Along with cooler, clearer days and nights, autumn also brings with it the year’s greatest avalanche of produce. Eagerly anticipated fruit of every kind overwhelms our appetites and overflows our fruit bowls. But it doesn’t last long. Soon enough the gloomy fruit famine (excluding citrus) that is winter will be upon us, so before the best of the season spoils and moulders away, stock up on sugar, dust off your preserving pan and get busy.
Preserving is often described as a dying art, but I don’t think this is necessarily true. It’s my observation and frequent grumble that every other start-up food business in New Zealand seems to be based around jams and pickles, and I know of plenty of people my age (35) and a good deal younger who take serious pride in their preserves. Rather like that odd lawn bowls revival of a few years back, I think this is a bit of a post-modern affectation, but hey- whatever gets a person in the kitchen, right? Less cynically though, there is a serious movement among all ages to reclaim control of food production, to grow, prepare and preserve as much we can for the sake of our health and the long term integrity of our environment. Having a child has certainly helped galvanise my own views in this regard.
But in recent years I’ve been a bit slack about preserving my not insubstantial surplus. The intention has always been there, but not so much the time or energy. Working from home has changed this to a degree, and having a wee baby to think about has got me well and truly back on the wagon. I want her to grow up seeing growing, preparing and preserving food as a normal part of life. I also want to know exactly what’s going into her food, at least until she’s old enough to make her own ill- advised dietary decisions.
It is very easy to get caught up with the cleverness of many jam, chutney and pickle recipes out there, but there is no point making several litres of something if it’s going to take you 10 years to eat it. If you know you like feijoa jelly en mass for example, by all means make it by the bucket full. If you think loquat conserve will be a good way of using up that bird-baiting (but largely inedible) glut out back, think again. Nobody will eat it, least of all you. If you don’t believe me just think of how many times you’ve been given jars containing weird jam combinations (fig and pineapple anyone?) and shoved them to back of the pantry, where they will remain until you move house. Good produce deserves to be preserved; but it also deserves to be eaten at some point. Bad produce will generally not improve with any amount of sugary coercion.
If you’re new to jam, jelly and conserve making, start with something basic and sure to please- apricot or strawberry jams are pretty fail-safe choices. Don’t be to put off or intimidated by the seemingly rigidly of many recipes – confusing stages of sugar heating (soft- ball etc) and scary temperatures. For the most part these don’t matter too much, and can have the effect of making over anxious, recipe-addicted cooks. Locally, the Edmonds cook book, especially older editions, remain excellent introductions to the art of preserving.
Pectin is the magic ingredient -present to varying degrees in most fruits- that transforms what would otherwise be rather lumpy syrups into dense and sticky jams, conserves and all the rest. This otherwise unassuming compound (technically a complex carbohydrate/sugar ) only works its deft magic in the carefully balanced company of sugar, acid and heat. Getting the balance right isn’t hard really, but to put one’s mind at ease it can be prudent to use ‘jam sugar’. This is regular white sugar mixed with pure pectin and a little citric acid. It’s available from most supermarkets and is almost idiot proof. Almost.
Sweet preserves were originally luxury foods, composed of the choicest fruit from the master’s estate and copious quantities of cripplingly expensive, show-offy sugar. Eventually the proliferation of slave-staffed sugar plantations in the Americas caused the commodity value of sugar to plummet, and thus jams and other allied sweetmeats entered the wider food traditions of Europe. Put very simply, the success of jam in the western world is directly attributable to the North and Latin American slave trade. Not the most appetising of thoughts really…, but cotton, cocoa, coffee, and even salt have similarly grim histories.
Jam is usually defined as a roughly equal blend of fruit and sugar, cooked until the fruit collapses and that crucial setting point has been reached. Due to the varying pectin and water contents of different fruits, cooking times can be quite unpredictable. Raspberry, strawberry and apricot are considered the jams by which all others are measured, but pretty much any fruit can be made into jam. Tomatoes and chestnuts are popular and rather delicious jam ingredients in France and Italy respectively, and throughout the tropics jars of papaya, coconut (kaya), pineapple and guava jams regularly turn up on breakfast tables.
A jelly is basically a jam that has been strained through muslin by way of gravity alone. The application of pressure during the straining process will often result in a cloudy jelly, which is seen as a cardinal offense in the eyes of the Preserves Clergy (AKA the Country Women’s Institute). Muscat grape, cape gooseberry and strawberry guava are all sterling candidates for jelly treatment, and the latter is just about the finest thing one can smear on a hot buttered croissant in my very-far-from-humble opinion.
A conserve is a jam composed of whole or at least large pieces of, fruit. As a subgenre it probably represents the most fickle style of preserving, as many fruits will disintegrate long before the sugar, acid and pectin have conspired to gel. But it’s worth the extra effort. The finest sweet preserve I’ve ever eaten was a ‘simple’ peach conserve, bought from a road side stall near Leigh. The luscious chunks of peach flesh were suspended in a barely set but radiantly peachy emulsion. We ate the entire jar, still warm from the sun, on soft, buttered white bread. My attempts to recreate this in my kitchen have yet to come close to such greatness.
Fruit butters are akin to a jam that has been forced through a sieve or mouli to make a very wet paste. They usually have a milky appearance from the air bubbles forced into the mix. Fruit butters are often made with considerably less sugar than jams, and only occasionally contain actual butter (as do some jams), the name being a rather tenuous reference to appearance and texture. Quince butter is particularly delicious stuff, with its pastel pink hue and haunting rosaceous fragrance.
Fruit pastes are essentially very dense, firmly set jams. They can only be made from fruit with naturally high pectin levels, such as quince and plum (most famously damson), and are usually served as accompaniments to salty, savoury foods. Quince paste is a traditional star of the cheese board, and goes very well with strong, sticky blues or Manchego and Fino sherry – a classic of Catalan tapas bars.
Fruit pastes take a long time to cook and must be stirred constantly. The trick is to drive out as much water as possible without burning the sugar. Quince paste becomes highly volatile in the later stages of cooking, firing great globs of the spluttering, incendiary mixture out of the pot. It pays to cover up well and wear protective eye-wear at this point, as a small scar on my face can testify.
Seville Orange Paste is lesser known (and possibly invented by Maggie Beer), but an extraordinary thing. It’s easier to make by far than quince or damson, and just dazzlingly good.
Although borrowing its name from a Portuguese word for Quince paste (marmelada), marmalade is a peculiarly Scottish jam, made exclusively from citrus, and most importantly the fruits’ otherwise ignored rind. But never quince. Stranger still when you consider than citrus do not grow anywhere in Scotland, and very few places in England for that matter.
The bitter Seville orange is considered THE fruit for marmalade, due to its fantastically high levels of aromatic oil and richly flavoured, sour juice. The Italians however insist that the Bergamot orange (also used to flavour Earl Grey tea) of deepest Calabria makes the finest marmalade. Until my Bergamot tree comes of age, this one-man jury shall remain adjourned.
Marmalade is something of an acquired and rather grown up taste, with its bitter soul and mouth-numbing jolt of citrus. It does however, seem like everyone acquires it eventually.
But enough from me. Go forth and create. Keep things simple, delicious and clean. Oh, and don’t go burning yourself, now.