Preserving the art of jam making

Jam. Apparently the Duchess of Cambridge likes to make it while she’s waiting for Prince William, Theresa May doesn’t mind scraping off a bit of mould before digging in, and a jar of Jeremy Corbyn’s home-made confiture could cost you £400 at auction.

I have a stockpile of the stuff, having just had a productive weekend boiling and bubbling great vats of it. My shelves are piled high with jars that glow like bright jewels when the sun slants through. I’m not sure where the word jam comes from – perhaps the fruit being crushed in a jar – since officially it’s preserves: “foodstuff made with fruit preserved in sugar, such as jam or marmalade.”

It’s a wonderful excuse to while away a couple of hours in the kitchen, knowing you’ll enjoy the fruits of your labour in gloomy winter months, and that you’re continuing an ancient tradition. The first written jam recipe is recorded in the first known cookbook, De re coquinaria. It’s attributed to Marcus Gavius Apicius (probably a pseudonym), and dates from Rome in the first century AD. Its 500 recipes include one for soft fruit heated with honey, a mixture that was then cooled and stored, typically served as a delicacy at the end of a meal.

Today, jam continues to be an invaluable way of prolonging the life of valuable summer fruit. The home-made version in particular evokes memories of family teas and the small pleasures of domesticity. It always takes me back to my favourite infant “scratch-and-sniff” book: Little Bunny Follows His Nose by Katherine Howard. To this day the smell of freshly-cooked jam conjures the page where Bunny receives his spoonful of freshly-made jam heaven.

Outside the nursery, jam was also served on the battlefield as an official ration for fighting soldiers, as the Duke of Wellington noted in a letter sent from central Spain, August 1812, to the Foreign Office:

“Gentlemen, Each item and every farthing has been accounted for, with two regrettable exceptions for which I beg your indulgence… [one is that] there has been a hideous confusion as to the number of jars of raspberry jam issued to one cavalry regiment during a sandstorm in western Spain. This reprehensible carelessness may be related to the pressure of circumstance, since we are at war with France, a fact which may come as a bit of a surprise to you gentlemen in Whitehall.”

Over a century later, when rationing and the impact of World War II led to widespread anxiety about food shortages on the home front, jam-making members of the Women’s Institute were called to the rescue. In 1940 they were given a government grant of £1,400 to spend on buying sugar for jam, the idea being that a larger amount of fruit could be preserved over a longer period of time, ensuring nothing went to waste. Preserving centres were set up in farm kitchens, village halls and even sheds, largely run by volunteers from the community. In the next five years, until the war ended in 1945, over 5,300 tons of fruit were preserved and turned into over 1,600 tons of jam.

Today, home-made jam sits uncomfortably between our appreciation of artisan food and our denigration of refined sugar as the dietary equivalent of crack cocaine. Hopefully no one will be offended by the following recipe.

Jam Tart recipe

Makes 12

Don’t keep these just for the children, since freshly-made they’re a treat for everyone. Just remember to let them cool before enjoying.

250g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
125g butter, chilled and diced, plus extra for the tin
1 medium egg
100g jam, of your choice

Put the flour, butter and a pinch of salt in a bowl and rub them together with your fingertips (or pulse in a food processor) until the mixture looks like breadcrumbs; stir in the egg with a knife. Add 1 tbsp cold water, then start to bring the dough together in a ball – try not to knead it too much. Wrap in cling film and chill for 30 mins. Butter a 12- hole tart tin. Roll the pastry out on a lightly-floured work surface to about the thickness of a £1 coin, then use a straight or fluted round cutter to make 12 circles, sized to line the holes in the tin. Dollop 1-2 tsp of your chosen jam into each one. Bake at 200°C for 15-18 mins or until the pastry is golden and the filling is starting to bubble a little. Leave to cool in the tin for a few mins then carefully transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

Lydia Brownlow was a cookery editor at Good Housekeeping magazine and a contributor to The Daily Beast. Latterly she has been inspiring children to cook. More info at lydiabrownlow.com

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