Wednesday, 15 September 2010

the meaning of jam

Where did autumn come from, already? There is mist in the morning when I walk the dog, and the hedgerows drip with blackberries, crab apples, rosehips and sloes - one last mad flush of fruiting, before the cold sets in. I hate the descent of winter, but there is one consolation to these last fleeting days of sunshine: you can bottle it.
Making jam is the ultimate cliche of downshifting mothers. It's everyone's shorthand for what people do when they've stopped work - 'oh, she's moving to the countryside to, like, make jam or something' - and is one of those furtive fantasies many working women have about what they might do if only they had more time. Me included: the first batch I ever made was the summer after my maternity leave ended, with a glut of plums from the tree in our old London garden, stoning pounds and pounds of them at about midnight in some sort of lunatic attempt to compensate for my general lack of domestic goddessness.
I'm not sure why jam is such a metaphor for a certain kind of life. It takes time, of course, and a little patient stirring: it smacks of village fetes, and cream teas, and retro snippets of gingham for lids. It looks lovely lined up in glowing rows in the cupboard (or for extra fantasy points, in a pantry).
But not for nothing are jams, jellies and pickles known as preserves: making them is also about saving a bit of the good times for the lean months, holding on to a memory of summer. It's a reminder that once there were times of plenty and times of scarcity, not just all-year-round airfreighted fruit: and for me at least, it harks back to childhood. And not just all that Little House on the Prairie I read in my formative years, where most of the plot apparently revolved around bottling peaches.
My mother makes terrific jam (apart from the year she burnt the marmalade, distracted by President Obama's inauguration speech). And when I do the same, it feels as if I'm preserving more than fruit: a fragment of family history, a thread of continuity. I don't use a sugar thermometer because it feels uncomfortably high tech: I do the trick with ice-cold saucers and waiting until a drop of liquid jam solidifies on them, which is no doubt how my grandmother also did it.
We no longer have a plum tree here so it's blackberry jam instead, and maybe a crab apple jelly (for recipes, try foraging food blogger Norfolk Kitchen). And once the frosts have thinned the skins of the sloes, it will be time for sloe gin, which just happens to make the base of a particularly lethal champagne cocktail. Perfect to see us through the darkness to spring.


  1. I'm not very good at jams & preserves but I'm lucky enough to have a friend who's a cookery editor (love going round to her house!) and she always gives me jars of pickles and jam and makes a great sloe gin.

  2. It's not just 'downshifting mothers' and 'working women', of course - men do it too. My dad took early (semi) retirement, and immediately started making huge batches of marmalade each year. And still does so some 15 years later.