Monday, 3 September 2007

Autonomous Imagism

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.

Damson jam: delicious and gleamingly pink


Mary Witzl said...

This is a lovely post, Eryl, and you have come close to putting me in the mood for autumn, my favorite season by far. But part of me can't believe that it's that time of year already. Really and truly, we have not had summer yet!

I put cinnamon in my jams too and always think it makes them nicer. Lemon peel is good too, and gives fruit without pectin a little boost. And every year, despite the fact that I know very well how much trouble it will be, I do something stupid: I start making crabapple jelly. I make such a mess of the kitchen and the jelly is eaten in no time. And yet I do it again and again, simply because the crabapples are free and reckless greed just takes over.

Kanani said...

I love making jam. This summer I "put up" strawberry, peach and raspberry jam.

It's so HOT right now. Really awful. I wish we had cool weather .. in fact, we really don't even have an autumn. It blasts really hot from the desert until just after the third week of November. Though sometimes it'll rain at the end of October.

I always dread September!

Kim Ayres said...

Maggie's been busy jam making too. Her father has a single plum tree that seems to produce an entire orchard's worth of fruit every year.

Great post

And I love your photo at the top - could almost be an old master - time to find the paint effect in your computer image programmes :)

Eryl Shields said...

Mary ~ There really has been no summer this year has there? That's why I've decided to stop thinking about summer and embrace autumn even though it's, perhaps, a little early. I guess it's going to be a long winter.

I haven't had crabapple jelly since I was a child.

Kanani ~ No autumn? I absolutely can't imagine what that's like. I love the seasons cycle.

Kim ~ Yes it has an air of one of those Dutch kitchen scenes doesn't it. The light must have been just right.

What computer image programmes?

Mary Witzl said...

We really DO have autumn in Southern California, Eryl, but only people from Southern California know that it is there! Same with our winter. Other people call it summer, but we can feel the subtle differences in the seasons. Of course sometimes we just have to use our imaginations...

Eryl Shields said...

It sounds like the Southern Californian autumn exists in a similar way to the Scottish summer. I wish my tomatoes had had some imagination.

Anonymous said...

hee hee, your fruit was stoned! Sorry, it just seems funny to me!

PI said...

Well done that girl. Clearly you are an autumn person in spite of the fact that summer never happened. Beautifully writ.
Personally I can eschew all naughty food as long as i have berries. Your damsons have me drooling.

Carole said...

I have not made any jam for at least five years. The time has gotten away from me so that I rarely notice that I forgot. But nothing ever compares to homemade jams and jellies, A thick slice of hot buttered homebaked bread, slathered with a lovely helping of huckleberry jam. Yummy.

"Sometimes autumn can cause me to lament the fact that I don't have pale red hair and freckles."

Absolutely true and I don't know why. Wonderful, wonderful aching memory post.

Dr Maroon said...

I wish you hadn’t written so powerfully about autumn. Put me on a right downer so it did. The year’s hardly started. In Perthshire there’s an Indian summer underway. Phew what a scorcher and all that. There are still swifts and martins flying about. Death has forever lost its fearsome grip but autumn gives me the heebie-jeebies. Brings on the comfort eating.
O.K. I’ll take a case and a half of your jam. The vanilla one. Christ, I’ll be 20 stone at this rate.

Eryl Shields said...

Anon. ~ It does sound rather absurd now you come to mention it. Thanks for your comment and making me laugh.

Pi ~ Thanks. I seem to have a tigger like enthusiasm for each new season whichever it is, but I do think autumn is the most beautiful.

Carole ~ Thanks for your kind words. What's a huckleberry? I haven't made bread for years, I got fed-up by it as all my efforts dissapeared in frenzy of crumbs and melting butter.

Doc ~ The weather has suddenly brightened here considerably and I hear Aberdeen is in for a heatwave.

Kanani said...

Oh... I'm making peach jam today! The kids are off to school, the peaches are ready, and I've got everything lined up.

My strawberry jam did not jell! So we have a case of Strawberry syrup now, and still --it's lovely.

Though of you this weekend. Barnes & Noble has reprinted Nitzche in hardback, nice sized font for only $7.95. I will buy it as soon as I can!


Carole said...

Huckleberries are a wonderful tart berry found high in the mountains of Montana and Idaho. Anytime I have found them, it has been up old logging roads that are no longer utilized and the switchbacks make it impossible to see. But once there it is worth it. They are a favorite of bears, so we have to be on the lookout. A gallon of these berries sells for around $50.00 if a person doesn't want to go pick them.

Eryl Shields said...

Kanani ~ I love peaches! But we have to rely on imports here and so they are expensive. Also, wanting to reduce my carbon footprint means they are an even rarer treat these days. The best ones we get here are Italian white peaches: devine.

I warn you, Nietzsche might do your head in.

Carole ~ Huckleberries sound fab, especially with the added excitement of having to search them out and be on the lookout for bears!