When Amanda Brooks decided to try her hand at jam-making, she had no idea of the etiquette that would be involved
Of all the things on my fantasy list of how to spend my sabbatical year on a farm in England, jam-making was certainly not one of them. I envisioned myself riding horses, picking up my kids from school every day, focusing on my photography, making time for books I had bought but never read. Making jam? Didn’t even enter my mind.
Then, in October of last year, as the summer receded and I encountered the autumn season on the farm for the first time, I discovered endless, rambling blackberry bushes along the old driveway, on bridle paths and at the edge of the fields. I hadn’t ever really been a fan – considering them the poor cousin of raspberries – but with my new free time I decided to make the most of them. First up? Blackberry and apple crumble, a favourite of my husband’s. I made a few more. Then a pie or two. And then blackberry pancakes. But there were still thousands and thousands of berries to be consumed. Suddenly the same instinct that has been occurring to millions and millions of English people for centuries hit me, too. What to do with excess fruit? Make jam, of course.
I was mostly unaware of jam’s social, cultural and historical significance among the British. I knew that jam-making was more of a national hobby here than in America, but even after 17 years of living with a Brit, I was unaware that the English had such specific opinions and beliefs about how it should be made, presented and consumed. Opinions vary as to what constitutes the perfect jam: how sweet it should be; how runny; how many varieties one should offer at the table; whether the condiment is a jam or a jelly – or a chutney. And whether it should be decanted or left in the jar. Thankfully, I was unaware of these arguments. Being a novice, I didn’t dare discuss my intentions – I wouldn’t have even known the right questions to ask. Instead, I consulted Salt Sugar Smoke: How to Preserve Fruit, Vegetables, Meat and Fish, by Diana Henry, which I found at a local bookshop and bought because I liked the cover – a pretty photograph with a hint of indie cred that supported my notion that jam-making could be cool in a modern-farmer kind of way. As for tools, I would use recycled jars to pot the jam, a large Le Creuset in which to boil it and a serving spoon to fill the jars with the finished product. The only thing I couldn’t do without was a jam thermometer. So prepared with a good recipe, a wide margin for error, patience and a typical American enthusiasm for a new challenge, I set out on my jam-making adventure.
All went reasonably smoothly with my first batch until – while endlessly waiting for the setting point – there was a telephone call for my husband. Thinking I had a few moments, I went to find him outside, but on returning I knew right away that I had ruined my jam. There was a pungent smell of burnt sugar and the result was inedible, a near candy-like mixture that threatened to cement my teeth shut.
Dismayed, I was inspired to take out the thermometer again only after a dinner at a friend’s where she insisted I try some spicy pepper jam with my beef tenderloin and potatoes dauphinoise. It was delicious – unlike any I’d had before. And so, the next morning, I found myself at the grocery store buying red peppers, hot chillies, loads of sugar and liquid pectin. This time I followed the instructions to the letter, patiently did the set tests and potted the jam. The flavour? Truly excellent: a sweet and spicy mix with a bit of a hot kick at the end. Consistency? A little too hard on top, but just right under the first layer.
Feeling bold (or perhaps naive), I gave the jam to friends as a thank-you for having us over. It was a hit. So I made another batch. I still had some problems – my Le Creuset was too small for my batch size, and the jar transfer was a precarious mess – but nonetheless I was inspired. My jam-making became a weekend ritual, something to give me a reason to putter around the kitchen on a Saturday morning while the kids did their homework. I enjoyed the meditative quality of making a recipe over and over again, the chopping of the fruit, the scooping of seeds, the precise measuring of the sugars and the pectin, staring into the boiling pot looking for signs of the perfect set. I also found a distinct thrill in choosing the exact moment to remove the mixture from the heat, pouring the molten liquid into jars, and then labelling the finished product. I tried everything – mango, passion fruit and lime jam (my daughter’s favourite), kumquat and passion fruit marmalade (my favourite), apricot and lavender jam (too perfumey), apricot and vanilla jam (just right).
I was feeling quite pleased with my newfound prowess until my friend Trinny came to stay. A great breakfast enthusiast, I set the table immaculately, freshly squeezed orange juice, slow-cooked scrambled eggs from our free-range hens, and laid out my best jams alongside the toast.
She picked up one jar, looked at it, set it down, picked up another, looked at it, set it down, and then picked up a third. She looked at me quizzically: “But where are you getting all this fruit?”
“Waitrose,” I replied, with an air of stating the obvious.
“But, darling, your jam has a huge carbon footprint! This is so un-British!”
Silence from me. Trinny continued: “The whole point of making jam is to use up the leftover fruit from your garden, not fly in out-of-season from all over the world!”
“Well, then, it’s a good thing I’m not English,” I replied with a defensive chuckle, scooping a load of the offending jam on to my toast.
How could I have known that the politics of jam-making, like so many British rituals, had its own set of rules and regulations? Of course, I should have realised that the British enjoyment of so much sweet, sugary goodness would only be tempered by a greater enjoyment of thrift; that parsimonious habit of using up surplus fruit and turning it into preserves to see people through long, cold, damp winters must be embedded deep in the British psyche.
Still, I reasoned, I loved making rhubarb jam from stalks fresh from the garden, and raspberry jam from my homegrown berries, but surely there’s enough excellent strawberry and raspberry jam in the world already? If the recipe required imported fruit, I was OK with that.
My conscience nagged a little until I met up with another English friend, Scott, who is known for his impressive fruit and vegetable garden, his greenhouses and polytunnels, and the immaculate chutney, ketchup and jam he makes from the purely home-cultivated produce he grows in them. Inspired by our conversation, I gently suggested to my husband, Christopher, that we might think about putting in a couple of polytunnels on the farm, so that we could grow the chillies and peppers needed for my signature jam and make it more “English”. After his initial resistance to cluttering up our untouched landscape with plastic coverings, he was slowly swayed by Scott’s enthusiasm. “They extend your growing season by many months. You can grow all sorts of things in them,” Scott encouraged. He also absolved me from exotic-fruit-buying shame. “Jam-making is about creativity and pleasure. As long as you are not buying things you can easily grow, I don’t see what the problem is,” he reassured me.
One year on, I’m now confident enough with the boiling and setting process that I can make two recipes at once: usually the red pepper and chilli jam that has become our unanimous favourite and another sweet one to eat on toast – a morning, afternoon and evening staple that, in England, we seem not to be able to live without. I’m even considering buying a copper preserving pan.
I’ve also begun to refine my jam packaging. When it became necessary to buy jars, I initially chose a simple, classic shape with a clean white lid. But I’ve now started asking myself whether I might be the kind of girl who uses floral fabric covers over the lid. It strikes me as frumpy, but then again I’ve always been a sucker for a good print.
Who knows what my jam-making will amount to? But what I do know is that it gives me three distinct pleasures: using the produce we grow on the farm, indulging in a passionate hobby, and giving the results away to friends and family. But my sabbatical year is up. We have decided to stay in England for now, and the time has come to consider more seriously how to make a living from the farm. Jam-making certainly isn’t out of the question. Just don’t expect straight-up strawberry.