Think jam is the stuff of naff tearooms and dusty fetes? Saints preserve us, tuts inveterate jam fan Emma Mitchell.
I like to dawdle near the jam shelves in the supermarket. If there’s a jar of preserve on a car boot sale stall it comes home with me. If it contains things gathered from a hedgerow then I buy two. The lure of the garnet-coloured jars full of damsons and strawberries is strong. A row of glowing pots on a shelf is enough to induce hyperventilation. I’m a jam addict. I’m not sure whether there’s a twelve-step programme for this. Perhaps there needs to be a Tiptrees Anonymous.
The cunning use of hot sugar is what turns fruit into jam. Much of the water in the fruit is replaced by sucrose, which discourages the growth of microbes. It’s a sort of sweet suspended animation – the blackberry equivalent of encasing Han Solo in carbonite. Summer is captured in a glass pot and sits on a shelf awaiting a moment of need. Open the lid and July can be spread onto a scone, bringing cheer to a dreich day. Baked goods are not always required. Sometimes I eat jam on its own with a spoon.
Blackcurrant is a favourite: almost wincingly sharp and slightly gritty with seeds. Plum jam is wonderful on toast and a good raspberry jam is one of the summeriest-tasting foods known to humankind. Gooseberries have fallen out of favour in recent decades but my Grandad’s gooseberry jam was the colour of rosé wine and tasted deliciously similar. I’m fond of a jam with a spot of booze in it: strawberries and champagne, marmalade with whisky, apricot with amaretto.
And yet, until recently, I had never made my own jam.
The main reason for my lack of preserving experience was my fear of boiling sugar. I worried for the safety of my arm hair. What if boiling sugar fell on the dog? Horror! There’s also a baffling array of hardware, terminology and processes involved: funnels, thermometers, sterilisation, wax discs, “crinkle test”. I’m an ex-biologist, yet all this jammy science was daunting.
This needed to change. I could no longer live with the shame of being a craft blogger and collector of jam who had never made her own. Child labour was employed to gather materials. The hedgerows were overrun with blackberries and my daughters brought home several Tupperware boxes full to the brim with perfect fruit from our local wood. We froze down several pounds of it. Then I asked Twitter for jammy advice. Tips included “put the dog in the garden”, “shave your arms” and “buy a very long wooden spoon.” I was not reassured. I bought a jam funnel and consulted recipes. Apparently the pectin in apples helps the blackberry jam to set. The combination of apple and blackberry is familiar from the hundreds of crumbles I’ve made. If it went wrong I could fling some crumble mix on top and all would not be lost.
The fruit was prepared, along with some golden raspberries, and I brought the lot to the boil with the sugar using Nigel Slater’s recipe for soft set jam. I prefer a slightly sharper jam and he recommends around 10% less sugar than most recipes. Nigel’s honeyed words reassured me as I hovered nervously over my massive pan, anticipating a sticky doom. I don’t have a special jam thermometer but I performed the crinkle test on a saucer I had stashed in the freezer. There was a crinkle! My jam was on the verge of setting. I was keen to add a little liqueur at the end. The recipe recommends framboise but as I had some damson gin I added a spoonful during the last minute or two of vigorous boiling. I sterlised jars, decanted my jam and fiddled around with wax discs. I did a happy jam-fuelled sigh while wearing a pinny. Suddenly I felt rather like Mrs Patmore.
No eyebrows or dogs were harmed during the making of this jam. It is perfect potted crumble filling that will last for years and the damson gin gives it a slightly more grown up flavour. It has roly-poly and Victoria sponge potential and tastes truly stupendous on crumpets.
I’ve even tried it in the following recipe, invented by my husband to cheer me during one of the less enjoyable days of pregnancy. It isn’t complicated but it is pudding, and it takes approximately 1½ minutes to make.
Spread cream cheese liberally onto toast.
Dollop homemade jam on top (shop-bought will do).
Eat with glee.
Jam spreads fruity happiness, especially when combined with large dollops of dairy product, and now I have a stash of it as insurance against a grey Tuesday afternoon in January (though I doubt it will last that long). I needn’t have been so frightened. Jam forever, not just tomorrow.
I make things, mostly out of silver, sometimes out of wool. I’m never too far from a bottle of PVA glue.