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Pigs' Trotter Jelly

I've made this a couple of times now: once for the Collation in honour of St Benedict Biscop, and the second time for the Bloth/10th anniversary of our Barony celebrations. I was interested in making jelly as it appears so often on 16th century Italian menus, but isn't something that we eat modernly. Plus I thought it would be really cool to have something that would mould well.

There are quite a few recipes for jelly available in the sources. I settled on one from Messisbugo, which I chose simply because it had the least amount of wine in it and therefore would be slightly cheaper to make (for reference, a lot of the recipes use only wine as the liquid, which would get expensive very quickly.

On both occasions, I've used pigs' trotters to make the jelly, although the recipe says you can also use the feet of calves, capons, or mutton. This is because pigs' trotters are most readily available, although I have now found a good butcher that also sells chickens' feet and lambs' feet, so I would like to try these out as well. It seems strange currently that the same quantity of each foot type is used, because I would assume that with chickens' feet especially being so much smaller you would get less gelatin and less jelly from them - but since the recipe is a bit, um, fluid on the volume of liquids then presumably it would just scale appropriately. But I would be very interested to see how much less jelly five chickens' feet produces.

The first thing the recipe says is to use enough water to almost cover the feet. I need to get a bigger pot to test whether the volume of water used stays about the same if you can lay the feet flat across the bottom. My pot holds about seven or eight litres of liquid, and I had to stack the trotters in two layers to fit them in. This meant that I added about three or four litres of water to get it to almost cover the trotters. It then says to add much vinegar and white wine. The first time I made the jelly, I think I added about equal quantities of vinegar and wine - probably about 1.5 litres of each. The second time around, I added two litres of white wine and one litre of white vinegar. I used cask wine because of the volume required and white vinegar because it was what I had on hand. Messisbugo doesn't specify what type of vinegar to use, although I'd be tempted to also try the recipe using white wine vinegar. I would not use any dark vinegars as the intent of the recipe is to produce a lightly-coloured jelly.

After that, I boiled it for ages, and skimmed the scum off the top as it formed. The first batch that I made didn't have all that much scum, but the second lot had a huge amount of scum at the very start of the process, which once skimmed off didn't redevelop. Cooking pigs' trotters is an awesomely fascinating process, and one that I think everybody should try once in their lives. I have written a description of it here, but it is not for the squeamish or vegetarians so I have put it on a separate page. Please don't click on the link if you are squeamish or vegetarian.

All up, I boiled the trotters and liquid for about six hours each time. This reduced the volume of liquid to just under half. When you haven't made jelly before, it can be a bit hard to tell when it's done just from looking at it. However, you can conveniently decant a little into a small dish and chuck it in the fridge for a bit to see if it sets.

When it had nearly finished cooking, I added the spices. I omitted the mace on both occasions because I didn't have any. The first time I made the recipe, I used powdered cinnamon and cloves. This darkened the jelly significantly, and consequently the saffron made no difference to the colour. Based on the fact that Messisbugo indicates that the saffron is to give the jelly colour, the second time I made it I used whole cinnamon sticks and cloves, which I then was able to strain out when I strained the knuckles. It's still not very light in colour, and I found that the gram of saffron I added didn't make a huge difference to the colour, although next time I would be inclined to try adding more saffron. I used sugar as the sweetener. For the volume of jelly, the amount of sugar doesn't make it taste sweet, but instead acts like salt to help bring out the flavour.

The first jelly I made using a large copper fish mould. It exactly held the amount of jelly I had made, which I was quite pleased about. The second time, I first used some small plastic moulds to try and make cubes of jelly. This is when I discovered why you use tin, copper, or china moulds to make jelly. It was impossible to get the jellies back out intact, and I destroyed both jelly and plastic mould in the process. Instead I ended up using small tin fish moulds, which were a nice shape and size to send out for the groups of five diners that we were serving.

Getting the jelly out of the moulds successfully turns out to be something that requires practice. To do so, you put warm water around the tin for just long enough to loosen but not melt the jelly. If the water is too hot, the jelly melts instantly and needs to be chilled again. If the water is an okay temperature, but you leave the mould in the water for too long, too much of the edge of the jelly melts and the shape loses definition. If the water is too cold and the jelly isn't loosened enough, you're liable to break it in half getting it out of the tin and then need to reheat it, repour it, and reset it. I made 20 or more small fish to produce six okay ones and six fairly decent ones. I still need a lot more practice getting this right, so will be serving jelly on my menus for the foreseable future.

One issue I found with the first jelly I made was that in the warm weather it didn't really want to hold its shape for very long, and was quite keen to melt. I thought that this wouldn't be an issue the second time I made the jelly, as it was the middle of winter. However, I still found that the jelly lost a little definition as it warmed, which meant that the okay-looking jellies became slightly less okay-looking.

Getting the jellies from the tray I turned them out on, onto the tray they were to be served on, was also a problem for my plater. They slide horribly and you can't get a fishslice under them easily to lift them. She asked if I could leave them in the moulds next time, and I explained that there were two problems: the difficulty getting them out of the moulds, and the fact that I only had four small moulds. We resolved next time that I would turn them directly onto whatever they were going to be served on.

Messisbugo says to pour the jelly over the meat that you would like to serve it on, which in this case I didn't do. It was quite common for jellies to be served with some sort of meat (often capon breast) captured in the jelly. However, it's equally valid to serve the jelly plain, in a specific shape, or sometimes as "a relief". I would really like to know what sort of images they depicted in the reliefs. Unfortunately I haven't yet come across any extant jelly moulds. However, there is a rather awesome extant baking mould that I would be quite keen to have a replica of, that I could potentially use for jelly.

The jelly that I made using this recipe was rich and savoury. I got a lot of compliments on it when I made it for the Bloth, and many people commented how well it went with the wafers that I served in the same course - which was awesome, as my intention had been that people would probably eat it with the wafers. I appreciated also how many people said that it was not something they had tried before, and it was a wee bit outside of their comfort zone, but they tried it anyway and were pleasantly surprised. For me when I tried it, I found it a little odd as it wasn't really what I would think of as a "jelly" texture (having previously only experienced modern dessert jelly), and had more of the taste of a pate, but not the texture of one either.

I intend to publish some more translations of other jelly recipes, and trial these also at some point. However, for someone new to jelly, this recipe is a really good place to start as it is a little cheaper to make than some of the other recipes, and gives slightly clearer indicators about volumes of liquids.