The early medieval jam tart

A recent Guardian headline is pretty fascinating for a medievalist: World’s oldest jam tarts take a tour of Britain. The few details say that these were made in the eighth century AD in China and buried in grave goods. Unfortunately the website of the exhibition China: Journey to the East doesn’t include pictures or more details of these artefacts. But it got me thinking: if the eighth century Chinese had jam tarts, did the Carolingians?

The simple answer to that is ‘no’, if we are talking about genuine jam tarts. To make jam you need sugar: the modern recipe books I have say that you can’t make jam effectively with honey, because it won’t keep. Until the Atlantic sugar trade took hold (in the early modern period) that means that jam wasn’t really an option. (I know some sugar got to Europe before then, but you need a lot of it for jam).

What I’m less sure about is the other main part of a jam tart, the pastry. The Romans certainly had pastry: for those who are really interested in the topic, there is an article on JSTOR: Jon Solomon, “Tracta: A Versatile Roman Pastry”, Hermes, Vol. 106, No. 4 (1978), pp. 539-556, which starts with the wonderful line: ‘Any inquiry into ancient pastry inevitably reveals the most disappointing gap in our knowledge of ancient cookery.’ And from the later medieval period, when we start having recipe books, there are references to pastry (although few recipes for it). I also found a webpage which has an interesting comparison of recipes for apple pie from the fourteenth and sixteenth century and (Chretien de Troyes also mentions pastries or pasties in the twelfth century).

So if the Romans had pastry and the high Middle Ages had it, what about the early Middle Ages? Ann Hagen’s book on Anglo-Saxon Food and Drink doesn’t mention pastry and a quick trawl of Patrologia Latina doesn’t reveal much for ‘crustum’ or ‘crustulum’, although the 16th Council of Toldeo in 693 c 6 apparently condemned placing ‘rotunda crustula’ on the altar instead of bread (I presume because it made it seem too much like a sacrifice to Roman gods). I think that there’s a real possibility that pastry may have died out in the early medieval west (although I’d like a more knowledgeable historian who could confirm this), and therefore presumably had to be reintroduced via contacts from elsewhere (the Arab world?)

If pastry did die out, why? There are two obvious reasons for why bread might have won out in fulfilling the ‘stodgy stuff to have with your meal’ role. Firstly, it takes fewer resources. For pastry you don’t just need flour, you need quite a lot of fat, and I suspect both animal fat and vegetable oil were in relatively short supply and needed for other uses. Secondly, pastry is harder to make than bread, which can take fairly rough handling. You have to treat it gently if it’s going to taste nice, you have to roll it out thinly, etc.

Why pastry came back later in the Middle Ages despite this problems, is, I suspect because some of the advantages it brings. You can work it into fancier shapes than you can with bread: a pastry castle works better than a bread castle. You can also get more subtle texture/flavour combinations, such as the classic crisp pastry/soft filling effect of pies. This would explain why pastry got reintroduced at the more sophisticated end of the medieval market. But lower down the social order, I suspect pastry reappeared with the development of the city, because pastry goods are some of the classic fast foods: things you can keep hot for a while, that fill you up cheaply and that you can eat with relatively little mess. There are some forms of bread that you can easily use for ‘wrapped’ fast food (pitta bread, tortillas), but they’ve only come to the West very recently.

The jam tart then, with which we started, at least in the West, is a product of luxury and social development: the oppression of the sugar trade that made jam possible, the rediscovery of pastry. The fact that it’s now largely become the kind of cheap processed food that the middle classes shun (my mother made jam tarts, but I don’t), just shows how the passage of time can make previously unattainable luxuries too cheap and unsophisticated to value.

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4 thoughts on “The early medieval jam tart

  1. although the 16th Council of Toldeo in 693 c 6 apparently condemned placing ‘rotunda crustula’ on the altar instead of bread

    If it’s much like the pastries that we know and make I’d think that the qualities you want–crispy and flaky–would make it exactly the wrong material for the Host. You’d have bits of Jesus flaking everywhere and that just won’t do…

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  2. The English cream tea: a question of preservationThis post has an odd genesis, principally owed to the sometime blogger the Naked Philologist, and though she has sadly shut up shop, nonetheless this is for her. When she was planning to be in the UK the summer before last, one of the plans she had of&…

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