There is something about berries that screams summer to me. Where I live in England it’s the height of strawberry season right now and the berries are cheap and plentiful. They are also succulent and sweet with the summer sun - unlike the watery tart versions you get from supermarkets out of season. For the next few months we will have a berry bonanza with raspberries, gooseberries, blueberries, red currants, white currants, black currants, and finally in the autumn, blackberries.
For my fifth birthday I begged my mother to make a strawberry shortcake – I think I must have been inspired by the saccharine Strawberry Shortcake doll that was popular with the under-seven set at the time. The only problem? We lived in Bathurst, a small inland city a few hours west of Sydney, and my birthday was in midwinter. There was snow on the ground and fresh strawberries were non-existent. My mother ended up making the strawberry shortcake with tinned strawberries. She was horrified but my five-year-old self was perfectly delighted with the result.
These days, you can buy imported berries at any time of year. In winter, in London the supermarkets are filled with cheap blueberries that have been air-freighted from Peru. EcoSalon readers are almost certainly aware of the terrible environmental impact of such a luxury but never mind the food miles, the fruit is inevitably disappointing as well.
Fortunately, there are better ways to extend the taste of summer fruit into the cold months – and now is the time to think about it. If you grow berries yourself, unless you have a large family, you probably cannot keep pace with the berry eating and need to think about preserving the harvest. If not, you can still join in the fun by visiting a pick-your-own farm (preferably an organic one, since conventionally-grown strawberries are one of the most pesticide-ridden fruits and vegetables) or taking advantage of discounts at the farmers’ markets.
The simplest way to preserve berries is to freeze them. The trick is to lay the berries out on a baking tray and freeze them individually before bagging them up – otherwise, the berries will stick together.
Or you can go for the time-honoured route and try your hand at jam-making. I tried it for the first time with my aunt in Scotland two years ago and it was actually far easier than I thought. It was also quite fast – it took longer to pick the berries than to make the jam. At the simplest level, it is simply cooking up fruit and sugar.
The standard rule is to have equal quantities of fruit and sugar – a pound of sugar to a pound of fruit (or a kilogram of sugar to a kilogram of fruit). You can play around with this a little if you like – for example, 16oz of raspberries to 14oz of sugar will make a jam that is slightly less sweet. Be aware that the sugar is necessary to preserve the fruit so if you cut back, it will not last as long. Some people use apple juice or honey instead, but I have never tried this.
The best option is to buy special preserving sugar, though if you can not find this, the closest match is granulated or raw sugar. You can buy preserving sugar with or without added pectin – the natural agent that makes the jam set. Some fruit, such as black currant, is naturally high in pectin anyway – you can tell from the stickiness of the raw fruit. Strawberries on the other hand are low in pectin and traditionally you would add lemon juice as the setting agent.
Before you start, wash the jars and lids in hot soapy water and then put them in the oven at about 100C (210F) (but don’t put the lids in for too long if they have plastic on the inside). This will sterilise the jars and also make them hot so they don’t crack when you put the jam in.
Stew the fruit in a pot, with just a splash of water to stop it sticking to the pot. Stir and wait for the fruit to start to fall apart – when you don’t want it to fall apart any longer, add the sugar. Stir and cook the fruit mixture for 10 to 20 minutes – it depends on the fruit but you can tell it is done when the mixture develops a gloss. Keep a saucer in the fridge and when you think the jam is done, you can test it by dropping a teaspoonful on to the cold plate – it is done if it sets. (Take the jam off the heat while you do the test and put it back if needed).
When it’s ready, spoon the jam into the jars and twist on the lids immediately to seal it in – you might hear a lovely pop as the seals go upwards. Apparently if you are using cellophane and wax you need to wait until the jam is cold, but I’ve never tried this. It should keep for about a year in the cupboard – refrigerate once open and use within a month or two. If you get good at it, it makes a wonderful gift for friends and family.
If your first attempt does not work out, don’t worry. There’s another name for over-cooked jam – toffee. You might not be able to spread it on toast, but it is perfectly delicious in its own right.