1886 Junket goes commercial

Reprint of a pamphlet on Junket rennet tablets, produced in connection with the 25th anniversary of the founding of the company

What is junket? Essentially, it’s a dessert made from milk set with rennet, an enzyme naturally produced in the stomachs of ruminant animals. Although by no means unique to Australia, it has earned a place in this timeline because it was a childhood favourite back in the 1950s. My mother, being averse to slaughtering a calf and drying out its stomach, used commercial tablets of varying flavours to produce a milky, custardy, mild-tasting dessert.

The dish has a history far longer than that of the commercial tablets, with the Webster’s dictionary dating versions of it back to the 15th century. The dictionary definition reads as follows:

Junket has traveled a long road, and its journey began with a basket made of rushes—that is, marsh plants commonly used in weaving and basketwork. The Latin word for “rush” is juncus, which English borrowed and adapted into various forms until settling on junket. That word was used in English to name not just the plant and the baskets made from the plant, but also a type of cream cheese made in rush baskets. Since at least the 15th century, the word has named a variety of comestibles, ranging from curds and cream to sweet confections…

From earliest times, rennet was essential to cheese-making. Indeed, it’s thought that cheese was accidentally invented in ancient times when people stored milk in containers made from animals’ stomachs. Junket uses less rennet than cheese, so it stays soft and wobbly.

The dessert was likely popular long before it earned the name junket. It was the “curds and whey” eaten by the famous Miss Muffet of the nursery rhyme – a rhyme that dates back to the 16th century. And by the mid-19th century, recipes for “Devonshire Junket” were being published in Australian newspapers.

There were various ways of extracting and preserving rennet but there was no standardisation of the strength of the solution and the results were often unsanitary. All this changed thanks to a young Danish chemist called Christian Hansen, who invented a better method to extract rennet and supply it in a convenient form.

Chr. Hansen’s Laboratory opened an American operation in 1877 and 1886 launched Hansen’s Household Rennet Tablets, along with a leaflet giving the recipe to make junket. The product soon became known as Junket Tablets and Junket remains a brand name in the United States.

Australian Women’s Weekly, 1961

As early as 1898, imported Hansen’s Junket Tablets were being advertised in Australia. The milky dessert was touted as being “an Ideal Health Food for Invalids and Children”. Later advertising even suggested that the tablets could be taken after meals to relieve stomach problems. Junket eventually came in various flavours. Hansen’s Australian advertising in the 1960s mentions  Pineapple, Strawberry, Raspberry, Cherry, and Almond in addition to the plain, unflavored variety. Hansen’s was not the only brand available in Australia – others included Merry Widow and Faulding’s.

While the dessert remained popular through the 1950s, its fortunes began to wane in the 1960s.  By the 1970s Hansen’s were attempting to broaden the use of their product, with advertising promoting the use of junket tablets to make cottage cheese, or to enrich a milk drink.

I have failed to determine when Hansen’s began their manufacturing operation in South Australia but we do know when it ceased. A 2007 article by John Lethlean reported that Woolworths and Coles deleted Hansen’s Junket Tablets (the last remaining brand in the market) in 2005, resulting in the closure of the company’s Adelaide manufacturing division.

Enough people must have been distressed by the absence of the product from the shelves to persuade the retailers to change their minds. The Two Spoons brand of junket tablets, imported from the USA, is now available from both the major grocery chains as well as other grocery stores.

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