Jelly good show

By Gerard Gilbert

Time to get a wobble on, that old childhood favourite is enjoying a renaissance.

Jelly makes a comeback. Photo / Thinkstock
Jelly makes a comeback. Photo / Thinkstock

Jelly on a plate, jelly on a plate ... wibble, wobble, wibble, wobble ... jelly on a plate - thus goes one of the first bits of doggerel that my daughter learned. Indeed jelly is firmly associated with the nursery and children's tea parties - and those lurid cubes of additive-packed, "fruit"-flavoured, concentrated gelatine that I remember, as a boy, eating raw out of a packet.

You can still buy the ready-made stuff (just add water) of course - minus the additives - but these days jelly is also a much more delicious, grown-up affair.

In the past few years the wobbly stuff has been rediscovered by chefs and food writers like Heston Blumenthal and Nigella Lawson, using outre ingredients from beetroot and quail to gin and tonic, as well as by a new breed of enthusiasts spearheaded by Sam Bompas and Harry Parr - a pair of enterprising Old Etonians, self-styled "jellymongers" who come as a Gilbert and George style package known by their surnames.

The duo have applied Parr's architecture training to the quivering food in order to construct jelly facsimiles of St Paul's Cathedral and Norman Foster's famously wobbly Millennium Bridge across the Thames.

"There are a number of interesting trends that jelly ties into," says Bompas. "One is molecular gastronomy - to the sorts of chefs who are looking to do new things with food, jelly means that they can transform anything into an unusual, wobbly and slightly comic texture, which can be set off against other textures. So you actually find jellies on a lot of menus now."

You certainly do, and jelly's revived status as a fashionable foodstuff was sealed when Bompas and Parr were commissioned to produce one (laced with absinthe) as a centrepiece at music producer Mark Ronson's £30,000 (NZ$62,000) birthday party. In his choice of pud, Ronson was, unconsciously or not, mimicking the Victorians, whose smartest dinner tables would have a monumental and suggestive wobbling jelly as a crowning glory.

Mrs Beeton included more than 50 jelly recipes in her seminal 1861 tome Household Management, from cactus fruit to guava, rhubarb to Irish moss. Sam Bompas says he is more a fan of Beeton's near contemporary, Agnes Marshall.

"She was like Beeton but far cooler," he says. "Every single jelly recipe she has - and she has a lot - finishes with a glass of brandy or some other spirit."

Indeed I'm struck by how many modern jelly recipes include the strong stuff - an echo of the lethal jelly shots Yuppies used to knock back in the 80s.

But I've decided to make a couple of jellies with my four-year-old daughter, and we select a pair of straightforward-looking, alcohol-free fruit recipes from the internet - one involving infused strawberries, the other made out of orange juice straight from the carton. Next I need the gelatine.

When Bompas & Parr began their wobbly constructs a few years ago, they swooped like a two-man plague of locusts on London's supermarkets, emptying them of all available - and it wasn't widely available - leaf gelatine (powdered gelatine produces less smooth and clean-tasting jellies). Thanks to the revival that they are partly responsible for, it's a lot easier to find these days.

Gelatine is extracted from the bones, connective tissues and organs of cattle and horses, which might help explain why the jelly revival had to await the passing of the worst of the BSE crisis. Vegetarians have the alternative of using a seaweed extract, agar-agar flakes, although in his book, The Vegetarian Option, Simon Hopkinson writes that: "Agar flakes will not produce a crystal-clear jelly in the way conventional gelatine leaves do... however an agar jelly has the advantage that it does not form a skin and it will eventually set at room temperature."

So that's the setting agent sorted. The search for a suitable jelly mould, especially since I am in a hurry and can't wait for an internet delivery, was at first a tad trickier. Sam Bompas to the rescue again.

"Plastic is good", he says. "When we started we used Tupperware - literally anything can be used as a jelly mould, even a child's sandcastle bucket, as long as the rim is wider than the base so the jelly can just slide out. On the other hand, there are a lot of ceramic moulds around which are very difficult to use. Stay away from them. The best ones are copper moulds."

Food historian Ivan Day runs period cookery courses from his Cumbrian farmhouse, including some that focus on jelly, and reckons to have taught former students Bompas and Parr everything they know about the wobbly stuff. Day owns an unrivalled collection of moulds, including the very earliest wooden ones, as well as some very valuable Wedgwood creations.

He has others in the shape of Renaissance obelisks, swans and even Sir Edward Landseer's lions from the base of Nelson's column in Trafalgar Square, with one lion apparently having been traditionally placed at each corner of the dining table. "Jellies weren't just food to eat, but a major way of ornamenting your table," says Day.

The golden age of jellies was triggered by the advent of manufactured gelatine in the mid-19th century. "Before that you had to go to a lot of trouble to make it ... you had to boil up calves' feet or pigskin, or even ivory and stag's horns. Gelatine really came as a side product of the photographic industry, which required a much finer substance."

Day's jelly courses can include an attempt at the fabled Alexander Cross jelly, which was originally made to celebrate the wedding of Edward Prince of Wales and Princess Alexandra in 1863. When sliced it reveals the Brunswick star, made of blancmange and running through the centre like a stick of rock.

Bompas & Parr's creations are a good deal less reverential.

"We made an entire Christmas dinner as a jelly," remembers Bompas, "a layer for everything that would be on your plate. We also once made a zebra meat jelly in black and white stripes - it tasted pretty disgusting actually."

Their most ambitious project yet was unveiled at the Courvoisier History of Food exhibition in London earlier this year. "We worked with neuroscientists at the Wellcome Foundation to create a jelly that responds to your brainwaves."

Meanwhile, our strawberry and orange jellies set after an eternity in the fridge (I think I under-did the gelatine), but my attempts at turning them out were undignified to say the least.

"When you are ready to unmould," writes Nigella Lawson at the end of her gin-and-tonic jelly recipe, "half-fill a sink with warm water and stand the jelly mould in it for 30 seconds or so. Clamp a big plate over the jelly and invert to unmould, shaking as you do so. If it doesn't work, stand it in warm water for another half-minute or so and try again."

Oh, well, at least ours tasted good, 10 times better than packet jelly.

You can see that "jellymongering" is pregnant with possibilities for the creative cook. And Ivan Day reckons the jelly revival is a good sign.

"Jellies are popular in times of stability and peace, when there's a lot of money around, and people want a variety of foods and tastes," he says.

Oh dear. Does the new austerity signal the end of the new jelly boom? If so, let's hope it's just a wobble.

Bompas & Parr will be appearing at next year's Melbourne Food & Wine Festival.

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