Whether you call it jam, jelly or preserve – this delicious treat is another traditional method of preservation. From the very proper English scones with jam and cream to your humble jam on toast, this old favourite is enjoyed worldwide by people from all walks of life. But did you know this humble treat had an illustrious beginning? Although historians can’t pinpoint an exact date, it is widely believed that chefs of the middle-east were the first to make fruit jams and preserves. It might have been during the 4th Century or even earlier.
The first jam recipe
The first mention of fruit preserves (made using honey) can be found in the oldest surviving cookbook from antiquity called “De Re Coquinaria” – The Art of Cooking. The book is believed to date back to the late 4th or early 5th century and is attributed to one Marcus Gavius Apicius - the famed epicure who lived during the reign of Tiberius in the first
Arrival of sugar to Europe
In its simplest form, jam is fruit that was heated, sweetened, cooled, and then stored. Whilst honey was the sweetener of choice for jams and preserves in ancient times, once sugar was discovered, it became the preferred ingredient. The use of sugarcane for domestic purposes actually dates back to Papua New Guinea some 10,000 years ago. However, the first recorded mention of sugar in England was much later in history - in the year 1099 and was a result of the Crusades. Crusaders while coming home, talked of how pleasant this ‘new spice’ was and brought back the technique of jam-making they’d learned from the middle-east and so began the worldwide fascination (or some might call it fixation!) with sugar that sustains to this day.
In its early days, the expensive price of sugar at the time of the Crusades and for countless years further, meant that jams and preserves were a treat enjoyed only by royalty and the elites. Louis the XIV is believed to have thrown lavish royal feasts that ended with jams and marmalades made using fruits from his royal gardens at Versailles and eaten with silver spoons from silver dishes.
Jam in the 16th century
The French astrologer and physician Nostradamus was another famous jam-lover, so much so that he even wrote a treatise on it. His ‘Treatise on Makeup and Jam’ appeared in 1555, although the manuscript dates to 1552. The book is based on knowledge gained by Nostradamus before he began studying for a medical doctorate in Montpellier in 1529. The ‘medical cookbook’ contains recipes for cherry jam, quince jelly and pear preserve as well as recipes to cure the plague or even attract love.
The first marmalade is believed to have been invented in 1561 by the physician Mary, Queen of Scots. He used crushed oranges and sugar as a remedy for her seasickness, although the earlier book by Nostradamus also includes a recipe for candied orange peel.
So sugar (and in turn jams and preserves) were basically a luxury commodity that didn’t trickle down to ‘commoners’ until the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century. People could finally afford to use sugar in cooking and for sweetening their tea and coffee. Large-scale jam production really took off during this time and the art form was perfected over the following decades.
Jam in America
John Chapman (nicknamed Johnny Appleseed) was a pioneer who helped bring the jam to the USA. He planted apple trees throughout the parts of the
Midwest US during the 1800s with the hope that people would make their own cider and preserves. Jerome Monroe Smucker from Ohio was the only person to do so and he opened a cider mill in 1897 with fruit from trees that Chapman had planted. After a few years, he and his wife began to make apple butter (a type of sweet apple sauce made using sugar), which they sold from a horse-drawn wagon.
In 1918, the American company Welch’s began producing their first jam product, Grape lade. The entire inventory was bought by the US Army and shipped to troops during the First World War and soldiers demanded more of the product upon their return. In 1923, Welch’s launched its Concord
grape jelly which is still available today.
World War II
Rationing and the general impact of World War II led to great anxiety about food shortages but the members of the Women’s Institute came to the rescue. In 1940, they were given a government grant of £1,400 to buy sugar for jam. This meant that a vast amount of fruit could be preserved over a longer period of time to ensure that nothing went to waste.
Preservation centres were set up in farm kitchens, village halls, and even sheds, largely run by volunteers from the community. Between 1940 and 1945, over 5,300 tons of fruit were preserved and turned into over 1,600 tons of jam.
Looking at the past and understanding its journey will certainly make you appreciate jam in the many artisan forms we enjoy today. The history of jams is rich and wide, ranging from the European royalty who was regaled with it to the army troops who used it to sustain themselves during times of war, to the early settlers who relied on it for its nutritional value when food was scarce.
Jam has found its place not just on our breakfast tables but also in our hearts. It can be used in many recipes, given as gifts or simply enjoyed on its own on buttered toast.