Spanish Quince paste. © Shutterstock
Jam is the name given to the product obtained from cooking fruit with sugar until the mixture reaches purée consistency. The history of jams is closely linked to that of sugar. In ancient times, cane sugar was known as an exotic rarity. It was first cultivated in Spain by the Moors in the 8th century but continued to be scarce and costly and was used very sparingly in cooking, as if it were a spice. The fall of Constantinople in 1453 and the disappearance of the Byzantine Empire put a stop to imports of sugar from the Orient and led to the development of plantations in Valencia and along the Mediterranean east coast, as well as the multiplication of sugar refineries in Spain and other countries.
Increased production, sugar made from beet (in other countries, not in Spain), and the resulting fall in prices led to tremendous development of the market. Sugar flooded into European kitchens where it was added gaily to soups, entrées, roasts and desserts. In fact, Spain was the port of entry for cane sugar into Europe.
Over time, sweet dishes tended to be served only at the end of meals and sugar gradually disappeared from meat and fish dishes, being used mostly with dairy products, cereals, eggs and fruit. From the 16th century on, Spaniards were setting up cane plantations in America and, at the end of that century, José de Acosta, a Spanish anthropologist and Jesuit missionary wrote, "A crazy amount of sugar and jam is being consumed in the Indies". It seems reasonable to assume that the same process was taking place in metropolitan Spain, where the varied climate and landscape made it possible to grow also all sorts of fruits - drupes, seed fruits, berries and a large variety of grapes, melons, watermelons and figs.
As from the 17th century, recipes for jams figured largely in cookery books. The invention of preserves in the 19th century led to the industrialization of many artisan jam-making processes in the main fruit-growing areas such as Murcia, Valencia and La Rioja.
The range of jams and jellies produced in Spain today is huge and covers not only the traditional fruits such as oranges, strawberries, peaches, pears and apricots, but also tropical fruits and even some vegetables such as tomato, onion and pepper. Jams have come down to consumers in the company of sugar, but today it is possible to enjoy sugar-free jams in which the sugar has been replaced by lower-calorie sweeteners.
Quince paste is a thick jelly made by cooking the quince flesh with an equal amount of sugar. It is tremendously popular in Spain where it is generally served in slices with fresh or cured cheese. This popularity perhaps harks back to an ancient Mediterranean tradition, noted down as long as 2,000 years ago by the Roman Marcus Gavius Apicius, in a recipe for quince cooked in honey.
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