Jam: a beautifully preserved history

Joan of Arc, Nostradamus and Louis XIV were all partial to jam

J is for Jam. To my mind, there is no purer indulgence than a cream tea. You can take your caviar and your lobster; hang on to your champagne and foie gras. A cream tea represents all that is glorious about British cuisine. It is a vehicle for sugar and fat, an excuse to consume butter barely held together by flour. It doesn’t even pretend to be anything other than superfluous. It is a proper, old-fashioned treat.

But it is known for provoking controversy. Fruit scone or plain? Butter? (Yes – salted). And then the killer, the question that tears families apart: cream first, or jam first? Personally I have always gone for cream first, a hefty dollop of ultra-thick Devon clotted, followed by a modest splodge of jam – enough for flavour, not enough to make your teeth hurt from the sugar. My father views this as sacrilege. He goes for a thick layer of jam, like a hydrophobic sheet to stop the cream sinking in to the scone.

Jam, in its various incarnations – not just cream tea, but donuts, and jam tarts and jammy dodgers – is a non-necessary comestible. It wasn’t always thus. Jam shares a wobbly ancestry with bacon, salt cod and space-food. That is, it was a way to preserve food, to protect against any periods of scarcity that might hit.

The first recipe for jam appears in the first known cookbook: De Re Coquinaria (The Art of Cooking) which dates from the 1st century AD. In its simplest form, it was soft fruit heated with sugar (or honey, in this case) and cooled, then stored. Come the crusades, warriors brought back more complex concoctions from the Middle East. Jam’s popularity as a delicacy – rather than just a way to eat fruit – took off. Joan of Arc ate quince jam before going into battle as it filled her with courage. Nostradamus loved the stuff so much he wrote an entire treatise on it, including a love-potion version that, if passed from mouth to mouth, would strike a woman with ‘a burning of her heart to perform the love-act.’ (Presumably this wouldn’t be the same woman who had slaved for hours over a scalding hot stove, praying desperately for seven different batches of it to set.)

Sailors and pirates stockpiled jam on board their ships as it became clear that Vitamin C prevented scurvy. Meanwhile, Louis XIV was so passionate about it that he insisted that every meal be finished with jams served in special ornate silver dishes. All of his was made from the fruit gardens at Versailles – and as they included tropical varieties like pineapple there must have been some interesting flavours indeed.

But large-scale jam production did not become possible until the discovery of pasteurisation. In 1785 Napolean Bonaparte offered a reward to anyone who could find a way to preserve large quantities of food for soldiers. The lucky winner was Nicholas Appert, who worked out that boiling at high temperatures and then sealing in airtight containers kept food safe. Louis Pasteur validated these empirical findings in the next century.

During WWII there was widespread anxiety about a shortage of food. The Women’s Institute came to the rescue. A government grant in 1940 gave them £1,400 to buy sugar for jam. As a result, 1,631 tons of preserves were made in more than 5,000 ‘preservation centres’ in farm kitchens, village halls or sheds. They were largely made by volunteers, under the guidance of the Ministry of Health. 5,300 tons of fruit were preserved between 1940 and 1945.

My mother – who has sacrificed many years to the gods of preserving – says that the inclusion of marmalade in an article about jam is a heresy. I apologise to her and to the many other marmalade enthusiasts I know and love – but to write two pieces about the history of preserving fruit seemed a bit over the top. So herewith, a teaspoon of marmalade history.

The apocryphal tale goes that marmalade was invented when Mary Queen of Scots was suffering from sea-sickness (Marie est malade, in the fashionable French spoken in court at the time). Her doctor whipped up a concoction of orange peel and sugar which cured her ailment immediately. Alas the treatment wasn’t so efficacious at curing a beheading. It’s more likely, however, that the word comes from ‘marmelo’ – the Portugese for quince. Marmalade inspires its own cultish rituals. Old-fashioned Englishmen of the Uncle Matthew variety will only eat the stuff if it is homemade, dark and thick-cut. Kitchens of large houses around the country throb with discussions of whether marmalade should be the consistency of wallpaper paste or paint. I love it runny and pale orange with only the tiniest slivers of peel; but then, I have a lowest-common-denominator taste in preserves.

A case in point: my favourite jam is strawberry. Yes, it’s sickly and overly-sweet and not tart at all: the Shirley Temple of jams. But it does what one wants jam to do – that is, satisfy the craving for it. The most glamorous jam is apricot, stalwart of Paris hotels and French delis. Fig jam is exciting but basically pointless: figs need their fresh odd muskiness, and don’t work when reduced to one top-note flavour. Blackberry is a damn fine staple, better on crumpets than scones. Raspberry is the connoisseur’s choice, particularly when it’s slightly bitter, more like a low-sugar compote than a true jam. Whatever flavour, it’s all fabulous, needless, sticky, delicious fun.


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