Fresh damsons: pretty but inedible.Autumn: Golden leaves and swirling mists. Open fires and toasted scones. Woodlands that smell of mushrooms. Ripening hedgerow fruits. Abundance and burgeoning chills but warm hearths to come home to. Long walks on crunching leaves wearing chunky knits and sturdy boots. Marshmallows. Harvest festivals. Giant leeks and tiny glistening dark coloured berries. Pumpkins for pies and lanterns and, for me, one of the best risotto recipes ever.
Thanks to the poets and other image makers we have a vast stock of autumn fantasies to indulge in and live up to. A golden season from a golden age of happy peasants and observant artists. When was that I wonder?
I've tried on various autumns for size. I've got the Wellington boots, the stripy scarf and am lucky enough to have a small wood behind my house for the purposes of both admiring and crunching on ochre leaves. Last year I bought a book on how to identify edible fungi but lost heart when I failed to find a giant puff-ball. However, I did make an awful lot of things with the courgettes that had taken over my garden. And I burnt a lot of leaves in my pot bellied garden stove. All rather satisfying I must say. Sometimes autumn can cause me to lament the fact that I don't have pale red hair and freckles. Sometimes it makes me think 'but we haven't had summer yet!' Generally though, for me autumn is a time of frantic kitchen activity (winter being the season of eating something I prepared earlier) and this week I have mostly been making jam. I have two damson trees in my garden and this year they have excelled themselves in terms of production. Fearful of waste I have been climbing ever higher to get at the fruit before it rots and searching out recipes to fill my store. Fools and compotes, chutneys and pies. I like making jam the best. It makes me feel like a goddess of the orchard. Yet the whole process, from picking to bottling, can be achieved in under an hour.
The alchemy of jam making is utterly fascinating. In the case of damsons one takes inedible bitter, sour fruit and turns it into something spoon lickingly scrumptious. All one has to do is boil them with sugar until that magic setting point is reached. Of course they must be stoned and this is the most times consuming aspect but with that image of domestic goodliness in my mind I don't mind it one bit. Here's my recipe:
1.5 kilos of damsons
1 kilo of preserving sugar
a teaspoon of ground cinnamon
a five second grating of nutmeg
a freezer chilled saucer
Put your damsons into a large, heavy saucepan with a little water. Bring to the boil, stir around a bit and when the skins begin to split (seconds, trust me) drain. Allow them to cool a little so you can handle them without pain and then squeeze out the stones. Put the fruit back into the pan, pour over the sugar, turn on the heat and stir until the sugar has dissolved. Add the cinnamon and nutmeg. Turn up the heat and bring to a rolling boil. Boil in this manner for 5 to 8 minutes. Once five minutes are up get your iced saucer out the freezer and blob a little jam onto it. Push this blob with your finger and if it wrinkles the jam is ready. If it doesn't wrinkle keep trying every minute or so. Once it's done pour it straight into warmed jars, cover with a waxed disc of paper and put on the lid. As the jam cools in the jars a vacuum will be created and, thus, you can be assured your jam will last the winter if stored in a cool place. Bereft of a pantry I keep mine in the cupboard under the stairs.
Sometimes, instead of using preserving sugar I use dark muscovado sugar and sometimes I add some vanilla extract instead of the nutmeg or cinnamon or both. Sometimes I use all three. Half the fun is in the experimentation and I am considering adding Madeira or Marsala wine next time. The recipe I have given is a kind of mish-mash of two of Nigella Lawson's: greengage jam and damson fool. The nutmeg and vanilla I add from my own imagination.
It strikes me that jam making is not dissimilar to life living. I certainly cherry pick from inherited and newly manufactured concepts of how to live a good life. From the plethora of images out there. And from that create my own recipe for living. Part domestic goddess part fashion model (the thin part only sadly). Part gardener part academic. Part shopper part anarchist. Part environmentalist part emitter of carbon. Part feminist all financially dependent. It's not perfect but it has it's moments.