By Louise Oliver
Take a short walk outside, be it in the countryside or city and pretty soon you will discover a bounty of autumnal fruit. The hedgerows are brimming with brambles and rosehips, and the trees literally dripping in plums, apples and damsons. Alongside the simple pleasure of eating as you pick, for many a bevy of crumbles, cakes, and pies await. Those savvy amongst us will be thinking ahead to winter months which are sparse in fruit. Hmm, what to do?
Ah, preserving you say. Yes, jams and jellies stretch the fruits of months of abundance, especially as it feels that nature is throwing every last fruit at us before the onset of winter. Our grandparents and their parents, out of necessity, had the skills to preserve the tasty fruits of summer and autumn, to be stretched through and adorn plates in the leaner fruit months of winter. None of these tasteless air-freighted strawberries shipped in from afar for that generation. What could be more warming than a delicious jam, singing with the flavours of summer and autumn on a damp cold day?
Fear not if these skills were not passed on to you from your granny’s pinny, you can acquire them here and pass on to friends and the next generation. You too can embrace the seasons and defy them positively.
Whether you think of yourself as a scientist, alchemist, magician, musician or simply a thrifty lover of jam, here are a few top tips and recipes to start you experimenting in the kitchen and set you on your jamming journey…
Firstly starting with the fruit, steer clear of the spoiled fruits being flogged for jam, they are more suited to smoothies and the like. The ideal fruit for jam is as soon as it’s picked. As ripe fruit is sweeter, to set a jam adding acid is a top priority.
That’s the fruit picked, now to the two other star ingredients, Pectin and Sugar. My old family rule of a pound of sugar to a pound of fruit is pretty much one of the best pieces of advice passed from my wise, old Granddad. Sugar is the main preservative here, and if you want to preserve the fruit, I would suggest using no less than three quarters sugar to one part fruit. If you decide to use less, it just means that your preserve should be contained in the fridge and is an eat-now, rather than a keep-for-later jam.
Although this may appear to be a lot of sugar, a good jam does not taste sugary, it tastes of the fruit that it beholds. It sparkles with flavour, particularly due to the fruit simmering first and then boiling to set, this order is paramount in cooking jam, trust me.
I won’t talk too much about pectin, other than some fruit contains more than other, and this magical ingredient is necessary for the jam to set. By adding acid such as lemon to the jam, this aids those fruits with a lower pectin or you can add other pectin-rich fruits to your jam. A recent discovery I came across was that you can make your own pectin from apples (particularly good with this year’s bumper crop), this also cuts down on the need for expensive preserving sugar for your strawberry jam. You really are utilising every last part of your bounty- thrifty indeed.
Autumn fruit signals to me spice and none more so than the plum. The plum, cardamom and vanilla jam is delicious on toast but try serving with cheese, or meat as a twist to a Ploughman’s lunch.
Jellies are the family jewels of the preserving world, the concentrated juices of the fruit are strained (resist squeezing) resulting in a translucent, and smooth (no fruity pieces) preserve. The top tip here is to use a jelly bag or muslin and leave your fruit juice and sugar to drip overnight, resist the temptation to squeeze if you want the stained glass effect of the jelly.
In order to make sure your jelly bag is sterilised wash between jellies, or use an old pillow case and iron it -a quick method of sterilisation. It’s handy if you have a jelly stand but saying that, I use an upturned chair and with the pillowcase attached to 2 legs and a bowl underneath (a potentially messier option but a great thrifty makeshift option).
Take the bramble, there really is a difference in flavour to the cultivated one. In your bounty, try and include at least a few tight pinched ones, I think they contain the most flavour. For many, bramble jelly is a trip down memory lane and a firm favourite of the past. Why not create new memories with this bramble and apple jelly to pass on? And with the leftover pulp there are a few more members of the jam family you can make:
a fruit butter, which can be spread just like butter- simple! As butters are lower in sugar they will keep for less time so it’s a good idea to store them in smallish jars. This apple butter in particular make is like spreading a bit of Christmas on toast, or
…a fruit cheese (dairy free!) is a richer and fruitier version of a fruit butter, due to their longer cooking. They are served solid often alongside meat and are a delicious addition to your cheeseboard.
Pack your jars with the fruits of autumn, filled with various hues and flavours, there really is no such thing as too much jam although, last top tip, small batches is best for experimentation and truly marvellous jam.
So go forth, gather troops, experiment, pack your jars with berries, your cupboards with jam and, like the jam, pass on the preserving skills and in the words of the great Marley himself, you too can sing, ‘We’re Jammin!’
*For some more hints and tips see the recipe sheet…