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Summer Stored

'Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the Midday Sun'.

It’s funny isn’t it, how we change. The first summer I arrived here, last summer in fact, I acted like every self-respecting English person would and spent all day every day in the sun. We English are ridiculed the world over for our readiness to strip off and cook ourselves under even the weakest rays. There is, however, method to our madness. We act thus because we know it may well be another 364 days (or more) until the next sunny spell. We feel we have to store and save the little sun we see.

The Italians, of course, think this is hilarious. One of the easiest ways to spot a tourist in Italy is by how much (or how little) clothing they are wearing. Flip, flops, sun hat, shorts or vest top; the wearers of these are certainly tourists. Here in Oristano it’s 28 degrees, and the local women are clacking around in heels, skin-tight black trousers, elaborate blouses and jackets. Not a flip flop in sight. The only time I have seen Italians wearing flip flops is inside the house. Going to the shower, perhaps. They are not considered to be suitable outdoor footwear.

The crashing contrast between those used to a cold climate, and those used to a hot one, continues to surprise and delight me daily. Italians, unless destined for a day on the beach ‘per prendere il sole’ – ‘to take sun’ (a characteristically elaborate business involving extensive picnics, deckchairs, newspapers, umbrellas and sprawling family) will actively seek the shade. I was ridiculed when I first arrived for stoically sitting in the full sun during meals.

One year here and I’ve changed in this respect, I too seek the shade now, and so far this summer I’ve kept mostly indoors and in the cool. The knowledge that there will be a million more days like this means it is suddenly very easy to ignore a cloudless, blue sky.

The habit I haven’t been able to shake off, however, is my addiction to light.

Luca simply cannot comprehend this bizarre obsession. Perhaps the difference is that he takes bright daylight for granted, whereas I continue to celebrate it. To me a bright day is still a novelty. The first thing I do every morning is throw open the curtains and let the blinding daylight flood the room. This is how I’ve been woken up my whole life. My parents would fling the curtains open in the same manner, and report on the weather as the opening of our conversation.

To Luca, this is a very English habit, and one he deplores. He has to wake up slowly, and with the artificial light only. After he is dressed and ready to go out, he may open the curtains, he may not. Often Italian houses have heavy curtains or blinds shut all day long. They avoid the light, the heat it gives, and the habit it has of bleaching their furnishings. My preconceptions of Sardinian houses couldn’t have been more wrong. They are not the bright, airy, white-washed villas I had expected. They are designed to be cool; dark, tile floors, heavy, dark brown furniture and blinds/shutters. Everything in semi-darkness.

Treasuring the light is something I will never grow out of, though it seems I have lost any interest I once had in sunbathing.

It is the edible consequences of the light and heat which I wish to stash, store and save instead. One of the things I have always loved most about summer - whether in England or Italy or anywhere - is the fruit. Fruit is one of life’s most beautiful gifts. But where there is beauty, there is always decay, and one of life’s greatest sadnesses is that fruit does not keep. Ripe fruit, really ripe, sun-warm, dripping-with-juice fruit, spoils in mere minutes. So failing eating all of this fruit in one go, what can be done? How to preserve this ripe fruit flavour to enjoy in the months to come? Simple - Jam.

Jam is the perfect way of storing summer in a jar. Its alternative names; ‘preserve’, ‘conserve’ indicate its true purpose. Jam is not just an over-sugared gel from a nondescript jar. It is the first week of a Sardinian June in a sweet, shining amber spoonful. Jam is a way of storing a season, preserving the fragrance of those first apricots we ate warm from the tree. It is the taste of summer bottled to keep us going through the dark winter months, and to remind us that once there was a time when the fruit was ripe and tasted of itself and there will be that time again. Like those first rays of sun we scorch into our skin, jam is the edible memory of heat and light. Jam is magic.

Jam is also a complete pain to make. I love doing it, I really do, but I understand why many wouldn’t. It’s time-consuming, it’s messy and sticky (well at least it is if you’re me and get it everywhere), it requires the purchasing or cleaning out of dozens of jars. BUT, I promise you it is worth it. The best thing about jam is how adaptable it can be. It doesn’t just have to be hard-set stuff for spreading on toast. It can be softer, runnier, less sweet, for eating with yoghurt, with ricotta, with ice cream, with pancakes, with cheese. It can be more like a compote, or a puree. One of the things which puts many off is the fear of it not setting – but it doesn’t matter! It will still taste delicious and often I prefer mine a little runnier. It does not have to be a precise art. The essential thing here is preserving flavour, and boiling the hell out of it to get the perfect set often means you lose the flavour of the fruit and end up with only the flavour of the sugar.

The following recipe is based on one by Emiko Davies, which in turn is based on one by Artusi. It’s a simple and forgiving one, all it requires is really good fruit. As Artusi says, it is a mistake to think that bad fruit will make good jam; it may do if you add a whole load of other things too, but in this case, when the only ingredients are sugar and apricots, average apricots simply won’t cut it.

I have to say I battled numerous impulses to add lemon, almonds or basil, but as Emiko reiterates, ‘don’t change a winning team’. If you have wonderful, flavoursome apricots, why add anything else? Purity can be a very good thing.

Purity, yes, but precision, no. I never think jam-making can be a precise art (like almost all cooking) because so much depends on the primary ingredient. Some fruit will be sweeter than others, and you need to taste and adjust your sugar quantities accordingly. Emiko and Artusi’s ratio is half sugar to fruit, and this is a perfect place to start. Our fruit was falling off the tree and almost overripe, so I used less sugar, according to the below quantities. Adjust to suit your jam preferences.

Apricot Jam

2.5 kg best apricots

1.3kg white sugar

Wash, halve and de-stone the apricots. Put them in a large jam pan and cook over a medium heat for about half an hour, until they are totally soft. Pass through a colander. Place back in the (washed) pan and add the sugar. Stir over a medium heat to mix. Taste for seasoning and add more sugar if you feel it is too tart. Keep stirring constantly at a simmer. Meanwhile sterilise your jars. I literally throw them and their lids in another large pan full of water and boil them for a good few minutes. Place a saucer or two in the fridge and after about ten minutes or so plop a little of the jam onto the cold saucer. Wait ten seconds. Push the dollop with the tip of your finger and if it wrinkles, the jam will set. If it’s still totally liquid continue cooking and stirring and then repeat the saucer test.

When you are happy with the set decant into the clean and dry jars and seal.


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