FOOD & DRINK: Impromptu jam session

Where can you find a strawberry jam with that true fruit-filled flavour? Michael Bateman and his panel taste what the market offers and select their top 10 JAM TODAY
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The Independent Culture
NOT EVERYTHING changes for the worse. In our blind tasting of commercial strawberry jams, one that has been made to the same recipe for 110 years came top . And what a glorious mouthful it is - the renowned Wilkin and Sons Strawberry Conserve from Wilkin of Tiptree, Essex, founded in 1885.

There can be few greater treats than a well-made jam, one that captures the luscious taste of freshly picked fruit. Yet, for years, it seemed that everything was going wrong with the commercial jam we spread on our daily bread. If you wanted good jam, you had to make it yourself. It might be a bit amateurish, too runny or too stiff, sometimes too dark because it was overcooked, but it had the unmistakeable freshness of flavour that the factory jams lacked.

Happily, a premiership of jams has been developing, and if you don't mind paying more for premium, "extra" jam, you get a better deal. At least, sometimes you do. We put more than 30 of the major extra jams to the test. Five tasters agreed that a third of them were very good, most of the others average, and a few of them quite hopeless.

Judging the quality of strawberry jam, we discovered, is a subjective business. The tasters separated into two camps: those who liked jam with large, compact, whole fruit, and those who preferred fruit in small pieces. Opinions on texture were divided, too. Some looked for a jam that was firmish, but not as stiff as a jelly. Others didn't mind it being quite sloppy, as long as it didn't run off the plate. All were agreed, however, on the prime importance of flavour. And there was consensus, also, about the need for sufficient sugar to bring out the fresh strawberry flavour. Nobody liked the "reduced sugar" jams.

The tasting was held in the tearoom of the Four Seasons Hotel where the chef, Eric Deblonde, puts on probably the most ambitious tea in London. He and I were joined by Henrietta Green, author of the new Food Lovers' Guide to Britain, Justin de Blank, purveyor of high-class grocer-ies, and Walter Scott, production director of the aforesaid Wilkin of Tiptree (even excluding his vote, the Tiptree jam was still a winner).

We did not reach total accord. Justin de Blank's favourites, Bonne Maman and Rose-bud, didn't even make the other panellists' top 10. The same was true of Elsenham Very Very Strawberry Jam, singled out by two panellists. Three tasters put the two Wilkin jams in their top three. Finally, however, we were able to agree an overall Top 10, which is displayed in the box overleaf on page 59.

Which were the also-rans? Some famous names. Among those that failed to make it were Harrods, Selfridges, Fortnum & Mason and Harvey Nichols, not to mention Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury's, Safeway and Waitrose.

We asked Walter Scott why he thought his company's jam was the panel's favourite. Consist-ency, he suggested. The recipes for most modern premium jams, he said, are changing all the time; some include liqueurs, which are perceived as a mark of added value; others swing with fashion, hence the reduced-sugar jams.

There is also the modern technique of jam-making, which reduces evaporation and therefore weight loss. This gives a good colour but does not, in Mr Scott's opinion, make good jam. And the large manufacturers, such as Chivers and Hartley, boil up jam in bulk, 2,000kg at a time, while at Tiptree they still make it in small batches, 70kg (150lb) at a time.

"I discovered a hand-written recipe dating from 1902," said Mr Scott. "The varieties of strawberries may have changed over the years, but the recipe hasn't."

According to Mr Scott, rapid boiling is vital. Their jam is made in 10 minutes only, from uncooked fruit to finished product; the pans are wrapped in steam jackets, and the sugar and fruit are boiled by a heating element at the core. Little needs to be added. Pectin, of course, or the jam will not set, as strawberries have virtually none of their own, which is why home cooks are recommended to use lemon juice (commercial pectin is a citrus derivative). At Tiptree, Wilkin and Sons balance the pH (acid level) with as little citric acid as possible, thus avoiding a trend to sharper jams.

Strawberries are sweet, not sour. Keep them that way, is their motto.

Much of the fruit they use is grown on their own farms, and they are purist in their choice of varieties, preferring Cambridge Favourite and Red Gauntlet to the high-yielding Elsanta, which represents the bulk of strawberries grown today, but doesn't give the Tiptree flavour.

The Tiptree farms are famous in Essex, though the area seems to have been bog and heath when a Saxon called Tippa staked his claim to the land around a large tree, Tippa's Tree. The Wilkin family emerged in the second half of the 18th century as fruit growers, but it was the far-sighted Victorian founder of the company, Arthur Charles Wilkin, JP, a radical Liberal, non-conformist, Temperance advocate, who massively improved the lands and expanded work on experimental fruit-growing.

Records show how he manured some 200 acres with eight barges of London manure, some 575 tons, plus 82 tons of the same by rail, plus 1,838 bushels of mussels, 12 tons of starfish and seven tons of Peruvian guano. Apparently it was a suggestion from Gladstone, then prime minister, that led Mr Wilkin to make his fruit into jam. And so it was that, in 1885, his first batches were made; the whole lot was immediately snapped up by an Australian merchant.

Arthur Charles Wilkin's precepts live on, and are summed up as much today as then, in a verse he was fond of reciting (by the 17th-century poet Thomas Carew):

No foreign gums nor essence fetched from afar,

No volatile spirits nor compounds that are

Adulterate, but at nature's cheap expense

With far more genuine sweets refresh the sense.

The Tiptree taste. !

JAM TODAY: THE TOP TEN 1 Wilkin and Sons Strawberry Conserve, 340g, pounds 1.25

2 Crabtree and Evelyn Strawberry Preserve with Curacao, 227g, pounds 2.50

3 Wilkin and Sons Little Scarlet, 340g, pounds 2.05p

4 Bonne Maman, 340g, pounds 1.39

5 Tesco Strawberry Conserve, 340g, pounds 1.09

5 Materne Les Fruits Gourmands, 340g, pounds 1.54

5 Garden of Suffolk Strawberry Hand-made Jam, 453g, approx pounds 1.50

5 Elsenham Very Very Strawberry Conserve, 250g, pounds 1.35

9 Rosebud Strawberry Jam, 340g, pounds 2.20 (Harvey Nichols, Conran Shop or mail order; Rosebud Farm, Healey, Ripon, North Yorkshire, HG4 4LH)

10 Stonham Hedgerow Strawberry Jam, 454g, pounds 2 (Farm shops and delicatessens in East Anglia and the South-east)