In our month-long celebration of all things British, we take a look at a mainstay of the Victorian table: jelly

The main appeal of jelly, undoubtedly, is that it is neither one thing or another. Lying tantalisingly on the boundary between solid and liquid, trembling and wobbling while travelling from mould to plate to spoon to mouth, it transforms under the warmth and pressure of our tongue and palate, breaking up even as it glides past them, shedding its flavour and fragrance as it goes. Who couldn’t love such a fragile, yielding thing?

Natural Jelly

The jellies first encountered by mankind were set by nature, and many (if not all) are still being consumed today. Their breadth is remarkable. Jelly textures are found in vegetables and fruit – tomato seed pulp, aloe vera flesh, white and black fungus, water shield leaves, ripe hachiya persimmons. Young coconut flesh and nata de coco are nut jellies: selasih (basil) and fenugreek seeds exude their own jelly when soaked.

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The ocean is rife with quivering textures, not just in jellyfish and sea cucumbers but in fish maws, eyes and tongues, springy-fleshed squid and cuttlefish, and of course seaweed, harvested by many coastal cultures to enjoy for their own gelatinous crunch or to boil down into a base for flavoured jellies. The English jelly eels (though far less commonly than they used to); Chinese cooks in Xiamen, Fujian, jelly sandworms.

Not all traditional jellies are protein-based. Asia is rich in dishes based on jellied starches, from Indonesian nagasari (banana and mung bean pudding kuih) and dodol (sticky rice candy) to Malaysian chendol and Thai sah-rim (tapioca and rice noodles with coconut milk). Savoury jellies such as Chinese liangfen and Korean noktumuk are made from legumes, and Japanese konnyaku jelly is made from the starch of a root corm. Turkish confectioners set their eponymous delight with cornstarch, and give dondurma ice cream an elastic, jellylike resilience with sahlep (orchid root) and mastic (tree resin).

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Evolution of Man-Made Jelly

Though early cooks were well acquainted with nature’s jellies, and the firmer gels of fruit and vegetable preserves, jelly innovation didn’t really take off until they discovered how to extract and filter gelatine-rich stocks from collagen-laden meat cuts and fish swim bladders. Certainly this was common practice by the late 1300s, when culinary texts first began to mention jellies.

In England in particular, from medieval times through to the mid-1900s, jelly-making then evolved into an elaborate art form, with complex centrepieces constructed of layered and moulded bases. Cut jelly shapes were suspended in clear jellies, and multipart moulds allowed jellies to have sculpted cores of contrasting colours and flavours. The glazed ceramic jelly moulds — depicting rabbits, grapes, geometric shapes and so on — are a colonial legacy from Britain, whose potteries produced many different designs in the first few decades of the 20th century.

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World War II austerities pretty much put paid to complicated fancy jellies as an upper-class affectation, although instant flavoured jellies remained popular at the heartland level.

Modern Jelly-Making

The fancy jelly tradition resurfaced in post-war America, whose homemakers revelled in savoury-sweet moulded gelatine salads, sometimes combining fruit, vegetable and meat in strange array. The awe-commanding kitsch and bright aesthetic of these confections probably seeded some transatlantic inspiration for the current revival in English jelly-making, spearheaded by food historian Peter Brears, self-styled jellymongers-cum-installation-artists Bompas & Parr, and chefs such as Heston Blumenthal.

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Among their gelid arsenal are recreations of the most rococo historical jellies, modern materials used to cast moulds of unusual shape, jellies that twinkle or explode or fizz or glow in the dark. These trends have been partly powered by the efforts of food scientists and forward-thinking chefs in the past few decades. Modern tech and restless imaginations have enabled an astounding new level of precision in the understanding and manipulation of jellies, or hydrocolloids, to use the preferred modern term.

Although the gelling agents themselves come from the same sources — plants, seaweeds, roots, animal parts — they are now refined, processed and blended so as to allow extremely fine tuning of clarity, mouthfeel, stability, setting point and other traits. So we can now enjoy hot jellies: jellies that are set when hot but liquid when cold; jellies wafting booze; jellies in nearly every shape, from caviar-like droplets and pearly spheres to transparent films and noodle strands; jellies made from ingredients with fragile, heat-sensitive aromas and flavours; jellied foie gras and mousses flexible enough to tie in knots or pose in arches; jellies stable enough to use as a protective shell around a main ingredient during cooking.

Not that you need a diploma to appreciate jelly’s charms. At the other end of the scale from avant-garde Castilian hydrocolloids, jelly as a Spanish folk art is abounding in Mexico and the southern US. “Gelatinas artisticas” and “gelatinas florales” have been all the rage for several years now. To make these gorgeous confections, syringes filled with coloured opaque gelatine solutions are deftly inserted into cups of set clear gelatine, squeezed and wiggled to leave behind astonishingly lifelike flowers, every petal, stamen and pistil exquisitely formed from a trail of jelly.

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How many foods are capable of spanning so many kitchens, holding such attention, undergoing such reinvention? Much like hope, jelly truly springs eternal.