History Dish Mondays: Port Wine Jelly

This is the first of my experiments with a few 18th/early 19th century chemical additives.  Today, one of President Jefferson’s favorite desserts, Wine Jelly, made with the aid of Isinglass and Gum Arabic.
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Port Wine Jelly
From Directions For Cookery, In Its Various Branches. By Miss Leslie, 1840
1 cup of water
1 oz isinglass
1 oz gum arabic
2 cups port wine
2 ounces rock candy, or 3 tablespoons sugar
½ nutmeg, grated

1. In a medium saucepan, heat water and isinglass, stirring constantly until isinglass has dissolved.  The resulting liquid with be thick and tapioca like

2.  Add wine, gum Arabic, sugar and nutmeg.  Bring to a boil, and boil for ten minutes.  Stir constantly, because things get stuck to the bottom, boil over, or burn.

3. Strain through a cloth, like muslin or several layers of cheesecloth.  Pour into a mold (I used four ramekins).  Set aside until it comes to room temperature, then refrigerate overnight.

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When I was cooking the isinglass, it had a distinct ocean smell.  Like salty sea air.  I guess that’s because it comes from inside a fish.  The gum arabic also had a distinct smell–like an old jewelry box.  When I cooked everything together, it had the consistency of simple syrup.

After I poured the concoction in a mold and let it set, I popped it out of the ramekins and cut a slice to sample.  I was already surprised– the texture was not at all how I thought it would be.  I was expecting something like a jello; in reality it was more like fruit leather or Turkish delight.  Very dense.

It didn’t taste very good—it made me make an unhappy face.  The flavor of the chemical ingredients was stronger than that of the port wine.  It might have been enjoyable if consumed in a time when their weren’t a lot of sweets available, like in the early 19th century, but  in the 21st century it’s really pretty blah.

BUT–I was thrilled that it came together chemically.  I mixed together strange bags of suspicious looking substances, and the final product set just how it should.  Who figured this stuff out in the first place?  Like “Let’s make a fancy dessert out of these crispy strings I found in a sturgeon!”

It makes me brave to try my next isinglass experiment, a “Very Fine Charlotte Russe.”

8 Responses to “History Dish Mondays: Port Wine Jelly”


  • Do you know of agar agar? It’s an algae-based “gelatin.” I have a relative that is from Japan and she made a fruit-flavored “jello” from it for me once. It was very good and the agar agar did not have a taste of it’s own.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agar

  • I have heard of agar agar! In a strange context. I attended a jell-o mold competition last year: http://www

    I remember liking the texture of the agar agar; but it was more similar to jell-o than this port wine jelly. This ended up being more like a confection than a gel.

  • I have agar agar and have yet to try it. I have always wondered about isinglass
    and am soooo sorry it didn’t taste good… I am still curious though. Port jelly is one the classics of cuisine…maybe I’ll try it without the fish guts!

  • I have heard of agar agar! In a strange context. I attended a jell-o mold competition last year: http://www

    I remember liking the texture of the agar agar; but it was more similar to jell-o than this port wine jelly. This ended up being more like a confection than a gel.

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  • You can vary the amount of agar used for a firmer jelly! I remember agar jellies from my childhood, and they’d be firmer than jello, with considerably less boingyness to them.

  • Port wine jelly, and sherry fromage were among my favourite desserts. For some reason I have never made neither myself.

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