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I never knew when I was a child that one of the many things I would do to make money when I was a grown-up was be a jam-maker.
In fact I didn’t even know it until right up to the point when I realised there were kilos and kilos of brambles growing on Rum that I could forage for nothing and then learned that I had something of a knack for making jam. And that people really like jam.
So many people have memories from childhood of stained fingers and scratched arms from gathering baskets of soft fruit and most of us are able to easily and safely identify wild blackberries and raspberries to pick along with cultivated varieties in our gardens but there remains a sort of mystique to turning those jewel bright berries into jars of jam.
My dad – a huge fan of all types of preserve, jam and jelly – was utterly convinced that the creation of it involved hours if not days of boiling up fruit along with some undisclosed form of magic, known only to his grandmother.
I have several friends who have attempted jam making to be left with a delicious but runny puree only suitable for pouring over ice cream or worse, a smoke filled kitchen, a ruined pan and a lump of solid fruit and sugar only suitable for wedging open a door if you ever managed to chisel it from the pan.
The hundreds of jars of jam I made – and sold – every year from our croft had value added by me in the form of artisan inclusions of flavour combinations – from herbs and spices to florals (think blackcurrant and vanilla, raspberry and rose, bramble and chilli, strawberry and lavender) and were decanted into charming jars with hand drawn labels, often personalised for the purchaser (I have made jams to be gifted for birthdays, Christmas and even as wedding gifts) and were posted out across the world.
These days I am only making for our own consumption or for friends and family. But an invitation from a neighbour to help ourselves to their unpicked glut of raspberries and gooseberries which were going to waste had my husband and I armed with buckets happily batting away midges to spend an hour or so picking fruit last week which I
then turned into jam.
My own personal form of jam making-magic is a percentage of at least 51 percent sugar to fruit ratio (sometimes slightly more, but never less) by weight. My secret for getting the jam to set is knowing what fruit has a decent level of pectin in it already (blackberries have plenty, strawberries very little, for example).
If required, more pectin can be added in the form of lemon juice, lobbing in a few less ripe fruits (which generally have higher levels of pectin), mixing some high pectin fruits with lower ones to create a summer berry medley flavour or if all else fails some powdered pectin added a pinch at a time. You can also use jam sugar with pectin already included but beware not to use that for a fruit which already has high natural levels.
Then you need to cook the jam to a very high temperature for long enough that it is going to set. My secret for not ruining my pans or the jam is to never, ever walk away from the jam while you’re making it. This is not a time for being distracted by anything else. It requires your full attention.
You can get all sorts of jam making accessories. I have a sugar thermometer I have never used and a fancy jelly bag with a stand to strain cooked fruit through but I am happy with bits of fruit in my jam. The only time I tried to use it I ended up with a very sticky mess.
My vital bits of kit are clean sterilised jars ready to pour jam into, a very large pan (the jam bubbles right up and you really don’t want it spilling over or splashing you), scales for weighing the fruit and sugar, a wooden spoon for stirring and a plate (ideally a cold one that’s sat in the fridge for a while before you start).
Some knowledge of pectin levels in the fruit you are using can be found online and
some fruit requires a bit of additional attention (for example my gooseberries needed to be cooked first in a small amount of water before adding the sugar) but then away you go. Add your sugar (at least the same in weight as your fruit, plus a little bit more) and get jammin’.
You will know when it’s reached setting point by dribbling a little on to that cold plate. Leave it a few moments to cool a little and then push it with your finger. If it wrinkles on the surface it is ready. If it doesn’t then carry on cooking for another few minutes and then dribble another drop on to the plate and try again.
Once it’s ready decant into your jars, put the lids on and then once cool get creative with pretty labels. The only jam-specific bit of kit I would recommend is a jam funnel – a very wide necked funnel which allows you to easily get the jam from the pan/ladle to
the jar without lots of mess. But a steady hand and a jug will suffice, with a cloth to wipe down any small spills around the jar.
It has been odd making such small scale batches of jam this year – gooseberry and elderflower, raspberry and rose – but no less satisfying when I screwed the lids on tight.
Or when I gifted one jar to a friend. Or when in the depths of winter I spread a layer of jam over a piece of warm buttery toast and remember the summer sunshine from this year.
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