We are a nation divided. No, not that – I’m talking about trifle. Yes, it seems like the simplest of puds – just cake, squidgy with a slosh of alcohol and sweetened with jam, then layers of jelly, fruit and cool vanilla-laced custard under a soothing blanket of cream. Even the name is a reference to its inconsequential nature, like “fool”, as in rhubarb. Nothing controversial there, surely.
But when Mary Berry declared on Radio 4’s Women’s Hour recently that jelly has no place in a grown-up trifle, it caused such a kerfuffle that listeners went online to declare their disquiet. Now Marks & Spencer has brought out what it claims is the supermarket’s Best Ever Trifle, with cream, custard, sponge cake and fruit – but no jelly. The jelly embargo was apparently put in place after a public vote put fruit compote ahead of the wibbly-wobbly stuff.
Really? When I asked friends about using a packet jelly in trifle, it was clear this was a subject even more divisive than Marmite. So I put a post on Twitter. The replies were equally split. Some said “it’s not trifle without it,” and asked the entirely fair question “is there any other kind of jelly?”, as well as pointing out that only a jelly trifle will squelch properly when spooned out of the cut glass bowl. The anti-jelly faction was just as entrenched, one declaring of packet jelly “not under any circumstances.” Chef Jeremy Lee summed it up when he said, “not in this kitchen thanks.”
I conducted a little poll of my own on Twitter, and of the 570 votes, 69 per cent were in favour of jelly in trifle, with a mere 31 per cent anti-jelly. Half of those who voted were happy with homemade or packet jelly, but for 10 per cent, only the packet stuff will do.
I’m one of the remaining nine per cent, in the homemade jelly camp. I’ve never been a fan of packet jelly as a pudding, although as a child I used to pinch rubbery, sweet cubes of the stuff to chew. All my anti-jelly prejudices were reinforced when, at my son’s fifth birthday party, two small guests carefully posted theirs down the back of the radiator.
For months, whenever the heating came on, the sickly sweet scent of Hartley’s raspberry flavour would waft through the kitchen. But a homemade jelly – essentially just juice barely set with a bit of gelatin or agar-agar – is another matter, allowing the delicate flavours to linger in your mouth in a satisfying way.
For many, trifle’s not about some gastronomic nirvana, it’s about nostalgia, the pud that their grandmother made, and anything other than a packet of jelly just would not capture their childhood memories. Jack Monroe, the cook and campaigner who takes a stand against snobbery in food as well as life (her new book on cooking with tinned food, Tin Can Cook, is out at the end of May published by Bluebird, £6.99) insists that not only should there be packet jelly, but “1.2x strength and add Swiss roll AND red fruit.” The jelly should be raspberry flavour, “lime also good but only in a zany mood. Never ever lemon.” Even Monroe draws the line somewhere.
Reading through the trifle conversations online, it’s clear that the details matter. Allowing the jelly to begin to set before spooning it over so that it isn’t completely absorbed by the cake layer is one tip I’ve adopted. But it’s not just the jelly – should it be Bird’s custard or homemade? Clodagh McKenna simply recommends ‘ready-made’ in her recipe (see below).
For chef Phil Vickery, his mum’s trifle, which he still makes, has “double-strength Bird’s custard, or as my father would say ‘proper custard’.” As for the final layer, food historian Annie Grey (from Radio 4’s The Kitchen Cabinet) was one of those who put in a bid for syllabub, cream whipped with booze and sugar, instead of straight double cream.
Time to ask an expert, so I asked Helen Saberi, co-author of the classic book, Trifle (Prospect Books, £9.99) with the late Alan Davison. According to Saberi, although the first printed trifle recipe dates from the end of the 16th century, jelly only started to appear as an ingredient in mid-18th-century versions – the Georgians did love a jelly and had the most elaborate moulds, so it’s not so surprising they wanted to pop some in to shimmer in the sparkling bowls of lead crystal that had been invented at the end of the 17th century. Saberi is sanguine about whether jelly belongs in trifle or not. “If you like jelly, fine.” Saberi does like it, and uses a packet in her celebratory trifle recipe in the book.
As well as an Icelandic trifle, rather terrifyingly named Ömmutriffli, there are even a couple of historic savoury trifles, one involving fried bread and lobster with mayonnaise in place of custard. The other, made with baked mince and breadcrumbs, reminds me of the episode in Friends where Rachel checks her cookery book and wails, “I wasn’t supposed to put beef in the trifle.” Last year you could (briefly) order beef trifle from Deliveroo.
But as Saberi admits, “I wouldn’t call it trifle.” Is there anything she wouldn’t put in a trifle, then? “Fruit cake. And I once made a pineapple trifle – and it doesn’t set. It was one of my first culinary disasters.” But for all the debate, trifle is the most fun to play with, substituting macaroons for cake (early recipes use ratafias, an almond biscuit), varying the booze, and remembering that lavish abandon is the soul of a good trifle.
As Somerset Maughan said, about something else altogether, “Perfection is a trifle dull”.