Damson Juniper Berry Compote

Though it was windy the other day, we (I speak of myself and the little dog) braved the outside to pick some damsons, which have been hanging guiltily—or, rather, guilt-producingly—on the trees outside. I have never had fruit anxiety; living now with fruit trees has produced a new sort of responsibility: to make sure that their fruit is not wasted. And so, as I’ve watched the damsons get riper in recent weeks, I thought, sh*t, I better start thinking about jam.

This isn’t really jam, I have to warn you, though it’s close; it’s more of a compote. I intend to use it with meats, though it could also be used as jam is normally deployed (spread on toast, etc).

I have to confess, I don’t really like jam.Not having much of a sweet tooth, it’s just not my thing. Maybe this year will change me. I started with about 2 kilograms of damsons, and I still haven’t even dented the harvest.

Black Currant Jam

black currant jam
This weekend we picked the last of the black currants. It seems the best method of picking and the time-consuming ‘topping and tailing’ of the berries is to let your mother-in-law do most of the work. We ended up with about four pounds of them. While she worked I offered encouragement, assuming that negative reinforcement wouldn’t work in a family situation. I joke; I helped. I did get tired of the topping and tailing though. This would be a really easy task with a bunch of people and some good gossip. Proof that preserving deserves a party.
The jam was violently red while boiling away, and then turned a satisfying black.
Ingredients:
  • 1.8 kg (4 lbs) blackcurrants
  • 2 ½ cups white sugar
  • pint or so of water

Equipment:

  • large, heavy-bottomed pan
  • 6 jam jars
  • cookie sheet
  • ladle or jam funnel

Decant blackcurrants into a heavy-bottomed pan that will allow for evaporation. Add water to about half the level of the berries; they will cook down. Add sugar. Cook whole business down until it is pretty thick—we left a little bit of syrup so that the fruit would have a little suspension. In the meantime, wash jars and lids in soapy water. Sterilize the lids by dipping them in boiling water and allowing them to air dry. Sterilize the jars by placing them (opening up) on a cookie sheet covered in paper towels, and allowing to dry in an oven set to 160°C / 320°F.

black currant jam jar

When the jam is at a consistency that you’re happy with—highly reduced but still wet—carefully spoon it into the sterilized jars, making sure that there are no air bubbles among the fruit. Put on their lids and allow them to cool. As they cool, they will vacuum seal. If you have any doubt at all when you open the jars months later, or if they smell at all odd, throw it away! There’s no shame. There is shame in killing yourself by jam though.

Make sure to bring some jam to work to share and brag about, omitting any mention of how easy this is.

Apple and Rose Hip Jelly

rose hip jelly When I was young we used to go to the beach in Long Island, and towards the end of summer you’d see people in the dunes among the beach roses, gathering their hips (the roses’, not the people’s). Somehow I came to understand—I’m not sure how— that they were gathering the hips to make jam, and spent many years myself wanting to collect rose hips and do the same. When we lived in Leith there was an enormous abundance of them growing along the river path—unfortunately, the largest bunch, with big, inviting bushels of hips like tomatoes asking to be picked—were at a part of the path that we called dog sh*t alley, just far enough in from the road that the lazy (and the lazy are always the ones with the biggest dogs, it seems), would allow their dogs the morning newspaper-read among the roses. Needless to say, I had no desire to make jam out of anything there.

Here, however, we have an enormous abundance of the same sort of roses that the beach people collected in Long Island, called rosa rugosa, known in Britain as the Japanese rose. After they bloom they come out in big, ripe rose hips. Considering our new preserving hobby, I thought I’d try to make something with them.

Ingredients:

  • apples, 2 lbs
  • rose hips, a quart
  • water, enough to cover the fruit in the pan
  • sugar—sorry to do this to you—to taste (at least a few cups worth; common preserves wisdom is a pound of sugar for every pint of pulp/liquid, though you may, like me, prefer less)
  • something for color if you’d like; I used a few blackcurrants.

Equipment:

  • heavy-bottomed pot
  • cookie sheet
  • tongs
  • wooden spoon
  • jelly bag
  • jam jars
  • funnel

This makes about 3 jam jars worth of jelly.

 Olive-inspects-the-harvestI picked some of the hips (here is the inspector inspecting them) and some of the riper-looking apples that we have now hanging on the trees. I cut off the rose hips’ stems and the bit where the hip had been, at one point, connected to a flower, then cut them in half and, since I have a perfect tiny little spoon, scooped out their hairy, seedy insides so that I didn’t have to deal with them at some later point. I warn you; this is not fun— they have a lot of hairy little seeds in them.

rose hipsInto the pan went the rose hips and the apples, which I cut up fairly roughly, including their cores, which hold the magical pectin (which makes these things set). Also into the pot went four solitary blackcurrants to make a pink color. You could experiment a bit with this, or, if you don’t have any other fruit around that you think might make for a nice bit of color, just submit to the pale, but still pretty, color of apples and rose hips on their own.

 

After the fruit in the pan had cooked down, maybe 25 minutes to a half hour, I strained it through a jelly bag (which I had first poured hot water through, to sterlize) suspended above a large bowl, and left it to sit for a few hours until all of the liquid had dripped through. You are warned not to squeeze the jelly bag, much as you might want to, since it will make the resultant jelly cloudy. Just let it drip and go about your business. For a large batch this might take 12 hours. So go get some sleep already.

After you are confident that you’ve gotten all that you could get out of the jelly bag, return the liquid to the pan cook down. This might take a little while. Add sugar to taste.* As the liquid starts to really reduce, you will get something that looks like nascent jelly—really viscous. Keep an eagle eye and keep stirring until it looks pretty thick, and then pour it into sterlized jars*. Screw on the lids and allow to cool. When you return, you will have perfectly jelled pots of jelly.

If you’d like more information on the technical aspects of preserving, there are lots of resources for you—here you’ll find the handy list of resources at Canning Across America, and here you’ll find the USDA’s advice on home preserving. Take heart, it is easier than it seems at first glance. Please email with any questions or suggestions. If the preserving bit seems like too much for you, you can always make jam/jelly and put it straight into the refrigerator for your immediate use, and dispense with all the extra fuss and equipment.