One of my biggest gardening successes this year has been lemon verbena. This victory has been made all the more profound by contrast. Two years ago, I bought a little lemon verbena plant from a market stall, its pale green, needle-like leaves clustered in a delicate furl. It grew slowly in my conservatory for a few months, before a plague of whitefly descended and slowly sapped the leaves of their springy vitality. I was left with a tragic tangle of spindly, pale twigs and a few yellowed, curling leaves, along with a sticky whitefly residue smothered over the floor and windows where the plant had stood. It was a depressing sight. Undaunted, I still attempted to make tea and ice cream from the leaves, but attempting to sieve small whitefly corpses out of boiling liquid is not one of my favourite kitchen jobs and somewhat hampered my enjoyment of the creative process. The plant eventually perished, robbed of life by a combination of those insidious little creatures and a harsh frost that delivered the final blow after I’d put it outside in the hope that a Samaritan ladybird would come along and deliver me from the whitefly plague.Read More
The word ‘jelly’ fills me with a little bit of horror. Firstly, it conjures up images of lurid children’s birthday party food, weirdly fluorescent transparent goo in odd shapes that wobbles under the pressure of a spoon or a fat youthful finger. I’ve never liked jelly or even tried it, as I recall; I think I’m afraid of the strange way it would feel in my mouth, not solid but not quite liquid either, trampolining oddly against the teeth. I have an irrational aversion to the stuff.Read More
Things in jars give me a deep and profound sense of satisfaction.
Well, OK, not entirely. I should probably qualify that statement. Things I have made that I am able to put in jars give me a deep and profound sense of satisfaction. Such things include jam, jelly, chutney, preserved lemons, and bottled fruits.
What is it about the simple act of putting something homemade in a jar that is so enjoyable? I think it's perhaps that we tend to associate jars with things we've bought in a shop, rather than made at home. When we make something ourselves, put it in a jar and label it, it's almost as if we feel we're packaging up a product that's good enough to be on a shop shelf (though, of course, the irony is that homemade produce is often far better than anything you'd find on a shop shelf).
That's just a theory, but I do think there's something in it. When we make a nice plate of food, we can admire it all we like, but we're not packaging it up in a way that's presentable, that's transferrable. When we pour homemade jam or chutney into jars, seal and label them, it's as if we're proudly declaring to the world, "This is good enough to be given as a present, or to be displayed on the larder shelf".
Perhaps it's also the sense of anticipation: generally, homemade jams, jellies, chutneys and the like last quite a long time. Chutney, especially, seeing as it usually needs to mature for several months before it is edible. When we put the lids on jars of homemade preserves and give them their final twist, we think of and eagerly await all the delightful pieces of toast or cold meat sandwiches to come.
Perhaps it's the sense of giving, the fact that we've lovingly stirred away at a tasty creation that's now ours to share, because it's easily portable. It's almost a cliché to say that homemade preserves make wonderful gifts, but of course it's true. A jar of homemade chutney or jam from a friend will always be prized and savoured because it's unique; you can't just nip to the supermarket and find an identical jar when you run out.
And, of course, homemade jarred goods are usually rather aesthetically pleasing, too. You only have to look at the pictures of my bottled apricots from this year to see that. The preserved lemons I made years ago were once beautiful as well. Now they look rather like a jar full of dead things preserved in a swamp, with the odd clove and bay leaf floating around, but the glow of preserving pride is still there every time I take one out, chop it and add its zesty, salty aroma to my cooking.
Small pleasures, perhaps, but I enjoy them nonetheless.
I did not, however, enjoy the last time I attempted to preserve one of my favourite fruits, the quince. I decided to make membrillo, that beautiful golden, sweet, perfumed quince paste so beloved of the Spanish. I followed a recipe instructing me to place a couple of kilos of whole quince in a dish and bake them in the oven for several hours. I was then supposed to push the cooked quince through a sieve.
What a ridiculous notion. Sure, the quince was quite soft, after I'd caused my house's electricity bill to skyrocket by leaving the oven on all afternoon, but did its skin and tough fibres want to go through the sieve? No, they emphatically did not. You may as well have tried to push a whole apple through a sieve using a ladle. Half an hour of intense frustration and aching biceps later, I had extracted a poxy amount of quince purée which I then dutifully boiled with a lot of sugar, as instructed.
Yes, the result was tasty membrillo, but a very small amount considering the money I'd expended on all those quince whose pulp ended up in the bin. To add insult to injury, most of it went mouldy (despite being in the fridge) before I'd even had much of a chance to enjoy it. Usually I'm all for making things yourself; it's generally much cheaper than buying them. But in this case, I should have just bought myself a jar of membrillo and not bothered. Although the homemade stuff was amazing on toast with goat's cheese. To this day, I cannot understand the thinking behind that recipe. It was, I think, in Waitrose Food Illustrated, but I honestly do not believe it was ever tested. Every recipe I've come across since has instructed me to boil the quince, chopped, in a little water so it turns mushy, and THEN push it through a sieve. Much more realistic. No matter how long you bake them for, you won't get that mushyness from putting a quince in the oven as opposed to a pan of water, especially if you leave the skin on, as the recipe directed.
This year, then, I did not go down that route. However, when a big bag of quinces arrived, courtesy of a friend whose parents had a glut of them, I couldn't resist revisiting the idea of quince preserves again. Mainly because these quince surprised me with their diminutive size; there was such a high ratio of core and pips to actual quince flesh that it didn't seem worthwhile to bake or poach them as I would normally do for sweet or savoury dishes. I've never seen such tiny quince, but a quick Google informed me that these were in fact ornamental/Japonica quinces, a very different variety to the huge specimens you find in the markets at this time of year, usually imported from France, Spain or Turkey.
In the interests of an easy life, then, it seemed easier to just chop them all up - peel, pips and all - and make some sort of preserve with them, rather than attempt to painstakingly peel, core and chop them all for a dessert. The beauty of quince jelly is that you can boil the quinces with all the pips and peel remaining - you literally just chop them up roughly and put them in some water.
Quince jelly, then. Not membrillo - this time I decided to do something different. For quince jelly, you just want the juice you get when you boil the quince in water until soft. The way to do this is to strain the resulting quince mixture through a muslin bag to extract the juice, which you then boil with sugar until you reach a set. It really is as easy as that. However, you can then make membrillo with the remaining quince pulp in the muslin, which I might get round to doing next week, so as not to waste a single morsel of this excellent fruit (apart from the pips, of course).
I dutifully hung my bag of quincey goodness over a bowl overnight, and ended up with a lot of liquid that looked like that gorgeous Copella cloudy apple juice. This I then weighed, measured out an almost equal amount of sugar, and boiled it all together.
And gosh, it was a LOT of sugar.
I really did wince as I poured an entire kilo of the white stuff into the pan of quince juice. My mind turned to fillings, tooth decay, ADHD...but then I realised that of course I wouldn't be eating the entire panful in one go, and that it was no more sugary than jam I'd buy in the shops (though of course when you buy it, you have the luxury of being able to ignore just how much sugar goes into it). In went the sugar, and the resulting mixture bubbled away for about an hour.
In the process, it turned from pale yellow to the most incredible crimson. I have never understood why quinces turn from gold to deep amber with long cooking, and I"d never really experienced it first hand before, but this pan of bubbling, spitting, sugary goodness was a truly beautiful sight. It took forever to reach a setting point, I think because the quince juice was quite dilute in the first place so took a while to boil down, but finally I was able to pour it into jars and seal them.
And how beautiful are these jars? They completely encapsulate everything I said above.
I really cannot stop admiring them. How would you describe this amazing colour? It's somewhere between red and pink, but darker and more vibrant; it almost seems to glow of its own accord. It's also completely clear; the jelly reminds me of dark amber, just waiting for the point of a buttery knife to slice down within and create a jagged fault line through its scarlet depths.
I put the jars in the sun and admired their jewel-like beauty for a good few minutes, musing on the miraculous transformation of a bowl of speckled, wrinkled fruit into something so gorgeous.
And that, really, is what preserving is all about.
This is a really rough guideline for a recipe, as I didn't measure out my quinces beforehand. Basically, roughly chop all your quinces, put in a large pan, and barely cover with water. Simmer until they're very tender and almost falling apart. Then put all the mixture in a muslin bag, tie it up and suspend it over a bowl overnight to catch the juice (or just pour the pulp into a colander lined with muslin).
Measure out your quince juice and pour into a sturdy pan (a jam pan is ideal, if you have one). For every 550ml of quince juice, add 450g caster sugar. Also add the juice of a lemon (this helps the jelly set, and also helps offset some of the sweetness). Slowly heat the mixture, stirring to dissolve the sugar, then bring to the boil and simmer until a setting point is reached.
To test for a set, put a saucer in the freezer until very cold. Drop a spoonful of jelly onto it, and leave it for a minute or so. If you can run your finger through the jelly leaving a wrinkly mark, it's set. If not, continue to boil. This can take anything from ten minutes to over an hour, so be patient.
While you're waiting, sterilise some jam jars and lids (I sterilise jars by washing them then putting them, upturned, in the oven at 130C for 20 minutes; I sterilise the lids by pouring boiling water over them). When the jelly has set, pour into the jars, cover with wax discs, and screw on the lids.