As I’ve mentioned before (just a few times) it was my mum who introduced me to the sticky joy of making jam, jelly and other things that you can put into jars. And it’s highly likely that one source of her love of making blackberry jam and quince marmalade (among other things) is the author L. M. Montgomery, or more specifically, her second book about Anne-with-an-E, Anne of Avonlea. For those of you who haven’t read it, or who have but can’t quite recall the details, Anne ends up helping her guardian Marilla raise two twins, prim, shy little Dora, and the cheerfully mischievous Davy. In Chapter 14, Anne catches Davy stealing plum jam (evidently another Jam Fan) and the following conversation ensues:
‘Anyhow, there’ll be plenty of jam in heaven, that’s one comfort,’ he said complacently.
Anne nipped a smile in the bud.
‘Perhaps there will… if we want it,’ she said, ‘but what makes you think so?’
‘Why, it’s in the catechism,’ said Davy.
‘Oh, no, there is nothing like that in the catechism Davy.’
‘But I tell you there is,’ persisted Davy. ‘It was in that question Marilla taught me last Sunday. “Why should we love God?” It says, “Because He makes preserves, and redeems us.” Preserves is just a holy way of saying jam.’
My mother has quoted at me “God makes preserves” more times than I can count (though I should point out for the sake of her reputation as a mother that she never let me believe it). And if God enjoys making preserves, why shouldn’t we?
The clearest bit of the jam-making process that I remember from being little was collecting the fruit. Admittedly, my brother and I were weirdly enthusiastic about many collecting things, particularly conkers. One year we collected enough conkers from Twickenham Green to fill what I remember as ten or twenty huge plastic boxes, though this memory could be a victim of the innate hyperbole of a child’s mind. We’d rummage through the leaves, looking for the really shiny conkers or better yet, the spikey green balls that, if you were lucky enough, you could crack open carefully to reveal a completely perfect conker, untouched by other people’s fingers or even by sunlight. Mum used to help my brother peel the conkers. Then they’d soak one in green dye, and trace over the lines with a red biro to make a ‘rat’s brain’. Easily pleased, I preferred to try and find the best, roundest and shiniest conker of the year. Sadly though, however successful I was, the glossy sheen never lasted and before long my poor father had to come up with a means to dispose of what was undoubtedly many many kilograms of mouldy, unwanted, and by now unloved conkers.
Near the house we lived in then was a park and near that an area of land left wild to help encourage local wildlife, especially birds. Both of these, and the playing fields near by were and still are full not only of the aforementioned elderflowers, but also brambles. We used to march down the road to these brambles, plastic tubs in hand, and set about collecting the blackberries. Now, the good thing about collecting blackberries rather than conkers was that they were tasty, and what’s more, Mum would help us make the ones we hadn’t eaten into jam before they succumbed to the mould that ruined the fun of the conkers. They had to come off the bush easily and in theory, for every one we ate straight off the bush, we had to make sure at least a few went into the tub. Sticky little fingers stained purple, we’d return home with blackberries in hand, terribly proud of ourselves and for some unfathomable reason, not quite hungry enough to finish dinner. The berries would be rinsed, plopped into the big Jam Pan and boiled up with plenty of sugar before being decanted into jars and eventually, far more importantly, spread on toast with peanut butter. Yum.
When I was 10, we moved house, and discovered that the new house had two apple trees and a quince bush in the garden. The apple trees proved to have a bit of history to them: apparently the whole area used to be one big orchard. When they built the houses, the clever designer elected not to destroy all the trees (kind soul) but rather to leave every third or fourth three in every fourth or fifth row, and to build the back gardens and houses around them. This means, allegedly, that if you were to fly over our area in a helicopter, and look at the houses from above, you should be able to see all our little suburban apple trees line up rather marvellously, giving a vague indication of the orchard of times gone by. While I can’t vouch for the truth of this, I am the proud owner of (a copy of) a map of our area from the seventeen or eighteen hundreds, which indicates that there was indeed an orchard of some description in the area in which I believe our house is now.[i] And definitely it’s true that our next-door neighbour’s apple tree is exactly in line with ours, and more or less in the middle of the end of her garden.
Apple trees and the resulting crumbles, cakes, juices and failed attempts at cider aside, the quince bush proved rather more exciting, in that it enticed my mother into experimenting with quince marmalades and jellies, and I have to say she got quite good at it. Later experiments with different sugars produced rather a delicious dark quince jelly (which, added to an onion gravy with a generous splash of port, make a delicious sauce for game). The successful outpourings of her quince laboratory spurred her on into playing with rhubarb, some of which we also have growing by the garden path, and the recipe she settled on for her rhubarb chutney is absolutely scrumptious (and especially good with sausages). Within a few years she had exhausted the supply of fruit in our garden, and so a couple of Christmases ago, my father bought her two crab apple trees as a present. I must admit that he didn’t attempt to wrap them; as we sat around the fireplace exchanging gifts, she unwrapped a bright green pipe-cleaner tree with apple bonbons adorning its branches and a little plastic crab gripping the top of the ‘tree’ with one claw in a sadly unsuccessful impersonation of the silver star atop the Christmas tree.
The two varieties of crab apple proved to be a source of one very fragrant crab apple jelly, pinkish red in hue, and a soft orange Butterball Jelly with a rather honey-like flavour. A year or two later, a microscopist my mother visited for work purposes (don’t ask) nearly cried when my mother agreed to take home a big basket full of Bramley apples from her overburdened tree. The two Bramley apple jellies that resulted proved to be just as nice as the crab apple ones, and so, by now armed with quite the arsenal of homemade jams, jellies, chutneys and marmalades, my mother started the little homespun company, Twickenham Preserves. The small jars are now sold at Sandy’s Fishmongers and Last Try Wines in Twickenham, and tomorrow (1st July 2012) will be for sale at the Tiffin Boys’ School car boot sale in Kingston (just in case you happen to be passing). With a rather more successful version of my spicy pear chutney (which is very definitely a chutney this time, not a pickle) added to the mix, we’re rather hoping the people of Kingston like our little jars of jelly – after all, if God appreciates preserves, then they should be good enough for the rest of us, shouldn’t they?
[i] My skills in reading modern maps are at best passable. My skills in reading ye olde maps I would not in any way shape or form rely upon. Ever.