Peek into Pam Corbin’s handbag and you’ll almost certainly spot a jar of jam, probably homemade gooseberry, her favourite. “You never know when you might need a pot,” she smiles. Pam the Jam, as her friends call her, has been stirring bubbling cauldrons for as long as she can remember, and terms like setting point, crinkle test and pectin are for her as easy as ABC.
Pam’s passion for preserves began when she could barely say Jammy Dodger. As a child she made marmalades and chutneys. Then, in the 1980s, Pam tasted marmalade produced by a small company called Thursday Cottage Preserves. “I realised I couldn’t make it better at home, which is rare. So I bought the company.”
She and her husband looked for premises, eventually finding a 16th-century Grade II-listed farmhouse in Dorset with 4,000 sq ft of pig units. “The estate agent was rather bemused when we said we weren’t very bothered about the house, it was the pig units we were really interested in to turn into a jam factory,” laughs Pam. The company went on to win a jammy cluster of awards including the prestigious Best British Food Producer 2001, awarded by the Guild of Fine Food Retailers. The award was announced on 9/11, a day she will never forget.
Back then, most of us were contented to leave jam making to the experts. The discerning would buy classy jars of Tiptree’s Little Scarlet or preserves lovingly made by the ladies of the Women’s Institute to dollop on their scones.The rest of us were happy to make do with cheap radioactive-red gloop from the supermarket that could have been confused with our children’s facepaint. No longer.
Now we’re doing it ourselves. We’re jamming, pickling, bottling, producing anything from creamy curds and cheeky chutneys to sparkling jellies and fruity jams. Many of us are using fruit and veg that we’ve grown in gardens and allotments or foraged from the hedgerows. Applications for jam-making courses have soared. “Preserving is a skill we’ve lost since the war as a result of having fridges and freezers,” says Pam. “Before that preserving the bounties of our fruitful summer and autumn was a necessity. It was essential to stock up the larder for the leaner months when fresh food was scarce. Today preserves may not be essential, but people are realising the satisfaction both in making them and in seeing them on the shelf like a sort of safety valve.”
Making jam puts us back in touch with the seasons and satisfies our hunter gatherer instincts, as I find out when Pam and I scour the hedgerows in the lanes outside her cottage for berries, hips, haws and crab apples to make Hedgerow Jam. I’d probably not have noticed those fruits had they not been the precious raw – and free – ingredients for our preserve. Autumn’s mists and mellow fruitfulness start to penetrate my being. Within a couple of hours, with luck, our sun-kissed fruits will be bottled to be put away and savoured through the winter.
Best of all, jam making is easy – or at least that’s what Pam is determined to prove as we return to her farmhouse kitchen. She has a challenge on her hands: my last attempt at blackberry and apple jelly resulted in a rubbery mixture that would have been more use to a car mechanic than a hungry husband. The key, says Pam, is to include apple, as its pectin content provides the setting power that many hedgerow berries lack.
Soon our ingredients are gently simmering in a preserving pan on the Aga, then thrown into a jelly bag (basically muslin stretched over a sieve) to slowly ooze their intense fruity juices.
We turn our attention to chutney, and Pam has invented a recipe especially for Countryfile Magazine so today is its world premiere (See below for the recipe).
The kitchen is soon transformed into a haze of exotic spices, following a tradition that started as Britain painted the globe red and occupied India. India’s method of preserving – using a mix of spices, salt, sugar and vinegar as preservatives – was known in Hindi as chatni. Pam and I stir in diced courgettes. “I prefer to use young tender courgettes from my garden for this,” says Pam. “But it’s also a great way to use up overgrown courgette monsters, or even marrows.”
It’s time to get back to our hedgerow jelly and to add sugar, the material that we in the west have used to preserve fruits since the 16th century when the Spanish colonised the West Indies. In the early days sugar was so wildly expensive that only monarchs could afford it (as their waistlines proved). But contrary to our image of our great-grandmothers as avid jam makers, even in the 19th century sugar still wasn’t cheap. As late as 1861 Mrs Beeton would write: “The expense of preserving [fruits] with sugar is a serious objection; for, except the sugar is used in considerable quantities, the success is very uncertain.”
Mrs Beeton was right that the ratio of sugar is key. Put in less than 60 percent, and its preserving qualities are doubtful. “People like the idea of jam with less sugar in it,” says Pam. “That’s fine, but it won’t keep for years like normal jams. Commercially you can’t call it jam either – it becomes fruit spread or fridge jam.”
Time to keep our eyes trained on the steaming inky brew that whistles like a winter wind as it stumbles to a rolling boil. “It’s a bit like young love,” says Pam. “It suddenly whooshes up and knocks you for six.” We hold wooden spoons above the pan to see if it is set – it drips it isn’t, it plops it is. “Watch the surface of the jam too.It should appear glossy and heavy.”
We clutch our jars filled with autumn promise, all set to perfection, symbols of security, home, and nurturing. They’re popped into the larder alongside a row of jams singing of different seasons. “There’s no better sight,” says Pam. “A cupboardful of preserves is a cupboardful of love.” I think she’s right.
MAKING A STIR
Try some of Pam’s delicious autumn preserve recipes
Countryfile Magazine courgette chutney
1kg courgettes, green or yellow, under 15 cms long
2 tablespoons salt
2 medium onions
4-5 large cloves garlic
1 red chilli (more if you want to increase the heat)
25g root ginger
100ml sunflower oil
2 tablespoons black mustard seed
1 tablespoon turmeric
300ml cider vinegar
225g Demerara sugar
Makes 4-5 x 340g jars
1. Wipe the courgettes and cut off the stalks. Chop into 5-6mm pieces (for larger courgettes cut lengthwise and then slice). Place in colander, sprinkle with salt, then stand over a bowl and leave for a couple of hours. The salt will draw out excess water and prevent the courgettes going mushy when cooked.
2. Meanwhile, peel the onion, garlic cloves, ginger and de-seed the chilli. Place in a blender and blitz well to form a paste.
3. Rinse the courgettes with plenty of cold water and dry well.
4. Heat the oil in a large roomy saucepan. Sprinkle in the mustard and coriander seeds
and fry for 3-4 mins.
5. Add the ground cumin and turmeric, shaking the pan to prevent the spices burning. Add the onion paste and cook with the spices for 4-5 mins.
6. Add courgettes, vinegar and sugar. Stir, bring to simmering point over medium heat. Reduce heat and let the mixture cook slowly until courgettes are soft and much of the liquid has reduced. This will take approx
45 mins. Pot chutney while still hot in sterilised jars, seal with vinegar-proof lids.
1kg crab apples
(or cooking apples)
1kg mixed hedgerow
berries (see above)
Makes 7-8 x 225g jars
1. Pick over your fruit, removing stalks and rinsing if necessary. Don’t peel or core the apples as the peel and core are an excellent sources of the naturally occurring gelling agent pectin. Just chop them roughly.
2. Place all the prepared fruit in a saucepan with 1.2 litres water. Bring gently to simmering point and simmer until the fruit is soft and pulpy.
3. Remove from the heat. Have ready a jelly bag or muslin cloth and turn the contents of the pan into it. Leave to drip overnight.
4. The next day, measure the juice – you will probably have about 1.2 litres, though this will depend on the berries used. For every 600ml juice, allow 450g sugar. Put the juice into a large pan and bring slowly to the boil. Add the sugar as it just comes to the boil and keep stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Boil rapidly, without stirring, for 9–10 mins until setting point is reached. Test this by dropping a little jam onto a cold saucer. Allow to cool for a min then push gently with your fingertip. If it has formed a skin and crinkles a little, it’s set.
5. Skim the jelly, pot and seal as quickly as possible.
Raspberry fridge jam
750g jam sugar (with pectin)
Makes 6 x 340g jars
This is a great way to enjoy autumn raspberries during the winter months. Pam teaches preserve-making at Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage and this is one of Hugh’s personal recipes. He claims the secret of success is to pick the raspberries on a hot, dry day, aiming for a good mixture of ripe and almost-ripe fruit, then to make the jam immediately to capture the full flavour of the berries. The light boiling and lower-than-normal quantity of sugar produce a loose, soft-set jam with a fresh, tangy flavour.
Low-sugar jams of this type are often called fridge jams. In fact, as long as it is capped when still above 90°C, this preserve will keep well in the store cupboard. However, once it is opened, you must keep it in the fridge (hence the name). It won’t last long after opening – maybe two or three weeks – but as it tastes so very, very good, this is unlikely to be a problem. This light, soft jam is fantastic in cakes or sherry trifles or stirred into creamy rice puddings. Best of all, layer it with toasted oatmeal, cream, Drambuie and honey for a take on the traditional Scottish pudding, cranachan.
1. Pick over the raspberries carefully and discard any leaves or stalks. Put half the fruit into a preserving pan and use a potato masher to roughly crush it.
2. Add the remaining fruit and sugar. Stir over a low heat to dissolve the sugar. Bring to a rolling boil then boil for 4-5 mins. (If you prefer a firmer jam, then continue boiling at this stage for a further 2–3 mins).
3. Remove from the heat, stirring to disperse any scum. It is important to pour and cap this low-sugar jam quickly, but you must allow it to cool just a little first (give it 5–6 mins) to prevent all those little raspberry pips rushing to the top of the jar.
Countryfile Magazine Offer
Pam’s book, Preserves, is published by Bloomsbury and costs £14.99. To order your copy with a 25 percent discount, visit www.bloomsbury.com/preserves or call 01256 302 699 and quote the reference ‘GLR 1HF’.
This feature was taken from issue 26 of Countryfile Magazine. To make sure you never miss an issue subscribe today.