a jelly house became the ideal place for a girl to pick up a bit of trade. Jelly house girls were a cut above the women who offered a twopenny upright. For a price they’d take you to a room for half an hour. In late 18th century London to be seen seated alone, toying with a jelly, was the equivalent of hanging a red lamp in your window.
Isn’t it amazing how deer horns, sturgeon’s swim bladders and prostitution can all come together in 500 words? That’s history for you.
Late news. I’m permitting Nellie Buzzard and her coachman, Dick Morphew out from between the covers of A Humble Companion to appear at the Chiswick Book Festival this coming Sunday, September 15th. They will be accompanied by Mr Adrian Teal, a caricaturist in the finest 18th century tradition and creator of The Gin Lane Gazette.