I just finished labelling the jam jars, and the count so far is 4 half-pints of blackberry jelly, 10 plum jam (7 from the Cliddesdon plums, 3 from the Eastrop plums, so I can see if they’re noticeably different), and 10 crabapple jelly. We also have two bottles of elderberry cordial and 3 large tins of dried apple rings. I made a few sheets of fruit leather, but Small Boy has already hoovered that up and keeps demanding more.
This is my favourite time of year for many reasons, but the best is all the cooking I get to do. I am happiest when covered in sugar and trying to pour boiling jam into tiny pots without scarring myself for life. There’s a tremendous amount of satisfaction that comes from foraging wild fruit and processing it into enough jam to keep us in toast for the rest of the year. Having a dehydrator this year allows me to make fruit leather and dried fruit as well, which pretty much takes care of Small Boy’s snack requirements over the winter.
In monetary terms, it comes out much cheaper than store-bought jam, but it’s not free food. There’s the expense of sugar – a 1 kilogram bag costs around 98 pence, and I use a lot of it; and the initial outlay for the dehydrator was terrible, even if I did buy it used on eBay. Then I spend a lot of hours picking the fruit, sifting out the insects (bane of my existence), washing, chopping, cooking, pitting, coring, mashing, straining, stirring and cooking some more. Not to mention extraneous factors like the strain of keeping track of Small Boy on blackberry-picking expeditions (when I am required to furnish him with a large number of berries and find him spots where he can pick low-hanging fruit while remaining unthreatened by nettles), and the occasional spine-crawling moment when I’m plucking elderberries off their stems and a weevil crawls onto my hand. Ew. Ew. Ew.
But the fun of it makes up for all the work, even if I’m occasionally up late waiting for the jelly to gel. I don’t actually mind staying up until 11 o’clock at night stirring a big pan of preserves. I sometimes pretend there are ghosts in my kitchen. My childhood memories from Kentucky are of my mother sweating over the stove, canning quart jar after quart jar of green beans and tomatoes from the garden; Granny and Mom arguing over how much sugar to put in the tomato preserves, and Dad saying he’d rather they didn’t make the nasty stuff at all; rows of dusty jars in the closet carefully labelled and consumed in order by date. I can’t do green beans because I don’t have the equipment here in England. While canning is a cottage industry in the states, with complicated instructions and equipment for processing jars in a boiling water bath to destroy bacteria and achieve a good vacuum seal, people over here just seem to cook up their jam and pour it into an old peanut butter jar and expect it to be safe for a year in the cupboard! Actually, with something as acidic as fruit jam, with such a high sugar content, that’s probably not a risk, but try it with green beans and you’re asking for botulism.
One day I’ll import a canner, but for now I content myself with jam. I pour it boiling hot into sterilised Ball jars (on which I shall discourse at a later date), and they usually vacuum-seal themselves.
I plan to post some instructions for jam and other interesting wild fruit products over the next week or two – just too late for some of them to be of use this year, but since I’m writing them immediately after I do the work, you’ve got a recipe that’s been carefully tested.