I am quite fond of bramble season and lucky to be living in a part of Germany that, whatever else it may lack in fruit and vegetables, is blessed with fine and ample berry harvests.Yesterday, I decided to check the bramble spots in my neighbourhood instead of going to the flea markets. Usually, early August is not yet quite the right time, but this year the combination of hot days in June and a long rainy spell in July produced an early harvest. After two hours of biking along forest paths and railway embankments, I returned with a surprising three kilos of fruit. They were turned into jam immediately.
I explained earlier why blackberries are so prevalent wherever the railway runs and I can only reinforce my advice to ladies given there: If you have a prospective suitor, go bramble picking together. There are few better tests of dexterity, tenderness of touch, patience, and tolerance. Today, I want to look at the history of my son’s favourite breakfast treat: Brombeermarmelade.
The first thing we need to address is a language problem. Cooking fruit to preserve them most likely is an ancient idea, but the concept of Marmelade as a category is thoroughly modern. Technically, it does not even exist since the trade designation for non-citrus fruit cooked into a breadspread with sugar as of 1982 is Konfitüre. The word Marmelade, originally referring to a quince confection, can now only be used to refer to citrus marmalade. Most Germans do not care. Very few people here eat orange or lemon marmalade, and everyone continues to call their jam by the old name.
The name is not very old, though, and it used to refer to a variety of things in its eventful history. Meanwehile, the ancestry of what we know as Brombeermarmelade is bound up with different terms. The earliest cooked preserves are known simply as Mus, a catchall term for soft, spoonable foods, or Latwerge, derived from the term electuarium for a medical concoction prepared with sugar or honey to be spooned or licked up.
Brambles are relatively rare in the early recipe corpus, but they do feature. The Innsbruck MS mentions them used in fruit purees, but does not elaborate. They are also used in fruit wines and, at least by the sixteenth century, for colouring and flavouring wines. The earliest recipe for preserving them cooked down I am aware of is in the Mittelniederdeutsches Kochbuch:
15 If you would make a good puree of brambles, let them be picked as you need them. Pound them in a mortar, pass them through a cloth, set them by the fire and let them boil. Take a good pure wheat flour, toast (gloyge) it so that it does not taste burned (eynsmecke na brande), put it in and let it boil. Take honey and spices. Add to that and let it boil so that it has its (proper) thickness. That way it is good.
We are still some wayys away from the modern thing. Thickening with flour is not acceptable today, and we have no good informatrion on the sweetness and consistency that is aimed for here. Quite possibly, the final product was quite thick, like other roughly contemporary fruit preserves. But we have a fairly clear line of descent from here.
Marmelade shows up in German usage in the seventeenth century and is quickly adopted, but it initially describes fruit juices cooked with sugar, somet5hing we would call a Gelee today. The Brandenburgisches Kochbuch of 1723 (which is itself a pirated edition of Die wohl-unterwiesene Köchin by Maria Sophia Schellhammer) describes the process cursorily, but clearly:
To Prepare Marmelade of Barberries, Currants, Mulberries and the Like
These fruit are pressed out and the juice is cooked until it begins to thicken. Then add as much sugar as there is of juice and let it cook until it is thick enough, and continue as you do with the others. But this is not used for box marmalades (Schachtel=Marmeladen).
This is one of 19 recipes for Marmelade of which almost half are for quince preparations. The Schachtel=Marmelade refers to a way of packaging these jellies in wooden boxes, as traditional cotignac sometimes still is. The boxes were moistened brfore filling to ease removal, and the content served in slices, so we can imagine this Marmelade quite solid, like dulce de membrillo, and it is possible berry juice simply did not reach that level of thickness. It is likely that the sixteenth-century quince Latwerge I redacted for the Landsknecht Cookbook is already very similar, though it uses a different name. Interestingly, this recipe orioginating in the late seventeenth century occurs almost verbatim in the Hamburgisches Koch=Buch as late as its 1830 edition. By then, the habit of spreading Marmelade on cakes or bread must have required a different thickness.
Modern Marmelade owes its characteristics to the widespread adoption of glass jars with vacuum seals. In Germany, the market leader continues to be Weck, the company that introduced the technology to a wider public in 1901. The word ‘einwecken‘ for home canning is still widely understood. The new equipment called for instructions, and one of the many guides to the technique was Josef Löschnig’s Das Einkochen des Obstes im Bürgerlichen Haushalt. The 1916 edition describes making Brombeerenmarmelade:
The brambles produce a very fine Marmelade by themselves or mixed with other berries. Berries generally appear useful in mixes to make Marmelade. It is recommended to even use the otherwise less suitable gooseberries in the process.
This is not much of a recipe, but the process is described in greater detail in earlier entries: The fruit is steamed or boiled, passed through a sieve, and cooked down with sugar. The recipe for apricots describes it well:
The pureed fruit pulp is brought over the fire in enamelled or earthen flat cooking vessels and stirred continually with a spoon used solely for that purpose. In larger vessels, the stirring should most effectively be done in the shape of the number 8. Once the pulp is sufficiently firm, which can easily be judged in practice, the sugar is added in poweder form or small pieces. It must be noted that the Marmelade must boil up well once after the sugar has been added, distributed, and dissolved. To one kilogram of fruit pulp, 60 decagrammes (600 grammes) of sugar is used. The thickening must take place as quickly as possible over a lively fire so the result remains bright-coloured. It is also recommended to dissolve the sugar by itself and pour it into the fruit pulp hot. Seasoning the apricot Marmelade is not recommended. The finished Marmelade must be filled into the containers warm and they must be closed immediately.
Interestingly, the book distinguishes between Marmelade, made with pureed fruit pulp, and Jam (it uses the English word in the German text) made with pieces of fruit. In more modern times, fruit pieces were customary in Marmelade and it is only lately that pureed jams have become widely available again as a marketing gimmick. Interestingly, the 1938 Das elektrische Kochen, a recipe book advertising modern electric cooking equipment on behalf of the Berlin utility company BEW, distinguishes Marmelade made from pureed fruit and Konfitüre which contains pieces. This is a tradition that ran long.
It is interesting that as familiarity with the sterilising process increased, recipes become simpler. The unjustly underestimated Kochbuch der Büchergilde by Grete Willinsky first published in 1958 states:
2 pounds ripe brambles, 2 pounds sugar
Bramble Konfitüre is prepared like raspberry Konfitüre. You may bulk it up by adding up to a third part of apple slices cooked alongside without adding further sugar.
The referenced recipe for raspberries is:
especially aromatic if made with wild raspberries
2 pounds raspberries, 2 pounds sugar
The carefully selected raspberries, if possible unwashed, but carefully cleaned of all worms, are set on the stove with the sugar and slowly brought to a boil on a low heat, regularly shaking and tilting the pot. They are scummed and continue to boil without stirring until the juice begins to thicken. Gel test! Fill the Konfitüre into warmed glass jars with a silver spoon and close them with cellophane paper the following day.
I have no doubt that this recipe works, but I prefer a higher proportion of fruit to sugar. As an avowed culinary modernist, my go-to product is Gelierzucker, sugar with added pectin that produces a firm jam at a ration of 2:1. That process gave me 4.5 kilogrammes of Brombeermarmelade from 3 kilogrammes of fruit, which should last through the summer of 2024. If I can manage to collect more, I will try out some historical methods.