This year, I’ve been taken by preserving in a way I hadn’t expected. I don’t grow my own food, so I wasn’t prompted to preserve out of necessity (no heaving fruit trees on my apartment balcony!). But I do eat seasonally and locally so I want to make the most of what’s around me. Plus the preserving process is rather mysterious and magical, who wouldn’t be curious?
Of all the forms of preserving, I had no idea jam making would instantly take hold like it has. Not in some quaint grandmotherly way, but boldly, effervescently, deliciously. It has taken me on some exuberant adventures and rekindled the quiet joy of making and giving. Really.
I wasn’t introduced or exposed to preserving in the traditional way, where it is passed down the generations as a vital skill to preserve surplus produce from going to waste, to provide food through the winter and a varied diet throughout the year. I didn’t grow up seeing my mum make preserves other than the year she ran the jam and pickles stall at my primary school fete. These days, I’m not alone in this experience. For most people, preserving is something their grandmother used to do.
Yet even without much of a personal connection to it, my curiosity drew me in, and I have my mother to thank for cultivating that. She instilled in me an openness to be inspired by what is around me and the confidence to try new things and find my own way.
As I was becoming interested in preserving, it was this spirit of curiosity and adventure that I recognised in the story of the Cornersmith café and picklery. Cornersmith has taken a home cook’s foray into preserving (when Alex Elliott-Howery was at home with her small children in Sydney and seeing fruit literally falling off the trees in her neighbourhood and carpeting the ground), to opening a café incorporating their preserves and a local community produce trading system, and then establishing a picklery to expand production and to teach and inspire others.
The cookbook ties it all together and encourages others to make their own way into preserving too. Structured in chapters based on the seasons (my favourite kind of cookbook), it offers an understanding of how to preserve with the seasons and incorporate what you’ve made into meals throughout the year. In this way, it deftly integrates the tradition of preserving into modern life.
Refreshingly relaxed in its approach, the book makes accessible what could be intimidating: sterilising jars, fermenting and the mysterious setting point of jam. I love its sense of humour about the sometimes wild ride of preserving, including offering full permission to have a gin and lie down when it all goes wrong!
Knowing that it was possible to have a go at preserving without any experience or special equipment, to try and not really have a clue if it was going to work out, made starting out easier because I didn’t expect perfection the first time or every time.
It let me go with the wildly unrealistic notion of making my first ever batch of jam on a Monday morning before work (because I’d been side tracked on Sunday night and it was now or never with the macerated blackberries!) and having to run out the door, unsure if the jam had set and leaving my kitchen splattered with sticky purple spots and smears. When I came home, I popped open a jar and discovered to my great delight that the jam had indeed set and was heavenly – gloriously glossy, with the zing of lemon zest and juice to cut through the sweetness.
I was amazed that I could make something this good first-go. I was hooked. As much as I enjoy pickling and I'm wide-eyed about exploring fermentation, somehow jam making became my first love. In a few short months, I’ve made two batches of blackberry jam, two of strawberry, rhubarb and rosewater jam and one of lime and ginger marmalade.
Mostly, the chaos continues. It feels like my jam making has a life of its own and I’m feeling my way through with some guidelines from the cookbook but mostly trusting my instincts. And yes, I still rather optimistically decide to make jam when I don’t really have the time. Like when I attempted to make it while also slow roasting brisket – rather distracting, don’t try it! Or when I was up until midnight making marmalade because it took forever to thinly slice a kilogram of limes with a blunt knife and I somehow missed the detail in the recipe which said they would need to simmer for an hour and a half before beginning the setting process, and at that point there was no turning back!
Of course, I’ve had some failures. Two attempts at quince and apple jam did not work out. After spending hours peeling, chopping and softening the fruit and then setting the jam late into the night, I really did feel like taking Alex’s suggestion of having a gin and a lie down! It hasn’t put me off though and I’ve found ways to salvage my imperfect jam.
Looking back on the delight I’ve taken in the magical, addictive process, I can see jam making goes beyond being a purely practical way to preserve surplus food, or to have something nice to eat.
Even though we don’t need to eat seasonally or preserve food if we don’t want to these days, and many of us have let go of the practice in favour of time and convenience, a growing number of us do want to. I believe we preserve not because we’ll necessarily be at good at it, or because we have time to kill (as I can attest!). Rather, we want to find the time to make something from scratch because we are curious and because we know the rewards are worth the effort. When we start making, our appreciation grows by understanding what goes into crafting something so personal so proficiently. We can also be confident of what ingredients and care have gone into making it.
Jam won’t cure our ills (or slim our waistlines) but I believe it nourishes us in ways that are just as vital and therapeutic. Rather than the norm they used to be, homemade preserves are a rare treat these days. That’s why I enjoy giving so much of what I’ve made away - to my family, to a friend going through a tough time, in a birthday cake to share with colleagues, or to thank a generous dinner party host.
I like to think of the people I care about having a moment of pleasure over tea and toast in the morning, with scones for afternoon tea, or eating it straight out of the jar with a spoon, as one friend likes to do! That they go out of their way to let me how much they’ve enjoyed my jam and marmalade, and have felt compelled to share it with others, tells me we’re all craving this nourishment, care and connection, even if we didn’t realise it. Don’t you think?