Home-made preserves: How to serve up the perfect spread

Ditch the gloopy, over-sweet jams found on the supermarket shelves and follow Skye Gyngell's simple guide to making fresh, chunky, home-made preserves

There is something irresistible about making jam. Home-made jam is purer in taste, cosier in flavour and texturally far more interesting than the gloopy, lifeless jams found on supermarket shelves. Too often, commercially made jams are so cloyingly sweet that the original flavour of the fruit is masked. I like jam to be immediately identifiable, with proper-sized pieces of fruit, so it's chunky and gutsy.

Often, after work, having picked and tasted things throughout the day, I am drawn to the toaster for a quick, delicious, snack. I am fussy about my bread; it needs to be peasanty in style, chewy and open-pored, with a proper crust. The butter must be unsalted and pale. And, after years and years of making my own jam, I now consider myself a bit of an expert.

Whether you're making jam, conserve or marmalade, early-season, just-ripe fruit is the best. This is when natural pectin levels are highest, thus allowing the cooking time to be the shortest possible, which in turn allows the jam to retain a vibrancy, and the fruit much of its true colour and shape.

Always simmer very slowly to extract the natural pectin. Stir every now and then to prevent the fruit from catching and don't be afraid to top up with a little water if it becomes dry. Once the sugar has dissolved, it needs to be boiled very rapidly in order to reach setting heat as soon as possible. Once you think it might be ready, do the "wrinkle test". Place a spoonful of the jam on a saucer in the fridge for a few minutes to cool. Run a finger through the jam: if the surface wrinkles, it's ready. If not, return to the stove and boil swiftly.

When it's done, rest the pan with the fruit in it for around 10 minutes until the preserve is just setting around the edges. This helps to achieve an even distribution of fruit and juice throughout.

You will need sealable, sterilised jars to store the jam. Dishwashers sterilise everything, but, if you haven't got one, just drop the jars into a pan of boiling water for 12 minutes. It's important to dry them well before use. The following jams will all keep well in the fridge for a few months. s

Skye Gyngell is head chef at Petersham Nurseries, Church Lane, Richmond, Surrey, tel: 020 8605 3627. Her book 'A Year in my Kitchen' is the 2007 winner of the Guild of Food Writers' Cookery Book of the Year

Cherry and rose petal jam

Cherries are just beginning to come into season in England and the roses are out en masse in our garden - they seem a natural partnership to me. The rose petals give this jam a rather delicious, fragrant taste.

Makes 1 litre (1 3/4 pints)

1kg/2lb ripe cherries
1tsp sea-salt
The juice of 1 lemon
1kg/2lb caster sugar
20 or so rose petals

Remove the pips from the cherries. Place in a bowl with the sea-salt and lemon juice, toss to combine and leave to sit for 5 minutes or so.

Place the cherries in a saucepan. Pour over the sugar and put the pan on to a low heat. Simmer slowly, on a very gentle heat, until the sugar dissolves.

Once the sugar has melted, turn the heat up to high and rapidly boil the jam. After 10 minutes do the wrinkle test (see introduction) to see if the jam has set. If it has, remove the pan from the heat and shred in the rose petals. Leave the jam to sit in the pan for around 10 minutes to allow even distribution of fruit and juice.

Fig and vanilla jam

Makes approximately 1 litre (1 3/4 pints)

1kg/2lb ripe figs
1 vanilla bean, cut in half lengthwise
The zest and juice of 1 lemon
1kg/2lb caster sugar

Trim the figs and place in a bowl with the lemon zest, juice and vanilla seeds. Spoon over the sugar, and mix. Steep for 2 hours, then cook in a saucepan on a low heat until the sugar dissolves. Next, turn the heat up and boil rapidly until the jam reaches setting point. Remove the pan from the stove, and cool for 30 minutes before spooning into warm, sterilised jars. Pack each jar with a vanilla pod.

Simple strawberry jam

English strawberries are ripe and sweet at the moment. I like to hull them, but don't otherwise cut them up, so that the jam - when cooked - is studded with deliciously satisfying whole fruits.

Makes 1 litre (1 3/4 pints)

1kg/2lb strawberries, hulled
1kg caster sugar
The zest and juice of 1 lemon

Place the strawberries, sugar, lemon juice and lemon zest into a saucepan. Place over a low heat and simmer very gently until the sugar dissolves. Turn the heat to high and boil vigorously for 10 minutes. Do the wrinkle test (see introduction); if the jam has set, remove it from the heat and leave in the pan for 10 minutes to ensure even distribution of fruit and juice.

Spoon into sterilised jars, seal and allow to cool before storing in the fridge or cool place.

Peach jam

Peach jam is one of my favourites: sweet, chunky slices of peach suspended in syrup are delicious on crusty sourdough toast with lashings of unsalted butter.

Makes 3 litres (5 1/4 pints)

2.5kg/5lb just-ripe peaches
The juice and zest of 3 lemons
1/2tsp salt
1.5kg/3lb caster sugar
3 vanilla beans

As with fruit sorbets, a little salt helps to bring out the flavour of the fruit. Wash and cut the peaches, then crack the pips of 2 of them, and take out the kernels in the middle. Lightly crush the kernels, to release their nutty flavour.

Place the chopped peach and the lemon juice into a saucepan. Add the salt and simmer very gently for 20 minutes. Add the sugar, stirring to combine.

Once the sugar has dissolved, turn up the heat and boil rapidly until setting point is reached. Do the wrinkle test (see introduction).

Add the cracked kernels and allow the jam to rest for 20 minutes for even fruit and juice distribution. Spoon into warm, sterilised jars.

The Forager

Petersham's food sourcer Wendy Fogarty recommends the best jams, conserves and preserves...

The New Forest Jam & Chutney Co, www.newforestjamandchutney.co.uk - A small enterprise, using local produce. Try its Too Many Strawberries Jam.

England Preserves, www.englandpreserves.co.uk - Kai and Sky Knutsen's jams include damson, raspberry deluxe, gooseberry and elderflower.

Pietro Romanengo fu Stefano, Genoa, Italy, www.romanengo.com, and from Petersham - This small family firm has been making candied fruits, jams and flower waters for over 200 years.

Mrs Huddlestone's Luxury Home-Made Provisions, www.mrshuddleston.com - Christine Huddlestone makes small seasonal batches of jams and jellies including Vintage Perry with Marigold Petals.

Confetture delle Monastero Trappiste di Vitorchiano, Tuscany, Italy, available from Petersham Nurseries - Traditional jams (apricot, blackberry, prune, pear, myrtle) made by the Trappist nuns of Albenga using ancient recipes.

Potager du Roi, Versailles, Paris, www.potager-du-roi.fr - The Versailles kitchen garden grows heirloom fruit and veg, and sells its own jams and conserves.

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