I have been working my way through the fascinating collection of digitised receipt books at the Wellcome Library. As keeper, feeder and walker of two children, a shift-working husband and a dog, archive days are pretty hard to come by and I therefore feel utterly justified in doing a little victory dance when such rich and personal sources are made available to me through the magic of the internet. There is, however, a downside. I am an information magpie – I am easily distracted by sparkly little nuggets of information that are utterly unrelated to my thesis. These trinkets are distracting enough when I am holed up in archives, often with shaky internet access due to the ailing capabilities of my well used netbook. When I am at home, however, they have the capacity to subsume an entire afternoon that had been allocated for ‘proper’ work. So it was with the ‘Jumbles’!
I was electronically leafing through Elizabeth Sleigh and Felicia Whitfield’s collection of medical receipts (Wellcome reference MS.751) dated 1647-1722 when I came across a note at the bottom of one of the pages.
“Take a pound of fine flower & rub it into 3oz of fresh butter very well, then put in one pound of sugar, beat 3 eggs, strew in half an oz of Coriander seed, then put in your eggs & a little rose water, no more than will make it pretty stiff paste, then butter the paper & make your jumbles of what fashion you please.”
Why this caught my eye I do not know, but catch my eye it did. After a bit of research on the internet, I found that Jumbles are essentially a type of hard biscuit. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries they were boiled before being baked to make them shiny. These Jumbles were often knotted to produce pretzel type biscuits.
By the eighteenth century, however, they were usually just baked in a hot oven until they were hard. Dr Annie Gray (food historian and generous tweeter) noted that the ingredients in ‘my’ recipe were very similar to one held in the Essex archives (http://www.essexrecordofficeblog.co.uk/mrs-abigail-abdy-her-booke/) though the method was different. All early recipes for Jumbles that I have since come across involve some form of spice or seed such as caraway or coriander. These ingredients also had medicinal uses, specifically in the treatment of wind or cholic. This overlap between food and medicine is a common one and raises all sorts of interesting questions about where one stops and the other begins. Hopefully, I’ll be able to talk about this in a bit more detail in a later blog post. From the end of the eighteenth century onwards, recipes were less likely to include spices and eventually evolved into sweet biscuits (Queen Victoria was rumoured to enjoy lemony Jumbles).
Anyway, back to my procrastination. Off I went to purchase the necessary ingredients. I used plain flour and (in a half-hearted attempt to be authentic) the least refined sugar that I had in the cupboard. I also bashed up the coriander seeds as I didn’t really fancy encountering one whole once baked. The result was a dark brown sticky gloop. I think I probably added slightly too much rose water (though I was very careful). I decided to bake them anyway. Because the mixture was quite wet, I baked them for about 45 minutes in a medium oven (180 degrees). The result was a decidedly odd, but not unpleasant, biscuit that resembled amaretti in texture but tasted of roses. The coriander gave it a slightly spicy kick. Tests (not on animals but on fellow PhDers) concluded that the flavour was unusual but strangely moreish.
Further tweet exchanges with Dr Gray suggested that a fully authentic experience would require the Jumbles to be dipped in gin or madeira to soften them. As a natural side-effect of my PhD I have drunk the house dry of alcohol so this remains untested…as yet.