Have you ever pursued an endeavor full-tilt and headlong, only to discover the brick wall AFTER you’ve regained consciousness?
I hit a brick wall.
In my recent quest to understand the breadth of lineages in the pudding family tree, I decided to swivel to the lighter side of the table and make a flummery. Flummery was a custard-like “jelly” dessert. It, along with its sweet but often nutty sibling, blancmange, were likely ancestors to our American gelatin and pudding desserts. As use of the word “pudding” broadened to include many sweet desserts, flummery became a part of the family through association…kind of like what’s-his-face, you know, that boy who keeps showing up with your teenage daughter.
There were basically two methods of producing this jostling delight. Recipes required a stiff gelatin made from either boiled cow’s feet or isinglass.
[conspicuous pause] O.K., please read on.
I have noticed that I can get calf’s feet at my local Hispanic food market, but honestly? The thought of boiling the tar out of a couple of hooves makes me want to…well…”how ’bout if we go out for dinner tonight, Honey?”
I was amused recently when I read a recipe by Hannah Glasse in her book, The Complete Confectioner — originally published in 1760. This recipe was called “Jelly for Moulds.” Here’s the first half of the recipe (the entire recipe is quite lengthy):
Hmm. I’m not sure why one would be repulsed by a neat’s (ox’s) foot and not by a couple of calf’s feet as well. But thank goodness, I have the option of using two ounces of isinglass instead. So what is isinglass, anyway?
Oh, great. Fish swim bladders.
You see, many if not most fish have swim bladders. A swim bladder is an air-filled internal organ that the fish somehow adjusts to regulate its buoyancy in order to control the depth at which it swims. These sacks are one of the purest forms of collagen found in nature. It was commonly believed in the 18th century that the highest quality and most effectual isinglass came from sturgeons. By the end of the 18th century, Cod had also joined the ranks of donors. Much of the isinglass today is made from the bladders of tropical fish.
But wait, let’s take one step backward: collagen is a protein that makes Jello giggle. It has an amazing ability to bond at a molecular level with disproportionate amounts of water, giving real gelatinous substance to the liquid.
So I have this recipe for Yellow Flummery. It’s from John Perkins’s 1796 cookbook, Every Woman Her own House Keeper (London, 1796) p.397. Here it is:
It’s pretty typical for recipes to call for a ratio of 1-2 ounces of isinglass per quart of liquid. This recipe, regardless of the fish guts, sounded quite delicious. I thought I would give it a try.
Being a casual homebrewer, I knew that isinglass is used today to clarify beer (as is Carrageen or Irish Moss and sometimes even gelatin). So I ordered four or five ounces. I decided to do half batches, and figured I’d need to make this recipe more than once. I realized when it arrived that I had ordered liquid form: way too diluted to make flummery. So I did some more research and found a supplier for powdered form. I ordered the same four or five ounces. Suddenly I’m $30 in the hole with shipping to boot. But hey, I’m excited. I get to try another 18th century recipe, and this once looks good.
I followed Mr Perkins’s directions to the tee. I even purchased an old blancmange mould off ebay. I was now $60 in. I poured the final mixture of goodness into the mould. I could smell fresh lemon. I thought to myself, “this is going to be good.” I covered the mould with plastic wrap and carefully slid it into my refrigerator. By then it was midnight, so I cleaned up my mess and went to bed.
The next morning, I made a bee-line for the refrigerator. It was still a thick liquid. Disappointed, I put the mould back in the refrigerator, got ready, and left for work. Maybe I hadn’t given it enough time to set.
That evening, I went straight for the mould again. Liquid still. I decided that maybe I had misread the instructions, so I decided to throw this batch out and do it again — this time more carefully.
Something was wrong. I decided to take one of my remaining ounces of isinglass and try it with a mere cup of water. What I got was quite different from what I anticipated. I expected a semi-clear gel that I could pull out of my mould, kind of like “Knox Blocks” or “Jello shots” with a slight hint of fish flavor. What I got looked like Elmer’s glue instead — thick, but liquidy, and very opaque white. I was confused.
I’ve been told I’m somewhat of a rare breed. If I get lost, I stop to ask for directions. If I can’t find something at the store, I’ll look for a name tag. I once made the mistake of asking an employee at Walmart where I could find squeezable ketchup bottles. I soon realized I was speaking to a nurse in royal blue scrubs who was simply looking for a new frying pan. It was the name tag that threw me off.
Any way, because I was so confused about my isinglass results, I decided to contact the company that distributed it. I was able to reach a really nice guy named Sam who was considerate enough to listen to me. He was genuinely concerned and said they had never before received complaints about their isinglass. I was quick to clarify that I wasn’t being critical of their product. I admitted I was using it in a fashion for which it was not intended. A Stradivarius, after all, makes a lousy hammer. He shared with me that for brewing purposes, all of the powdered isinglass with which he was familiar, both from his company as well as from his primary competitor (and between the two of these companies, you’ve pretty much got the homebrew market locked up) was cut with citric acid, potassium or sodium metabisulfite (an antioxidant), and silica dioxide (diatomaceous earth).
Now it was making sense.
He also happened to mention that they sold a nearly pure isinglass product (although it was still cut with citric acid), but that it only came in 1-kilo blocks, and that his supply appeared to be running dry. I commented about how our conversation would likely land us both on some secret D.E.A. watch list, and I thanked him for his time and for the information.
So I’ve reached this conclusion: If you want to make flummery, unless you have an uncle who lives in Russia or who fishes the North Atlantic, and who would be willing to send you some sturgeon or cod bladders, the chances of finding pure isinglass to complete the recipe is pretty slim. That means that the only option remaining is…yeah, another recipe that uses calf’s feet jelly. Yum.
So having said all that, may I make one little suggestion? How about if we use unflavored gelatin and keep that little secret to ourselves?
I know, I know! I’m aware that dehydrolized gelatin was a 19th century invention and is completely wrong for 18th century cooking. But the alternative for most people, with the exception to the few true die-hards who are willing to boil Bessie boots beyond oblivion (and my hat is off to them for doing it), is to let this delicious dish slip silently into eternal extinction. And that would be a shame.
SO! Here is my 2013 take on a 1796 recipe for Yellow (Lemon) Flummery:
Lemon Flummery (2013)
Adapted from John Perkins’s 1796 recipe.
In a large bowl, sprinkle 2 packets of unflavored gelatin over the surface of 2 cups white wine. Set aside for 5 to 10 minutes.
In the meantime, combine in a medium saucepan: 2 cups water, the juice of 2 lemons, 1/4 — 1/2 cup sugar, and 4 egg yolks (well beaten). Use a vegetable peeler to thinly pare the rind of 1 lemon; add this rind to the other ingredients as well. Heat this mixture, stirring all the while, over medium heat until it just begins to boil. Remove it from the heat, and strain it to remove the lemon rind , any pulp from the lemon juice, and any chalazae from the egg yolks.
Combine the lemon/egg water to the wine and stir until the gelatin is completely dissolved. You can tell if the gelatin is completely dissolved by dipping a clean spoon into the mixture. If you see any granules clinging to the spoon, keep stirring.
Pour the flummery liquid into a clean mold, and set in a cool place for 8 to 24 hours.
To un-mold, set the mold in a bowl of hot water for just a few seconds. This melts a thin layer of the gelatin and loosen the flummery from the mold. Place serving plate upside-down on top of the mold, and in one quick motion, holding the plate and mold together, turn assembly over. Remove the mold.
Garnish with thin slices of orange.
An interesting variation on this recipe is to use 1 cup ver jus and 1 cup water in place of the 2 cups white wine.