Adventures with Jam and Jelly

Westmoreland Damsons from Cumbria

Strawberries grown nr Colchester, Essex

Of the many culinary activities I enjoyed as a child, I have no memory of making jam at home. We always had a plentiful crop of soft fruit in our garden every summer – raspberries and gooseberries.  The raspberries would be eaten on their own with sugar and vanilla ice cream and the gooseberries would be transformed into a magnificent fruit fool served in a heavy cut glass bowl.  Like many other families in the 60s my first experience of jam was Roberston’s.

I remember my mother cutting open shop bought jam doughnuts, scraping out the lurid pink runny stuff inside them and replacing it with a generous dollop of Robertson’s strawberry jam.

So making jams and jellies is a journey of discovery on which I’ve happily embarked.  Aided and abetted by my jam making friends, the internet and my jam making bible “The Basic Basics – Jams, Preserves and Chutneys” by Marguerite Patten, I’m slowly but surely extending my repertoire.   From a humble home-produced Grape Jelly (courtesy of my neighbours’ grape vine) to plum, damson and gooseberry jams and more recently, an all time favourite, Redcurrant Jelly.

Last week I got a good deal on twelve punnets of redcurrants.   I adore home-made redcurrant jelly.  I find the commercially available ones  way too sweet, masking the lovely tart flavour of the translucent red berries.  Redcurrant Jelly is really very easy to make.

Redcurrant jelly on pain de mie

 The joy of making jelly is that the fruit preparation is quick and simple.  Keeping the stalks on and even the odd leaf, slowly simmer the redcurrants until they’re really soft.  You can add some water if your redcurrants aren’t very ripe and then just plop the lot (stalks and all) into a sterilised jelly bag suspended over a large bowl and leave it to drip over night.   The following morning you should have a good quantity of ruby red liquid.  If you want a beautiful clear jelly, do resist the temptation to squeeze the last drops out of your jelly bag.  If you’re not bothered about producing a cloudy redcurrant jelly then go right ahead.

Jelly bag with redcurrants

I have discovered that jelly sets much faster than jam and if you’re not careful your jelly will start setting in the pan if you are not quick enough to pot them into their jars. After measuring the redcurrant liquid in my bowl, I warmed my redcurrant liquid on a low heat adding the sugar until it was all dissolved.  I reduced the sugar content a fair bit as I prefer a tarter tasting jelly.  After a fast boil my jelly reached setting point within 8-10 mins and after a quick skim, was ready to be potted into hot, sterilised jars.  Redcurrant jelly is equally delicious on freshly baked bread and butter and its tangy flavour perfectly offsets the richness of roast meats or game.

In my early days of making jam, I made many batches which simply had to be thrown away either because I’d over boiled the fruit and sugar resulting in a solid mass of caramelized brown toffee or at the opposite end of the scale, my jammy mixture would refuse to set and I’d be left with jars of sloppy unset jam.

I’ve definitely learned from my mistakes.  I’ve shared with other jam makers, read jam making blogs and have simply made a lot more jam over the years.  I’ve learned that it is better to make a few small batches of jam than one large one.  Cooking time is reduced which preserves more of the fruits flavour and in case it does goes wrong, you waste less of your precious fruit.

In June, with the early appearance of strawberries at the end of May, I set about making my first strawberry jam.  Armed with my recently purchased preserving pan (JamJarShop),  jam thermometer and strawberries, I set to work.

All went smoothly until I tried to get the jam to set. After hard boiling and trying all three jam setting tests – The Wrinkle, The Flake and The Temperature test.  My jam would still not set!!

I know I’m not alone here – strawberry jam is notoriously tricky. Strawberries are low in pectin.   I took immediate action,  googled and found advice recommending the addition of rhubarb (high in pectin) to solve my jam setting problem.  I happened to have a small quantity of stewed rhubarb in my fridge so tipped the lot into my pan and tried again.  Reader……it worked like a dream. The rhubarb didn’t overpower the taste of the strawberries and it broke down quickly and disappeared into the jam. I now have 10 lovely jars of strawberry and rhubarb jam.

I love this time of year when there is such an abundance of produce and I can make something different every day.  I’m off to make my next batch right now.   Happy Jamming.

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