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How an ancient Jell-O became a topping for toast

Natasha Frost
September 04, 2018

There’s a marmalade for every taste. Some like it thick and amber-colored, with great chunks of reddish peel. Others prefer it to be as delicate as orange blossom and flecked with slivers of citrus. You might smear it onto crumpets, or lather it on toast. Perhaps you make your own, invest in someone else’s artisanal efforts, or just buy the stuff they have at the grocery store. But whatever your marmalade preference, one thing is absolutely certain: The marmalade you are eating bears no resemblance whatsoever to the origins of the citrus spread, which was neither a spread, nor made with citrus.

The history of marmalade starts thousands of years ago, when the Greeks began to cook quince with honey. This astringent fruit is virtually inedible raw but will mellow with heat into a fragrant, burnt orange paste that sets like Jell-O. Cooked with honey, as the Greeks discovered, it’s even more delicious. They named their concoction μελίμηλον, or melimēlon, meaning “honey fruit.” The earliest known recipe, from the physician and botanist Dioscorides, involves peeling and seeding the quinces, coating them with honey, and then leaving them for a year packed like sardines in an earthenware vessel. After that, he promised, they would be as soft as “wine-honey,” and every bit as delicious.
 

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Dioscorides and his peers boasted the health benefits of this mixture. It would improve digestion, they said, and solve a gamut of kidney, liver, and stomach ailments. They weren’t entirely wrong: Quince is a great source of fiber, vitamin C, and a variety of minerals. Melimelon might not have cured every disease they’d hoped it would, but it certainly didn’t do any harm. In time, both the name and the recipe were co-opted by the Romans, who took it around their empire and seasoned it with their two favorite spices: white pepper and ginger.

By the 16th century, this marmalade precursor was eaten across the European continent. It was thought of as a luxury to be coveted and treasured. Additional expensive spices were added to it, like parsley seed, cloves, muskroot. Honey began to be replaced by sugar, which was both more neutral in taste and a greater status symbol. It became so desirable that it was literally fit for a king: Official public records from the 16th century show that Henry VIII received “a box of marmalade” as a gift from one of his subjects in Exeter, a port town on Britain’s south coast. Ten years later, in 1534, another “box of marmaladoo” was among gifts given to Lord and Lady Lisle, Henry VII’s illegitimate half-brother. These “boxes” were usually ornate and intricately carved. Because quince is so high in pectin, the part of fruit that makes jams and jellies set, the mixture would cool to an almost rigid solid like a kind of medieval Jell-O, allowing it to be molded into fabulous shapes and sliced like a hard-boiled egg.

Its high price eventually earned it another distinction: Marmalade began to be known as an aphrodisiac. Elizabethan poetry is rife with references to the jam: people with “soft marmalade hearts,” or beguiling “marmalade lips.” C. Anne Wilson, in her Book of Marmalade, describes how recipes from the era combined quince with other foods that were thought to be aphrodisiacs, including eringo roots, from sea holly, and almonds, which were thought to promote fertility. As time went on, the quince was omitted altogether, and recipes under the same name of marmalade began to feature baffling ingredients lists including powdered pearls, gold leaf, the testicles of a rooster, and a small salt-preserved lizard. Once added to sugar and rosewater, it would be boiled to a candy, gilded, and boxed up. Though this kind of high-falutin spice paste was the exception rather than the rule, it tells us a little about how fancy marmalade was thought to be, and the kind of special cachet it enjoyed. Around the same time, another unfamiliar ingredient began to work its way into the quince jelly. In the 16th and 17th centuries, for the first time, citrus fruits such as oranges and lemons were seen on Britain’s top tables. They were expensive and not to be wasted—so once the fruit and its juice had been used up, cooks looked for a use for the zest. Marmalade was an obvious choice. Though the pearls may not have stuck, this zesty new interloper did.

By the mid-18th century, marmalade was so often made with oranges—particularly the bitter oranges from Seville—that they had become the standard fruit, and the backbone of the dish. It was still very thick, if not quite as mouldable as it had been before—a preserve you could likely stand a spoon up in. It still wasn’t generally used as a spread, however. People often served orange marmalade at the start of a meal, to provoke their appetite; as a cure for the common cold; or as a pudding, to be served on its own at the end of a meal, though recipes suggest it was so sweet that more than a few mouthfuls would set your teeth on edge.

Above the border, in Scotland, quince marmalade had never been especially popular. It’s too cold for these temperamental trees to flourish, and so Scottish housewives and cooks had not taken to making their own. But as Scottish ports became more important, they became a key part of the citrus trade. Suddenly, oranges and lemons were commonplace in Glasgow, Leith, and Edinburgh, and with them came a renewed interest in making citrus marmalade. Scots liked marmalade so much, writes Wilson, that the conserve was “transferred to a new mealtime position”: breakfast. It became part of the Scottish breakfast—a dram of whisky; a mug of ale; a piece of toast, dipped in the ale; marmalade, to wash the whole thing down.

Eventually, it caught on below the border, too. Marmalade started to be used as a “substitute for butter,” as one 1815 advertisement boasted. It had become looser, a kind of orange jelly similar in consistency to modern marmalade, with a texture that made it easy to spread on toast—especially as morning ale became less common. The thick “beaten marmalade,” a cousin of its quince ancestor, was lost altogether, and “chip marmalade,” as we eat today, the standard.

Today, to the vast majority of people, marmalade means orange jelly—even though it was originally neither jelly, nor orange-based. But if you want to try the original, there’s a much closer modern equivalent, often served on cheese platters or Spanish and Portuguese restaurants, called membrillo. Sometimes known as quince cheese, it’s as thick and sliceable as its forebear, although nowadays it tends not to be made by leaving the fruit in a jar for a year. Whether it has the same boasted aphrodisiac qualities is unclear—though then, as now, it’s a dish absolutely befitting even the most refined of palates.

 

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