On holidays, you have time to paint your nails, to carefully stroke on three coats of coloured varnish. You can pick your jewel colours and then change them in three days if the whirlwind of meals-books-pool becomes too dull. At work, you are absolutely not allowed nail varnish for how quickly it would chip and fall into the cake mixture. (At home, that is your own lookout!) The times you forget, you have to wear those horrid latex gloves.
On holidays though you have time for frivolities. Like the time we woke up and decided to learn to make jam. My mother said it was easy, as long as you only make a kilo of fruit’s worth at a time. Then you are not stuck stirring at a hot stove for ages, and the fruit doesn’t boil away all of its flavour. Again, not like at work where we had 13 kilos of fruits rouges and a plastic tub of pectin. At home we had some leftover frozen raspberries from coulis for peach melba and best of all a packet of jam sugar – ‘Confisquew’ as my mother calls it. The pectin is already incorporated, so after only five minutes boiling the jam will set like a dream.
Sterilise your jars in the dishwasher or in boiling water. Put a little saucer in the freezer. In a large heavy-bottomed pan you heat your raspberries with half a cup of water until they turn into soup. When it bubbles you add 700g jam sugar (Confisuc) and bring to the boil. When bubbling and rising up like a angry sea, a ‘rolling boil,’ you time five minutes. At this point you maybe have time to apply nail varnish to one hand. Give the angrily boiling liquid a stir every now and then, in case it sticks. After five minutes, observe your jam carefully. The bubbles should sound a tone deeper, the mixture more syrupy than before. When you drag the wooden spoon across the bottom, it should take a second for the liquid red sea to come back together. If in doubt, test a drop on the cold saucer. When the jam is at room temperature it should hold its shape instead of sliding quickly over the saucer, it should form a slight skin that will wrinkle slightly when you push it. You will see the jam sticking around the edges of the pan and on the wooden spoon too.
When you are pretty sure the jam has jammed, turn off the heat. You will see the bubbles subside, leaving a slight white-ish froth. You can skim it off “if you want to win prizes at the WI” says mother, or strangely enough you can add 10g butter and watch it dissolve the scum.
Wait for 15 minutes. Finish painting your nails. When they are nearly dry but not quite set, you can run them under cold water. Now pay attention to the jam again. Fill the jars right to the brim with the hot jam, screw the lid on tightly and turn the jars upside down to form a vacuum. (If you have some extra, pour into a little dish and put in the fridge for a snack later.) Leave to cool.
Our 700g raspberries made one small and two medium jars of the brightest jam. We couldn’t stop marvelling at the colour, at all the seeds suspended. It really did look like jam! Total cooking time – no more than half an hour. So we made plum jam too, fom our mirabelle tree. Mirabelles are small yellow plums not much bigger than cherries. We had a kilo, stoned with the cherry pipper. We left them to turn into soup with a cup of water. (Faster in a pressure cooker.) When the mirabelles break down into soft pulp, repeat the process. Sugar, boil, test, jar. Plums already have pectin in them, so we had a slightly thicker texture, of beautiful deep yellow-ochre, a hue just below apricot. It was sweet and bright and simple.
The kitchen had a crowd of upside-down jars, provisions for autumn. We had to clean a few stubborn pink spots off the cooker, and close the lid for the year. We locked the shutters and swept the floors. The sky was already grey, the wind already turned chill.
Back in Paris now, heralded by drops of rain, the summer jam – on croissants or rice cakes or porridge – bolsters me against the day ahead. And fills me with an immense satisfaction, akin to the patisserie I had abandoned over the summer. I learned something, and I made something, tangible, colourful and delicious.
I have been to my Crimée market twice now, once for apricots and once for figs. I am plotting limpid clear jams replete with over-large chunks of fruit, to line up on my kitchen counter. My nails are dark red and gold.