Almacks (also Almack’s and Almack) is one of many recipes that have originated from people copying dishes they have enjoyed whilst eating out. Almack’s was a Georgian/Regency London club where the great and the good could socialise during ‘the season’, Pontacks is another such establishment, now equally long gone, whose reputation remains only in the names of recipes they have inspired.
By the end of the 18th century, being presented at the Royal court was deemed old fashioned for the up and coming ladies in society, so Almacks provided a setting whereby socialising and marriage alliances could be conducted amongst the ‘Ton’. As an example of the importance of Almack’s in the social life of the capital, when Lady Caroline Lamb published ‘Glenarvon’, with a thinly-fictionalised Lord Byron as the main character, Sarah Villiers, Lady Jersey, was so incensed at the way she had been satirised, she barred Lady Caroline from Almacks in 1816, thereby making her a social outcast *gasps and clutches pearls*. Although Lady Caroline eventually managed to regain membership three years later, thanks mainly to the assistance of her cousin, Emily Lamb (Countess Cowper), her reputation never recovered.
Almacks provided refreshments to its member and this thick fruit ‘cheese’ would have been ideal as it has great keeping qualities and is easy to serve at short notice. It can be eaten a number of ways: as a sweet, with cream or as a savoury, with biscuits and cheese. It is also versatile in its preparation as it can be varied by type of apple, pear and plum, thus giving it subtle changes in flavour with each batch. It is an ideal way to use up gluts of fruit, or to waste-not-want-not with windfalls.
This is the earliest recipe I have found, coming from a household manuscript dated 1785-1825. The quantities are huge, even allowing for a loss of volume during the cooking. A peck of apples is roughly 6 kg, so it calls for a total of 18kg of prepared fruit, although it’s probably going to be closer to 20 kg by the time you factor in weight loss due to peeling/coring/chopping.
This is a recipe with slightly more reasonable quantities – 3 quarts of each fruit = 7.5kg, but in the end I thought the recipe from Elizabeth Pease (below) was both the simplest and most reasonable in terms of batch size.
Admittedly, it does take a few things for granted such as expecting readers to know the method and how to prepare the fruit, but I’ll be filling you in on those in the recipe below.
So how much Almacks you make is really up to you and what you have to hand. As a guide, I used 750g of prepared apples and pears and 800g damsons (to allow for the stones) and it made 8 generous portions as seen in the photo above, and about 400g in a box for more casual use. The damsons add a real tang to the paste, and the low quantity of sugar means it sits right on the edge between sweet and savoury. Serve (small) portions with a drizzle of cream and a biscuit (ratafias, macaroons, etc) for crunch as a dessert, or with your favourite cheese and crackers.
I’ve reduced the quantities, so you can make a small batch to try, but you can scale it up quite easily if you have it in mind to pot and gift it for Christmas.
500g peeled, cored and chopped apples
500g peeled, cored and chopped pears
500g plums/damsons, stones removed if possible
500g demerera sugar.
- Cook the fruit. You want it soft enough so that it can be sieved easily. This can be done a couple of ways:
- layer the fruit and sugar into a large casserole (preferably ceramic or enamelled) and put it in the oven, uncovered, at 150°C, 130°C Fan for 45 minutes to an hour, stirring every 15 minutes to make sure the fruit floating on top of the juice doesn’t dry out.
- Put the fruit and sugar into a slow cooker and cook on high for 4 hours. This method generates more juice, as it won’t evaporate as much as it does in the oven, but it has the advantage of being able to be left unattended for an extended period of time.
- Sieve the cooked fruit until nothing is left but skin and (possibly) damson pits.
- Simmer the puree in a preserving pan until no excess liquid is visible when you draw a spoon across the pan, and it’s just fruit puree. This will take rather a long time, if you used the slow-cooker method, due to the extra juice.
- You MUST stir the pan, otherwise the puree will burn. Towards the end, it will turn into fruit LAVA< so have a towel cover your arm handy, to avoid the hot splashes.
- When your puree is ready, spoon it into moulds or hot, sterilised jars as you would for jam. Silicone moulds are great, especially if you’re making Almacks to serve at a special meal – although you don’t need a special occasion to serve some delicious fruit cheese in a pretty shape. The flexibility of the silicone makes it very simple to turn out the paste, once cold.