There is something deeply satisfying about preserving summer fruits, squirreling them away to add colour and lift the spirits in the dark days of winter. When soft fruits and berries are still in season it’s comforting to spend an afternoon stocking the shelves, cupboards and freezer with what’s available from your garden, greengrocer or PYO.
Jams, Jellies and Conserves
Danielle’s previous post showed how to make a wonderful cherry jam which I’ll be trying when the cherries in Scotland are ready in a few weeks. My step-mother makes a similar version every summer in France, using cherries from the Ardeche which arrive at the market by the barrow-full. I have one jar left which I’m guarding furiously till the next batch arrives; it’s incredible spooned over chalky, plain yoghurt for breakfast.
Jams and conserves still contain the fruit while jellies are strained, usually using a jelly bag suspended over a bowl on a little stand . With jams the fruit is boiled down with an equal quantity of granulated sugar till it sets and becomes spreadable on cooling; conserves are more often whole fruits cooked and preserved in a thick syrup but a lot of these terms are interchangeable when it comes to recipes or what’s available on the farm shop shelf.
Key to making good jam is good quality fruit. Pectin, the setting agent in jams is found in fruits but the content varies from high in redcurrants to low in things like raspberries. Adding lemon juice or some redcurrant juice to these fruits helps them set. Pectin content is higher in slightly under-ripe fruit, so by using just ripened fruit you’ve picked yourself you will have the perfect balance of ripeness for flavour, but still have enough pectin to allow it to set. Special jam sugar has extra pectin to help the jam set if you prefer.
A jam or sugar thermometer will tell you when the jam is at setting point of 104 C/220F. It’s not essential though. Instead put a saucer in the freezer before you begin making the jam, then when it’s time to test according to your recipe put a teaspoon on it, put in the fridge for a few minutes then draw you finger across; if it wrinkles it’s done.
If you’re making jellies the process is not dissimilar to jam. After cooking the fruit is strained through a jelly bag but be prepared to leave it for a few hours. Beware trying to push it through with a spoon as this will make the jelly cloudy.
All the berries and summer fruits such as strawberries, blackberries, redcurrants, blackcurrants, cherries, raspberries, tayberries, loganberries and gooseberries make excellent preserves one way or another. Aside from the classic fruit jams, redcurrants and blackcurrants make wonderful jewel-coloured jellies. Cherries are great in conserves and hold their shape well. Gooseberries are really versatile and can be used both for sweet jam and tangy chutney.
Preserving these summer delights means we can enjoy them long after the season’s over. Homemade jam on toast eaten on a December morning makes next summer seem not that far away. As well as serving with scones and clotted cream or using in cakes, jams and conserves are lovely dolloped on porridge or served with yoghurt as above.
They also make great gifts and people appreciate the personal touch of home made produce. I find a large batch made over the summer and early autumn are timed just right for giving as Christmas presents. You can buy a huge range of labels, jam pot covers and trimmings or make your own. If you have time cut out a saucer-sized circle of old fabric and overlock round the edge on a sewing machine using a wide zigzag stich. Fasten with an elastic band and then pretty it up with ribbon and a label!
Fruits of the Freezer
Not quite as homespun or romantic as jam making but there is definitely a place for the domestic freezer if you want to store summer’s bounty for later in the year. Essential to this is getting organised but it’s pretty simple. Freeze fruit as soon as you can after picking to preserve the flavour. Discard any fruit that’s going bad. I freeze the fruit in small sealed plastic or tupperware boxes so I can use only what I need without defrosting a large amount.
Some people freezer the fruit laid out on a tray first, then put into boxes. If you have the (unlikely) space in the freezer, fine, but I’ve never had a problem with the fruit sticking together. Make sure the boxes are sealed well and label clearly with the date or you will be forgetting what’s in there come November. Stash them away in the bottom draw of the freezer and forget about them till the nights start to draw in.
Raspberries and their relations such as loganberries freeze well, as do the red, black and white currants and gooseberries. They all defrost pretty quickly at room temperature and retain their shape, ready for whatever job you’ve got for them in your winter kitchen.
- 450g/1lb redcurrants
- 450g/1ib granulated sugar
- Set up the jelly bag, stand and bowl so you are all ready to go.
- De-string the redcurrants from their little stalks.
- Add them and the sugar to the saucepan or cast iron casserole dish.
- Stir to dissolve the sugar and bring to the boil.
- Boil for 7 minutes, turn off and carefully skim off the scum.
- Ladle the mixture into the jelly bag and leave for a few hours till it strains through.
- Pot as soon as possible into sterilised jars
Cooking time includes straining.