Strawberry Fields Forever
I miss home a lot. Inevitable, I suppose, in these days of lockdown when none of us are allowed to move. Of course I’m physically far from home, but that physical distance meant little when I knew I could easily get on a short flight and have my mum meet me at Stansted two hours later. She’d bring an apple for the journey home and complain about the traffic. Just the knowledge that I could do this was enough to make me feel not too far away. Now that luxury has been taken away from me, as it has from many others, and suddenly England, and home specifically, seems very far away.
Feeling so far from home I wanted to make something that took me there, so I made Strawberry Jam.
I could measure out my life in Strawberry Jam. The first was in a tiny pot, like those ones you get at bad all-inclusive breakfasts, which my grandmother had stolen, saved and then used to pot her own, homemade strawberry jam, and given it to me. This jam was made especially for me, from her home-grown alpine strawberries. My grandmother was a fanatical gardener and had a kitchen garden that provided her with almost all the fresh produce she could want all year round. At the corner of each bed she planted a little alpine strawberry bush, and when I was a child I would take myself into the garden and sit on my haunches and eat the tiny berries one by one, shuffling my way around the beds until I had eaten every single last berry. Those I wasn’t able to eat she would save and make into tiny pots of jam, labelled with my nickname, Tootie. Tootie’s jam was so precious that I probably only got one pot a year, but what a pot it was, and how happy I was to have it.
The flavour of this jam was extraordinary. I can almost taste it now. Impossibly, ethereally floral and sweet; as fresh and flowery and dainty as a daisy after rain. The truest essence of a strawberry, like those tiny teardrop fruits it had been made with.
After this came the inevitable doughnuts, swollen with a jam so shiny and thick and clear that it glowed as if with an internal light, and the beloved jammy dodgers, with impossibly scarlet, chewy centres. There were jam sponges and jam sandwiches, and best of all, cream teas. The first thing I do when I go home is make myself a cream tea. There is nothing that makes me happier to have been born and raised in Devon than a cream tea. Cream teas are magic. The combination of thick, cold, clotted cream; sweet, fruity, jam and warm, crumbly scone is still one of my favourite things in the world.
So today, as I am missing home, I decided to make this jam. Not just in preparation for the cream tea I will make as soon as May arrives, but also because jam making itself makes me happy.
Jam is potted memories. There is no other food that encapsulates a season, or the distinct and fleeting flavour of a season in quite the same way. This is partly why making preserves appeals to me so much: locking in the sunshine, the ripe flavour of fruit at its best to enjoy all year round. Jars of potted summer flavour can now sit patiently, waiting for the next time you break open a warm scone, or slice the crust from a fresh loaf.
Strawberries to me taste of summers in England. Their flavour and fragrance are so reminiscent of every summer of my life it feels so strange to smell it now, in April, far from home.
Here in Sardinia strawberries taste of Spring. Sardinian strawberries ripen now, in mid-April. Summers in Sardinia taste of salt and fat and fish and watermelon. Of the scorched skin of a grilled squid, the fat of a barbecued sausage, the salty lick of your upper lip, the dusty white saline crust of your skin after swimming. Summer in Sardinia tastes of sun cream and iced coffee and gelato and the cool, clean, chemical flavour of watermelon. Strawberries and their floral delicacy are long forgotten now.
On a rainy April day, far from home, I capture English summer and Sardinian spring, and all of the memories and days I have spent with the people I love, in happier times, in one tiny pot of sweetness, so that I can open it, months from now, and remember there was once a time when the strawberries were ripe, and Ryanair was still flying Cagliari – Stansted.
Notes for jam-fans:
I am really anal about jam, as I am about most things that are important to me. I'm extremely anal about strawberry jam as it the most important jam of all. She's the Queen of jams, and she deserves special attention. The strawberries in my strawberry jam are not cooked to a pulp, they maintain their integrity and shape (heart-shaped halves) and they are suspended in a clear crimson syrup, almost like candied strawberries.
Lemon must be added, a lot of it, because it makes the strawberries taste strawberry-er, their strawberry-est. I also add a tiny pinch of salt for this purpose, and the tiniest nugget of butter at the end which helps dissolve the jam scum, and means that you are left with lovely clear liquid.
In general jam must never be overcooked and solid - beware the bounce-back of a finger pressed on the surface. For me jam must be on the loose side, tasting more of fruit than of sugar. I also don't sterilise my jars because a) I hate doing it and b) I keep my jam in the fridge and eat it while its good and fresh, and even without sterilisation it doesn't go mouldy like this for up to 6 months, and I've always finished it long before then. The reality is jam should be so good you physically can't keep it for the whole year, and you spend six months gorging hedonistically and then six months eagerly anticipating the next batch. I'm all or nothing like that. If you eat jam less greedily than me and wish to keep it longer, then by all means sterilise your jars.
Makes 6 jars (5 to keep, one to gift to a Very Special Person)
1.2 kg best strawberries
800g sugar (caster or granulated)
tiny nut of butter (literally hazelnut size)
The night before you want to make your jam wash, hull and halve your strawberries and place them in a large bowl. Pour over the sugar, cut the lemons into quarters (removing any pips) and squeeze them over the fruit and then drop them in the bowl too. Stir the whole lot a few times and then cover and leave to macerate.
The next day, put your jars through the dishwasher on the hottest setting, or wash them in hot soapy water if you don't have a dishwasher. Place two small saucers in the fridge.
Remove the lemons from the bowl of strawberries and discard them. Pour the fruit and the syrup into your jam pan (or large saucepan) and bring to the boil. Simmer for 10 minutes. Take a little of the jam and dribble it onto one of the cold saucers. Wait a few seconds and then push it with your finger. If wrinkles appear on the surface of the jam then your jam is ready to pot. If not, cook for a few minutes longer. Add the nut of butter and the pinch of salt and stir gently to dissolve the scum. Ladle into your prepared jars and seal.