Jams, Jellies, and Preserves

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JAMS, JELLIES, AND PRESERVES. An atmosphere evoking both enchantment and delight surrounds the consumption of jams, jellies, and preserves. Children and adults alike enjoy sweet quince paste from Spain, orange marmalade from Scotland, candied fruit from France, or ginger in heavy syrup, an English specialty. No doubt they would be surprised if told that there is not the least gastronomical ambition to be found in the origin of these delicaciesonly the need to preserve fruit and other plants. They would be even more surprised to find out that the earliest confectioners were apothecaries, and the first preserves nothing but medicines. Sick people were very lucky in those days: they were permitted to eat sweetmeats to their hearts' content.

Preserving Food

Since prehistoric times, people have been very concerned about starvation, so they have protected themselves against hard times by storing the products of their crops and harvests. Various preserving methods were elaborated over the course of centuries; the earliest ones consisted in storing fruits far away from air and light, desiccating them, or preserving them in an antiseptic bath.

In the first century c.e., the Roman agronomist Columella described these techniques in his work De re rustica. According to Columella, the ideal means to preserve pears or peaches consisted of putting them in small wooden boxes, which were to be carefully closed so that air could not get in. As for figs and grapes, they were to be dried in the sunshine. Finally, Columella suggested the use of a preservative to retard decomposition, called conditio (from Latin condire, 'to condite, or preserve'. This use of conditiones to preserve food was called conditus (or conditum ). There are various types of conditiones salt, vinegar, sweetenersthat have preservative properties and do not exclude each other; in other words, their effects are cumulative.

Fruit pickled in vinegar and salt. Apicius, a Roman gastronome who lived in the time of Columella, preserved peaches in a mixture of salt, brine, and vinegar. Pickled fruit and vegetables are the modern version. But by its very nature, fruit needs sweet conditiones, which emphasize its flavor and heighten its fragrance. Since they did not know of the existence of sugar (see below), the ancients suggested several alternatives.

Fruit preserved in sweet wine. One alternative was passum, a high-alcohol, very mild wine made of raisins and used by Columella for pears and plums. The fruit was picked a short time before becoming ripe and was placed in a terracotta receptacle coated with pitch. It was then covered with passum so as to be soaked in liquor. A plaster-coated lid was placed on top. These conditi in passum can be seen as the forerunners of today's fruit in liquor.

Fruit preserved in wine syrup. Also used was sapa or defrutum, grape must that has been cooked and reduced by two-thirds or one-third, respectively. Columella used it for apples, pears, and sorbs. To make sure they were submerged in the syrup, a handful of dried fennel was placed on top. The lid was carefully coated with plaster and pitch so that air could not get in. This fruit bath of thick sugary grape juice is the forerunner of fruit preserved in syrup, which is now sterilized in order to protect it against decomposition.

Fruit preserved in sweet-sour pickle. Columella also concocted a sweet-sour conditio with vinegar and either sapa or defrutum for sorbs, plums, sloes, pears, and apples picked before they were fully ripe. They were then dried for one day in the shade. A mixture consisting of equal parts vinegar and sapa or defrutum was poured on the fruit. Columella recommended adding a bit of salt to prevent infestation by small worms or other animals. Finally, he made it clear that the fruit could be preserved even longer by adding two-thirds of sapa and one-third of vinegar. Our cherries in vinegar, which are served with stews and pâtés, are based on the same principle: they are covered with a bath consisting of a sweet element (two-fifths of sugar) and vinegar (three-fifths). We should not be surprised at the use of salt in the Roman recipe. It is a flavor enhancer, provided it is used in small quantities.

Apicius suggested another sweet-sour conditio based on sapa and blackberry juice. It was poured on blackberries placed in a glass vessel. The author specified that they could be preserved for a long time in this manner.

Melomeli and Marmalade. Andlast but not leastthere is honey. Its preserving properties have been recognized for a very long time. The corpse of Alexander the Great is said to have been kept in honey. Columella therefore claimed that honey stopped putrefaction and protected a corpse from decomposition for several years. Columella was, however, reluctant to use it for his fruit conditi, as he believed that fruit preserved in honey lost its flavor. J. André, in L'alimentation et la cuisine à Rome, suggests that his reluctance might be due to the fact that the production of honey was rather limited in those days.

Nevertheless, Apicius used honey as a conditio for figs, apples, plums, pears, and cherries: "Gather them carefully with their stalks and put them in honey so that they do not touch each other." Apicius paid particular attention to quinces, which he preserved in a mixture of honey and defrutum : "Choose faultless quinces with their twigs and leaves, and put them in a receptacle, and pour over honey and defrutum ; you will keep them for a long time." In fact, Columella also made an exception for quinces, and he likewise recommended preserving them in honey. According to Columella, quinces should be picked when the sky is clear and the moon on the wane; they should be wiped and put into a new receptacle filled up to the rim with excellent very liquid honey, so that each fruit is covered. Not only does this method preserve fruit, but it also yields a drink called melomeli (from Greek melon, 'quince' and meli, 'honey'), administered to sick people when they run a fever.

The Greek physician Dioscorides, who was Columella's contemporary, gave a slightly different recipe in his herbarium entitled De materia medica. Melomeli, which he called cydonomeli (from Cydonia in Crete, where the best quinces were produced), appears in the chapter about wines: "First of all, quinces should be deseeded, then entirely covered with honey, which becomes good after one year and tastes like oenomeli (honeyed wine)." So, according to Dioscorides, quinces are to be deseeded firstin other words, opened and not left wholeunlike Columella's recipe.

Additionally, Dioscorides gave two recipes for cydonites oenos, "quince wine." In the first one, quinces are to be cut in pieces like turnips and then deseeded. For twelve pounds of fruit, forty liters of must are needed to cover them. The mixture should macerate for thirty days until the wine gets clearer. In the second recipe, quinces are crushed and the juice is squeezed out. The proportion is five liters of juice to one pint of honey, and the whole is then mixed up.

Melomeli and cydonites oenos have the same therapeutic properties: they are astringent, facilitate digestion, relieve dysentery, and are good for people with liver, kidney, or urinary ailmentsa real cure-all, if you add the antipyretic qualities ascribed by Columella to his melomeli.

According to modern-day experimentation with these ancient recipes, both melomeli and cydonites oenos are slightly fermented drinks tasting like mead, with a very fruity and particularly original flavor. Dioscorides was actually right when he compared them to honeyed wine.

It is rather surprising to note that melomeli (also spelled malomellus in the seventh century), which is not a jam, is the origin of the word "marmalade," derived from it via Spanish membrillo and Portuguese marmelo, both meaning 'a quince'. Indeed, before it became, from the seventeenth century onward, "a jellied conserve of Sevilla oranges (with such alternatives as lime, grapefruit, lemon, or ginger), marmalade was a preserve confected from quinces boiled with honey or sugar" (Wilson, 1985, p. 15).The ancients did not know marmalades made of citrus fruit (they were introduced by the Arabs in the Middle Agessee below), but they created jelly, jam, and quince paste.

Quince Paste

In the second century c.e., the Greek physician Galen wrote that the Romans were importing quince paste (meloplacounta, derived from melon, 'a quince', and plakounta, 'a tablet') from the Iberian Peninsula: "It is firm and hard, and has been brought to Rome in very large quantities. It consists of honey and crushed quinces cooked in honey." It is not only a delicacy, but also a medicine aimed at strengthening a debilitated stomach, as the distinguished physician put it.

So, according to Galen, quince paste originated in Spain. It has remained up to now a specialty of the Iberian Peninsula (pasta de membrillo in Spain and marmelada in Portugal). Unfortunately, Galen does not give the recipe for this confection. It is, however, to be found in a late text of Byzantine origin attrributed to the last representative of Greek medicine, Paul of Aegina (seventh century): "Six pounds of quinces are cooked in wine until they have softened up. Then they are crushed. Eight pounds of honey are added and the whole is cooked slowly until the mass doesn't leave the slightest trace on the hand. Various drugs are added to the paste, which is eventually divided into half-ounce tablets."

Quince Jelly

Galen also gives the recipe for a drug based on quince juice that he claims to have invented and is particularly appropriate for stomach ailments. This drug survived for centuries under the name of diamelon or cydonitum. Its preparation involves mixing two parts quince juice, two parts honey, and one part vinegar. Ginger and pepper are optional. The mixture is cooked until it has thickened to the consistency of honey (melistos pachos ). Modern-day experimentation with this ancient recipe has yielded a beautiful translucent red jelly with a pleasing peppery flavor.

Quince Jam

In the fourth century c.e., the Roman agronomist Palladius revived Galen's quince jelly, which he called cydonitum. He added a second formula: "You first peel ripe quinces, you cut them into small pieces, excluding the hard parts you may find inside. You then boil them in honey, until the mixture has been reduced by half, and you sprinkle it with fine pepper while they are cooking."

If the ancients did indeed know about pectic fermentation (pectin makes the process of jelling possible), they did not make the most of it. In fact, they only applied it to quinces, which are actually rich in pectin; when they are cooked with an acid (like vinegar in diamelon ), jelling takes place almost automatically. C. Anne Wilson, in The Book of Marmalade, explains that the ancients preferred fruit "in their fresh, uncooked state to fruit preserved in wine, syrup, vinegar, or honey." Quinces were an exception, because, if not totally ripe, they remained hard even in honey. It was to avoid that risk that quinces were precooked. This led to the discovery of pectic fermentation. "The high pectic content of some other sharp fruits may never have been discovered because there was no incentive to precook them in honey. So quinces remained unchallenged in the field of the pectin-jellied conserve."

Another Fruit Jam

There is another jam in Greco-Roman medieval literature: diaoporon or medicamentum ex pomis, which is at the same time an antidiarrheic and good for digestion. Various fruits (apples, pears, pomegranates, and especially quinces) are cooked in honey, sapa, and must (the pulp and skins of grapes)"donec omnia quae indita sunt liquata in unitatem quadam coeant "until all ingredients have been reduced to a uniform mass, according to Celsius, a Roman physician of the first century c.e. As for Columella, he indicated that diaoporon must be cooked"donec crassamen in modum fecis existat "until it has reached the consistency of feces. This is in fact what it looks like when it has been cooked in that manner. Its flavor, however, is not unpleasant, as Celsius experienced ("id gustu non insuave est "). This is a rather surprising comment for Celsius, since he wrote at the beginning of his treatise, De Medicina, that "all condita are unserviceable for two reasons, because more is taken owing to their sweetness, and even what is moderate is still digested with some difficulty."

Fruit and Honey Syrups

The ancients also knew of other fruit and honey preserves. Criton, a Greek physician who lived at the beginning of the first century c.e., created diaroion, the forerunner of grenadine. It is made of pomegranate juice, cooked until it has reached the consistency of lime (gloiou pachos ), honey, and, optionally, drugs such as myrrh. Diaroion is particularly appropriate in the treatment of mouth ailments.

Then, there is the blackberry-based diamoron, a famous remedy created by Heras (a contemporary of Criton), which is still mentioned in modern pharmacopoeias. It is prepared in the same way as diaroion and has the same therapeutic effects. It has also been found to be effective in treating gum inflammation.

Nougat and Marzipan

The ancients paved the way for honey and dried-fruit preserves with almonds as the main ingredient. This mixture eventually gave birth to marzipan and nougat, and the Arabs (see below) developed the manufacturing technique.

At the end of the fifth century b.c.e., the Hippocratic Corpus in fact, just a few parts were written by Hippocrates himselfgives an interesting formula to cure pleurisy. The ingredients are honey (with an emollient effect on the throat), scilla (a bulbous herb useful as an expectorant), and almonds (with well-known cough-suppressing properties). The recipe is as follows: "Cut scilla bulbs into slices and cook them in water; when they have boiled, tip the water; pour water again and cook the scilla again until it looks mushy and well cooked); crush it in equal pieces, add roasted cumin, white sesame, fresh almonds; crush all these substances in honey." This may be the forerunner of marzipan.

As for Galen, he suggested a cough mixture made of sweet almonds and honey with other dried fruit such as pine kernels (which also have cough-suppressing properties), grilled flaxseeds, flag, and tragacanth gum (which have the same therapeutic effects). A modern version is to cook the mixture and let it cool down under a weight. The result is a delicious candy tasting like the famous black nougat from Provence served at Christmastime.

The Arab Contribution

It was not until Arab times (in the times of the Caliphate of Baghdad, more particularly the Abbasid dynasty) that there was some progress in the sciences. It should be noted, however, that much of the confectionery technology attributed to the Arabs was in fact developed in Sassanian Persia and known to the Byzantine Greeks. Further, sugar was not much used in the Near East until a system of irrigation could be developed and a source of wood could be found for processing it.

First, the Arabs introduced sugar in medicines and in cooking. Sugar diluted in water yielded a new confection called sharab in Arab and syrupus in Latin. Sugar syrup was used to manufacture various preserves and sweetmeats, more particularly sharab al-fawaki (syrupus de fructibus ), an updated version of diaroion and diamoron in which Arabs replaced honey with sugar and used various comfits and sweetmeats such as fudge, tatty, and marshmallow.

Moreover, the Arabs went deeper into the subject of pectic fermentation. They created the first marmalades of citrus fruit; most of them, however, were candied in honey, not in sugar: an example is the lemon marmalade of Avicenna (9801037). (Islamic traditions often use honey over any other form of sugar although they were one of the first to have sugar.)

In Spain, the Arabs developed the traditional fruit pastes (see above) by creating new varieties with roses, violets, orange peels, kernels, and green walnuts (well known in Byzantine Armenia). They were also made with honey. As for the traditional quince paste, it was sugar-candied from the thirteenth century onward.

Finally, the Arabs developed dried-fruit pastas and created various kinds of marzipan and nougatsometimes with honey, sometimes with sugar.

Pseudo-Mesue: the father of European confectionery. Pseudo-Mesue, a twelfth-century physician probably of Italian origin, was the person who introduced Arab confections into Christian countries. He also invented new ones. He wrote jam recipes (apple, plum, peach) that were revolutionary for his time because they were made with sugar, not with honey.

It was not until the late Middle Ages that confectionery developed into what it is now. New recipe books evidencing this evolution were published. The Libre de totes manieres de confits, drawn up in the fifteenth century and written in Catalan, had many imitators during the Renaissance. They include: De secreti by Alexis of Piedmont (Venice, 1555), the preserves-maker of the French physician and astrologer Nostradamus (Lyons, 1555), and The Treasurie of Commodious Conceits and Hidden Secrets by John Partridge (1573).

See also Apicius; Candy and Confections; Compote; Condiments; Fruit; Greece, Ancient; Hippocrates; Islam; Middle East; Rome and the Roman Empire; Sugar and Sweeteners; Sugar Crops and Natural Sweeteners; Syrup.


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Arberry, A. J. "A Baghdad Cookery Book." Islamic Culture 13, (1939).

Hippocrates. Hippocratic Collection, in eight volumes. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 19231988.

Hippocrates. Ancient Medicine. Airs, Waters, Places. Epidemics 1 & 3. The Oath. Precepts. Nutriment. Volume 1 in the eight-volume Hippocratic Collection. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1923.

McKibben J., and N. J. Engeseth. "Honey as a Protective Agent against Lipid Oxidation in Ground Turkey." Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 50, no. 3 (2002): pp. 592595.

Miranda, A. H. Traduccion espanola de un manuscrito anonimo de siglo XIII sobre la cocina hispano-magribi. Madrid: 1966.

Plouvier, Liliane. "La confiserie européenne au Moyen-Age." Medium Aevum Quotidianum 13 (1988).

Shephard, Sue. Pickled, Potted, and Canned: The Story of Food Preserving. London: Headline, 2000.

Wilson, C. Anne. The Book of Marmalade. London: Constable, 1985.

Liliane Plouvier

Translated from the French by Christian Labarre