Use cookies

This website uses cookies to deliver superior functionality and to enhance your experience. Continued use of this site indicates that you accept this policy.

Foods and Wines from Spain. Everything you should know about Spanish food. >> Jams & fruits pastes
Foods From Spain History: Jam, Jellies, Marmalades And Fruit Pastes. A Sweet Etymology

Foods From Spain History: Jam, Jellies, Marmalades And Fruit Pastes. A Sweet Etymology

In the 20th century, preserves made out of fresh fruit constituted a broad product range: fruit cocktail, compote, conserve, purée, candied fruit, fruit in syrup, glacé fruit, shredded fruit, fruit macedoine, mermelada, fruit curd, fruit pectin, powdered pectin, fruit pulp...

Basically, the differences among all these products are determined by what fruits they are made of, what type of fruit pulp product is used for mixing with sugar, and what proportion of sugar is used in the mixture.

To understand these differences, and the way in which preserves of this type have been redefined over the years, it is helpful to know something of their history.

The etymology and history of ‘mermelada’

Until around 1850, the word mermelada applied in Spain exclusively to a quince preserve made with honey or sugar: the term in fact derives from membrillo, the Spanish word for quince. The Greeks called the quince kydonion or mêlon kydonion because of its resemblance to an apple (mêlon), from which the Romans’ name for the quince - malum cotoneum or malum cydonium – is clearly derived.

Except for a very few varieties of it, the quince is a rough and very acidic fruit when raw which is why, in Ancient Greece (1100-146BC), it was frequently preserved and eaten steeped or cooked in honey (as Apicius tells us). Two thousand years ago, Hispania was the leading exporter of quince in the Roman Empire, so that the Iberian Peninsula was no stranger to this method of preserving back in Antiquity.

Given the tartness of its flavor, it is hard to believe that the quince was known as ‘sweet apple’ (melimelum), as 1.Corominas (1905-1997) Spanish philologist, professor at the University of Chicago until 1967, informs us it was. That name seems more likely to have referred to the preserved version, known in Latin as malum mellatum (quince in honey), a name that could easily evolve into malimellum or melimellum.

Be that as it may, at some point in the Middle Ages the name of the fruit and that of the sweet preserve made from it became confused. The Spanish words membrillo and mermelada share the same Portuguese and Latin root - melimelum, marmelo (quince) - which gives us the Portuguese word marmelada, which in Spanish becomes mermelada, in French marmelade, and enters English as marmalade around 1480 (although it did not come into common usage there until the 17th century).

The adoption of a Portuguese word for this fruit preserve reflects the fact that Portuguese (and Spanish) mermeladas (quince preserves) were famous. Mermeladas from Lisbon and Valencia – their provenance mentioned as denoting quality - appear in various historical texts.

Did you say membrillo?

Corominas dates the first appearance of the term membrillo around 1326. The word mermelada may have been assimilated into Spanish from the Portuguese between the 14th and 15th centuries: the first texts in which this word appears date from the first half of the 16th century and the fact that it appears without an accompanying explanation suggests that it was by then a term in common use.

An anonymous notarial document dated 1564 describes how, while organizing a party, Princess Juana went around “with a box of mermelada distributing it among the disciplinantes to give them strength lest they faint”. Writing in 1590, José de Acosta (1540-1600) a Jesuit often called The Pliny of the New World, comments that "some encarecedores dealing in things from the Indies said that there was a fruit that they called ‘membrillo paste’, and another they called ‘blancmange’ [the custard apple], choosing those names because their flavor seemed worthy of them. The membrillo or mermelada paste (if I understand the story correctly) were those fruits called zapotes or chicozapotes, which are very sweet to eat and rather like quince preserve in color. Some criollos (as those born of Spaniards in the Indies are called there) said that this fruit was better than all the fruits in Spain. I do not 5.agree". In 1599, 6.Andrés Zamudio who was doctor to King Philip II writes in a medical treatise: “It is good to finish a meal with a sweet preserve of rose-petals or prepared coriander, or mermelada, or perada” (see below). It is obvious from these texts that mermelada was widely known; there is also evidence that, during the reign of Charles I (1500-1558) in the early 16th century, Portuguese and Spanish mermeladas were such highly regarded delicacies that they were considered suitable gifts for kings and princes.

The word mermelada still denoted only quince preserve. A similar type of preserve made using the newly introduced tropical fruits, as well as more usual ones, was not known as mermelada but was given a specific name of its own: pear preserve, for example, was known as perada.

Covarrubias’ 1611 dictionary also makes it clear that mermelada was still understood to mean “a preserve of honey and quince, although the finest type is made with 7. sugar”.

19th c. Shift

The shift of meaning in Spain to that of a preserve or jam made with any kind of fruit is relatively recent. Not until the 19th century, and the publication of the anonymous El repostero famoso, amigo de los golosos (The Famous Pastry Cook: Friend to the Sweet-Toothed) in 1822, do we find a text that specifies the different fruits from which mermeladas can be made.

The various editions of the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española (Spanish Royal Academy Dictionary) reflect this late development, albeit recording it with a 50 year delay. In the 1734 edition, mermelada is defined as a "preserve made of quinces with honey or sugar". In 1869, it indicates for the first time that preserves made with other fruits are also referred to by the same name. In subsequent editions of the dictionary, mermelada continues to be defined as a quince preserve that can be made with other fruits; this is contrary to general usage since, paradoxically, the term mermelada is currently applied to almost all preserves made by boiling fruit with sugar except for quince, which is usually presented in the form of quince paste (carne or dulce de membrillo).

Interestingly, the English word ‘marmalade’ refers exclusively to fruit-boiled-with-sugar preserves made with citrus fruits (all other mermeladas are called ‘jam’), and particularly to those made with the bitter Seville oranges that have been a British favorite since about 1700.

Jams and jellies in Spain

Jams and jellies in Spain

The 1734 Diccionario de la Real Academia Española (Spanish Royal Academy Dictionary) defines the word confitura as “fruit or any other thing that has been candied, and nowadays most commonly taken to mean all things that are made of sugar”, since the verb confitar means “to cover or bathe a fruit, seed, or similar thing in sugar” (namely, to candy). This suggests that most things could be candied, but in fact the technique was usually applied to creating equivalents of present-day sweets: candied nuts, caramel-coated fruit, sugar-frosted flowers… Nevertheless, a confitura in the strict sense of the word could also mean a kind of sweet paste made out of fruit purée and sugar (a meaning it still retains in the Canary Islands). A further clue comes from documents that mention confitura being wrapped up and served in 8.paper, which seems to indicate a very thick substance.

Confituras also featured at parties and weddings, and the word appears quite regularly in early 16th century 9.texts. In one work by Lope de Rueda (1510-1565), the playwright conveys how these sweets were regarded as delicious and special: “You know, in the land of Jauja there are many boxes of confitura, lots of calabazate (candied pumpkin), lots of diacitrón (preserved lemon peel), many marzipan sweets, many 10.candies...”. In the Middle Ages and into the Modern Era, preserves of this type were more often made with honey than with sugar, which was looked upon as a luxury product. Nevertheless, early 17th century texts state explicitly that fruit preserves (confituras) can be made with either sugar or 11.honey.

Jellies back in the 17th Century

Covarrubias provides a definition of the term jalea (jelly) in 1611: “It can be made with the juice or liquor of the quince or anything else of which preserves are made, which is thickened and set so that it becomes transparent and is as good as frozen", adding that the term derives from the Tuscan giallo ( The concept of what a jalea is has hardly changed. The 1734 Diccionario de la Real Academia Española (Spanish Royal Adademy Dictionary) also says that a jalea is “a preserve of the juice or liquor of quince, or of other fruits, that is thickened and set in such a way that it becomes transparent as if frozen", and that the word derives from the Latin gelum (ice). From the 19th century on, the word features as having derived from the French gelée (frozen). Today, a jalea is still a type of jelly obtained by cooking fruits to release their juice and pectin, which serves as a gelling agent. From the 17th century on, mentions occur of ‘jalea de agro’, made with citron juice.

When the word appears in early 17th century texts, jalea means a sweet, viscous, transparent liquid, a type of syrup or gelatine also referred to as ‘13.jalea de almíbar’ (syrup jelly), a name that suggests how it was 14.made.

Mermelada as a preserving technique

Food preserving techniques evolved out of the need to capitalize on surpluses and to prolong the edible life of perishable foods so that they could be eaten later or carried long distances.

Mermeladas and their variants were classic examples of ‘preserves’ throughout history until industrial preserving methods were developed. Particularly after they started to be made with sugar, they graduated beyond their mere preserving function and became a luxury delicacy.

One special type of fruit preserve is cabello de ángel or angélica (angel hair). This is a kind of jam made from certain varieties of pumpking, particulary Curcubita ficifolia, known in Spanish as calabaza confitera (confectioner´s pumpkin) as well as by many other names (alcayota, alcayote, chilicayote, cayote, chiverre, cidra and sambo), the flesh of which is fibrous in texture yet sweet, tender and juicy. Angel hair is made by boiling the pumpkin flesh gently in a small amount of water along with half its weight in sugar. A little lemon juice and cinnamon are also added. The caramelized fibres produced at the end of this process are widely used as a filling for many traditional Spanish sweet confections, including tarts, cakes, pies, ensaimadas (Majorca´s famous coiled buns), puff pastries and marzipan candies.

Sugar in Spain

Sugar in Spain

Evidence dating from before 10,000 BC has been found of sugar cane (Saccharum officinarum L.) being cultivated in north eastern India. Sugar was known and used in ancient times in India, China and the Far East. Reports of its existence first reached the West in the wake of the expansionist military conquests of Alexander the Great, but it was to be a luxury product that very few could afford. The sugar of that period was not as we know it today, but rather a dark, granular sort of syrup. During the agricultural revolution in the Muslim world (8th – 13th centuries), the Arabs and Berbers imported sugar cane from India for planting as a crop and were the first to establish plantations with their own sugar factories and refineries. Cane sugar began to arrive regularly in Europe, via Spain, after the Muslim conquest of the Iberian Peninsula in the 8th century. Beyond the confines of al-Andalus, however, trade in this commodity was desultory even though, from the 11th century on, supplies were augmented by consignments brought back by crusaders returning from the 15.Holy Land.

From the 14th century, sugarcane plantations in Andalusia, southern Portugal, Cyprus, Crete, Malta and Rhodes acquired economic importance, and after 1420 the Canary Islands, the Azores and Madeira also took it up as a crop. There is doubt as to whether Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) himself first took sugarcane to Hispaniola in 1493 or 1498, or whether it was Pedro de Arranca in 1506, but either way it was introduced so successfully that Bartolomé de las Casas (1484-1566) mentions the first trapiche (cane sugar mill) for obtaining molasses from cane as early as 1506, and by 1518 there are known to have been 20 sugar factories on the island. However, sugar remained a luxury commodity during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Beet sugar, a German Discovery

In 1747, German chemist Andreas Sigismund Margraf (1709-1782) discovered that sugar was present in other plants such as grapes, chestnuts, potatoes and, especially, 16.beet. His disciple Franz Karl Achard (1753-1821) confirmed this discovery and, in 1802 in Lower Silesia, set up the first factory for extracting sugar from beet. In the early 19th century, sugarcane became scarce as a result of blockades imposed by the British engaged in the Napoleonic Wars, and its price rose accordingly. France turned its attention to obtaining sugar from beet on an industrial scale (it being considered almost a necessity by this time), and French chemists developed the original Prussian scheme, opening the first French factory in 1811.

Inexplicably, consumption of sugar did not really catch on generally in Europe until the 18th century. In the 19th century, however, demand increased consistently, reaching amazing levels in certain countries by the end of the century: whereas in Spain, sugar consumption was 12 lb per person per year around 1900, the figure for France was 33 lb, and for the United Kingdom 17.88 lb.

Sugar is an essential ingredient in modern-day sweets, desserts and preserved fruit products such as juices, syrups, candies and jams. It became a partial or total substitute for honey in many sweets in Spain from the 16th century on.


Enrique García Ballesteros, (BA in Early Modern and Modern History and MA in Communication and Journalism) is a Spanish historian, writer and journalist. He has published over a hundred scientific and general interest articles on history and the media in prestigious magazines such as Historia National Geographic and La Aventura de la Historia. He has also authored biographies, interviews and book reviews for major institutions and the Spanish press. He is a regular contributor to the Spanish national daily newspapers El Mundo and Público (now online version only).

Research coordination: María del Carmen Simón Palmer, has a phD in history and is a research professor at the Spanish National Research Council, CSIC. She is a member of the governing body of the Real Academia de Gastronomía. Her published works include: La cocina de Palacio (1591-1932), (Castalia, 1997) and Bibliografía de la Gastronomía y Alimentación en España, (Trea, 2003).

Translation: Hawys Pritchard, M.A. (University of London) is a freelance translator currently based in Wales and Mallorca. Her work has appeared in various books and magazines (including Spain Gourmetour) that reflect her interest in food, wine, travel, art and architecture.

Photo credits

Jam and jellies in Spain
Naturaleza muerta con manzanas, uvas y un bote de confitura. Still life with apples, grapes and a pot of jam, Luis Meléndez (1716-1780), Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya

Sugar in Spain
Sugar mill in colonial Latinamerica (18thC.) from the Encyclopédie de Diderot et d'Alembert, 1762. Licensed under Creative Commons by Mcapdevila.