Home-made jam: isn't that a treat? A rarity, too, most of the time, something to be associated with country tea rooms, or Christmas gifts, or retired aunts with time on their hands. Not, normally, an every-day occurrence. Jam, and marmalade, and pickle, and relish: these are things we pick up at the supermarket for a pound or two to spread on toast or shove between layers of (quite possibly home-made) sponge. Even the most competent of cooks spend their life outsourcing their spreads. Jam... well, if we were to make our own all the time, we'd never leave the house, would we? It might be a nice thing to try one day but it does seem rather an exercise in devotion, and a complicated one at that. Don't you need a thermometer? And special jars? And all sorts of other apparatus?
This, at least, was my impression; a straw poll of friends and colleagues reveals that I'm not alone. With busy lives and little time, we simply can't be bothered with the hassle. But Ghillie James thinks she can change our minds. And, indeed, flicking through her book Jam, Jelly and Relish on the train to her home in Hampshire, things look promising. Are there any more reassuring words, in the context of a kitchen manual, than that reviving pair "don't panic"? James uses them a lot, combining a Delia Smith-esque voice of calm with a refreshingly modern outlook. Don't panic if your jam takes ages to set, she assures us: it will be fine. Don't worry if your rhubarb changes colour, it does that. Don't fret over expensive equipment, you don't need it.
Before becoming a bona fide jam expert, James worked at Sainsbury's Magazine, where she edited their food pages. This may explain her down-to-earth take on things. She's not a chef or even a professional cook, but a food writer: an enthusiast who had never contemplated anything as démodé, not to mention daunting, as jam making. "I never even attempted it," she laughs. "It was just one of those things that you imagine is going to take too much effort. It fell out of favour when women went to work, because they could no longer spend all day in the kitchen. I just imagined it to be so complicated."
As it turns out, a year of researching the subject has rather changed her mind. And so here I am, sitting in her picturesque kitchen, spooning her home-made chutney hungrily onto a plate already stacked with home-made tart (one for the second book perhaps; rather like jam, the spectre of dodgy pastry still manages to terrorise even the most capable of chefs into buying shop-bought), freshly plucked tomatoes and home-made sauce. In between dollops I eye up dessert: a tumble of scones swaddled in cream and – here's the crucial part – berry jam. Jam that we, James and jam-phobic old I, have made. We made it just a couple of hours ago, and it's been setting in the corner ever since.
Just a couple of hours! So much for the day-long exercise in devotion that I had imagined. In fact, quite a few of my expectations have proven mistaken, but we'll come to that in a moment. Because it's not just jam that has occupied the past couple of hours: James has also taught me how to make elderflower cordial (it's completely delicious and really very easy), all while pouring copious cups of tea, preparing our lunch, packing up a sandwich for later, and tending to her five-month-old daughter, Jemima. So you see? Contrary to my fears, jam is neither time consuming, nor all-absorbing. It's quite straightforward, and wholly compatible with the modern, multitasking world.
Which brings us back to those expectations. Thermometers? I've yet to see a single one. In fact none of the much-feared scientific apparatus has appeared. The only vaguely chef-y thing I've seen is a funnel for pouring the jam into its pots. In the event, we didn't even use it; the photographer complained that it was in his way, and the more picturesque ladle proved just as good. Preserving pans? Nope. A big Ikea pan worked just fine. Sterilising rituals? James recommends sticking your clean jam jars in the oven at 150 degrees Celsius for five or more minutes. We stick them in when we start with our jam, and take them out when it's time to pot it. It's all remarkably simple. The sole element of complication – and it's barely worth a mention – is the rubber ring that a couple of our jars sport. They might melt if we try to sterilise them in the oven, so we stick them in a tub of water with one of Jemima's baby-bottle sterilising tablets, and hey presto! Done. Why don't more people do this?
James thinks part of the problem is the very simplicity of jam: there are so many ways to make it without it going wrong that writers tend to list endless options. Would-be preservers take one look at the pages of alternatives and are turned off. "I just thought, why put all of that in when you don't need it. By all means, sterilise in boiling water if you like, but sticking them in the oven works just as well. It's the same with thermometers: you really don't need to measure the temperature to tell if the jam is done."
And, indeed, it would seem that she's right. All of James's recipes come with rough time guidelines, though really it's quite obvious when the cooking bit is done. In the case of our "muddled berry" jam – a mix of blackcurrant, strawberry and raspberries chosen because of its bursting, blushing seasonality – we need just 20 minutes – 10 to dissolve the sugar, and 10 on the boil, by which point it has become quite syrupy. Although the recipe mentions letting the fruit macerate for a couple of hours before cooking, the flying nature of my visit means things need to be speeded up a little. Sure enough, after 20 minutes, our mixture resembles less a bowl of fruit and water than a pot of hot coulis: it's thick, syrupy and glossy, which, says James, is just how it is supposed to be. We plop a spoonful onto a cold saucer, chill for 10 minutes and poke it. If it crinkles up, it's done. Ours doesn't the first time around, but does the second. And so, for the first time in my entire life, I've made jam. I'm even allowed to take it home, where it will last only two days, its appeal being far stronger than my will-power.
"I feel a bit like I'm blowing the WI's cover, or something," jokes James. "It's almost as if writers don't want everyone to know how easy it can be!" She might have a point; most jam recipes out there seem to be of the I-got-this-one-off-my-grandmother variety, dating back to the middle of the last century. That, of course, was the heyday of domestic science, when recipes were long-winded, precise and drafted by experts with a capital 'E'. While everything else has been given the Jamie Oliver/Nigella Lawson/Russle It Up In Five Minutes makeover, jam remains curiously without modernisation. Hopefully, not for much longer – at least, not if James has anything to do with it. "When I was writing the book, I sent out recipes to absolutely everyone," she says. "I wanted them to be completely fool-proof. The only problem we had was when one person tried to make the apricot jam with dried apricots! And the thing is, home made really is so much better than shop bought."
Better and, apparently, infinitely more adaptable. Jam, Jelly and Relish has recipes for everything from muddled berry jam to spiced figs, to onion and port marmalade and chilli-vodka Bloody Marys. None, I'm assured, will be much more complicated than what we've achieved today – but all taste considerably nicer than they would straight out of a factory. I think, just possibly, that James may have converted me. Home-made cake plus filling, anyone?
'Jam, Jelly and Relish: Simple Preserves, Pickles and Chutneys and Creative Ways to Cook with Them' by Ghillie James is available now in bookstores and online (Kyle Cathie, £16.99).
Muddled Berry Jam
Makes about 1.4 litres. Keeps for at least a year
500g strawberries, not too ripe, hulled and halved
Juice of two lemons
Juice of one orange
1 kg jam sugar
Put all the ingredients into a bowl and stir together. Leave to macerate in a bowl for 2 hours, which will give the fruit time to release its juices. Transfer to a large saucepan and gently bring to a simmer. Stir occasionally for the next 10–15 minutes to dissolve the sugar and begin to soften the fruits, then raise the heat up to high and boil for 10–15 minutes, or until the jam has reached setting point.
Leave the jam to settle for 10 minutes before spooning it into warm sterilised jars and sealing.
A brief history of jam
* The world's first known book of recipes, Of Culinary Matters, was written in the first century by the Roman cook Marcus Gavius Apicius and includes recipes for fruit preserves.
* European jam and jelly may have originated in the Middle East, where cane sugar was plentiful. It is believed they were introduced to Europe by soldiers returning from the Crusades. By the late Middle Ages, they were in widespread use.
* In folk etymology, Marmalade is often said to have been created in 1561 to treat the seasickness of Mary, Queen of Scots; according to this legend its name derives from the French "Marie est malade" (Mary is sick).
* In fact, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, "marmalade" entered the English language in 1480, borrowed from the French marmelade which, in turn, came from the Portuguese marmelada, a quince paste which continues to be popular.
* In the US, published recipes for jam can be found dating back to the 17th century. Fruits were preserved with honey, molasses or maple sugar.