Brace yourself. This may be more than you ever wanted to know. I know I was surprised….
First off, this website: http://www.historicfood.com/Jellies.htm
Gelatin and puddings, in their various forms, were very popular desserts of the past. We have record of Henry VIII serving ‘ribband (ribbon) jelly’ in the 1500s, and by the time you get to the 1700s, the thing is in full swing. Gelatin’s zenith seemed to be in the Victorian era, when molds reached their most complex — multiple colors, figures, and shapes encased in clear jelly are pretty common. Historic Food has pictures of jelly fish encased in a clear jelly “fish pond”, plates of jelly molded to look like bacon and eggs, and jelly ‘bombes’ on beds of crystallized fruit. Seriously. Check it out. I just read the entire page in a sort of fascinated horror. Scholarship and museum-level conservation combined with some really weird old foods of the past (now we can just buy powdered gelatin, but back then….well, you boiled calves feet or isinglass — fish flotation bladders — to get your jiggle on. Lovely.) (Although, if we investigated where powdered gelatin comes from now, would it actually be any less weird?)
The reason for this sudden foray into bizarre historical foods is that, this summer, one of my friends made a pudding-type dish which she called a “flummery”, flavored with lemon and wine. I was enthralled — I finished my entire little cup of gelatin — while my friends all took polite bites and agreed with the chef that the recipe needed tweaking. I restrained myself from asking for seconds.
Then, this afternoon, when the memory of that tasty, solidly jiggling concoction crossed my mind, I realized I could make it myself…. if only I could figure out how. Turns out none of the current cookbooks I own, really deal with that sort of food (odd!) Enter Internet. And, this website: http://savoringthepast.net/2013/10/11/yellow-flummery/
The author’s adventures in isinglass and “Bessie boots” are quite hilarious and worth the 15 minute diversion (!) He kindly did a lot of experimentation and came up with an updated recipe for yellow flummery — which seems a great deal like what I remember snacking on this summer. Next time I go out grocery shopping you can bet I’ll be looking for some powdered gelatin and a couple of lemons. If it’s at all a success I’m sure you’ll hear about it again.
So there you are. People in the past ate really weird stuff that became an art form in its own right. And maybe, just maybe, we can bring part of it back and let it be tasty and interesting again.