A little late, but for the record - from early October.

Charlotte, checking for mellow fruitfulness

It’s all Charlotte’s doing really. She was the one who prompted rounds of “cherry trumps” between us this spring, after she had rubbed my nose a little in Nancy Mitford’s, still unfortunately apt, description of the sterility of the place in which I live - at least fruiting-tree wise - contrasting it with her own county (Suffolk), where she happens to live on a working farm, with an orchard. Just for the record, I won (I think), although - and Nancy would no doubt have smiled - I did have to invoke some cherry trees with their feet firmly planted in the Gironde in order to do so.

Top Trump

More recently I ventured to Suffolk where Charlotte weighed me down with generosity and grapes from her father-in-law’s laden and ancient vines (he was rather defeated by quantity and absence at the time), and the suggestion that grape jelly might be an appropriate way of preserving these particular fruit for seasons to come. As you might imagine, pride salvaged by way of the cherries, I was more than happy to acknowledge such munificence and superiority of grape harvest, and set to work straightway on making said jellies.

As a bit of a virgin conserver (what with living in Surrey and not having much of a glut of fruit to deal with in a normal year) and never having made a fruit jelly, I did a bit of research and it seemed that the technical bit - proportions of fruit to sugar to gelling agent (pectin) - are pretty standard. I relied, eventually, on a trusty looking tome “Larousse des Confitures”, aided and abetted by the late great Richard Olney, and discovered that grape jelly can be made with the juice provided from about 1.2kg of fruit (stalked) with an equal quantity of sugar (actual calculation based on a 1:1 ratio of juice, strained through a jelly bag - Heath Robinson contraptions perfectly acceptable - to sugar), the juice of a lemon, and about 200ml of apple juice - to add a bit of a pectin boost for a lowish pectin fruit.

So, on to the method. First cook your grapes. Put the (stalked and washed) grapes and a scant 200ml water into a large saucepan; bring to a boil and bubble gently for about 5 minutes pushing against the grapes with a skimmer or a spider or even a potato masher to burst the skins open at the same time. Next, pass the cooked grapes through a moulin à legumes on a fine setting (to get rid of the bulk of the skins and the pips).

Pour the resulting pulpy liquid into a jelly bag hung over a large bowl (a muslin cloth tied or pegged to an upturned stool or low table will do) and leave to drain, unassisted, for as long as it takes (from a few hours to overnight, depending on quantity and fineness of your muslin - the finer the weave, the longer the drain but the clearer the gel).

For the apple juice, simmer about 1kg of washed and quartered apples, sour ones are best, (no need to peel or to core but you can removed the stalks) in a litre and a half of water, for half an hour. After this time, ladle out the apples and their surrounding liquid into a sieve sitting over a bowl; allow the juice to drain through, don’t push it, and reserve. You will need about 200ml apple juice for the juice yielded from 1.2kg of grapes, the rest can be frozen in 200ml quantities for use at other times.

When all of your ingredients are ready to go but before you start work, you will need to sterilise some jars (1.2kg fruit to 1kg sugar makes, approximately 4 standard jam jars). Wash them in warm soapy water, rinse and drain (or wash in a dishwasher) and then put them in an oven at about 160ºC for 5 minutes or so (with their scrupulously washed lids if you are not sealing with cellophane or other means), then turn the oven off and leave the jars inside, untouched, until you need to fill them.

Meanwhile, put some small plates or saucers into your fridge or freezer to chill along with a handful of teaspoons and forget about them until later.

Weigh the liquid that you have captured in the bowl, put it into a wide, heavy-based saucepan (ideally a jam pan with outward sloping sides if you have one - if not, improvise as best you can) and add to it an equal quantity of plain white granulated sugar and the lemon and apple juices. Stir together, over a low heat, until ALL of the sugar is dissolved.

Bring to a boil, skim the boiling liquid of any initial scum that rises to the surface and then boil at a vigorous bubble for about 10 minutes or until the frothy scum starts to abate a little and the boiling bubbles are starting to change consistency (they will get bigger and slower), then start testing for a “set” (technical term). Vigorous boiling helps to speed up the process of getting the jelly to set but be careful that you don’t have hot spots at the bottom of your pan on which the mixture might “catch” or burn or caramelise - regulate the heat if you sense it is all getting at all out of hand.

Setting point is at about 105ºC (if you happen to have an appropriate thermometer) but can vary according to pectin and sugar and acid concentrations so can also be checked by dropping a small amount of the boiled liquid (using your pre-chilled teaspoons and plates) onto a plate and watching to see what happens to it. If it spreads uncontrollably, you are a way off. If it settles into a neat beady bubble that holds its shape and will wrinkle slightly when you push it (leave it to cool and settle a little first) you are there.

Do be careful not to overcook - you don’t want the jelly to become sticky or stiff, and caramelising the sugar will change the taste drastically; to this end, take off the heat immediately a set is reached. Once the bubbles have died down, skim the surface one last time of all the foam and bubbles sitting on the top - use a metal spoon - a special skimming one is best but you want something with relatively “sharp” edges, and then start ladling it into your sterilised jars. Fill them leaving about 1cm of head room and seal immediately; leave to cool and then store in a cool, dry, place or in the refrigerator. Don’t forget to label it, especially if you are planning on making more than one type or batch of preserves.

grape jelly

But grape jelly is probably at the advanced level end of the preserving spectrum. There is much for the perfectionist to concern themselves over. Grapes are not naturally high in pectin making the set problematic - but overboil and your jelly becomes gummy, underdo it and the gell may always sit on the sryupy side of soft (don’t lose heart though, the gelling process continues to work some magic for a few weeks after the making) and making the gell crystal clear involves concerns all of its own. So, moving back a preserving step and with a visit to France, a kitchen with a proper jam pan and, of course, markets full of fruit (notably plums of many descriptions and sizes) at my disposal I thought I might learn a few things from making some jams instead. Consulting my trusty “Larousse des Confitures” once more, it turns out that nearly all jam (or at least that relating to most varieties of plums, which is what I have been working with) can be made using about 1.2kg of fruit (net weight will be about 1kg once stoned) to 800g sugar (granulated white standard) and the juice of a small lemon.

Choose your plums carefully - you want them to be ripe but firm and without any significant blemish or mould on the outside. Wash, halve and pit the plums (you can use the lemon juice to help prevent a bit of browning of the cut edges but that’s up to you) and cover with the sugar in a large bowl - layer it up as you go if you like - but add in all of the lemon juice at this stage so that you don’t forget it later. Cover close to the surface with cling film and leave to macerate for anything from one to 24 hours. The longer you leave the fruit at this stage the more it becomes impregnated with the sugar - or so the theory goes.

Have ready your chilled saucers and spoons and jam pots (about the same number) as for the jelly.

Transfer the plums and sugar to a jam making pan, put onto a gentle heat and, stirring - at least from time to time - dissolve the sugar in the juices of the plums, all of it, then turn up the heat and boil and skim as for the jelly.

It will take about 10 minutes for this quantity of fruit for setting temperature to be reached (105ºC) but test with the cold plate as well. Do make sure that bits of the fruit and sugar don’t catch on the bottom of the pan at the vigorous boiling stage - regulate the heat carefully and stir from time to time to make sure that it doesn’t. Once you are happy that the jam has come to a set, turn off the heat and skim and jar exactly as for the jelly. Voilà! Couldn’t be simpler.

bobbing damsons coming to a boil

Jams made so far this year in my kitchen include both Quetsche (a kind of plum, not commonly available in the UK but can be found in parts of France) and Damson.



The Quetsche jam is very good, I made one version with some young walnuts and a bit of cinammon (be warned if handling young walnuts in their green outer shells, the staining to your skin will last about a fortnight and is really not pretty!)

a cautionary tale

But damson has proved significantly popular (and by the way, don’t believe anyone who translates questche via prune de damas as being the equivalent of an English damson - they may all have origniated in Syria and belong to the same extended family, but the size and the taste are quite different from each other); I have been struggling to keep up with supply and demand for this very time consuming and relatively hard to come by fruit (at least if you don’t have access to a damson tree).

Nigel Slater, states in his diaries that only a masochist would bother to stone a quantity of damsons before cooking them, and others talk optimistically about stones bobbing around at the surface and being easy to pick out of a cooked mass of fruit, but my advice would be to be wary of such seductive counsel - stoning the fruit allows you to be sure not only that the fruit is good inside (no wormy bits or spoiled areas) but also that the teeth of all your consumers are safe from unexpected trauma - take a little time (about an hour a kilo I’m afraid) and a very sharp small knife and cut out the grippy stones as close as possible to the flesh. However much work, the end result is well worth whatever effort is put into the making; it is supremely delicious.

The jam making season is destined to become one of my future favourites but, be warned, once you have mastered the technique, and tasted the finished product, a bug may start to get under your skin and you may make way more jam than any one family can really need. The time when you need to take proper stock, however, is perhaps when you start sizing up your garden for orchard potential.

“That’s why I hate to get started in these jam sessions. I’m always the last one to leave.” ~Elvis Presley

Erica x