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Blancmange has not always been the palely wobbling thing which until recently lurked behind jellies on Britain's tea tables. When the word first entered the English language, in the fourteenth century, it was used for a savoury dish. As its name implies (French blanc, ‘white’, manger, ‘eat’—the final r did not disappear until the nineteenth century) it was made from pale ingredients. Almonds, in some form or other—ground, fried, or as almond milk—were usually included, as was rice, either whole or as rice flour; these formed the basis of a thick gruel or pottage, to which was added chicken meat. The recipe is an ancient one: the Roman gourmet Apicius's cibarium album (again literally ‘white eating’) is essentially the same, although the direct antecedent of the blancmange eaten in the courts of medieval Europe was probably Arabic.

The transformation of the chicken dish of the Middle Ages into the modern confection was a gradual one. Often the chicken was omitted, and a gelling agent added. By the eighteenth century it had become a sort of almond jelly, made with milk or cream. In the nineteenth century arrowroot was introduced into the recipe as a thickener, with flavourings such as lemon peel and cinnamon making it an appropriate dessert dish. This paved the way for the modern commercial cornflour-based version, which, in guises such as pink rabbits and chocolate-coloured castles (but scarcely ever, ironically, plain white), remained a mainstay among British puddings until the 1960s, when instant pre-prepared desserts started its demise.

A companion dish, popular in the nineteenth century, was jaunemange or jaumange, made with the addition of lemon juice and rind (French jaune, ‘yellow’). An alternative name for it was Dutch flummery.

Subjects: Cookery, Food, and Drink.

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