What do you do when you have loads of fruit? Make jam. Lady de B and I bought most of the fruit for Stuart’s party at New Covent Garden Market as it was cheaper to buy a whole tray wholesale than a few punnets retail. This meant we had lots left over. So on Tuesday night, we got together for our own little preserves festival. In a few hours, we had a shelf full of strawberry jam, raspberry jam and apricot and vanilla jam, along with peach and almond chutney to go with the cheeses at Paula’s wedding in September. We were a two-woman WI.
One of the (many) things I love about Lady de B is that she’s my autodial person for produce. When rhubarb, blackcurrants, quince, medlars or walnuts arrive in the market, I can call her in a high state of excitement and she doesn’t think I’m mad. And it’s a reciprocal agreement. In January, I got a near-breathless call from her announcing she’d seen Seville oranges in Borough Market. The marmalade season was upon us. I dug out the preserving pan, stocked up on sugar, fished out a box of jars from the cellar.
The day before our planned marmalade extravaganza, Séan was admitted to hospital and my life of gentle, joyful domesticity vanished for five sombre weeks. The ping of the kitchen timer was replaced with the beep-beep-beep of monitors. I was in a foreign land of blue linoleum corridors and waiting. Waiting for tests, waiting for results, waiting to speak to consultants, all the time my mouth filled with the sour taste of fear.
Our friends and families were wonderful. His room was filled with cards and visitors. Flowers and fruit arrived in amounts that would have done New Covent Garden proud. We watched movies, reruns of Friends, Obama’s joyful inauguration. We played Scrabble, read, held hands. Lady de B even smuggled Barney into the little garden at the back of the hospital so man and dog could share a few happy hours together. Friends invited me for supper, picked up laundry, walked the dog, fed the cats.
But each evening, home alone, I felt raw with longing for our ordinary life together. Eating dinner, going to the flower market, planning parties and holidays. It seemed like a distant country. Looking back was too painful; looking forward too full of terrifying uncertainty. Every night, as I spooned chopped fruit into Tupperware boxes and washed pyjamas for the next day, I felt numb.
Now he’s home and well and I feel a small rush of happiness every day at 7pm when I hear his key turn in the lock. He still drives me mad. Within a one metre radius of the laundry basket is not the same as in the laundry basket. Unless we’ve received some sort of nature reserve status of which I’m unaware, that lawn needs cutting. A few light bulbs in the hallway chandelier would be nice. It’s normal.
On Tuesday night - as Vanessa and I chopped and stirred, filling the kitchen with sweet, spicy clouds of steam - I felt joyful, as if I were bottling happiness. Forget fancy cars, diamonds and designer shoes. Curling up under our Moroccan blanket on the sofa to watch a film, breakfast together in the park on Saturday mornings, Sundays spent reading the paper, drinking tea and talking nonsense with friends, a few jars of jam. These are my riches, my bounty, my daily blessings.
Apricot and vanilla jam
We created this recipe from Lady de B’s copy of Mrs Beeton which was given to her mother by her grandmother and then passed on to her. I couldn’t resist adding a few tweaks, as I prefer French-style softer set jams which contain less sugar and really allow the fruit to shine. If you prefer a thicker, English-style jam, simply increase the weight of the sugar so you have the same amount of sugar as fruit and boil a little longer. We also added some vanilla because, well, how can that ever be a bad thing?
Makes about 20 jars
Juice of a lemon
2 vanilla pods, split lengthways
A small knob of unsalted butter
Halve the apricots (reserving a small handful of kernels) and layer them in your pan with the sugar, lemon juice and vanilla pods. Pour over the water and leave to macerate for an hour or so. While you’re waiting, put a few saucers in the freezer and crack the reserved kernels. Blanch the white, almondy bit inside the kernels in some boiling water for a minute and put them on one side.
Warm the apricot mixture over a low heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar then boil rapidly until the setting point is reached. You know you’re there when a dollop of jam on one of the chilled saucers wrinkles when you push it with your finger. I like to take it off the heat when it just starts to wrinkle as it’s so hot it continues to cook a bit afterwards. Add the blanched kernels. Don't bother skimming off any scum that forms, just stir in a bit of butter at the end which will disperse it. Spoon into warm, sterilised jars and seal. We also retrieved the vanilla pods, snipped them into smaller pieces and added the pieces to some of the jars.
Our little harvest festival of chutneys and jams.