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Jam, Jelly and Marmalade

A Global History

Whether they make it themselves or just enjoy it with breakfast, people are often passionate about their favorite jam, jelly, or marmalade. Award-winning jam-maker Sarah B. Hood looks at the history of these sweet treats from simple fruit preserves to staple commodities, gifts for royalty, global brands, wartime comforts, and valued delicacies. She traces connections between sweet preserves and the temperance movement, the Crusades, the prevention of scurvy, medieval banquets, Georgian dinner parties, Scottish breakfasts, Joan of Arc, and the adoption of tea-drinking in Europe. She explores the birth of unique local specialties and treasured regional customs, the rise and fall of international marmalade mavens, the mobilization of volunteer preserve-makers on a grand scale, and a jam-factory revolution.

160 pages | 40 color plates, 20 halftones | 4 3/4 x 7 3/4


Food and Gastronomy

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"Canadian journalist Hood packs fascinating information into this slim volume that surveys the history of putting up sweet preserves, from its earliest forms in China and Persia through the customs of the breakfast table and unexpected role of jam factories in the labor movement."

Globe and Mail

"Sometimes little things are full of big surprises. This tiny book is  jam-packed (pun intended) with history and information. Award-winning  jam-maker Hood has crammed a lot of history, culture, facts, and figures into the 160 pages of Jam, Jelly and Marmalade: A Global History... The long history (and struggle) behind every jar of fruit preserve makes for a gripping read, and this little book will not disappoint neither culinary historians nor home cooks."

New York Journal of Books

"Hood takes readers on a historical and geographical tour of preserves. . . . In addition to other interesting bits of knowledge, surely useful for those wintertime games of Trivial Pursuit, she includes several hands‑on recipes at the end. . . . This little book will make your breakfast toast more than a morning routine, as you layer it with history, science, and intention. Bon appétit!"

Literary Review of Canada

"A nice survey of the history of jam-making and preserves for the layperson."

Digestible Bits and Bites

"Hood traces the earliest forms of preserves in Persia and China, following the link between preserving and the availability of sugar, the contributions of railroads, jam’s part in the emerging labor movement, and the rise of large-scale commercial preserving that shipped these comestibles to all corners of the globe. Who thought jam, jelly, and marmalade were just delicious foods to spread on toast, dress a pudding, or fill a tart? The truth? It’s the history of the world . . . in a jar."

Elizabeth Baird, best-selling cookbook author and member of the Order of Canada


When you open a jar of jam, jelly or marmalade, what’s inside? First, the aroma: an intense waft of fresh raspberries, oranges or plums. Then, translucency and colour: brilliant gold, bright scarlet or deep indigo. Next, a pleasing gel, perhaps mixed with luscious fruit pieces. Finally, the sweet and tangy flavour melting on your tongue.

What else? A 2010 academic survey of Americans who make their own preserves showed how strongly people value the potent associations sealed along with the fruit. The survey respondents talked about how ‘putting up’, or canning, preserves made them feel a connection to older family members, to their forebears and to past cultures. Preserves also have a comforting quality: in their earliest incarnations, they were generally valued for their medicinal properties, and they continued routinely to be fed to invalids well into the nineteenth century.

Every jar of fruit preserves also contains a small miracle: a batch of fruit that ought to have mouldered away months ago, still as delectable as when it was harvested. Chemically speaking, the process is so complex that it seems surprising that anyone managed to figure it out. Nonetheless, human ingenuity, combined with lifetimes of observation, and trial and error, unlocked the secret many centuries ago. Essentially, enabling fruit to gel requires three elements in a fairly specific balance: pectin, sugar and acid.

Pectin is a water-soluble polysaccharide (a carbohydrate) that occurs naturally in plants. When heated in liquid containing sugar, it forms polymer chains that support the structure of the mass it is contained in; in other words, it gels. Citrus fruits, quinces, apples, gooseberries and plums contain a lot. In raspberries, it occurs in the seeds. Pears, blueberries, bananas and many other fruits are weak in pectin; to these, extra pectin can be added.

Powdered or liquid commercial pectin is usually derived from apples or oranges. Some older recipes call for the addition of juice from apples or another pectin-rich fruit to improve the set of a preserve made with low-pectin ingredients. To reduce the amount of sugar needed to make jam, modern manufacturers have developed something called ‘low-methoxyl pectin’, which uses added calcium to form bridges that link the pectins together.

The classic ratio of sugar to fruit in jams and jellies is 1:1, including the sugar already present in the fruit. To modern, sugar-averse consumers, this seems like a lot, but commercial producers have frequently used much more, as sugar has often been cheaper than fruit. Also, besides imparting a bright, jewel-like colour and a firm gel, sugar plays an important role in preserving the fruit, retarding the growth of moulds and fungi after the jar is opened. Beet sugar acts in the same way as cane sugar. Honey has good preservative qualities, but does not offer the same look and texture. Corn syrup can be used, but only in combination with sugar.

In order to gel, jams, jellies and marmalades must have a low pH value, around 3.0, which signifies a fairly high level of acid (lower pH equals higher acid level). As it happens, the classic jam fruits, like apples, citrus fruits, quince, grapes and many berries, fall close to this level. Lemon and lime juice, which can be as low as 2.0, are often used to correct the acid level of preserves. A low-pH (or high-acid) environment is inhospitable to foodborne pathogens; in fact, Clostridium botulinum, the bacterium that causes potentially fatal botulism poisoning, cannot grow below a pH of 4.6. It’s nice to know that if jam, jelly or marmalade has set correctly by natural means, it cannot harbour botulism. Heating a fruit preserve to boiling point further kills potential pathogens, and when hot preserves have been sealed inside a sterile glass or ceramic container they will remain shelf-stable for two or more years.

It was not until the twentieth century that science gained the tools to explain in detail these principles, which had been practised around the world since ancient times. The first prototypes of our jams, jellies and marmalades were being made so long ago that their origin has never been written down. The shared knowledge of fruit preserving, passed down over centuries, is a vital link to our human past.

Roman and Persian Contributions

How long ago did some early human think of mixing up fruit or berries with a little honey, and noticed that it not only tasted better but resisted spoilage? The first sweet preserves were probably created to make fruit last beyond its usual short lifespan, but people evidently began to seek out the concentrated flavours of these long-lasting foods for their own sake as well.

By the time of ancient Rome, people had probably been mixing up various concoctions of dried and sweetened fruit for quite a while. We know from the collection of culinary writings called Apicius or De re coquinaria (On Cooking) that the Romans knew how to preserve quinces by packing them in a sealed pot with honey and the thick grape syrup they called defrutum. Honey was the most common sweetener for fruit preserves across the ancient world and well into medieval times, and with good reason. It has its own antibacterial and antifungal properties, it is locally available to rich and poor alike in most parts of the world, and, of course, it tastes good. Later cooks would discover that honey takes a back seat to sugar when it comes to achieving the transparency, the bright colour and the pleasing gel of what we would now call jam. However, it would be many centuries before sugar would take its place on the world stage.

Sugar cane is native to Southeast Asia, and was first cultivated as a crop in New Guinea and Indonesia. It gradually spread to various other parts of Asia, and by the mid-sixth century BC it was being commercially grown in India, where it was noticed in 510 by the soldiers of Darius i of Persia. It had been introduced into southern China by 286 BC, but production did not really start to expand into the rest of the country until the sixth and seventh centuries ad. The Greeks certainly knew of sugar by 327 BC, because Alexander the Great’s general Nearchos mentioned seeing it on a trip through India. However, even well into the first century ad, the Greeks thought of it strictly as a medicinal plant.

If one nation might be suggested as the inventor of jam and marmalade, Sasanian Persia, which was cultivating sugar by the sixth century ad, makes a good candidate. Besides sugar, Persian cooks had most of the classic jam fruits at their disposal very early on. Citron, quince and apples are likely native to Persia and were possibly first cultivated there. Bitter oranges may first have grown wild in Persia before being introduced to China and hybridized there to produce sweet oranges, and then returning to Persia with Portuguese traders. Cookbook author Najmieh Batmanglij points out that the sweet orange, ‘ironically, took its Western name from the Persian narenj, or bitter orange, while in Iran, the sweet orange is called porteqal, after the Portuguese merchants who imported it.’

Persian jam (known as moraba or murabba) differs from the Western idea of jam in that it consists of solid fruit pieces in syrup rather than semi-dissolved fruit in a gel. It is cherished as part of a classic Persian breakfast, sobhaneh, which includes such widely familiar elements as tea, milk, bread, butter, cheese, eggs, fruit, honey and some kind of preserve, often made from tree fruits like quince, apple, pomegranate, plum, cherry or citrus, rather than berries.

We have some evidence for the long history of quince and apple preserves from a Pahlavi text entitled King Husrav and His Boy. King Husrav II of Persia, a historical figure who reigned AD 590–628, is also a character of literary legend. In this tale, a noble youth named Vasphur requests to be examined for admission into the king’s service. The king asks him questions to test his nobility – not, as one might expect, having to do with his fighting prowess, learning or virtue, but instead about his knowledge of luxurious living. In what becomes a catalogue of sixth-century Persian fine dining, Husrav questions Vasphur about the best and most desirable meats, fruits, grains and wines (as well as music, flowers, women and horses). The fifth question is ‘Which pastry is the finest and the best?’ Vasphur answers, ‘In summer: the almond-pastry, and the walnut-pastry, and the walnut-bun, and the bun made with fat, and the finger-pastry . . . that they fry in walnut-butter. But with the fruit-jelly that is squeezed out and filtered from the juice of the apple and the quince, no pastry can stand the contest!’ In other words, by the sixth century AD, Persian nobility already thought of quince and apple preserves as the best of all desserts.

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