If you read my blog regularly, you may recall how unsuccessful my last attempt at jam making was. If you missed it, you can read about it here. My last attempt at jam making however, was my gooseberry jam, which was really rather good. I have even given away a few jars, and had some very nice comments about it. I actually wish I had made more. But I am not a confident preserver, having never made chutneys or jellies before, and it is something I am keen to learn more about. And I think it is fair to say that jam making is one of the few areas in cookery which does actually require you to learn a bit about the process. You can just pick up a good recipe and attempt it (assuming it is a good, reliable recipe, that is) and it may well work. But preserving does require some knowledge and sound advice to get you well on the way to truly successful preserving.
I’ve been Tweeting with Vivien for some time and own a copy of First Preserves, her indispensable preserving book and was thrilled when she very kindly invited me to her gorgeous Somerset house for a day of jam making with her and fellow bloggers Karen and Sue. Vivien organised three recipes for us to make, which were, dauntingly, at the more advanced level of the spectrum as Karen is a confident preserver. I was actually really glad this was the case, as I tend to learn more quickly through observation, watching someone do something and then attempting it at home is an easier way to learn for me than simply reading instructions when it comes to attempting a complicated recipe.
Having negotiated a catalogue of roadworks, road blockages and the diabolical Monday morning traffic through Bath city centre, I arrived at Vivien’s farmhouse embarrassingly late, but was very warmly welcomed with a much-needed hot cup of fresh coffee and one of Vivien’s renowned chocolate biscuits. Yes, these biscuits are so good, they even helped secure her daughter a job!
Vivien is not only a leading preserves expert, judge, teacher and demonstrator, but also an excellent home baker. Putting her 25 years experience of traditional jam making to good use, Vivien published her first preserving book last year, entitled First Preserves, and also has published three very highly recommended eBooks on jam, chutney and marmalade making, which can be downloaded using iBooks on the iPad for £2.99 each. Vivien worked closely with Rob from Big Blu design, based in the South West, to created these eBooks, which feature demonstration videos showing Vivien making jam at home, and, as I said earlier, are a great way for the novice preserver to feel confident at attempting preserves at home.
Our first recipe of the day was damson and apple chutney. We started off by cooking the damsons lightly and extracting the stones from the softened fruit. Whilst we were doing this, we spent some time discussing the common pitfalls of jam making and how to achieve the best results. The pectin content of the fruit you use is really important. The skin, seeds and pips in fruit contain vital pectin, which will affect how the jam sets. Use fruit that is only just ripe for the best results. Ensure that you use the whole fruit, for example when using apples – just cut them into eighths and throw them in the preserving pan without worrying about peeling and coring them. Warm your sugar in the oven on a low temperature before using. Interestingly, Vivien is a strong advocate of cane sugar for the best results: it does produce a superior end product. Vivien also suggested on this subject that granulated cane sugar is all you will need, not jam sugar or preserving sugar. As a novice preserver, I had read recipes listing granulated sugar amongst their ingredients, thinking jam sugar would be what you need to make jam. Not so!
When the fruit for the damson chutney had been prepared, we started to cook it slowly. The sugar is only added at a later stage for the best flavour to avoid caramelising and affecting the overall flavour of the chutney. We then let the pan bubble away very gently, stirring occasionally, until there is no remaining surface liquid. This does take time.
Whilst the chutney was slowly cooking away, we started on the damson jelly by preparing and cooking the fruit and setting up the jelly bags to strain the juice to form the jelly from the fruit. High pectin fruits are ideal for jelly making, but even more crucial to making the perfect jelly is the jelly bag itself. A muslin bag is perfect. Many bags on sale surprisingly have holes larger then is ideal, and therefore let some pulp run through with the juice. This produces a cloudy jelly, which will taste fine, but wouldn’t score you many points in a competition.
As a veteran preserves judge, Vivien has judged a great number of competitions and is a fountain of knowledge on what makes the perfect preserve to enter into a competition. When running preserves masterclasses from her home, Vivien invites guests to bring a jar of something they have made for her to taste and evaluate. I must confess wimping out of this and not bringing a jar of my jam along for fear of harsh criticism, but having heard that is surprisingly common for people to enter mouldy jam in competitions, I did rather regret my decision, as I think my gooseberry jam would have scored reasonably well.
We rounded off the day by making damson cheese, which is a great favourite of mine, and something I was particularly keen to have a go at, usually buying mine from Neal’s Yard made with Brogdale damsons and purchased at an astronomical price. As with every recipe on the day, it was made using fruit from Vivien’s wonderful garden, and the fruit pulp was cooked down very slowly over a low heat, becoming stickier and thicker, until it had reached the optimum consistency and poured into little ramekins and covered with a wax disk and a cellophane circle.
Our day absolutely flew by, being both very informative and also great fun. Vivien is a real authority on preserving and I picked up a great number of tips along the day. Most importantly, I genuinely left feeling confident enough to attempt traditional preserving myself, with many tech issues demystified. Preserving has felt scary before, but I think a lot of it comes down to knowing you have a great recipe to follow, which I do now. I have never wanted to try any jam recipes purporting to be easy, but relying on liquid pectin and other artificial products. Nothing can compare to a traditional type of preserve, made in the time-honoured way, which does not compromise on the true flavour of the fruit.
For more information, do take a look at Vivien’s website, and I highly recommend her book and iBook. Vivien will also be on the One Show on BBC One tonight from 7pm. Do tune in.
Vivien has very kindly allowed me to share a recipe from First Preserves here.
Damson, Ginger and Cardamom Chutney
Makes about 2.25kg (5lb)
1.4kg (3lb) damsons, washed and stalks removed
450g( 1lb) onions
1 large Bramley cooking apple
15cm( 6in) stick cinnamon
5cm(2in) piece fresh root ginger
15 cardamom pods
30ml ( 2 tbsp) salt
450g (1lb) granulated, cane sugar
450g(1lb) dark muscovado sugar
600ml (1pint) cider vinegar
600ml (1pint) distilled white malt vinegar
1. Put the washed damsons (still wet) into a large preserving pan, cook gently, stir occasionally
and as soon as the damsons start to leach their juices cook for 15 minutes or until the fruits start to burst. Take the pan off the heat, leave to cool slightly then remove the stones.
2. Peel and finely chop the ginger, sultanas, onions and apple, using a food processor if you have one. Crush the cardamom and remove the husks. Add all these ingredients, the vinegars, cinnamon and salt to the pan.
3. Bring the mixture slowly to the boil, then turn the heat down to a gentle simmer. Cook for about an hour, until the contents of the pan have reduced to a pulpy consistency, stirring occasionally. Add the sugars and dissolve them carefully. Continue to cook gently until the contents of the pan are thick and no “free” liquid remains. Stir frequently to prevent the chutney sticking to the bottom of the pan. . Place the jars in a pre-heated oven 140C/275F/Gas1 for 15 minutes.
4. Remove the pan from the heat, and discard the cinnamon stick. Remove the jars from the oven. Ladle the chutney into a glass or plastic jug. Pour the chutney into the jars, filling them to within 5mm (¼”) from the top. Seal the jars with new, vinegar resistant twist top lids. When the jars are cold, label them with the name, date and year made. Store in a dry cupboard for two to three months before opening.
Thank you to Vivien Lloyd for the invitation to attend Damson Day at her house. I was her guest, and was under no obligation to write about it. All travel costs were incurred myself.