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.

The Ghost of Christmas Presents Past

At the back of the house I lived in in Banbury was a little square of lawn. Well-kept and maintained by the landlord, the flowerbeds surrounding the grass sported some fairly hardy plants that could cope with the physical and emotional neglect of the residents. At the back, stood a tiny little Conference pear tree that last Autumn, either due to a freakishly warm spell earlier in the year, or simply its own enthusiasm and determination to prove itself, produced a crop of fruit so substantial that the weight of the pears snapped the main trunk of the tree (still only about 2-3cm in diameter). I called my landlord to explain that I had picked all of the not-quite-ripe pears from the tree, and strapped it up as best I could in the hope that without its fruity burden it might recover. I asked if the landlord and his wife wanted the pears, and in answer he explained, in a bemused tone of voice, that he had only bought the tree for decoration because it looked pretty.

When I moved to Banbury last year, and despite my naivety when it comes to all things country, the girls I moved in with demonstrated fairly clearly that there is a whole other category of people who are in no way country-kitchen inclined. I stuck out like a sore thumb amid the hair extensions, acrylic nails, intense gym regimes and sunbeds, with my tweed coat (and yet only Joules tweed, not ‘real’ tweed), a pair of non-fashion wellies (despite what some people I’ve met in the last year might say about Hunters, mine are green and normal, not crocodile print, patent, beribboned, high-heeled or fluorescent) and my culinary habits. Admittedly, the girl who lived there before me had enjoyed cooking also (she and I in fact became good friends, and I’ve been lucky enough to taste some of the products of her kitchen, including the best Shrove Tuesday feast in history!) so the kitchen wasn’t entirely unused, but one of the current residents described her style of cooking as “pop, pop, pop!” alluding to the noise of piercing the film on ready meals before popping them in the microwave.

The attitude of the girls probably goes some way to explaining my landlord’s bewilderment when I called him up to ask about the pears. But due to his lack of interest in the products of the pretty tree and his generosity, I was left with 6kg of under-ripe pears to play with. Even after leaving them to ripen for a few days, they weren’t sweet enough to enjoy in a crumble or cake, and so I decided to try and make chutney – the first time of doing so without my Mum taking the reins. I picked and followed a recipe from the web, and added my cranberries, apricots, chilli flakes, spices and vinegar to make a Christmas chutney. By the time I reached the end of the recipe, I was left with what seemed to me to be a slightly vinegary fruit salad. It bore no resemblance to either the chutney my Mum makes, or the chutney served in restaurants with pate and Melba toast. The fruit pieces were all still very much identifiable but warm with a sweet, tangy coating. Frustrated and disappointed, with two saucepans of this fruit mixture in front of me, and a house smelling rather strongly of vinegar, I decided I had only four options. After neither my mother nor grandmother answered the phone, I had only two: give up, or Google.

Trusty Google suggested that other, non-pear based chutney recipes had vastly more sugar and vinegar than the recipe I had followed, and so after a mercy dash to the supermarket for more vinegar and a jam pan (I was running out of room in the pans I had been using), I took a deep breathe, hoped for the best and emptied a bottle of cider vinegar into the mixture, and added more sugar. Sure enough, after more cooking time and some stirring, poking and prodding, I was left with a mixture that looked much more like chutney. The only problem was, it tasted very much more like a pickle. Never one to be defeated, I sterilised some jars, filled them with the mixture, wiped the edges and sealed them. Later on, I covered each lid in a square of  tweed, tied them with rafia and labelled them all as ‘Spicy Christmas Pickle’.

These jars of pickle – and I had quite a few of them – were the beginning of my Christmas hampers last year. It was only September, but still I started collecting bits and pieces as I went along. Empty Dowe Egberts coffee jars from the office were perfect for homemade fudge. I bought some cheap but nice jars and a basket from a warehouse sale, and knowing my mother’s taste for gardening, bought a rather lovely trug as the base for my parents’ hamper (she has sworn to actually use it to garden, and not keep it ‘for best’). Closer to Christmas, I set about making the other bits and pieces. I strained and bottled half of my sloe gin, and made up a batch of fudge from a recipe given to me by a colleague – a sort of cross between fudge and Scottish tablet, very yummy and very moreish. Then I began the epic battle with the gingerbread men. I mixed up a batch of gingerbread men, and having carefully cut them out and baked them to perfection, laid them carefully in my biscuit and cake tins until I was ready to ice them. Sadly, either a caring housemate or gravity caused the lid of the tin (balanced slightly on top, as my biscuit tin was too popular, and over filled with gingerbread guests) to close properly, and broke every single gingerbread person bar two.

After a whiny phone call to complain to a friend, I took another deep breath and piled the broken pieces into a container to be taken to work (people there were always happy to help clear away the evidence of baking mishaps), then set about making another batch. I used the opportunity to use a different recipe, as the one I’d followed originally didn’t seem that gingery or spicy to me, and I wanted my gingerbread men to have a real spicy flavour. The new recipe had black treacle (molasses) and far more spices, and I used the syrup from a jar of stem ginger instead of golden syrup to add to the flavour. After baking, I spread them all out on the kitchen counter to cool before icing – and there were quite a lot of them. My housemates couldn’t believe it when they walked into the house one evening, slightly tipsy, to see their kitchen turned into a Gingerbread Man production factory. Once they’d got over the shock, they agreed to be my taste testers, and agreed that the newest batch of gingerbread men was much tastier than the old one. And after icing in red, white and green (it was Christmas after all!) they looked the part too. Once fully cooled and set, they were bagged up in groups of four (with at least one gingerbread lady per bag), tied with red or green ribbons, and labelled for the appropriate family members.

Final additions were made: some chocolate fridge cake bars (with edible gold stars on for a bit of Christmas sparkle), soft cinnamony Snickerdoodle cookies for grandparents with false teeth, a few prettily wrapped bars of soap we’d had come in at work, novelty Geordie-themed items for my Northern grandmother, and a couple more gardening and home bits for Mum and Dad. For those recipients who I knew wouldn’t appreciate clutter, the bits and pieces were popped into recyclable cardboard boxes wrapped in wrapping paper instead of baskets, and were filled with raffia or tissue paper. The results looked pretty, were very well received and according to feedback were tasty too.

The things to remember when making bits yourself are never to be deterred, and to use your imagination to personalise and also to cover up mistakes. One of my gingerbread men was blessed (cursed?) with ginger hair for one of my best friends – only because I knew how much it would irritate him. And when I dropped the edge of the baking tray onto one still-soft gingerbread man’s arm, he was graced with a white-iced bandage and sad face when it came to icing. You can add a sense of humour to your gifts, and while it sounds cliché, people really really do appreciate the effort you’ve put in. I’ll definitely be doing it again, though possibly not next year as I think it might be my turn to cook Christmas dinner again, and there’s only so much cooking one person wants to commit to at Christmas.