Even though I could eat it all the time, jelly generally gets made twice a year at my house. The first batch is in August, in Sicily, when watermelons are the size of small torpedoes, sold from the back of lorries and long tables that fringe the roadside like pitstops. As essential as water itself in summer, most watermelons we lug home are cracked into ruby icebergs and eaten just so. There is always the day, though, when we overestimate the size of our stomachs and the fridge, and a quarter is left out on the worktop with a halo of fruit flies. So the rind is cut away and the flesh squished to a pulp. This sweet juice is then drunk or, in keeping with family tradition, heated with cornflour, then left to set into a ruddy pudding of a kind that dates back to the Arab domination of Sicily – gelo or gelu di mellone.
The second jelly is four months later, at the end of December. It could be port, or red wine, but usually it’s fresh orange, set with gelatine – because Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a wobbly pudding.
Gelo has the same root as gelato, from the Latin gelare, which means frozen, also the root of the old French word gelée, which became the late Middle-English jelly. Savoury jellies – made by extracting setting agents from meat and fish – were something the ancient Egyptians were also adept at. In her book of English puddings, Mary Norwak charts the progress of thickening, from French aspic to jellies set with Russian isinglass, and blancmange set with calves’ feet to the puddings condensed with arrowroot from the West Indies, and modern day gelatine. Sheet gelatine was invented by Charles Knox in 1889, who then set up the Knox gelatine factory in Johnstown, New York. It seems important to note that, after his death, the factory was taken over by his wife Rose, who, among other things, abolished separate doors for men and women workers, created a five-day working week and gave all her workers a previously unheard-of two weeks’ paid vacation. Gelatine it seems, can transform in many ways.
Yet I’m always amazed at how many people don’t like things transformed by gelatine. “It’s the wobble and the rubbery texture,” a friend told me the other day. The wobble is the joyful bit, whether it’s the pools of Rowntree’s in the fluted paper bowls of my childhood, which we defined not by flavour or fruit, but by colours – red, orange, green, yellow – or the fancy, grownup jellies in cut-glass bowls at Christmas. My dad’s view – that it’s impossible to eat jelly without squishing it through your teeth – has much to do with my affection. Then the poet Brian Patten told a whole generation: “She jumped up on the telly, she pirouetted on the cat, she gargled with some jelly and spat in Grandpa’s hat”.
My love transcends consistency – I can eat a jelly as solid as a tyre – but I do understand the aversion to “rubbery”. A softly set jelly, like a softly set panna cotta, is another thing entirely. This one is a softly set, sweet and sharp contrast to all the thick, rich food of Christmas. You could use all orange juice, add orange flower water, and substitute Campari for prosecco.
Whether in six glasses or one bowl, let the jelly set for at least six hours and up to three days, before you bring it out with a wobble.
Orange and prosecco jelly
Makes one terrine, or 6 small glasses6 large oranges, plus two for extra juice if needed
2 tbsp caster sugar
5 leaves sheet gelatine
Soak the gelatine leaves in cold water for 10 minutes, until soft and spongy.
Working with one orange at a time, cut away one end so the fruit sits flat. With a sharp knife, pare away the peel so you have a naked fruit. Now take the fruit in your hand and, cutting either side of the membrane, cut away the segments, catching the juice in a jug (squeeze leftover membrane to get as much juice as possible). Put the segments on a plate. You are going to need 250ml orange juice, so make up the juice you have collected from segmenting with more juice from the extra oranges.
In a small pan, heat the juice and sugar until warm, then add the soft gelatine and stir carefully to dissolve. Take the pan off the heat, and add the prosecco – slowly, as it will fizz.
If you are making a terrine, line a bread tin with clingfilm, pile the segments into the bottom and pour over the orange and prosecco mixture. If you are doing individual glasses, divide accordingly.
Chill for at least six hours. To serve the terrine, turn it out on to a plate, peel away the clingfilm and slice with a hot knife. Serve the glasses as they are. If you wish, pass round raspberry sauce, cream or condensed milk.