Blackberry season is upon us. I can’t help it: I’m mad for them. Every half-hearted jog from late August to the end of September sees me coming back with purple-stained fingers and scratches up my arms. This year, banned from jogging due to injuring my knee, and with the hedgerow that keeps on giving at the end of the road denuded by the other sods who live in my street, I’ve (re)discovered cycling as a ‘way to keep fit’. It goes like this: put large container in bike panniers; cycle off looking serious (in cycling shorts and hi-vis vest); do at least 10mn of proper cardio style work; find blackberry patch….on Friday I managed 25 whole minutes of actual exercise and an hour of blackberry picking. Calories burnt: some; miles covered: 5ish; all pitiful, but when measured on the blackberry scale…4 litres. Not bad. I was picking thorns out of my fingers for two days afterwards, and my fingernails are still black, but overall, I’d say that was a good morning’s work.
Trouble is, I pick all of these things, and then I have to do something with them. Put together with the blackberries I’d scrumped previously in the week, I had nearly 6lb of gooey black loveliness. Last year I did endless tarts. This year I was up for jam…except I don’t really like jam. Neither I, nor M eat much of it. I have buckets of carrot jam which I use for Victorian and Second World War events (Mrs Beeton published a recipe for it in the English Domesticwoman’s Magazine in 1858 and, unusually for her, didn’t garble it much and it actually works). I also have a few bits and bobs which I tend to use for making sorbet. But jam, as a rule, comes under the heading of ‘why did I make that again?’ Sod it, thought I, I can always use it for something, or give it away. But, in the spirit of common sense, I also found a recipe for blackberry and apple gin (thank you, River Cottage). The jam proved more challenging, as all the historic jam recipes I read were for very basic jam, which didn’t suit my mood at the time. Most of the blackberry recipes in my collection tended more towards ‘shape’, along with fool, pies and a lot of wine. Indeed, so ubiquitous was the use of blackberries for wine, I set aside 3 pints to have a crack at an 18th century version (Elizabeth Raffald, 1769, and of which, more anon). Eventually modernity won out, in the form of Diana Henry’s blackberry and Pinot Noir jam.
All of which leads me to the adventure. I have been banned from making jam in the kitchen. In the house in general, in fact, though the garage remains a grey area. I have form. The Great Quince Cheese Incident of 2013 is writ large in the annals of shame round here, involving, as it did, quince dripping from the ceiling like congealed orange bogeys, and orange jammy stains all over the walls. We had to redecorate. It was not nice. We had moved in a mere 2 months earlier… In fact, I have worse form than that, since only 2 weeks are moving in with M I was steaming Xmas puddings and accidentally let one boil dry. Cue lots of smoke, me running outside with the saucepan, net curtain billowing in the breeze then billowing onto the hot pan….scorched nylon pattern by now on the outside of huge pan, massive panic… Etc etc. I did learn a lot about what boiling a pan dry does to the bottom of a putting basin though, which comes under the heading of experimental archaeology. It helps explain the pattern of cracks on several of the ceramic food moulds in the collection of York Castle Museum, so not all was bad. Oh, and then there was the Flaming Microwave Incident, which also resulted in me melting the wheel of the BBQ as I threw the baked potato which was the cause of the flames out into the garden, where it hit said wheel and caused said melting. Oops. I had to buy a new microwave and mildly redecorate behind it. Liability, much?
I have, therefore, had to expand the jam making arm of my culinary operations into the garden. Banned from the kitchen? A plug in hob, an extension cable, pan and convenient table are the answer. Until…it starts to rain.
I’m not going to continue. Suffice to say, I was eventually allowed back into the house on pain of extreme death if one splatter made its way onto the walls. The jam was superb. And I have discovered that I can now guess set point accurately once the thermometer gets to that annoying one-degree-below-where-it-needs-to-be bubbling point without recourse to saucers or the wrinkle test. It’s at perfect set point just before it explodes onto the ceiling. If only I’d known that last year.