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The long (and wobbly) story of gelatine

The long (and wobbly) story of gelatine
  • Gelatine was once the height of sophistication and demonstrated the status of the host through the food they served to guests

  • Moulds and multicoloured gelatine featured in various recipes from the 19th century

If I were to tell you that strawberry jelly was today's dessert, you probably wouldn't think that was interesting. However, if in an upmarket restaurant they suggested that you try the spherification of coulis of red fruit, or the spring dessert with a gel texture and aroma of trifle, that would be different. That is totally normal because although the main ingredient is the same and the three options all use a gelling agent to give them texture, these days the word gelatine sounds more off-putting than a small touch of 'guatiné', while 'agar-agar' or 'alginato' still give the idea of something innovative and therefore desirable.

Haute cuisine is increasingly finding new ways to jellify, thicken and coagulate, but the reputation of the simple gelatine - the former queen of the dinner table - is heading downhill fast with no brakes, relegated to hospital food or an insubstantial dessert for children.

Ironically, the defenestration of poor gelatine is a consequence of its own overwhelming success. The obession for textures between mucilaginous and plasticised was a gastronomic fashion at a certain time, but it was also the result of a desire which was largely cherished by any cook with pretentions, whether domestic or professional: the - final! - democratisation of gelatine. The food industry had managed to make one of the most difficult and expensive creations in the history of gastronomy available to all, and Spain went crazy for it, adored it, praised it, spent money on it and, in the end, fell out of love with it through overuse.

But you must understand, dear readers, that before all this occurred gelatine was not only the height of sophistication but also demonstrated the status of a host through the food they served. It was also the definitive proof of the skill of a chef, and one of the most arduous and costly preparations possible in a medieval kitchen. Laboriously extracted from bones, tissues and other parts of animals, gelatine first needed enormous amounts of ingredients such as cows' feet, deer antlers and sturgeon bladders.

Iced substance

Then came a lengthy and tedious process of cooking, clarifying, straining and filtering to achieve a transparent and miraculous liquid which set as it cooled, or 'froze' as they used to say centuries ago. In fact, the words freeze, jelly and gelatine have the same origins in Latin: 'gelatus', meaning cold. Long before the Royal Academy defined gelatine as an "iced substance and available in the form of jelly", used frequently by foreigners and introduced by them, it was already very well-known in the kingdoms of the Iberian peninsula. What happened is that they called it something else.

From 'gelea' to 'jieladina', but also gelata, jelabea, giladea and geladía, these are the names that appear in some ancient recipe books such as the 'Llibre de Sent Sovi' (14th century), the 'Llibre del Coch' and 'Libro de guisados' by Ruperto de Nola (published in Catalan in 1520 and in Castilian in 1525) and the Vergel de Señores, which showed how to make all types of preserves (15th century).

Reading their instructions for making gelatine helps us to understand why it became an aristocratic technique, used in wealthy households with enough raw materials and staff to prepare it.

De Nola's 'giladea' was made with chickens, cow and sheep's feet, white wine, ginger, aniseed, cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg, mace flowers and saffron, and the gelatinous liquid was poured over the cooked meat and left to cool down and set. Gelatine was also used as a preservative, as a thick isolating layer to lengthen the useful life of foods such as fresh fish or roasted meats.

Without a doubt the jewel of our gelatinous gastronomy used to be different, less practical and infinitely more lavish, the supreme demonstration of the shaky and wobbly culture that reigned before instant powders, agars and alginates came into existence.

In the Vergel de Señores book (kept in the National Library and still not completely transcripted) there is a recipe for 'gelea de manos de ternera y de carnero', a jelly made with cow and sheep's feet. It is a multicoloured fantasy of gelatine dyed in different tones which must have adorned many noble tables in the 15th century and was the predecessor to the rainbow-coloured moulds we make nowadays. And also the spherifications, it goes without saying.