In August, the modest and agreeable activity of making a few pounds of strawberry jam or redcurrant jelly would give way to the ordeal of converting gluts of stone fruit. That is to say, the plum family, headed up by Victorias, and supported by greengages, damsons and their cousins. Plum jam, anyone? Unless we own a fruit farm, most of us aren't faced with such a problem. And jam is hardly the vital staple it was in the first half of this century (between the wars bread-and-jam used to be the national dish).
Well, there are two reasons why you might want to make your own jam. You can make tastier jam at home than most commercial jam-makers, though not as cheaply. One pound of raspberry jam, made last month from four rather expensive, London-bought, punnets of raspberries, worked out at pounds 4.20 for the jar, a price even Harrods and Fortnum & Mason might be wary of charging.
It was an absurd outlay, maybe, but the jam was tastier than any you can buy. And the experience was a boost to confidence. Next time a PYO field beckons we should be talking of five-star quality jam at less than a pound per lb.
The second reason for making your own is that you can enjoy jams you would never see in a store, and not only esoteric varieties such as mulberry, wild strawberry, quince and medlar. For example, perfumed aubergine preserve from Armenia, Turkish fig jam, or fast-forward in time to Bruno Loubet's post-modern, liquorice and basil-flavoured jams (see recipes overleaf).
Many people today, perhaps, are put off from making jam on the grounds that you need special equipment, preserving pans, sugar thermometers, measuring jugs, specialist knowledge of temperatures, boiling points, evaporation, sugar density, pectin levels, sterilisation techniques. A glance at any book on preserving struggling to simplify jam-making usually achieves the reverse. What a lot of time, expense, trouble, difficulty. It's easier to buy a jar, surely.
It was a council road-worker who first showed me how easy jam-making can be. He was a champion strawberry-grower and made a couple of pots of jam every evening throughout the growing season. He had no other equipment than a saucepan. He began at 9pm, turning on the radio to listen to the news. By the end of the news, at a quarter past nine, the jam was made. It was as simple as that.
He picked 2lbs of his prize strawberries, neither under-ripe (lacking sweetness) nor over-ripe (they lack acidity). He hulled them, put them in a wide pan with the juice of half a lemon. He gently heated the fruit till the juices ran and, stirring steadily, he cooked them on the lowest heat until they were soft all through. This took perhaps 10 minutes. Then he added 2lbs granulated sugar, and when it had dissolved, raised the heat to very high and boiled the mixture fast for five minutes. He tested a teaspoonful of jam on a saucer, and when it wrinkled he knew it was done, and would set nicely. (It's even easier to judge if you chill the saucer first in the freezer as this accelerates the cooling process.)
He left the jam to cool and thicken for 10 minutes before ladling into jars which he'd washed out with boiling water. Inspired by his example I often make a pound or two of jam using no more than a non-stick frying pan. The smaller the quantity, the quicker the cooking time, the better the flavour.
Professional preserving pans are unsurprisingly large, but more important, they are wide-topped. This facilitates fast evaporation of water in the fruit, this being replaced by sugar, or at least sugar syrup.
You don't really need to know the chemistry of jam-making, but it's important that the fruit used is thoroughly cooked and softened before the sugar is added. (There are exceptions, explained in Bruno Loubet's strawberry and rhubarb recipe below.)
The lemon juice is not added just to sharpen the flavour. It contains pectin, a jellying agent which will help the jam to set (apples, crab- apples, gooseberries, sour plums, redcurrants, blackcurrants, and citrus fruits are high in pectin, therefore jams and jellies made with them set very easily). Strawberries contain almost none (along with cherries, rhubarb, pears, late blackberries, medlars) so they need a bit of help. Some fruit are just OK for pectin: early blackberries, raspberries, fresh apricots.
It is possible to buy special preserving sugar with pectin added (it's more expensive), and this will help with strawberry, cherry, rhubarb, and pear jams. But you can introduce extra pectin using lemon, orange, redcurrant, gooseberry or apple juice. Some chemists may sell commercial pectin, used in the jam industry, and made from citrus fruit.
Or you can add some home-made apple jelly (see recipe). And having made apple jelly, by the way, you can convert some of it to herb jellies, infusing batches with generous bunches of mint, rosemary, thyme or sage, bottling them in small mustard jars, to produce later in the year alongside winter roasts. In a pan, heat apple jelly with chosen herb, simmer five minutes and leave to cool. Strain. Add a few drops of green (or any) colouring. Put in small bottles, when nearly cool, insert a few fresh herb leaves for appearance.
On these pages, we feature jams from Stonham Hedgerow in Suffolk. Its strawberry jam was in the nation's top 10 in last year's Independent on Sunday strawberry jam taste-in. Kathy Neuteboom, 32, who runs the company, works to traditional recipes, using fruit grown on her father's farms or bought locally.
Gluts of first-quality fruit are bought at the best prices, blast-frozen in boxes, then consigned to deep-freeze storage. This is a tip you can follow at home, she suggests, delaying jam-making for a time when it's convenient. She makes batches in small quantities. "We work in the spirit of the Women's Institutes, I hope, who keep jam-making alive, selling at summer stalls every weekend. The difference is that we have to achieve all-the-year round consistency."
In respect of the WI's standing, we include six recipes from Olive Odell, former vice-chair, and a leading authority: two apricot recipes, two for apple jelly, plus raspberry and marrow-and-ginger. And two from Margaret Costa, whose famous Four Seasons Cookbook has just been reprinted (Grub Street pounds 17.99): greengage, and strawberry. We also include fig jam from Claudia Roden's Middle Eastern Food (Penguin pounds 7.95) and an Armenian aubergine preserve from Essentially Aubergines (Grub Street pounds 13.99), by Nina Kehayan. And, even in jam-making, tradition is not everything, and we exclusively unveil a new collection from Bruno Loubet, whose cooking at the newly opened L'Odeon, in Regent Street, is one of the talking points of the year.
ROMANIAN STRAWBERRY JAM
1.6kg/3lb 8oz firm strawberries
150ml/14 pint redcurrant, gooseberry or lemon juice
knob of butter
Layer the hulled berries in the preserving pan with the sugar. Steep for five or six hours, or overnight. Bring very slowly to the boil then boil rapidly for eight minutes. Pour in the fruit juice and boil for another two minutes. Remove from the heat. Stir in a knob of butter, stir for five minutes and pot.
Fills seven to eight 500g/1lb jars
2kg/4lb 8oz raspberries
2kg/4lb 8oz sugar
Only rinse the raspberries if necessary. Place the fruit in a pan over gentle heat and cook slowly until the juice begins to run. Put the sugar in a large bowl, and place it in a heated oven for 10 minutes. The temperature of the oven should not exceed 110C/225F/Gas 14.
Add the warmed sugar to the fruit, stirring until dissolved, bring to the boil, boil rapidly until setting point is reached. Pot into warm jars and seal.
FRESH APRICOT JAM
Fills four to five 500g/1lb jars
1.35kg/3lb fresh apricots halved and stoned
300ml/12 pint water
Crack a few of the stones, remove the kernels and blanch them in boiling water for a few seconds. Put the apricots, kernels and water into a pan, and simmer until the fruit is soft and pulpy. Add the sugar, stirring until dissolved. Bring to boiling point, and boil until setting point is reached. Start testing for set after 10 minutes. Pot into warm jars and seal.
DRIED APRICOT JAM
Fills four to five 500g/1lb jars
500g/1lb dried apricots cut up small
1.75 litres/3 pints water
2 lemons, juice of
50g/2oz blanched almonds, flaked (optional)
Choose good fleshy dried apricots. Put in a bowl, pour on the water, and leave to soak at least 24 hours. Tip the contents of the bowl into a pan and simmer for 30 minutes. Add the lemon juice, sugar and almonds if used, stirring until sugar has dissolved. Boil rapidly until setting point is reached, testing after seven minutes. Pot into warm jars and seal.
'Med Noir' cuisine, Armenia
1kg/2lb 4oz dwarf aubergines (7-10cm/3-4in long)
1kg/2lb 4oz sugar
12 teaspoon grated ginger
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons sesame seeds
200ml/7fl oz water
Peel aubergines and prick them with a fork. Soak them for about 12 hours in a basin of water. Drop into boiling water for five-10 minutes.
Drain in a colander, pressing down hard to remove all the excess juice.
In a thick-based saucepan, prepare a syrup with the water and sugar. Add aubergines when little bubbles begin to appear on the surface. Cook over a medium heat until the jam thickens (about two hours), skimming from time to time. Add ginger, honey and roasted sesame seeds. Cook for another minute, stirring continuously.
Pour into jars, leave to cool and then seal them.
GREENGAGE, ORANGE AND WALNUT JAM
1kg/2lb 4oz greengages
1kg/2lb 4oz sugar
1 large orange
50g/2oz chopped walnuts
Chop up the greengages roughly - as little as possible, just enough to free the stones. Tie the stones up in a muslin bag. Put the fruit in a pan with the sugar, the bag of stones and the juice and thinly pared and sliced rind of orange and lemon. Simmer the jam gently for a few minutes, bring to a rolling boil, add the nuts and cook until setting point is reached - about 20 minutes. Crack some of the kernels and add them to the jam. Stir well, pot and seal. (You may want to add, very discreetly, a little green colouring).
2.75kg/6lb cooking apples, washed and chopped
5cm/2in piece of root ginger, bruised with a small hammer, or 1 large lemon, grated rind, or 12 cloves
Place the apples in a pan and cover with cold water. Add the chosen flavouring to the pan. Bring to the boil, then simmer until fruit is soft and pulpy. Tip into a jelly bag, and allow to drip for up to six hours, or overnight if more convenient.
Measure the juice and to each 600ml/1pt juice add 500g/1lb sugar. Place juice in a pan, bring to the boil, add the sugar and stir until the sugar has dissolved. Boil fast for six to seven minutes, then test for setting. When setting point is reached, pot into warm jars and seal. The above recipe is a good way of using up windfall apples.
CRAB APPLE JELLY
The same recipe can be used for crab apples and will give a deeper pink jelly.
MARROW AND GINGER JAM
Fills seven to eight 500g/1lb jars
2kg/4lb 8oz marrow, weighed after peeling, seeding and cubing
3 lemons, grated rind and juice
75g/3oz dried root ginger, well bruised
2kg/4lb 4oz sugar
Steam the marrow, or cook in a very little water until tender. Drain if necessary and put in a large bowl. Add the lemon rind and juice and the ginger, tied in a square of muslin. Add the sugar, cover with a cloth and leave to stand for 24 hours. Put in a pan, heat gently to dissolve the sugar, and cook until the marrow is transparent and the syrup thick. (It does not set stiffly.) Pot and seal. If a more spreadable texture is preferred, mash the cooked marrow before standing.
900g/2lbs dried figs
750g/1lbs 8oz sugar (or to taste)
700ml/25fl oz water
juice of 12 lemon
1 teaspoon ground aniseed
3 tablespoons pine nuts
115g/4oz walnuts coarsely chopped
14 teaspoon pulverised mastic (resinous gum of Pistacia lentiscus sold in Greek and Oriental stores)
Chop the figs roughly. Boil the sugar and water with the lemon juice for a few minutes, then add the figs and simmer gently until they are soft and impregnated with the syrup, which should have thickened enough to coat the back of a spoon. Stir constantly to avoid burning. Add the aniseed, pine nuts and walnuts and simmer gently, stirring for a few minutes longer. Remove from the heat and stir the mastic in very thoroughly. (To be properly pulverised, it must have been pounded with sugar.) Pot and seal.
THE MODERN JAM
JAM-MAKING is not high on the agenda of many chefs, but Bruno Loubet is an exception.
In the lobby of his Regent Street restaurant, L'Odeon, he offers unusual jams for sale, plus flavoured chutneys, vinegars and oils (lobster-flavoured olive oil!).
"My mother was an obsessional jam-maker," he says. "She prepared food as if we were about to be launched into a civil war tomorrow. There were thousands of jars of jam in the kitchen, in the cellar, in the bedroom, under the bed, in the wardrobe behind the shirts."
Bruno's flavours are far from rural. They include peach and basil (the basil finely chopped and added off the heat at the end), and blackberry and liquorice (using essence), cooked very slowly since fast cooking would destroy the flavour. He's working on a recipe for pear and lemon thyme.
This is his recipe for strawberry and rhubarb. It is unusual as the two jams are cooked by different methods, and combined, as demonstrated by his patissier Azzedine Zarzi.
STRAWBERRY AND RHUBARB JAM
1kg/2lbs 4oz rhubarb, cut in 3.5cm/112in lengths
1kg/2lbs 4oz strawberries
2kg/4lbs 8oz preserving sugar
300ml/10fl oz water
juice of one lemon
20g/1oz pectin (if available)
In a large pan cover the rhubarb with 1kg sugar and cook over a low heat until the water runs and the rhubarb breaks up.
In another large pan, cook the hulled strawberries with 1kg preserving sugar and 300ml water. Cook till strawberries are soft. Lift strawberries out with slotted spoon and transfer to rhubarb pan.
Boil remaining sugar syrup rapidly to reduce and thicken it, being careful not to let it burn or caramelise. Off the heat, add it to the rhubarb pan, with lemon juice and pectin.
Bottle in warm jars, sterilised by heating them in a hot oven.