On a ninety degree June day, on the shortest night of the year, I have set aside my first batch of jam for the year. It’s strawberry — a dark, extremely ripe batch of strawberry jam, with berries coming from a farmer’s market in Cambridge (our fair city).
Last year I made seven batches of jam: two blueberry, two strawberry, one peach, one plum and one apple butter. (OK ok so apple butter isn’t jam. So sue me.) For all the real jams (not the apple butter), I use the simplest canning method: liquid pectin. Ah, Certo! What service you give me! Anyway, each batch makes about 6 – 10 jars of jam, depending on size.
In my cupboard there are currently 9 jars of jam: five blueberry, two peach, one strawberry and one apple butter. If anyone wants blueberry jam, let me know. After years of having made it I’ve finally reached the conclusion that it’s simply not worthwhile. The only thing the spoiled people around here are willing to use blueberry jam for is peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and then only if I sneak it in. The peach jam was really a disappointment. Instead of being a whiff of my favorite fruit, a glimpse of the brief moment of summer carried throughout the winter (what I hoped), it ended up being an overly sugary, sugar-type-substance. It crystallizes in the jar if left too long (not a problem I’ve encountered before) and is generally eh. Clearly, the highest best calling of a peach is a tight race between eating it over the kitchen sink (if you don’t need to eat it over the sink it’s not a good peach) or peach pie. Mmmmmm peach pie.
The strawberry is the old standby of jams. It’s fine in most everything. It is the staple of my cupboard, for sandwiches or spread over my husband’s toasted bread at night before we retire. The apple butter was a revelation. It has found it’s true calling spread thickly over cornbread. That might not permit you to get through about 12 jars of apple butter, but a fortnight does not pass but we have chili and cornbread. And the apple butter makes a favorite meal even more a thing of joy!
But the plum. Oh, the plum! The tartness, balanced with delicate perfection of the sweetness of jam. It dances on the tongue, bringing delight. Just the memory if it scintillates my taste buds. There were some wonderful nights this winter, blooming tea in the glass teapot, sugar cubes next to the porcelain teacup, hot toast with butter and plum jam, and a rousing game of St. Petersburg. Delight, my friends. I have to admit that, to me, the farm share was worth it if it only presented me with a quantity of plums that needed something to be done with them, to this result.
My family agrees. You will note there is no plum jam in my “left over” count — the only kind of canning I’m completely out of. And unlike my other batches, I shared nary a jar of the plum with anyone. I parcelled out peach judiciously, strawberry with grace, and apple butter with the corn bread recommendation. But the plum I kept to myself.
So this year, I have already made one batch of strawberry jam. Fear not, sons of mine, your PB&Js are secure. I’ll probably make another batch with farmshare strawberries. I will make two, maybe three batches of plum jam. Because really, it was that good. I thought, in addition, I’d made an apricot jam this year. I’m on the hook for another batch of apple butter, no doubt. I’m hoping that maybe one of my friends wants to come and make it with me, because peeling that many apples and the stirring required is lonely work without a chatting partner.
I can’t help but think, though, that there is room to continue to grow in this canning endeavor. I think I’ve mentioned that canning is a family heritage. My great-grandmother was in her 20s during the Great Depression. I remember a neglected apple tree near our home. My grandmother spent hours, hours upon hours, peeling, coring and cooking those apples to make applesauce, only because she couldn’t bear to see such good food going to waste.
When my brother was about Thane’s age, maybe a little younger, my great grandmother, Grandma Finley, came to stay with us for a month or two during the summer. I can still remember the exact threes in our backyard: the raspberry bushes (for jam – I distinctly recall getting chastised for having eaten the bushes bare when mom planned on jamming that weekend), the Politician’s elm, the crabapple tree, the two dogwoods, and the stand of slender white birches in the middle.
I loved the dogwoods, I climbed the elm, I admired the paperlike bark of the birches, but I’d never really noticed the crabapple. My great grandmother, on the other hand, knew just what to do with it. She made crapapple jelly. I remember being amazed by the color of it – this incredibly clear red. Like plums, the crabapples were quite tart, so the jelly danced between tart and sweet on the tongue. I wonder if she had a recipe, or used pectin? I wonder if that was just the sort of thing a hard-working Christian woman who’d lived though the depression knew how to do.
What I really wonder, of course, is whether I can get my hands on any crabapples this summer.
PS – if anyone does have a crabapple tree nearly and would let me glean, let me know!!