Strawberry & redcurrant jam

The first harvests of the year are coming, and it’s a mixed bag. The sweetpeas and soft fruit are abundant – redcurrants and strawberries, with the promise of blackcurrants and blueberries to come – but the greens and cut flowers are far from promising. Instead of the armfuls of greens that I’ve gathered in previous years, this summer the spinach has bolted before it’s reached 6 inches high, most of the lettuce has failed and the rocket is already in flower. The cosmos is tiny and the sunflowers leggy!

I raised our seedlings in the ‘sun room’ this year to make my life easier, but perhaps they would have been better off beginning life in the greenhouse….or perhaps it’s the lack of proper horse poo from Chappers’ field that’s the problem (we didn’t get any this year, partly because I was laid low with morning sickness from January to March, partly because it’s such a huge effort). But I’ve learnt that, when allotmenting, I have to put my expectations to one side: we both work (more than) full-time, I’m with child, we can’t use hosepipes, it gets cold then hot then windy. I can fuss and preen over a plant and it can fail, and the things that I ignore can yield extraordinary amounts. Plus not all is lost: the allotment can chuck up surprises and it may still all come good.

In the meantime, the first sweetpeas of the year are vivid and fragrant.

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First pick of sweetpeas

A few weeks ago I picked my first two strawberries, sweet and juicy, and I’m now collecting several punnets a week. They’re better macerated or turned into compote than eaten raw – on their own they have a curiously bitter aftertaste and don’t last longer than a day – but I can’t complain about the quantities.

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From a tiny start we now have a crescendo of strawberries!

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Yesterday’s picking of broadbeans, strawberries and redcurrants

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90 minutes later, beans are podded and fruit is prepped

In Cornwall last week I had a brilliant redcurrant and raspberry jam with my scone and cream. I’m not a massive jam lover, but this one was memorable – the sharp redcurrants cut through the insanely sweet raspberries and balanced it all out. I presume that the same effect could be had by matching redcurrants with other sweet berries and so, with all these strawberries, there was one obvious bit of summer cooking to be done: Strawberry & redcurrant jam it is!

First, place 700g granulated or preserving sugar into a bowl and pop into a low oven (160c) for ten minutes to heat up.

Next, warm 500g halved (or quartered if they’re massive) strawberries and 225g redcurrants into a preserving pan, and bring to a simmer over a medium heat. Lots of liquid will come out of the fruit and the berries will soften.

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Place strawberries and redcurrants in a preserving pan and bring to a simmer

When you’ve got a soft liquidy mass, add the juice of one lemon, another 375g strawberries, 125g redcurrants and the sugar. Adding the fruit in two parts means you get nice chunky lumps in the finished jam. Stir over a low heat until the sugar has totally dissolved, and then bring to a boil. Have a jam thermometer ready!

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Add lemon juice, sugar and the remaining fruit – heat gently to dissolve the sugar

As the jam boils, spoon off any foamy scum that comes to the top. Be careful at this stage as the jam is hot hot hot, and will bubble up alarmingly in the pan.

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Bring to the boil and be sure to spoon off any foam that rise to the surface

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Cook until the jam reaches about 103c

Once the jam has reached 103c turn off the heat and leave the jam to stand for ten minutes or so. At this point prepare the jam jars: wash in soapy water, rinse, then heat in a hot oven (200c) until dry. Always put hot jam into hot jars, else the glass may crack. I use a jam funnel to transfer the jam to the jars, but you could use a spoon (if so expect it to be messy). Cover the jars with wax discs and cellophane tops, then leave to cool completely.

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Transfer the jam into warm sterilised jam jars, cover then leave to cool

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Strawberry & redcurrant jam!

And behold, you have strawberry and redcurrant jam! A taste of June on the allotment.

Strawberry & redcurrant jam
Recipe adapted from Good Housekeeping

700g granulated or preserving sugar

875g strawberries, hulled and halved

350g redcurrants, stripped from their stalks

Juice of 1 lemon

You’ll also need a preserving pan or big stock pot, jam thermometer, a funnel, four jam jars and lids.

Warm the sugar in the oven (160c) for about ten minutes. Place 500g strawberries and 225g redcurrants in the preserving pan over a low heat and cook until the juice runs and the berries soften.

Add the remaining strawberries and redcurrants, lemon juice and sugar to the pan. Stir and cook over a low heat until the sugar is totally dissolved. Bring to the boil and cook until the mixture reaches 103c, about 20 minutes. Spoon off any foamy scum that comes to the top. Once the jam has come to temperature, turn off the heat and leave to cool slightly.

Whilst the jam is cooling prepare the jars: wash in hot soapy water, rinse, then dry in a hot oven (200c). Using a jam funnel, spoon the jam into the warmed jars, cover with waxed discs and cellophane tops, then leave to cool completely before eating.

Sloe apple jelly

A few years ago my parents had a bumper crop of crab apples and my Mum turned the knobbly, gnarly fruits into a beautiful pale pink jelly. Not the children’s party sort, but the kind that you have with cheese or use to rescue a gravy. She’s good at preserves, my Mum; I like to think that she was trained by my Nan, but I don’t actually know if that’s the case.

Despite years of practice as a kid, my jams, chutneys and marmalades are usually terrible, more akin to polyfilla than anything else. But I feel it a case of domestic pride, a nod to my feminine heritage, to never give up. Also, I bought a sugar thermometer, which changed everything. (No more messing around with wrinkle-tests and saucers in the freezer!) So I made a batch of sloe apple jelly and you know what, it’s pretty darn good!

This is a beautiful, jewel-coloured concoction, its sweetness masked by the ripe tannins of sloes. It’s a bit like a set sloe-gin. You could have it as it is, with cheese, use as a glaze for lamb or game, or to add sweetness to a stew or sauce.

The first thing to do is to prepare the jam jars. It’s a bore, but is necessary to avoid your preserve going off and, more importantly, stop any bacterial nasties from giving you a tummy complaint. Details of how to do this can be found here:

The next thing is to get all the kit together. Jellies need straining, which you could do using a square of muslin set over a sieve…or you can use a proper, old-fashioned jelly bag.

1970s jelly strainer holder with bag from Lakeland Plastics, courtesy my mother

This jelly strainer kit usually lives under the stairs at Grove House (my parent’s house) and despite using it regularly for my 35 years, it still takes ages to successfully put it together. I got there in the end.

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The jelly strainer isn’t very sturdy, but has exciting geometric lines

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Complete with jelly bag and bowl

The other essential bit of kit is a preserving pan. Ours – another sturdy 1970s heirloom – has a really wide base, which makes for a large surface area and helps the mixture to reduce and get to temperature quickly. Whatever you have, use the biggest pan possible – hot sugary liquid expands in volume and you don’t want it boiling over.

Sloe apple jelly needs sloes and apples. These sloes were picked from Castlemorton Common back in August and have been hanging out in the freezer since. The apples are bramleys, roughly chopped but with the pips and skins left in – that’s where the pectin is, and pectin is what will set our jelly.

Sloes, picked in August and frozen

Chopped bramleys (keep the pips and skin)

In separate pans, cook each fruit with just enough water to cover, until soft – about 10 minutes.

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Simmer the sloes and apples separately

Now for some fun. Each mixture has to go through the jelly bag separately: for our contraption, this means ladling the cooked fruit into the bag one spoonful at a time, hoping that the whole thing doesn’t collapse and flood the kitchen with sticky purple juice. Just let the juices strain through the bag at its own rate – don’t be tempted to squeeze or push it through, else you’ll get a cloudy jelly.

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Strain the juices separately, using aforementioned jelly bag

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Strained sloe juice

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Strained apple juice

Now take equal quantities of the sloe and apple juice, and slosh them into the preserving pan.

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Measure equal quantities of each juice into the preserving pan

There’s one more ingredient to go: sugar. We need 450g sugar for every 570ml of juice. All preserving recipes say to gently warm the sugar in the oven before using; I don’t really understand why we do this, but everyone says we must, so who am I to argue. Add your measured warm sugar to the waiting juices.

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Sorry sugar police: to make jelly, you’ll need a bag or two of this

Gently heat the mixture to melt the sugar, then bring to a boil. A sugar thermometer helps here – boil until the mixture reaches 105 degrees celcius, which takes about 20 minutes. There will be lots of impurities that rise to the top – remove them with a slotted spoon.

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Bring the mixture to the boil, skimming off impurities as you. It needs to get to 105 degrees celcius.

Once the jelly has come to temperature, allow it to sit for five minutes to cool slightly, then decant into your waiting jars. Cover with waxed paper and a lid, then leave to cool completely.

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Pour into prepared jars and leave to set

This is a loose-set jelly, which I prefer as it feels fresh and more contemporary than the super-solid jellies of old. It’s a glorious colour, but has a really grown up flavour – those tight tannins from the sloes stop the jelly from edging over to sickliness. It’s a good addition to the autumn preserving repertoire.

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Jewel-coloured sloe apple jelly

Sloe apple jelly

Recipe adapted from Sarah Raven’s Garden Cookbook, p324. This recipe made me 3 and a half jam jars.

6oog sloes

600g cooking apples (I used bramleys)

Granulated sugar – exact quantities below

Plus jelly strainer, preserving pan, sugar thermometer, jam jars and lids

Wash and sterilise the jam jars. Warm the sugar packets in a very low oven for 30 minutes or so. Get the jelly straining bag ready.

Chop the apples, keeping the pips and skins, and cook with enough water to just cover until soft. Separately, cook the sloes with enough water to cover until the skins burst. Put each fruit through the jelly bag separately.

Measure equal quantities of apple and sloe juice and put into a preserving pan. Add 450g of the warmed sugar for every 570ml juice. Stir on a gentle heat until the sugar dissolves, then bring to a boil and cook until the mixture reaches 105c. Remove any impurities with a slotted spoon.

Once it’s at temperature, leave to stand for five minutes then decant into the prepared jam jars. Cover and seal. Keeps well for several months.