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October 1, 2009 / thatsarahdean

Icon of the month: Jam

First published in Third Way magazine, October 2009

Something unexpected that the current economic situation has taught us is that whilst British people are willing to cut back on foreign holidays and Sky Sports, they are unwilling to forgo floral tea towels, peg bags and ironing board covers.  Whilst international banks and whole countries go under, Cath Kidston has reported insanely healthy sales figures for her pretty yet practical home wares. The secret to Cath’s success is that she has tapped into the cultural shift in our thinking about domesticity. The homely arts of baking, knitting and jam making were once the domain of the anti-feminist, the elderly and the Amish, now these same skills are lifestyle aspirations for those of us who want to live simply, sustainably and with Cath’s help, stylishly. People have realised how satisfying and cheap it is to grow your own food, so garden centres are doing okay too.  Before the economic downturn, turning up at a friend’s dinner party with a carrier bag full of pock-marked cooking apples from your back garden for your host, instead of a bottle of pinot grigio would have been considered stingy, and indicative of a decline in your mental health. Now this gift proves that you are doing your bit not to waste resources, that you are generous (and a little bit smug.)

The thing about growing your own fruit and veg is that it can go one of two ways. You either propagate wizened diseased stalks of disaster with shriveled fruit covered in black fly (which whatever way you serve them are never going to be part of your five-a-day). Or your plants grow with such vigour, that you end up with an over-flowing bounty of produce that you struggle to keep up with. (Actually this seems familiar, there’s something in the Bible about this, isn’t there?) Once you have fed the freezer to bursting, fed the children with soft fruit until they got some kind of rash, given several tonnes away to friends, neighbours and random strangers, the only way to use up the seemingly never-ending supply is to start making jam.

A word of warning though, whilst jam making is really easy,  it is a task only for the emotionally robust, as so much of the process seems so very wrong!

Firstly soft fruit is at it’s most profligate in the high summer, when the weather makes standing over a boiling hot saucepan for several hours the last thing you want to do. Jam making is therefore an exercise in endurance (and ideal training for Sahara Marathon).

The annoying unpredictability of growing your own fruit and veg means that you might end up with rather too much of a crop you don’t especially like, but fear not, anything tastes good when if you add a lot of sugar to it.  This is how marrow jam was invented. (Again, is this in the Bible? It should be.) However brace yourself, the amount of sugar you need is really quite disturbing! All those demonstrations at school where they show you how a penny can be cleaned by coca-cola come rushing back, as you weigh out enough sugar to clean about two grand’s worth of two-pence pieces.

The most upsetting part of the process is in a calculated act of madness you take beautiful, soft fresh fruit, that is vibrantly bursting with juice and vitamins, and then you deliberately ruin it’s curvaceous, plump loveliness by boiling it to a pulp.

Then you have to wait. Wait for it to cool. Wait for it to set. (You can use some of this time to write out the labels. Perhaps you’ll be surprised to learn that Cath Kidston does lovely labels just for this purpose.) Wait a bit more. Remember Jam doesn’t taste as nice on a summers day, when you can eat a fresh strawberry, so wait a bit longer. Perhaps until February or March. Wait until the most grey, most miserable day, then spread just a teaspoon of jam on toast. Then be reminded of the sweetness of summer again. As it says in Ecclesiastes, “There is a time to eat a fresh fruit, and there is a time to eat jam.” Jam: Hope in a jar.

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