I used to hate preserving our garden produce when I was a child. It would come in large batches on hot summer days when all you wanted to do was chill out with friends at the pool, or go on a hiking trip in the mountains. Instead, we were stuck in the kitchen overwhelmed with apples, berries or cucumbers that had to be dealt with urgently – or they would go bad. I didn’t care back then, I didn’t understand what the point was in having a pantry filled with jams, bottled fruit and all sorts of pickles. My disdain only lasted until I left home to study at university and live at students’ apartments. Oh, how much I missed those bottles!
Once I started my own family, I would take every opportunity to get fresh garden produce from a reliable source to fill my pantry with bottles of all sizes and shapes. I would phone my Mum to ask for detailed instructions and go to great lengths to achieve the same luscious flavours in my preserves as she’d had in hers. I was so proud when she praised my jam or bottled apricots on her occasional visits.
Like my Mum, I have never used any chemicals in my preserves, and yet hardly ever had them spoilt. If I found a thin layer of mildew on top of my jam on a few occasions, I just took it away carefully and wiped the rim of the jar and the lid thoroughly with a clean cloth. Once opened, I put the jam in the fridge and used it within two weeks without any harm or digestive problems whatsoever. I still believe that if you have fresh produce of good quality from a reliable source, and are careful enough to clean and prepare it well before preserving, you are fine without chemical additives. Keeping your kitchen worktops clean is also very important.
Here are a few essential rules my Mum has taught me about preserving fruit:
- Before you start, wash the jars and bottles thoroughly, preferably in hot water with a few drops of washing-up liquid added. Let them dry off on a clean dish-towel.
- Use firm but ripe fruit for bottling, soft and slightly overripe pieces are more suited for jam. Remember to rinse the fruit under running water, remove the stones where applicable, and cut off any blemishes.
- The amount of sugar you need will depend on the fruit sweetness. A general rule is 500 g sugar for a kilo of fruit like blueberries or redcurrants. Apricots, strawberries or plums are sweeter, so you will only need 300 – 400 g sugar for a kilo of the fruit. The sweetness of fruit may vary within the same kind, so be sure to taste it before adding the sugar.
- Let your preserves cool down slowly after sterilizing them in a hot water bath. You can cover them with a blanket to ensure slow cooling. To test the seal, turn the bottles/jars upside down. If the lids have sealed well, there will be no leakage of the bottle/jar contents.
And now off to making a blackberry jam. I got two buckets of blackberries from my friend’s organic garden in the mountains. They look and taste sumptuous, so I’m looking forward to the result.
Home-made blackberry jam
3 kg blackberries
1,5 kg sugar
ground cinnamon (optional)
Rinse the berries on a sieve under running water and let them dry off. Depending on the size of the sieve and the amount of the berries, you may have to do that in batches.
Transfer the berries into a very large casserole. Because I wanted to make both a jelly (clear jam without pips) and a regular jam, I divided the berries into two smaller casseroles.
Add the sugar and stir well with a wooden spoon to ensure all the berries are sweetened evenly. Cover with a lid and let stand overnight in a cool place.
By the following morning the berries will have softened and released juices. Blend the sugared berries using a hand blender. Add the cinnamon if preferred (it gives the jelly/jam a nice, spicy twist) and stir well.
If you want to make a jelly, place a sieve over a deep bowl or a pot. Line the sieve with a piece of muslin and transfer some of the berries on it. Mash them with the back of a spoon to extract juices, which will collect in the bowl/pot. Repeat in batches until you have juiced all the berries. It will take some time, but you can do something else in between, or work on your jam (as I did).
For both jelly and jam cooking the method is the same:
Put a large, non-stick pan with a wide bottom over a low heat. Pour 2 – 3 ladles of the juice/blended berries in the pan and cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. The jelly/jam is of the right consistency when the spoon leaves a path behind in the pan, as seen in the picture below, right:
Spoon or ladle the cooked jelly/jam to a clean jar. Again pour 2 – 3 ladles of the juice/blended berries in the pan and cook in the same way. Remember the time you need to achieve the right consistency, so that all the jelly/jam is cooked to the same thickness. Add to the jar and repeat the cooking process until the jar is filled up to its grooves (see picture on the right). Wipe the brim clean and screw on the lid while the jelly/jam is still hot. This will ensure the lid seals well. A short popping sound you hear later, as well as a slightly pulled-in lid indicate a good seal.
Start filling a new jar in the same way. When you have used all the juice/blended berries and filled all the jars, leave them to cool down and store in a cold, dark place.
Once opened, refrigerate the jar and use its contents within two weeks.