Thursday, August 16, 2012

Jam Don't Shake Like That

The alchemy of jelly is deceptively simple: combine nearly equal parts fruit and sugar, add pectin, heat, and put the hot syrup in jars. Days, sometimes weeks, later it will set into a sweet treat. If it fails to gel, which it sometimes does, the cook can boil again; if not, the liquid still can be used as a topping on pancakes.

At holiday get-togethers and after Christmas dinner this year I will casually hand out jars of spiced grape jelly, cherry jam, apple butter, mountain currant jelly, and fig confiture with honey, lemon, and thyme. Most will be eaten just as casually. Some jars will sit on pantry shelves for years. In rare cases a friend will return an empty jar, holding it like a chalice and asking for more of the same. No matter which scenario plays out, making and giving these goods is a ritual that brings me great pleasure.
My first jelly was Mamoo's spiced grape. The recipe came from my great-grandmother, and I copied it by hand from my grandmother's hand-written copy. My grandmother must have learned from her mother-in-law. I like to imagine the two of them forging a friendship over a sticky sweet boiling pot in a hot summer kitchen. My grandmother taught my mother, who then passed the knowledge to me. I don't remember learning, although I do remember my mother's warnings as she melted paraffin on the gas stove - the wax could ignite and engulf the kitchen in flames. She would pour a thin layer on top to seal each jar, and months later I would pry them open, then chew the grape-flavored wax. Today I use a boiling water bath to preserve, but the rest is mostly the same. I've now made spiced grape so many times I can do it mostly from memory, although I occasionally review the original recipe in case I'm missing anything. I usually am, but my variations have made it my own, so I don't go back. Like language, recipes evolve through the generations.
I can make spiced grape any time because the primary ingredient is store-bought juice. Fresh fruit, however, dictates its own schedule. This year I discovered that my uncle had a cherry tree with a good crop, and I was given permission to pick both his tree and the neighbor's.  Montmorency cherries are a rare treat since my mother's tree split along a fault line and was turned into sweet firewood. For many years the last week of July was harvest time, and I would clamber on the low moss-covered fence underneath, or ascend awkwardly placed ladders reaching for the ripest fruit, too tart to eat off the tree but unequalled for pies and jam. My uncle's tree ripened early, in mid-June, so while my children were at camp I spent a week's worth of mornings circling the tree. Looking up through the trees the sun was so bright that the fruit was translucent, glowing red against the deep blue sky. Sticky juice ran down my arms to my elbows and squirrels chittered at me from a nearby tree while robins scolded from another. There were so many that even after taking more than two gallons the tree looked as if I hadn't touched it. At home I commenced preparing the fruit. I washed and pitted and chopped, boiled and canned. After three days I had twelve jars of jam, and two pies in the freezer. My house smelled of sugar and cherries for days.
Apples ripen later, in September and October. I get mine through a school fundraiser, so the spicy scent of apple butter has become synonymous with the start of school. Apple butter is an exercise in patience. Forty pounds of apples take a while to prepare - washing, peeling, coring, chopping. The peels and cores go into the mix, too, for their pectin, but they are contained in a muslin bag to be removed later. When ready the apples are set to simmer over low heat for days, until they break down just enough. The scent of the harvest drifts through the house, growing stronger as the hours pass. Falling steam coats the counter with evaporated sugar, and the essence of cinnamon and cloves imbue every meal until the chocolate-colored mixture is pressed through a fine sieve, scooped into jars, and the aroma is sealed in.
The rarest, most precious, jelly comes from the currants that grow at Wellington Lake. The bushes are waist high; the berries smaller than the nail on my pinkie finger. An hour of picking might yield eight ounces of berries, and it takes 16 cups to make one batch of six jars. The arithmetic is daunting. Yet there's a certain satisfaction to the first dry plink of fruit hitting the bottom of a paper cup, then the deepening sound as the cup fills to silence. 
Last weekend I stood on a low hill, dry grasses scratching and tickling my calves as I picked, ducking to discover orange-red berries under tiny green fan-shaped leaves. The breeze came from the south, curving around the shoulders of Castle Mountain and gusting pieces of conversation from the campers across the lake to me. "Don't worry about . . ." "Did you . . .?" Dogs barked and radios sang intermittent love songs to me. It was comforting. This sun lowered itself as I hunted for fruit, and my fingers became increasingly sticky with the piney cologne of currant resin. I remembered walking the dusty road with my mother and grandmother, each with our own collecting cup, remarking on good bushes and chatting amiably as we worked them over, or relaxing into companionable silence, moving individually to the next spot. Other days we slipped down the rough gravel of the dam, looking for disturbed earth where raspberries grow best. When we found a patch we would wind our arms between thorns to find tiny magenta thimbles that fell into our hands. Ostensibly for mixed wild berry jelly, my raspberries usually were a snack instead. Entire afternoons slid by as we attained a meditative state of grace, the reward a full measuring cup in the refrigerator and the knowledge that this year we would have jelly.
This is a good year for currants, and my children helped with the harvest. S, as usual, chattered away. Miss Awesome -- like three generations of women before her -- focused on picking. During the week I left them at the cabin with their grandmother while I returned to the city for two days to work. When I returned there were quarts of currants in bags in the refrigerator. My mother should be able to make two batches this year.
The alchemy of jelly is deceptively simple: combine the fruits of my labor with generations of tradition, flavor with love, and share.


  1. Just lovely. And now you're making me long for some toast and jelly this morning!

  2. Beautifully told.
    Oh for some of your fig confiture with honey, lemon, and thyme!

  3. I love this post. I've made jam and preserves, but never jelly - how do you keep it clear? But these all sound so delicious and pretty. I love currant jelly!

  4. I can smell the apple butter from here.

  5. Aunt Snow - to keep it clear, never squeeze the fruit and filter the juice (usually cheesecloth but I've used coffee filters in a pinch). My mom's way better at it than I am.

  6. This is lovely. Thanks for sharing the beauty of this

    My mom and I were just talking about making jam ... she did it only once, with her MIL, and 30 years later, still can't get over how much work it took for such a small output. That makes the gift of homemade jam even more precious. Your friends are lucky ducks!

  7. Like Aunt Snow, I've made jams and preserves but I've never attempted jellies. It is definitely a labor of love!
    I am now wishing for fall to hurry up!

  8. As a wise woman once said, "I don't think you're ready for this jelly."