Sunday December 1st 2013

Don’t be afraid of the jam


First published here for Bea Magazine in November 2013.

If you’d told me a year ago that I’d do consecutive Bea posts about crochet then jam I’m have told you that you were crazy. I’m not really the sort of person who does either crochet or jam, and, as I’ve previously written, I’m not really into the whole Cath Kidston/being a fifties housewife but with a job thing. I’m still dressing like a scruffy student, circa 1990-something. And I most certainly have absolutely no plans (and I mean NO plans) to join the Women’s Institute. Ever. I more than appreciate that its members are mostly fine, upstanding, lovely, but I’m someone who defiantly continued pretending to be a student until I was eight months pregnant and cheerfully took my daughter (in utero) along to noisy gigs and late night comedy until the very last minute. Am I really going to settle into a quiet village life and be happy with it? Am I going to join the gardens association or attend coffee mornings?

Well, I don’t know. It’s funny how easily one does slip into all of that stuff, and I’ve slipped into some of it. I’ve somehow ended up as a school governor, and I can often be found making a cake for some event or other, though once it’s been delivered, I’m usually conspicuous by my absence at said event. And in general, I do seem to be slowly mastering so many of the skills that come in handy when you’re in a small village community and have a child at the village school. Gardening, crafts, minor fundraising activity, baking, sewing… and jamming. Jam is one of those things that’s always there at village events, along with the cakes, the raffle and the dodgy tombola of terrible things. Though, to be fair, I only make jam for myself, and to give to relatives at Christmas.

Just as with crochet, before I began, I had a sense that jam was a bit beyond me. I have always been a relatively good cook; an instinctive cook. I don’t use recipes much, I just happily throw ingredients into pans and mixing bowls and hope for the best. This approach hardly ever goes entirely wrong and usually yields pretty good results, but I never dreamed I’d be able to apply it to jam. Jam always seemed to me to be an exact science; you needed a special jam pan, special strainers, jam thermometers, special pots to put it in. And of course you’d have to stick to the recipe. It’s a recipe where something has to *set*, of course you have to stick to the recipe. And sticking to recipes is something I assiduously avoid.

A couple of years ago, I found myself forced to make jam for the first time. Well, I say forced; no-one was standing with a gun to my head making me do it, but I felt a moral duty to do it because of a massive glut of fruit and vegetables that I couldn’t seem to get rid of. We were eating as many as possible, but everyone else around here grows stuff too, so giving them away wasn’t really an option, and there was only so much room in the freezer for the things that would freeze. So, I made pear jam, marrow and ginger jam, cherry tomato and chilli jam, and pear chutney. The best one was the cherry tomato and chilli jam. It was lovely with cheese.

But it was a faff. And the recipes I used all called for massive amounts of fruit or veg to make them. It made me feel as though jam-making is pointless unless you make tonnes of it, and that it has to be a big, painful, jar-sterilising, effortful effort. And of course, it can be like that. But what a couple of years of jam-making has taught me is that it doesn’t have to be like that at all. And boy, am I glad.

I discovered that:

1) I can get away with not weighing out sugar, just throwing it in until it tastes sweet enough
2) that I don’t need to make ten jars at a time
3) you don’t need all that insane paraphernalia like thermometers

I discovered that you need

1) a thick bottomed pan (too thin and it can easily burn)
2) any old amount of fruit that you like
3) jam sugar
4) a few old jars that you’ve put through the dishwasher and one of those jam making kits with the rubber bands, wax discs and cellophane discs in it.

I discovered that what you do is this:

1) put a couple of your old jars in a hot oven to sterilise
2) prepare your fruit and stick it in your pan, then boil it up until it’s gone mushy
3) add jam sugar until it tastes as sweet as jam usually is, then boil and boil and boil
4) once it’s boiled for a bit, drop a teaspoonful on a cold plate and once it’s cool, see if it goes wrinkly when you touch it.
5) When it’s wrinkly, spoon it into jars and put a wax disc on top. When it’s cool, dampen a cellophane disc and stretch it over the top of the jar and put a rubber band round it.

So, that’s it. Jam making is ludicrously simple, and I feel as though someone (Jam companies? The media? Recipe books?) has been selling me a lie about its complexitude my whole life. And it’s a shame. Because no jam that you buy in the shop tastes anywhere near as good as homemade raspberry and blackcurrant. And as long as you keep it simple, you probably have time in your life to do this.

And here’s how to keep it simple: Do it with fruit that’s easy to prepare. I had a massive grape glut this year and recently spent what felt like an entire day (possibly only an hour or so) standing over a massive pile of grapes, carefully washing the tiny snails out of it (don’t worry, I found a lovely place in the garden to re-home them) and getting the fruit off the vines. The resulting grape jelly is incredibly good. Amazingly delicious on toast. But god, I had to work for it. Don’t be like me, choose fruit you can just throw into a colander and quickly rinse under the tap. Raspberries and strawberries, for example. Remember that you have to peel fruits like peaches.

So there you have it. Everyone can have delicious home made jam if they want to, and it’s really not that hard. Buy a couple of punnets of strawberries when they are on special offer and give it a whirl.

Just don’t get involved with selling it at the village fete. For that way darkness lies…