A few years ago a TV advert for mineral water offered two different ways of looking at life. The woman’s idiotic but instrumental question (“How can XXX water be so good?”) met with the healthy, firm and appreciative ignorance expressed by the rather stupid but nice young man (“Well, I guess it’s a miracle!”), while that pain in the neck Cristina launched herself into a complicated and detailed explanation to which we all listened in wonder without understanding a word.
Well, I think jam is a miracle.
One of those delicious little daily miracles that take place before our very eyes and make the world a happier place.
Jam holds all the delight of childhood: it’s an easy word that children like to say. The item itself is colorful, shiny: a temptation for the fingers, to dip them in and lick them is a basic instinct. The taste is accessible, gratifying: sweet but fresh, sometimes with a tang which – contrary to popular belief – children love: you have surely seen them chew slices of lemon or pickles without batting an eyelid.
But jams can be a source of delight for adults too, starting with whoever makes them. This is a kind of zen procedure.
First a pile of fruit.
Small. Don’t overdo the quantities, we aren’t living in grandma’s days anymore; a couple of jars for each of your favorite types of fruit are more than enough: a couple more if you want to give them as gifts. Just so that it doesn’t take months to forget the huge amount of labor involved every time. Make jam five or six times during the summer, working for a couple of hours each time. That way you’ll enjoy it even more.
Wash the fruit. You’ll enjoy the cold water on your hands and the fruit will be even better. Dry it carefully, concentrate: when you have finished you’ll know every individual piece of fruit, you’ll have rejected the overripe and the underripe and found the ones with a blemish or two.
Get comfortable before you start peeling: remember our mothers and grandmas? They would sit down with a bowl for the peel and stones on their lap. Next to them on a chair or stool, covered with a cloth, was the bowl for the peeled fruit; on the table, the fruit ready to be peeled. Find the way that is least tiring for you, because you’ll be standing up a lot afterwards.
Use a sharp knife, remove all the peel, the stones, and any bits you’re not sure about: the juice will run down your little finger and try to get to your elbow. Let it – get dirty: or rather, wipe your arm from time to time on the apron you’re wearing, in a revolutionary gesture, and get that dirty too. According to an old and annoying saying, if you know how to cook, you don’t get dirty. Forget this: if you get dirty, you have more fun, you relax and therefore you get better results.
Now the moment of truth: the fruit is ready, so we can tidy up a bit, because the magic ritual is about to begin. Throw away the peel, rinse and put away the bowls you don’t need, fold up the cloths. Now it’s just you, the fruit, the sugar, a flame, a pan (copper pans are excellent but you can settle for terracotta or stainless steel, if they have a solid bottom; no to aluminum though) and a new wooden spoon – or at least one free of memories, unless they are of other jams. Keep the jars nearby, clean, dry and open, covered with a cloth: they will get a little warm during the process, it’s like having a respectful and interested audience. First the fruit, with a little water if necessary; let it cook a while, and produce a little juice, help it along by squashing the softer pieces with the spoon. When the colorful mass is reduced by a third, add the sugar; if you are a perfectionist, warm it up a bit first so that it dissolves more quickly. Add the sugar all at once, stirring it in carefully until it’s completely dissolved. Now turn down the heat, remove the foam with a slotted spoon (if you add a knob of butter, less foam will form) and stir from time to time.
Meanwhile the aroma fills your house and your thoughts, and there is more excitement to come when you try to find out if the jam is ready. Put a little on a saucer, and tip it: if it doesn’t move, or only moves slowly, then it’s ready. Another method is to dip a finger in (in the spoonful of jam on the saucer, obviously, not in the pan!) or push it gently with a spoon: if the jam wrinkles a little where you touch it, it’s ready to go into the jars.
Put the boiling jam straight into the jars, close the lids and turn them over, so that the heat sterilizes the inner surface of the jar and the lid. Leave them upside-down for at least ten minutes and wait until they are cold before putting them away in the cellar, or larder, or refrigerator.
And here are your little miracles all lined up, the shining, colorful expression of all that work, pleasure, patience and waiting. A promise of days to come, breakfast, tea, cakes, presents for the whole year round. This is your jam, ready, looking at you through the glass, and as proud of you as you are of yourself.
Of course, if that pest of a Cristina was here she’d still be demoralizing you with her explanations about marmalades (which are made from citrus fruits) and jams (which are all the others) and jellies (which are fruit purées); and about the fact that to tell whether the jam is ready you need a special thermometer, and when it reads 104° it has finished cooking; she would do you a little drawing, she would probably draw it really well, and you would listen to her lesson.
You decide which way you prefer: do you need a set of rules, a thermometer and a sterilizer to make jam – or just a sunny day, a market and a bit of peace and quiet?
Cinzia Scaffidi is editor of the Slowfood site www.slowfood.it