Michelin-starred chef Philip Britten, of The Capital hotel in London, was the expert on our panel since he also makes his own (very tangy, very delicious) jams which are retailed from the hotel as well as served for breakfast. The other panellists were keen amateur jam-makers. "Home-made is still best," said Claire Blezard; and Andrew Simpson, Fraser Phillips, Stephanie Holden and Anna Mac-Lellan were among those who agreed with her.
In order to track down the really good stuff, we avoided standard jams, which are legally required to contain a minimum of 35g of fruit per 100g, in favour of extra jams, which must contain at least 45g of fruit per 100g. (There is no legal definition of "preserve" or "conserve".) We chose strawberry as the common flavour, since it remains the most popular in this country, and looked for wonderful taste, good texture and colour. We also allowed each producer to choose another flavour from their range which they thought interesting. Shelf-life was not our concern, and many of the extra jams featured here have to be kept in the refrigerator after opening, which was a downside for some testers who objected to "something chilly" on their hot buttered toast.
Strawberry; Gooseberry and Elderflower, pounds 3.50 for 340g
Wendy Brandon started out in the Eighties making chutneys with no added salt or sugar for healthfood shops. Now her Welsh, hand-made jams grace the tea tables of the Ritz, and a carefully researched range of products includes no fewer than 20 marmalades. All this - plus the high price - led to very high expectations among the panel, who admired the dark, shiny look of the straw-berry jam and the utter simplicity of its ingredi-ents (sugar, strawberries, redcurrants), but were then a little disappointed by the flavour. "It's rich and tangy with a high fruit content, but it doesn't taste much of strawberries," demurred Andrew Simpson. Philip Britten wondered about the ratio of redcurrants to strawberries and thought the wet look of the jam could be attributable to redcurrant jelly. The Gooseberry and Elderflower fared better. "It smells of sweet shops, but tastes a little like a conserve for meat. It's not sweet, but it was one of our favourites taste wise," reported Anna MacLellan, who was particularly interested in the packaging of the jams and did not like the labels on the Wendy Brandon jars. She wanted to know what a palm tree was doing on the lid, adding: "It's good, but I just can't get my head round the idea of paying pounds 3.50 for a pot of jam."
*W P HARTLEY
Cambridge Favourite Strawberry, pounds 1.39 for 340g; Hartley's Orange Original, 82p for 340g
Part of a new extra jam range produced by Chivers Hartley, Cambridge Favourite Strawberry is nicely presented, but its true colours were evident for our testers as soon as they opened their jars. "It's suspiciously light and milky-looking," sniffed Fraser Phillips, "and far too solid." Philip Britten turned a jar upside down to observe its total defiance of gravity and concurred with most tasters that this strawberry was "full of pectin and pretty dull." Andrew Simpson rather liked it, but was then put off the whole brand by the "fluorescent colour and disgusting, medicinal flavour" of the accompanying Orange jam. Hartley's says it's the "fruitiest tasting jam ever", but Anna MacLellan revealed that the "Orange Original smells so revolting, all tasters in my house refused to put it anywhere near their mouths. It's like a whiff of Kia Ora - the sort of thing children love, but about as healthy as a Big Mac." Of the Strawberry, she said, "We thought it was just because the Orange jam was part of the cheap range, but no, Hartley's seems to be able to make everything smell of plastic. It's bland, boring and has a peculiar after-taste."
Vintage Recipe Strawberry and Wild Straw-berry Conserve, pounds 1.39 for 227g; Apricot Conserve pounds 1.39 for 340g
"This is fantastic," declared Philip Britten of Bonne Maman's Vintage Recipe Strawberry and Wild Strawberry - the final stamp of approval on what panellists had already voted as the winner in our trial. Bonne Maman, known for its soft-set conserves in distinctive wide-mouthed jars with gingham-print lids, has been the brand leader in the extra jam market for the last three years (though the supermarket own-labels have 40 to 50 per cent between them). The label tries hard to make its products taste home-made (bonne maman means "grandma" in French) and for the most part succeeds, according to Anna MacLellan, who already knew the regular Strawberry. "This is my favourite: classic country packaging, nice, big, chunky strawberries, totally unplastic if very sweet," she said. But the new Vintage Recipe Strawberry with Wild Strawberry was a revelation. "Once you've had this, you don't want to eat the ordinary Strawberry," said Fraser Phillips, who was worried about where he was going to find future supplies. The difference is in the aroma ("delicately perfumed," said Philip Britten) and flavour, which clearly derives from the wild strawberries, since the fruit content (50 per cent) is not as high as that of others featured here - a great lesson for fruit- growers. The Apricot Conserve was also acclaimed: "This is very chic jam; it tastes like pulped apricots and not much else," said Claire Blezard, and Fraser Phillips said it was "as close to jam perfection as you're likely to find."
***WILKIN & SONS
Tiptree Little Scarlet Conserve, pounds 2.25 for 340g; Original Christmas Preserve, pounds 1.55 for 340g
Little Scarlet is a variety of strawberry similar to Alpine strawberries; they have been grown on Wilkin's fruit farm at Tiptree, Colchester, for more than 100 years and the company was keen to point out that Little Scarlet was James Bond's favourite jam (From Russia With Love, 1956). "This is probably a recipe that hasn't changed since 1956, either," said Philip Britten. "Bond might prefer something less sweet now." The bottom line is that Little Scarlet "should taste ever so much better than regular strawberry jam, and though the colour and texture are good, it doesn't really," said Fraser Phillips. Anna MacLellan said it "looks cute, and for an everyday, on-your-toast, cheerful little jam, this is perfect." Meanwhile, the much rarer Christmas Preserve (it's only available in season and quickly sells out) drew plaudits for its "beautiful Christmassy taste". Its ingredients comprise largely Victoria plums, damsons and spices. "It would be super with cheese or Christmas cake," mused Anna MacLellan, or "on winter crumpets". Andrew Simpson thought it tasted "like sweet, stale tobacco", so it obviously isn't for everyone.
Strawberry French Conserve, pounds 1.15 for 340g; Special Selection Apricot and Almond, pounds 2.95
Sainsbury was keen to have us try its French Conserves; soft-set extra jams which come in wide jars immediately recognised by tasters as similar to those used by Bonne Maman. The panel's combined view was that the Strawberry was "a very good likeness, not bad at all" (Philip Britten) of the Bonne Maman regular Strawberry, though Anna MacLellan protested: "If you buy this to save money on Bonne Maman, your friends will spot the difference. It's pretty innocuous, but the Sainsbury version does have more fruit than Bonne Maman, so we can't work out why it's lighter in colour and tastes less fruity." We were keen to try the extra jams prominently displayed in the chain's supermarkets on "rather precious" (Andrew Simpson) stands of cooking utensils, flavoured oils and so forth, called "Special Selection". We can report that the Apricot and Almond "is like spreading marzipan on your bread" (Fraser Phillips), and so appalled all testers who dislike almonds. It is also solid in texture and was universally dismissed as "a bit synthetic and definitely over-priced" - a view also held of the Special Selection Strawberry, which is not featured here, but was known to many panellists. "It's sweet and gloupy with few discernible berries; the cheaper French Conserve is much better," pronounced Stephanie Holden.
Strawberry Preserve with Honey; Ginger Preserve, pounds 1.60 for 227g
Jo Smith, a one-woman operation based in Tintagel, makes her extra jams with Cornish honey, and her Strawberry contains 75g of fruit per 100g, the highest ratio of all those tested. It was the panel's second favourite, and as Stephanie Holden said: "The honey flavour is strong, but not overpowering. It tastes like luxury, sort of romantic, breakfast-in-bed jam." With its dark, ruby red colour and excellent flavour: "It's definitely on a par with the Bonne Maman Vintage Recipe stuff," judged Philip Britten. Meanwhile, all ginger lovers should prick up their ears: Trevervan Ginger Preserve is "brilliant. The only alternative to eating crystallised ginger," raved Fraser Phillips. "It's a bit scary for breakfast," reported Anna MacLellan. It has the consistency of wallpaper paste and it's not a pretty colour. If you love ginger you'll love it, otherwise give a very wide berth." Other flavours in Trevervan's range err on the exotic: for example, Grapefruit Marmalade with Brandy, Peach with Coconut Liqueur, or Plum and Port, and all have very high fruit contents.
Most jams listed here are available from super-markets nationwide. For hard-to-find products, call Wilkin & Sons on 01621 815407; Bonne Maman on 01284 766265; Trevervan Jams, mail order on 01840 770486; and Wendy Brandon on 01239 841 568. Philip Britten's own jams cost pounds 5.50 for 600g, tel: 0171 589 5171. !