It’s peak silly season, and though you might argue our politicians are providing more than enough material on that front, it’s still the perfect excuse for a deep, refreshing dive into the silliest of all foodstuffs – the wibbly-wobbly jelly. Many of us have fond memories of fruity rabbits at children’s parties, but not so long ago, jellies were a very adult business. Just ask Heston Blumenthal, who once served up a two-foot-high, glow-in-the-dark number oscillated by four vibrators, inspired by the Victorian love of such dinner-time titillation.
Britain’s passion for what Nigella deliciously describes as the “voluptuous inner-thigh wobble” of jelly dates to the 14th century, when recipes included pig’s ears or cow’s feet (or eels or bony fish on religious fast days) – though things have moved on less than you might think since. Those odourless, flavourless sheets of gelatine found in every supermarket baking section are still made from boiled-up bits of beast because, as Blumenthal explained on a recent podcast, “one of gelatine’s most beautiful properties is that it melts at mouth temperature” – a quality that vegetarian substitutes have so far failed to replicate.
Thanks to the amount of labour involved in their creation, centrepiece jellies were long the preserve of the wealthy. The 1407 installation feast of the Bishop of London included a set-piece of a demon arguing with a doctor of divinity in a jelly-filled castle set in a custard moat. But in the 18th century gelatine sheets and powders began to be available for purchase by the aspirational middle classes. Elizabeth Raffald’s Manchester shop, for example, on a site now occupied by Marks & Spencer’s Market Street branch, offered a selection of “jellies, creams and flummeries daily”.
The Georgian and Victorian periods were to be jelly’s heyday; a time when almond fish could swim in white wine ponds, and dishes of bacon and eggs were not always all they seemed – as long as you possessed the correct mould. It was these moulds that first attracted Caroline Tremlett to the wonderful world of jelly. She began collecting them for their beauty, but after attending a jelly-making course with the food historian Ivan Day, Tremlett started to try them out – and in the 2020 lockdown, she opened an Instagram account, @adventuresinjelly, to share the results with the world. “Because I wasn’t commuting,” she explains, “I put the extra two hours a day to use. Then it became a jelly a day when we realised how much joy it brought people in these times of gloom. It really has been the most extraordinary response, it’s been so good for my own mental health – but what a bonus to make others smile. Nothing does it like a wobbly jelly.”
Gin and tonic jellies are particularly fun, she says, because the quinine in the tonic glows under ultraviolet light (a husband with a night-fishing torch is useful here), but her favourite mould is the “steeple”: “It’s ceramic and a devil to turn out, but it is the rudest jelly ever and it dances and wobbles with such delight. Those Victorians had a naughty sense of humour!”
I ask Tremlett why she thinks jelly – a mesmerisingly dynamic foodstuff that seems made for a social media age – has fallen out of fashion. She blames “the death of jelly” on those handy cubes that appeared on the market in the 1930s, making the process so easy that “it became perceived as kids’ food, ready in an instant with basic flavours. The art was lost! Simple as that.”
Like many people, I have fond memories of eating the cubes straight from the packet; indeed, during a recent hospital stay my dad craved those fruit jellies as a nostalgic comfort. But talking to Tremlett (and spending more time than was strictly necessary watching her mesmerising videos of swaying jellies) inspired me to have a go myself. What are her tips for success? “Don’t start with ceramic and glass moulds; they are much more challenging. Search for vintage aluminium moulds, like the rabbit mould your granny had, or food moulds. Even bundt tins make great jelly moulds. Finally, if you’re unmoulding your jelly add a little more gelatine than in the recipe – you need a bit of extra strength.”
Right now, don’t we all.
[See also: Why does everyone love coronation chicken?]
This article appears in the 20 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Broken Party