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On jam

"I love the way that a couple of hours in the kitchen transforms a gardener's problem into a cook's delight." Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

I know I've talked about jam before, but it's that time of year, and today I made my first batch of plum jam. Made with the plums from the tree on the left - wild cherry plums, that are not very large. The ones you see in the picture are the ones I left on the tree as being less ripe. I had filled a large container with ripe - well almost ripe - plums already. There are at least two more batches left on the tree. If I get them before the birds that is. When I just went outside to take the photo, they were hovering and squawking to each other. Lorikeets or rosellas I think. Hopefully they were just checking and have decided they are not ready. They can strip a tree in a day.

Which is why my plum jams tend to be a little tart, as the fruit is never at optimum ripeness. But I notice that Pam Corbin - the River Cottage preserves expert said that the fruit for jam should be slightly underripe. Which made me feel better. But every year it's a battle between me and the birds to decide when is the right moment to pounce. Sometimes I win, sometimes they do. I'm more generous than they though, as there are always some that I cannot reach that are left for them. If they pounce on a tree, they leave nothing.

Of course I could just leave the plums for the birds. Perhaps that would be the ecologically responsible way to go. But I do like a little bit of jam on toast, or crumpet or croissant in the morning for my breakfast, and even more I love to give the jars as gifts. In fact my grandchildren have recently discovered the joys of home-made jam, and so several jars go to them these days. They pick one out when they come to visit.

As you know I am unlikely to have a glut of anything because I'm such an ineffective gardener. It's just the plums that come from home. But my neighbour sometimes gives me cumquats, even Seville oranges, and the lovely Monika often gives me bags of fruit and vegetable. Her garden is so abundant. Because that's what making jam, and any other kind of preserve is all about.

"Jams, chutneys and pickles embrace the seasons, but they also, in an elegant and entirely positive manner, defy them. They do so by stretching the bounty of more abundant months into the sparser ones. We shouldn't underestimate this achievement. Over the centuries, wizards and alchemists have used all the power and magic they can muster to try and catch rainbows, spin straw into gold and even bring the dead back to life. They've failed of course. Yet all the while, humble peasants and ordinary housewives have got on with the simple business of bottling sunshine, so that it may spread a little joy in the leaner seasons ... They call it jam." Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

Bottling sunshine is such a beautiful way of putting it, but it's bottling the rain as well. Without the rain the fruit is small and dry, or withered. With too much rain it bursts. The cherry farmers are worried this year for that very reason. Not that the cherries taste any worse - the just don't look as good and so don't sell, but they would make beautiful jam.

Because of making the jam I was going to write about a blog I came across once called Food in Jars. I must have found something on there to use up one of Monika's bounteous gifts. So I looked at it today, and was a bit disappointed. Now the lady who writes it - Melissa McClelland is her name - has been writing it since 2009 and so doubtless she has 'done' all the obvious, and delectable things in jars. Though mind you there always seems to be something new that someone dreams up. So, for example, her last four posts have been on Butternut squash soup (in a jar); Lemon peach turmeric chutney; Home-made harissa sauce and Banana ketchup. Sort of interesting, but not really my thing. So I searched on the site for suggestions about apples. (My daughter-in-law who is now in Spain left me a whole stack of them.) And, honestly there was not much there. It's also very American. So not for me I'm afraid.

No - my go to source for gluts these days is this little book, one of a set of River Cottage Handbooks that I bought for a steal some years ago. They are all good, but this is the one I use the most. It has so many interesting things in there, as well as heaps of very practical advice. For example, I learnt today (too late for today's batch) that if you add a knob of butter (20g per kg of fruit) with the sugar when you are making jam, then that will reduce the scum. I will definitely try that next time as there was a lot. Or - you can stir the jam when it's done, in one direction only, until it disperses.

As a comparison with the website Food in Jars, I looked up apples in their index and found all manner of things - jams, jellies, chutneys, sauce, leather, Bramley lemon curd - which I gather is a standout lemon curd - everyone seems to swear by it. There is also mincemeat, cordial and gin. So much more to tempt. Although I think I shall just make a streusel tart.

I love making jam, and any other kind of preserve in fact. It can be tedious at times - fishing out all the pips was a tedious half hour or so before adding the sugar, and it's always a bit anxious making wondering whether you have got it at the right setting point or not. But it is so satisfying to see that little cluster of jars, that will be added to the jam shelf in the pantry, once David has made some pretty labels. Not only do you use up the fruit - but you also use up old jars. Jars rarely get thrown out in this house. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, in his foreword to the Preserves book sums all of that up beautifully.

"Mostly I love them for being so delicious. But I also cherish and admire them for something else. They epitomise the values at the heart of a well-run, contented kitchen. Firstly they embody and thrive on seasonal abundance. Secondly they are, or should be, intrinsically local, perfectly complementing the grow-your-own (or at least pick-your-own) philosophy. And thirdly, not to be sniffed at in these days of ecological anxiety, they are frugal, thrifty and parsimonious: they waste not, so we want not." Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

It doesn't just have to be bounty from the garden or friends' gardens either. It can be fruit that is probably on the verge of being too far gone to eat. My husband has a tendency to buy too much fruit for the two of us in the summer especially, when it is cheap and luscious. I once made an interesting jam with a mix of almost past it fruit. Or the fruit may be so cheap it is stupid not to buy it - like strawberries at $1.00 a punnet, which happened recently. Or it can be sort of the opposite - like apricot or raspberry jam. Both fruits are never cheap. I have friends who, every pre-Christmas would go and pick raspberries from a berry farm and make jam. It was part of their family Christmas tradition - as I wrote about yesterday. Like the plum jam is for me. David even called one of last year's batches 'Just in time for Christmas plum jam'.

Apricot jam is perhaps my favourite kind of jam and the only jam I eat when I go to France. The French are so good at apricot jam. But apricots are never cheap and never bounteous here. Maybe this year I will see if I can buy a box of them at the Queen Vic market. To hell with the expense on that one. It is just so delicious.


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