God Makes Preserves

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.

Respect Your Elder

I’ve been promising myself, and promising and promising and promising, that I will get around to writing about my recent experiments with elderflowers. And finally, I have got around to doing it, and I’ve left it too late for anyone else to use the recipes or even try other recipes using the flowers this year, as they’re now out of season. So my first request is: please forgive me, and my first lesson is: elderflowers are only in bloom for a few weeks a year – don’t miss it!

As well as being reunited with my beloved teashop, my move back to London reunited me with my beloved dog, the mostly-border collie pictured licking an empty tin of golden syrup clean a few weeks ago. While walking him, I discovered that the paths where I used to go blackberry picking with my mother are also lined with elder trees. And once I’d noticed it, I kept seeing it everywhere. Our street here is full of elder. It lines the college playing fields over the road, the path down to the park, and the riverbank. So once it was in bloom, I trundled down with my dog, my trug and a pair of scissors, and carefully started collecting heads of flowers. I decided to view it as pruning, so I only took a few heads from each plant, and did my best to thin out clusters of flowers as my mother does in her back garden with the apple tree. This should let the plant focus its effort on only a few of the flowers it initially produced, eventually – hopefully – creating better fruit come the Autumn (when I’ll no doubt try out some elderberry recipes!)

Armed with a trug full of elderflowers, I searched online for recipes for Elderflower Cordial. It seemed simple enough, and the only ingredient I didn’t have was citric acid. I popped out to a local pharmacy and headed home from successful – though only after being quizzed on what I wanted it for; apparently citric acid is used in the production of heroin. I’m fairly sure that, were I an accomplished heroin-producer, I’d be savvy enough to lie and pretend I made vast quantities of fruit cordial, rather than announce my drug-baron career and shady intentions. Anyway, my declaration of honest intentions believed and citric acid in hand, I began making my cordial.

One of the best things I found about making it was that for twenty-four hours – and my mother will vouch for this – our kitchen smelled delicious. Sliced lemon and orange, elderflowers, sugar and citric acid were steeped in good old tap water, in my beautiful Mason Cash mixing bowl (the one I admired on my window sill for three days after being given it as a birthday present). I covered them with a tea towel, and left overnight, stirring occasionally. This simple mixture gave off enough perfume that every time you opened the kitchen door, you were greeted with a gust of floral deliciousness that made your mouth water and almost tricked your subconscious into believing it was actually sunny outside. The next day, I strained the mixture through muslin, bottled it and voila! The cordial was done. I have to say if you’re thinking of making this yourself, I don’t know how long it keeps for – I confess mine didn’t last that long; my mother and I drank it before we could find out.

The success of the Elderflower Cordial Venture provoked my mum into asking that I find something to do with her bush of Lemon Balm. I experimented with Lemon Balm Cordial (exactly the same as the Elderflower recipe, except I substituted a lime instead of the orange) which was nice, but not as nice as the elderflower. However, the Lemon Shrub proved much nicer, not to mention a little more potent. I got the recipe from a book called Hedgerow Harvest that my mum bought from William Powell when she came to visit me, and it’s pretty simple. You take quite a lot of lemon balm leaves and rinse them, before sticking them in a bottles-worth of brandy with some lemons and lemon rind for three days. I then added half a bottle of dry white wine and sugar, and left for another two days before straining and bottling. It’s very easy, and the result is a little like Pimms – you can drink it on its own (though better over ice in my opinion as it’s quite strong!) but it’s also quite nice topped up with lemonade, or even sparkling elderflower. You can really taste the lemon balm, and it’s not too sweet either. Very refreshing, and Mum especially seems to enjoy it.

I also experimented with an elderflower champagne from the same book, but need to experiment next year with the quantities of sugar used, and possibly add some sort of preservative (possibly more citric acid) as my finished ‘champagne’ was far too sweet for most to drink neat, and one bottle has started going ever so mouldy on top (and I haven’t even opened it yet). That said, the unmouldy bottles made for delicious mixers, especially when added to a gin and tonic on a recent hen weekend – though I must point out that using an alcoholic mixer makes your trusty G&T a little stronger than you expect, and the mother of the bride should back me up on that! I was quite amazed – and delighted – that I discovered things to make from (more or less) wild plants while living on the outskirts of London. And I know from previous experience that the areas where I found the elder also provide a decent harvest of blackberries in the Autumn, and if you pick the right time of year, there are even some wild plum trees hidden by the railway line. I make sure I wash the fruit and flowers thoroughly; being on the outskirts of a city, not to mention by a railway line and series of factories, I imagine they’re more prone to pollution than the same picked out in the countryside. But it was still great fun, and I even managed to use the left over fruit from the various concoctions described above to make a sort of marmalade jam, by chopping the peel, flesh and pith of the citrus fruits very finely and boiling up in a little elderflower cordial. I then weighed this, added 75% of that weight in sugar and boiled to setting point[i] before filling sterilised jars and sealing. It might not be luxury marmalade, but it helps limit waste and it tastes lovely on toast.

All of my creations/experiments are poured, spooned or decanted into nice jars and bottles, some of which I bought and some of which are reused. I label bottles with big brown labels that you can tie on – this saves you peeling stickers of at a later date when you want to reuse the bottle again, and doesn’t look too bad. From experience I’d recommend using a water-resistant pen to do the writing – a few of my labels have ended up illegible as a result of having elderflower champagne splashed onto them during pouring. All in all, I’ve ended up with quite a nice array of delicious jams, curds and drinks, and if it wasn’t already obvious from this and previous posts, I’m quite proud of myself. Hopefully wherever I move next will prove just as fruitful (and flowerful) for more homemade experiments.

[i] Put a saucer in the freezer until it’s very cold. Test your jam/marmalade mixture by putting a drop of it on the icy saucer. Leave for a few seconds, and then nudge with your fingernail. If the surface wrinkles, your jam is at setting point and ready to be poured into pretty jars.